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From the Film and Media column in the January 2001 Perspectives

The Film and Media Column: An Introduction

Vanessa R. Schwartz, January 2001

No event better epitomizes the overwhelming hold images have had on history in the 20th century than the untimely death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in an airplane crash off Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1999. Every report and tribute inevitably reproduced the image of the man as a three-year-old boy, saluting his dead father as a nation grieved. More than 30 years after that image appeared, as the nation mourned the loss of another man with the initials JFK, they again mourned the father whose son's dignified gesture was and remains the history that the young JFK was to make. Simply put, the history made by the son was the image that has come to represent the moment of national grief and now, after his death, it is possibly (if not poignantly) his greatest historical accomplishment.

It is not news to argue that history is now publicly rendered in iconographic form—that often our grasp of history is through its cinematic and televisual re-presentation. This is both true of recent events that will become history by virtue of their visual status such as the death of JFK Jr. and the freeway chase of O.J. Simpson—a sort of history caught by the cameras—but it also seems to define a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon that earlier in the century, for example, had shaped the political culture of Nazi Germany as one seemingly staged for the cameras. Once history is presented as a cinematic production, it becomes the fodder for a seemingly endless revisiting as further cinematic representation.

The popularity of the visual media has persuaded, I believe, even the traditionalists that visual documentation will have to be included as source material for academic historians as they write the century's history. Thus, historians will have to learn to evaluate and read photographic and moving images—a lesson that archaeologists, art historians, and film scholars have been trying to teach our visually illiterate tribe for years. That conscious exercise of thinking critically about the role of images, let alone moving images, is only slowly coming to the discipline of history. It is imperative at the start of the 21st century to reckon with film's transformations of the social fabric as well as its great contribution to the evidentiary foundation on which we base our historical interpretations.

But the 20th century was not simply the "cinematic century" because evidence is now found in the film archive. The history of the last century coincides almost perfectly with film's own history, and cinema can be considered both the paradigmatic emblem of the modernity associated with the 19th century and the "muse of the 20th." If film is, indeed, the muse of our century, how have written historiography and theories of historical methodology and practice in the 20th century been shaped by cinematic narrative? Have films offered a discourse on historical method? Is there a historiography (or what Hayden White refers to as historiophoty) represented in and by film?

The Film and Media column of Perspectives will hope to amplify and enrich this view of the relation of history and film in short articles focusing on both scholarship and teaching. For example, the archive of moving images and their paper trails for any scholar working on the 20th century is rich, but historians are not always familiar with the most basic archives and ways of accessing them, let alone how to use such material once found. We have become quite familiar with using films in the classroom to "illustrate" a historical moment, an entire era, or a biography. Yet some films are better than others and for different reasons. All need to be treated as texts and not merely as transparent re-creations. The more we historians familiarize ourselves with the collections of materials and methods for approaching the study of moving images, the richer and more complex our scholarship and teaching will become.

The column will address the uses (both actual and potential) of the visual media of the 20th and 21st centuries in the advancement of historical knowledge. Initial columns will treat the fundamentals of research in film and television materials; the integration of film history into the standard historical narrative; a discussion of how to use film in the history classroom; and a forum that describes and sketches syllabi for three history classes that are explicitly about film and history. Other suggestions and topics are welcome, as are direct submissions of articles to the editor. Submissions are to be no more than 2,000 words, and include no more than five footnotes. For further information, suggestions, and submissions, please contact Vanessa R. Schwartz at vschwart@usc.edu.

Vanessa R. Schwartz: A Biographical Note

Vanessa R. Schwartz graduated from Princeton and received her PhD in history in 1993 from University of California at Berkeley where she trained in Modern European History with a concentration on France and the history of visual culture. She wrote a dissertation—under the direction of Susanna Barrows—that was revised and published as Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in fin-de-siècle Paris (University of California Press, 1998) The book is a study of the origins of mass culture in Paris and treated such topics as the Paris Morgue, dioramas, panoramas, the mass press and the wax museum. Spectacular Realities also links the origins of film to a broader late nineteenth century visual culture. Her co-edited volume with Leo Charney, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (University of California Press, 1995), is a collection that argues that cinema became an emblem of modern life because it encapsulated so many of the transformations already associated with modernity such as ephemerality, the re-presentation of the real, and urban overstimulation. She has been published in French Historical Studies, The Yale Journal of Criticism, Cahiers du Cinéma, and various edited volumes on realism, visual culture and film in English, French, German and Japanese. Her interest in film has led her to lecture at the National Gallery and to serve as a member of the committee to establish the Musee Henri Langlois, the new cinema history museum in Paris. She is currently at work on a new book-length project called, "It's so French: Cliches of National Identity in French and American visual culture in the 1950s and 60s" which will concern "Frenchness" in photojournalism, film, and television in France and America. She is also currently co-editing a volume with Jeanene Prysblyski—The Nineteenth Century Visual Culture Reader—for Routledge.

Vanessa Schwartz began teaching in 1993 at American University in Washington, D.C. and was promoted to associate professor in 1999. She now teaches in the history department at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she also has a courtesy appointment in the department of French and Italian and will be involved in the new "Entertainment Studies" initiative at the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School of Communications. She teaches courses on the history of France, urban culture in modern Europe, film and historical method, and the history of entertainment.