Friday, 8 July 2011

"Radical, readable": Links and studies in memory of Robert Sklar

How important are origins? [Robert Sklar, 'Cineaste's Early Years: The Quest for a Radical, Readable Film Criticism', Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.4 (Fall 2007)]
What is remarkable is the way that American movies, through much of their span, have altered or challenged many of the values and doctrines of powerful social and cultural forces in American society, providing alternative ways of understanding the world. [Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York, 1975)]
Sklar’s most influential work, “Movie-Made America,” first came out over thirty years ago but remains one of the most important texts for the study of American cinema. (After all, he helped invent the field.) Its thesis, that American film culture owed much to the lower class and the struggles against capitalist interests rather than efforts to sustain them, echoed the egalitarian nature of Sklar’s writing: Although primarily an academic, he had the capacity to speak to movie lovers of all stripes. In doing so, he was essentially an activist, capable of making the inarguable case for taking movies seriously—not only as an art form, but a socio-economic force that helps us understand the world. [Eric Kohn, 'Robert Sklar, RIP', Screenrush at indieWIRE July 5, 2011 ]
Robert Sklar's Movie-Made America (1975, Vintage) was a paradigm-shifting work for film in American studies. It revamped the intellectual (or highbrow) versus popular polarities in which filmic expression was celebrated or denigrated in discussions ofAmerican culture by such culture critics as Dwight MacDonald writing during the height of the Cold War or historians like Richard Pells a decade later who began to incorporate Hollywood activities within the intellectual and cultural landscapes they portrayed. Sklar maintained an interest in movies and ideology but located them within Hollywood as an institution of capital, of culture, of even the State.
     The publication of his book seemed to be part of a new wave of addressing the role of movies and Hollywood within American culture. [Lauren Rabinovitz, 'More Than Meets the Eye: Movies in American Studies', 2005 MAASA Presidential Symposium, p. 77]
Discussing broad transformations in the history of American film, Robert Sklar suggests that, since the 1970s, historical memory has become the touchstone of a movie’s cultural power, replacing a ‘traditional rhetoric of myths and dreams’. For Sklar, the identification of a shift from ‘myth to memory’ in the rhetorical power of mainstream American film relates to a particular dissolution of the consensus that, until the 1970s, had underpinned American liberal ideologies in the postwar period. While speculative in nature, ideological schemas of this sort do have a certain use in identifying broad historical trends and patterns in the discursive propensities of popular cinema. Sklar is one of many critics who identify the 1970s as the origin of the contemporary ‘memory boom’ in American life and society. In a time when it is claimed that metanarratives of history and progress have been severely undermined, and when the past has become increasingly subject to cultural mediation, textual reconfiguration, and ideological contestation in the present, memory has developed a new discursive significance. In cinema, as in other modes of cultural practice, memory has become a powerful locus for the articulation of identity in the sphere of cultural imaginings. This has been levied in rhetorical terms – Sklar’s transition from the ‘myths and dreams’ of classical film to the ‘historical memory’ of more recent work – but it has also become figured in particular generic transformations and bound in regimes of industrial and institutional commercialism, such that movie memory itself has experienced a heightened cultural significance. [Paul Grainge, 'Introduction: memory and popular film', in Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) citing Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 357].
Many of Film Studies For Free's readers will already have heard of the very sad and untimely death this week of the influential U.S. film historian and critic Robert Sklar.

Professor of Cinema Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, Sklar was the author of many books, including Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage, 1975; rev. 1994), City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield (Princeton, 1992) and A World History of Film" (2003). Sklar also worked as a contributing editor at Cineaste, writing many perceptive reviews. In 2007, he also penned an important and revealing study of that magazine’s early history, which featured in the 40th Anniversary issue. Sklar was co-editor (with Saverio Giovacchini) on a book set for publication later this year: Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style.

Sklar served on the selection committee of the New York Film Festival in the 1990s. As a member of the National Film Preservation Board since 1997, he helped choose the films to be included on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. He was President of the Society for Cinema Studies (now the Society for Cinema and Media Studies) from 1979 to 1981.

Below, in a small tribute to the work of this unassuming but hugely important film scholar, FSFF has assembled a list of direct links to online, openly accessible writing by Sklar, as well as to tributes to him by his colleagues and students. Below those lists, there is a further gathering of links to a wide range of online film scholarship influenced or informed by his historical and historiographical work on American cinema.
    Online tributes:
    Significant online works influenced or informed by Sklar's Work:

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