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Response to Review no. 629

Let me open with a heartfelt thank you to James Chapman for what is a generous and largely even-handed treatment of my most recent book. An author cannot but be pleased when a reviewer says such things as ‘Rosenstone’s analysis of the formal components and ideological structures of film is always illuminating’ or calls the work ‘an intellectually stimulating and provocative read’. I will not even take issue with his judgement that the book ‘methodologically…re-treads old ground (much of it trodden by Rosenstone himself) rather than offering a genuinely new “take” on the subject’. If I propose no new theoretical approaches in the book, it does give me space to test my ideas at greater length than I have previously been able to do in the essay form. Part of my aim in writing History on Film/Film on History was to draw together in one place various insights I have had in the decade since the publication of my earlier work, Visions of the Past (1995), and to elaborate them with more detailed studies of individual films (e.g., October, Reds, Glory), filmmakers (Oliver Stone) and genres (the biofilm, the documentary) than I have had space for in various journals.

My only quarrel with Chapman stems, I think, from our different approaches to the history film. He seems to care more for how a film comes to mean than for its meaning. For him the most interesting questions ‘are how and why did a film take the form it did and how far were the intentions of the film-makers understood by audiences?’ My failure to address such questions shows, he says, the limitations of what he labels (and I will accept the label even if I don’t much like the p.m. word) my ‘postmodern approach’. Missing from the book is what he finds in the work of such scholars of ‘the New Film History’ as Sue Harper, Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate, a willingness to go into the archives and deal with the ‘real nuts and bolts of production history’. This approach ‘combines contextual and textual analysis in order to understand how the finished film is the outcome of the various decisions taken and compromises made during its production’.

As someone who has written several books based on archival materials, I can hardly quarrel with such an approach to the history of film (though I do think there can be an enormous gap between the ‘intentions’ of the filmmaker or historian and the product of her/his efforts). But the approach I have chosen to take is to deal with the history portrayed in the film not the history of the film. I place the finished work into the context of the larger discourse of history out of which it emerges, to which it refers, and upon which it comments. The history of an individual production certainly inflects its contents, though as anyone who has worked on a film knows many of the decisions that shape a film, say in the editing room, are rather more intuitive and ad hoc than planned. In a similar way, I would argue, foundation fellowships, research centre theme years, conference and journal calls for papers, shifting intellectual fashions, the availability of time and money for archival research, the need to publish, and a changing political climate often effect the shape and contents of academic works of history. Yet rarely if ever do we review the production notes of our written works of history to see what decisions and compromises made during the research, writing and editing shaped the form, the contents and the message. Why, my book implicitly asks, do we not do the same with the history film – analyse what it tells us rather than how the particular telling came to be.

This issue comes to a head in the chapter which Chapman uses to show the ‘limitations’ of my approach, the one that deals largely with Sergei Eisenstein’s October. His claim is that by neglecting the ‘production determinants of political constraints’ on this work, made to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution, I fail to show ‘how the history in October was hampered by political expediency’. It is certainly true that, save for the most fleeting of images, the film writes Trotsky out of the history of the revolution. But it hardly promotes ‘the cult of Stalin’ as Chapman asserts, for that leader too appears on screen for only a few seconds. Lenin himself is seen only briefly, if heroically. My point is that you would be hard pressed to see October as a film about individuals. Rather, it depicts the Bolshevik takeover, led by the party to be sure, as a collective moment ‘when the masses entered into history and history entered into the masses’ (p. 59).

Since Chapman does not detail my strategy in dealing with October, I want to spell it out here because to my mind it represents a major part of the book’s contribution. In its approach, I believe the section on October represents a new way of assessing the history film. What I do is to set the film into a context of, and compare it with, five major written works that deal with the Bolshevik Revolution, from John Reed’s classic first-hand account, Ten Days That Shook the World (1920), to Orlando Figes’s magisterial A People’s Tragedy (1998). Letting these works stand in as a sample of the larger discourse of the field, I analyse how each treats certain major, perennially controversial topics: the July days, the role of Kerensky, the Kornilov affair, the influence of Lenin, and the so-called storming of the Winter Palace. Seen this way, October loses the charge of propaganda, for the film’s depictions parallel those of traditional historians, differing with some of the books on certain points, but no more nor less than they differ with each other.

The chapter on October carries out the main thrust of the book, the idea that the history film is a significant way of thinking about and making meaning out of the past, though its rules of engagement with the traces of that past are of necessity different from those of written history. This is obviously due both to the nature of the medium (visual and aural) and the dramatic structure which underlies both the feature film and the bulk of documentaries. My argument is that history films can indeed raise the kinds of questions about moments, movements, individuals and eras that historians raise, and though films deliver answers in their own medium, at their best they engage with, comment upon, add to and contest the larger discourse of a given field. Understanding how rather than why some of them do this is the task which my book aims to address.