Pre-film studies research on film
A couple of weeks ago I posted about some empirical research on editing and the viewer’s experience of pace in the visual media from the 1970s.
A fascinating read on the same topic is the UNESCO report on mass communication research published in 1961, which presents a comprehensive and global bibliography of research on the influence of the cinema on children and adolescents. The report can be accessed here, and it is definitely worth taking an afternoon to read through it.
UNESCO 1961 The Influence of the Cinema on Children and Adolescents: An Annotated International Bibliography. Reports and Papers on Mass Communication 31. Paris: UNESCO.
The report provides details on 491 different pieces of research from around the world, and provides an insight into the type of research that was done before film studies came along. Areas covered include the social effects of cinema on young people, the use of film in education, film and juvenile delinquency, motives behind film choice, and there is good coverage of what we would now call cognitive film theory.
There are all sorts of interesting things to discover. For example, item 62 on the list provides a fascinating insight into the habits of younger viewers in Michigan in the 1940s.
Gibson, Harold J. (Mrs .) and Nahabedian, Vaskey (Mrs .) . A Survey of the Reading, Radio and Motion Picture Habits of Royal Oak Public School Students and their Parents. Royal Oak, Michigan, Royal Oak Public School, 1949, 21 p.
The average pupil in the school surveyed attends the cinema much more frequently than his parents. At the age of 8, he goes to the cinema once a week; until the age of 12 he attends the Saturday afternoon performance. When he reaches junior high school he goes to the cinema on Friday evening, generally with a friend. His parents help him in the selection of films, and he generally appreciates the films his parents consider suitable for him. Westerns, cartoons and animal films are his favourites; later his interest in westerns wanes and his interest in musicals grows. He now chooses films on the basis of cast and publicity. When he reaches high school, he will be more influenced in his choice by official film criticism, and he tends to have the same criteria as his parents.
Some of the research is a bit prosaic: item 61 is a study of the cinema-going habits of Italian young people and concludes that as they get older ‘boys go more frequently with girls.’ Isn’t that what the cinema is for?
However, I’m really not sure about the study from 1949 that showed Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) to some Italian 8-to-14 year olds (no. 130) that concluded that children had difficulty understanding the film. An 80 minute silent documentary about an Eskimo is hardly suitable viewing for children as young as eight. I know I’ve never been that enamoured of this film, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to watch it as a child. The comments about spatial awareness and recognition of regular geometric forms do sound more interesting though.
Albertini. Laura and Caruso, Ada, Percezione e interpretazione di imagini cinematografiche nei ragazzi. [Perception and interpretation of film images by children] In: Bianco e Nero, Rome, (X), 5 May 1949, p. 9-27. Also in: Baumgarten, Franziska, Compte rendu du lle Congrbs international de psychotechnique, Berne, 12-17 September 1949. La psychotechnique dans le monde moderne. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1952, p. 557-561.
A study of the reactions of 576 children, aged 8 to 14, to Flaherty’s film “Nanook’. Four hundred and ninety children were questioned: 86 made unsolicited comments. Particularly apparent were the many errors in observation and the discrepancy between what actually occurred in the film and what the children thought they had seen. The rapid succession of images, the inability to understand clearly, to compare precisely and to interpret exactly when drawing up a report has the following results for children: real difficulties in making accurate comparisons as to sizes and likenesses, in recognizing regular geometric forms, in establishing the position of persons in relation to a known object, and in interpreting some of their movements and attitudes. Such difficulties as these do not seem to lessen proportionately as the child grows older. Further research is recommended to study the choice of motion-pictures for children of different age groups.
Perhaps the researchers might have asked the children if they wanted to watch Nanook?
There is an extensive series of entries describing quite detailed studies by the Japanese Ministry of Education on cinema attendance among young people from the 1930s that sound very interesting.
In his ‘Foreword’ to Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations, David Bordwell wrote that film studies ‘got off on the wrong foot methodologically. Instead of framing questions, to which competing theories might have responded in a common concern for enlightenment, film academics embraced a doctrine-driven conception of research’ (2005: xi, original emphasis). [Bordwell D 2005 Foreword, in JD Anderson and B Fisher Anderson (eds.) Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005: ix-xii].
This is may be an accurate description of film studies, but it is not an accurate description of the study of film.
What stands out from reading much of the research in the UNESCO report is that pre-film studies research in the cinema is (1) primarily concerned with psychology of the cinema and (2) that it is empirical research and is NOT doctrine-driven. And yet this research has had relatively little impact on film studies as it is taught in universities today. The institutionalisation of film studies as an academic discipline does not appear to have drawn on any of this tradition going back well into the silent era. Why not? And what are the consequences of this? What did these earlier researchers understand about the cinema that we have forgotten?
For example, Tim Smith has written about viewer’s eye movements when watching Hollywood films. You can find his blog describing his research here and his guest piece about eye movements in watching There Will Be Blood on David Bordwell’s blog is here. But if we go back to 1964 we can find this paper, which was addressing the same questions some 47 years ago.
Guba E, Wolf W, de Groot S, Knemeyer M, Van Atta R, and Light L 1964 Eye movements and TV viewing in children, Educational Technology Research and Development 12 (4): 386-401.
This paper, like those in the UNESCO report, does not feature in the film studies curriculum due to the collective amnesia of film scholars who, it would seem, simply ignored decades of prior research when creating university courses in film. Why this should be the case is one of the most important and most interesting questions in film studies.
In the comments on the last update to my bibliography on cognitive film theory, someone asked why I hadn’t included the French Filmology research of the 1940s and 1950s. You can find the bibliography and the comments here. Part of my response was that I simply did not come across this research that often and that translations of this work are relatively rare. It is much harder, for example, to find the works of Gilbert Cohen-Seat in English than it is to find those of Christian Metz. Why should this be so?
The study of film existed before film studies, and it existed as a body of empirical research that looked at how viewers experienced and comprehended the cinema, at the behaviour of audiences, and at the social impact of cinema. And it did so by asking questions years before Bordwell began writing about a mid-level research programme as a means of moving forward.
Film studies really screwed up the study of the cinema.
Posted on July 21, 2011, in Cognitive Film Theory, Film Analysis, Film Studies, Film Theory, Motion Picture Exhibition, Teaching film studies and tagged Cognitive Film Theory, Film Analysis, Film History, Film Studies, Film Theory, Motion Picture Exhibition, Teaching Film Studies. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.