Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Summary: Scott Curtis, “Experts and Their Images: Vision, Form, and the Historiography of Media Use”

On October 29th, Professor Scott Curtis (Northwestern University) delivered a talk, titled “Experts and Their Images: Vision, Form, and the Historiography of Media Use,” at the Chicago Film Seminar. A response was provided by Oliver Gaycken (University of Maryland). Using case studies from his book The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (Columbia University Press), Curtis explored the implications of non-theatrical films (specifically those made by experts such as scientists, physicians, and educators) for film and media historiography. He began by stating the objective of his project: “At the broadest level, I am interested in the criteria for the legitimacy of motion picture technology as a tool or good object within specific disciplines or communities. The book focuses on Germany before World War I to examine the interaction between motion pictures and four disciplines: science (specifically human motion studies, physics, and biology), medicine, education, and aesthetics. Why would these experts use film? What problems presented themselves such that motion pictures were at least a partial solution?” This talk explored the role of film form in these expert appropriations.

Examining the experts’ own writings on their implementation of motion picture technology, his first argument is that the successful appropriation of technology by an expert filmmaker depends on a correspondence between the logic of the discipline—the collective thought style of an expert group, including its investigatory or problem-solving methods and ideological assumptions—and the formal features of the technology, as manifested by the patterns of use. He explained: “In some scientific disciplines, the ability of film to frame and isolate the object under study and to expand or compress time were analogous to features of scientific experiments, such as the ability to isolate variables and to extend observational duration. In other disciplines, film’s temporal discontinuity, indicated by the gap between film frames, matched theoretical assumptions about the discreteness of the physical world, as in physics experiments using film to confirm theories of Brownian motion. For education and aesthetics, the logic of the discipline was less about solving problems than about describing goals or mental operations to attain those goals. For educators interested in the use of film, the consonance between the detail and duration of the moving image and the richness of the natural world created an analogy between the (perceived) realism of the image and the goal of visual instruction, which was to teach students to dwell on natural detail, recognize objects, and place them in logical and social contexts.” As each group worked with film within its discipline, it privileged some formal features over others.

If the larger argument of the book concerns the correspondence between technology’s formal features and the logic of the discipline, then the specific argument of the book is that “the acceptance of film as an appropriate tool or good object within a discipline depended on an alignment between the formal features of the filmic image and the practices and ideals of that discipline’s modes of expert viewing.” What important implications does expert viewing have for film and media historiography? Professor Curtis contends that engaging with the “proper” viewing model from descriptions of the experts’ practice (and noting their denunciations of “improper” viewing) helps us understand the duality of these constructions: "If ‘proper’ modes of viewing relied on ‘improper’ modes as a useful foil, then the opposite is also true: our understanding of spectatorship is incomplete without an understanding of expert observation.” One is the other’s negative space; hence “the shape of spectatorship” is best understood in relation to “the shape of observation.”

Furthermore, film analysis by cinema historians illuminates the relationship between form (style) and the broader historical trends of the time. However, the historiographical model for expert films differs in that it places emphasis on “patterns of use” rather than patterns of style: “Style is important and can be helpful, but patterns of use apply to adjustments to the technology, the circulation of images, the multiple function of any given film, or the role of moving images in a selection of representational options—a partial list at best. Patterns of use provide many more points of contact with the organization’s goals or the discipline’s logic than style alone.” He stressed that an analysis of nontheatrical media that ignores the experts’ own understanding of film form is inadequate, and that patterns of use will only make sense if properly understood against a background of disciplinary (as opposed to technological or aesthetic) context. A responsible analysis of expert filmmaking, then, would entail a significant immersion in their respective fields.

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