Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema

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Employing a wide range of examples from Uncle Tom's Cabin and Birth of a Nation to Zelig and Personal Best, Janet Staiger argues that a historical examination of spectators' responses to films can make a valuable contribution to the history, criticism, and philosophy of cultural products. She maintains that as artifacts, films do not contain immanent meanings, that differences among interpretations have historical bases, and that these variations are due to social, political, and economic conditions as well as the viewers' constructed images of themselves. Alter proposing a theory of reception study, the author demonstrates its application mainly through analyzing the varying responses of audiences to certain films at specific moments in history. Staiger gives special attention to how questions of class, gender, sexual preference, race, and ethnicity enter into film viewers' interpretations. Her analysis reflects recent developments in post-structuralism, cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis, and cultural studies, and includes a discussion of current reader-response models in literary and film studies as well as an alternative approach for thinking about historical readers and spectators.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Staiger (critical & cultural studies, Univ. of Texas) looks at historical shifts in the interpretation of films to demonstrate that ``interpretative strategies do not fall from the skies; they are derived in a material context.'' This is at odds with many recent scholarly and intellectual trends, which work from assumptions that meaning in a text or film is ``text-activated'' or ``reader-activated'' and hence produced in a historical vacuum. Staiger first establishes her critical stance in relation to other major textual and film theories, then handles some case studies of how the receptions of particular films were shaped and later evolved. For film research collections.-- Brian Geary, West Seneca, N.Y.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691006161
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/3/1992
  • Pages: 290
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Sources
Pt. 1 Theoretical Concerns 1
Ch. 1 The Use-Value of Reception Studies 3
Ch. 2 Reception Studies in Other Disciplines 16
Ch. 3 Reception Studies in Film and Television 49
Ch. 4 Toward a Historical Materialist Approach to Reception Studies 79
Pt. 2 Studies in the History of the Reception of American Films 99
Ch. 5 Rethinking "Primitive" Cinema: Intertextuality, the Middle-Class Audience, and Reception Studies 101
Ch. 6 "The Handmaiden of Villainy": Foolish Wives, Politics, Gender Orientation, and the Other 124
Ch. 7 The Birth of a Nation: Reconsidering Its Reception 139
Ch. 8 The Logic of Alternative Readings: A Star Is Born 154
Ch. 9 With the Compliments of the Auteur: Art Cinema and the Complexities of Its Reading Strategies 178
Ch. 10 Chameleon in the Film, Chameleons in the Audience; or, Where Is Parody? The Case of Zelig 196
Epilogue 210
Notes 213
Select Bibliography 259
Index 271
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