The Specificity Of Cinema
The most influential critic of the Screen agenda has been David Bordwell. Accusing the Screen critics of blindness to the specificity of film, Bordwell and his co-author Kristin Thompson developed a "neoformalist" analysis. Combining inspiration from Russian formalism with cognitive psychology, they proposed a rigorous film scholarship grounded in archive work and extensive as well as intensive film viewing. They also argued for what appeared to be a more commonsense approach to audience activity. Using cognitive theories, Bordwell argued that audiences were actively engaged in constructing meaning, guessing what will happen next, forming hypotheses and mental maps, and piecing together the action of the plot from the fragments of edited film narration. Criticized for their normative and apolitical account of the cinema experience, and despite the sometimes strident protestations of their later work, Thompson and Bordwell have been influential in establishing close analysis of filmic technique and high levels of historical scholarship as necessary prerequisites of film study.
New historicism (rather confusingly referred to as "revisionist" in some accounts) has been especially effective in the renewal of film studies, focusing attention on the specificity of film's evolution as technology, industry, and culture. In the 1980s and 1990s scholars such as Barry Salt, Tom Gunning, Roberta Pearson, Janet Staiger, Miriam Hansen, Kevin Brownlow, and Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery on U.S. cinema; Michael Chanan, Pam Cook, Andrew Higson, John Hill, and Robert Murphy on the United Kingdom; Thomas Elsaesser on Germany; Richard Abel on France; Yuri Tsivian on Russia; and others have radically rewritten the glib accounts of journalistic film history. The new cinema historicism diminishes the importance of individuals and denies the apparent linear progress from silent to sound, monochrome to color. Instead the new historicists emphasize the importance of institutional forces and economic trends in the innovation and dissemination of technologies and techniques, seeking reasons why certain promising technologies are delayed or abandoned, assessing the reactions of audiences and exhibitors to emerging technologies, focusing on the institutional histories of studios and government agencies, and tracing links between cinema and cognate industries. In the process some key beliefs of even recent film criticism have been undermined, as when Rick Altman argued, on evidence from D. W. Griffith's involvement with the stage, that melodrama was a formative component of classical Hollywood, thus critiquing both the belief that U.S. cinema was realist in essence and that melodrama was an effective antidote to its dominance.
Since the 1990s film historians have turned to oral history and documentary accounts of audience activity in the cinema. A major element of television studies throughout its life, audience studies have had a weaker position in film studies, perhaps because of the relative difficulty and social impropriety of staring at audience members in the dark. Early accounts from the 1930s by participants in the British Mass Observation project, even Hugo Münsterberg's pioneering psychological study of 1916, failed to establish a strong tradition of reception studies. Distinguishing themselves from market
research by their interest in emotional, inventive, ironic, and resistant attitudes, and in the extremities of fan culture, such studies of necessity emphasize the depth rather than the breadth of their findings, giving more attention to highly specific audiences than to the standard aggregate measure of film audience, box-office returns. At least one international project attempted to do both deep and broad research, investigating cross-cultural meanings of fantasy though an Internet-based survey of responses to the twenty-first century blockbuster The Lord of the Rings. Both historical and contemporary reception studies focus on the cultural construction of audiences, the determinations of race, class, gender, and other formations on the ways audiences read and react to movies, disputing both the Screen concept of an apparatus that determines response, and Bordwell's idea of the audience's work of textual reconstruction.