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Book Review


Polan, Dana. Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the US Study of Film (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2007). 406 pp., $24.95.

     It is tempting to think that students today are quite unlike their predecessors in their experiences of media-saturated environments. Further, we may also think that our attempts to recognise and expand on those experiences in learning and teaching activities are something of a struggle with the unknown. Dana Polan's Scenes of Instruction: the Beginnings of the US Study of Film is a salutary reminder that our pedagogical struggles are not without precedent.

     Polan, a professor of cinema studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, has previously written on the landmark works of directors such as Jane Campion and Quentin Tarantino. In Scenes of Instruction, Polan undertakes more of an historical project, offering an account of the ways in which film studies permeated and in some cases took hold in US universities between 1915 and 1935. Honing in on developments at Columbia, the New School for Social Research in New York, Harvard, the University of Southern California, Syracuse, and New York University, Polan affords us a valuable close up of the individuals who drove curriculum reform. In chapter one, we make the acquaintance of Victor Freeburg and Frances Patterson, who drew film studies into Columbia's extension program in the hope that students would see the medium as capable of being a powerful visual art. In chapter two, Polan explores how Terry Ramsaye's teleological and US-centred vision of the history of cinema, documented in A Million and One Nights, might have infused his teaching in New York. Chapter three explores Joseph Kennedy's coordination of studies of the motion picture industry in the curriculum at the Harvard Business School. The relationship between the film industry and curriculum is also the focus of chapter four, with Polan analysing Lester Cowan's efforts to introduce film studies at the University of Southern California with the support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Harry Potamkin's largely unrealized aims for the study of film not only as world art but as social force at the New School for Social Research is the focus of chapter five, and the theme of cinema as social shaper returns in the account of Frederic Thrasher's film appreciation course at New York University in chapter seven. Finally, chapter six documents Sawyer Falk's aspiration to liberate film studies from a focus on narrative and to embrace the visual nuances of the form in chapter eight.

     These are interesting case studies of visions of film education in and of themselves, but Polan also draws out themes that cross institutions and time. One of his most important observations is that 'the first film courses slipped stealthily into the academic context and, in some cases, endured most likely by exploiting the benign neglect that frequently resulted from bureaucratic influence.' (35) While film studies now occupy a far more secure and acknowledged part in the curriculum, it is worth asking about its status beyond media and cinema departments. Does film appear in history classes as a result of widespread professional endorsement, or is it still due to the decisions of individuals? Digging deeper, Polan invites us to reflect on the reasons why film is brought into the classroom. Looking at University records such as course descriptions and lecture transcripts, and the intervention of government and industry figures such as Will Hays, Polan sees in the rise of film studies a tension between aesthetic recognition and appreciation and the need to recognise and reign in the power of film as a moral and social force. (14, 25) This view might be expanded by considering how it is that students themselves perceive the purpose of the film studies. On pages 213 and 263 we gain a tantalising glimpse of student responses to Boris Morkovin's (USC) and Sawyer Falk's classes. In both cases we become aware of divided opinions on the nature and purposes of units of study. Such glimpses should prompt us to fill out this dimension more thoroughly. How often do we ask our students about their experiences of film in history classes? Might their comments prompt us to think through and communicate our strategies more adequately?      This semester, I am enjoying the privilege of exploring historical films with 142 undergraduates. Most of the students are from Australia, but a fair fraction are on study abroad programs from the US, Germany, Austria, Korea, India and China. In the first week of semester, I asked them where they had encountered film in their historical studies to date, and what their impressions of those arrangements were. Some students report never having encountered film in the classroom, while others recall the frequent use of film to maintain class order. By far the most common response is that film appears infrequently the history classroom, that it is treated as a reward for good behaviour, and that its appearance is heavily regulated by written assessment tasks (eg. worksheets to fill in during viewing) and teacher commentary on the plot and points of accuracy and inaccuracy.

     Studies by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in the US and Paula Hamilton and Paul Ashton in Australia show that film is second only to photographs as the medium by which people report coming into contact with the past. Although there are no comparable studies for the period between 1915 and 1935, cinema attendance figures and production details (eg. the number of historical films produced) may suggest reasonably level figures. Ninety years on, have we taken stock of what those figures might mean for history education, and more specifically, world history education? Further, has film been given its due in world history research? Polan's book reminds us that there is far more to film than narrative and truth and error. Film is an aesthetic and social force, something watched, decried, remembered and cherished in all but a small number of places on earth. It is testimony to Polan's skill as a writer that the actions of a small number of individuals over ninety years ago in one nation prompt us to think about our engagement with the world.


Marnie Hughes-Warrington
Macquarie University,
Sydney, Australia


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