Masters at the Movies

Masters at the Movies, Take 7

Robert Brent Toplin, December 2008

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles on films by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to AHA members principally in connection with their outstanding general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this issue Teofilo F. Ruiz, professor of innovative cinema in the 1960s, particularly the New Wave from France, movies associated with Italian neorealism, and the productions of some imaginative Japanese and English directors. These artists challenged the traditions of classic filmmaking, seen in the formulaic productions coming out of both Hollywood and French studios. They often featured protagonists in their stories who were young, marginalized, and rebellious loners.

By experimenting and breaking from convention, these filmmakers inaugurated a revolution in cinema that eventually carried over to America. David Newman and Robert Benton (writers) and Arthur Penn (director) fashioned their critically acclaimed 1967 motion picture, Bonnie and Clyde on stylistic techniques pioneered by directors of the New Wave, especially, François Truffaut. Soon after, American directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman incorporated the new methods, as well.

Some enthusiasts of the movies view cinema primarily as entertainment. They believe popular film cannot influence an audience’s attitudes and ideas profoundly. Ruiz’s essay challenges this assumption. He reveals that his youthful fascination with cinematic innovations aroused him to think in exciting new ways about the human experience.

Teofilo F. Ruiz specializes in the social and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Castile. He is the author of numerous books and articles. Ruiz’s most recent book-length publications include From Heaven to Earth: The Reordering of Castilian Society, 1150–1350 (2004), Medieval Europe and the World (with Robin Winks) (2005), and Spain, 1300–1469: Centuries of Crisis (2007).

—Robert Brent Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington) is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board.