Is it more productive for a film historian to focus on the social context of a film or its aesthetic qualities?
History may be defined as the discipline of recording and interpreting past events; to do so objectively, often requires a little distance. The process is vastly aided by hindsight and is an impossible task if the events are viewed in total isolation, devoid of context. This applies to film history as much as to any other historical research.
If ‘productive’ in this question refers to gaining a more rounded and a deeper understanding of when, how, why a film was made, who its target audience was, what was the director trying to convey within the text, then both approaches are vital. The content of the film, incorporating the story, the cinematic resources employed in fulfilling the director’s vision, the actors’ performance and ability to deliver an emotional, political, moral message, are all integral to the study of that particular film. If that film is then viewed within its social, cultural, political and economic context, it can be seen as part of a journey on a map, with clues left both behind and in front of it and these clues serve to gauge where a film lies within a timeline of both technological and artistic trends.
It is aesthetic qualities - cinema as an art form, according to Allen and Gomery, which rank higher than all other considerations when evaluating a film; one problem with this approach, if it extends to the masterpiece tradition, is that it excludes the vast majority of films which are not considered great works of art. Plenty of ‘B’ movies are of interest when exploring the American psyche during its paranoid, anti-communist post war period – ‘Earth Versus the Flying Saucers’ (USA, Fred F. Sears, 1956) and ‘This Island Earth’ (USA, Joseph M. Newman, 1955) - one of the first sci-fi movies filmed in colour and lauded for its special effects at the time, although taken less seriously today, both capture a unique slice of...