Movies as Mass Communication

Garth Jowett

James M. Linton

One of the most interesting things about the academic study of motion pictures is the history of how movies became an academic endeavour. It was, in a word, sneaky. In order to introduce the "serious" (as opposed to the merely "vo-tech") study of (vs. "production-orientation") movies to the university (vs. "trade school") curriculum, appeals and proclamations of "the art of the cinema" were invoked. This strategy served to legitimate academic interest in what might otherwise have been smugly disdained or viewed with suspicion. The study of film, it was asserted, was the study of the image as a text with the structure and form of an art. By employing references to Rembrandt lighting, the frame as analogous to the theatrical proscenium arch, and the aesthetic experience, an argument was successfully advanced that film was not merely a crass, commercial trade or a mindless diversion. Film was an art form. Further support for the rich, historical (brief though it certainly was) heritage of this thesis was Vachel Lindsey's 1915 book entitled The Art of the Moving Picture.

The filmic image was the evidence used to support the assertion of art-ness and, hence, the claim that film properly belonged in (or, if pressed, "deserved to be a part of ") the academy's curriculum. Once granted this exalted position in the curriculum, the study of film's administrative "place" was typically in the humanities and frequently the sole province of English departments. Not surprisingly, the approach and methods for film study were most often those of literary and art theory, criticism and research. For contemporary film scholars, this blessing proved to be a curse: the projected image--what's on the screen--formed the focus of both scholarship and academic classes variously and amorphously entitled "Film as Art," "The Art of the Cinema," "Film as Literature," and so forth.

A prescient Aristotle had, hundreds of years previous, instructed that a bare-bones model of communication included no fewer than three points: speaker, speech, audience. In clear (and perhaps even arrogant) violation of Aristotle's principle, film study promptly fixed solely upon only one dimension: the filmic image itself. Consequently, little was learned about the two other dimensions and much of what we came to know about film was restricted to what might generously be termed surface-level data. This is not to say that such data were or are worthless. Few, though, would disagree that this restriction is limited, incomplete, and misleading.

Communication and mass communication scholars for years also largely omitted analysis of motion pictures in the fullest sense. Again, whereas production courses were offered as casual electives of interest only to hobbyists or to non-liberal arts majors anxious to get jobs in the tightly-knit industry, little else was available. Indeed, broadening the analysis of movies as a mass communications medium was perhaps a difficult case to make since, on top of everything else, the very popularity of movies may have deflected attention away from all but the movies' content. Serious scholars seem especially prone to believe that that which is popular is that which is trivial; after all, how can serious scholars expect to gain prominent reputations among their peers by studying those things which are knowable to so many? (Buying a ticket to the movies, as is well known and has often been noted, uniquely qualifies one for, and confers expertise in, cinema criticism.)

Closely intertwined with the above reasons for the attention given the projected image are the mass/high-low/popular culture debates. While the origin of the debates is frequently claimed as being philosophical, ultimately the arguments typically rest upon the perceived effects of popular media upon the culture. The reasoning and research used to support claims of the deleterious consequences of movie viewing reveal a curious imbalance. The rigour of "objective" scholarship may be brought to bear upon the content of the offending medium; however, similar scholarly rigour on the actual effect of such content on audiences is often omitted in favour of (frequently idle) speculation. The causal connection between content and behaviour is not demonstrated but, rather, inferred.

Up until recently, more often than not movies served science as an independent variable employed in the intellectual pursuit to an answer to a question largely (and, in many cases, absolutely) unrelated to that of motion pictures themselves. Only within the past two decades have scholars begun the systematic, critical analysis of motion pictures on things and topics separate from what's on the screen.

Jowett and Linton's book, Movies as Mass Communication, helped fill an enormous void. Whereas others, including professors of communication, have fixed their focus on the surface phenomenon of movies, this book addressed such vital issues as how what's on the screen got to the screen, who is watching the screen, why they go to the movies and what gratifications are derived from movie viewing and moviegoing.

The second edition of Movies as Mass Communication provides welcomed additional and updated research to the first edition. The authors provide an argument for studying movies as medium for communication, detail the economics of the movie industry, describe the sociology and psychology of the movies, explore the political consequences of motion pictures and suggest the future of theatrical film.

This book, part of Sage's CommText series, is perfectly suitable for use in a variety and diversity of college classes. My own experience with the first edition was that both undergraduate and graduate students responded positively to the text's contents, readability and value for stimulating class discussions. Moreover, they were appreciative of the References section for the "leads" it provided them in conducting their own research. The text is compact, stimulating, affordable, and rich with the kinds and types of issues which students both need and find stimulating. Instructors will find that the book offers opportunities to apply theory and method from other communication contexts to one which, in at least one sense, may be more "accessible" to their students. Finally, given the rapid changes in communications technology, Movies as Mass Communication offers an important correction to earlier ways of studying movies and insightful analyses of a medium, industry, and art form undergoing transformation.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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