REMEMBER WHEN Dover books had nice simple titles on the order of The Art of Printmaking or 16th Century Ballads ? Now that they've expanded from public domain to the fettered, complex world of copyrighted material, the titles themselves seem to augur the change, in books such as the one considered here. "Image" on the Art and Evolution of the Film, for all its cryptic glory, deciphered means a compendium of articles from Image magazine (published by the International Museum of Photography. George Eastman House from 1952 to 1977, along with appropriate (and in many cases magnificent) stills from the movies under discussion.
Eastman House in Rochester, New York, is one of the finest film archives in the world. Under the flamboyant but inspired leadership of James Card (now retired), it has tracked down and saved from all manner of perdition an astonishing number of films, transferring them from highly combustible and fragile nitrate stock to more permanent acetate stock. Those of us who don't live in Rochester can regret our limited access to those films, but be relieved that they still exist.
In view of the archival achievements of Eastman House and its curators, Image , as represented in this book, is surprisingly shallow vis-a-vis our critical and scholarly expectations of it. Critically, most articles spend more prose on proselytizing than proving their points; the scholarship wavers between minutiae and anecdote, thereby erasing the needed distinction between what's important and what's not in this branch of 20th-century archeology. In spite of the scatter-shot way this book has been organized -- or perhaps because of it -- there are some notable exceptions, among them James Card's analysis of Mary Pickford's career, Jan-Christopher Horak's "The Pre-Hollywood Lubitsch," Peggy Wallace's article on the making of Leni Riefensthal's The Blue Light , and the interviews with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Ramon Navarro.
Otherwise, the book has its moments, and some revelations as well: that some silent films should run faster than sound speed (24 frames per second) contrary to the popular myth that all silent films should run at 16 frames per second; that the great German actor Emil Jannings would have turned pathos into bathos (some think he did, anyway) in The Last Laugh had not F. W. Murnau convinced him otherwise by filming a scene both ways to let Jannings see for himself; that D. W. Griffith was reviled for "too many" cuts per reel, and for his use of the "cut-back" (cutting back and forth between actions occuring simultaneously in different locations), which remains to this day a standard suspense-building device; and that actress Louise Brooks was told by G. W. Pabst that she would end up like the Lulu in his film, The box of Pandora . (Brooks' article on Pabst is the best in the book -- a selfeffacing, bittersweet memoir of youthful insouciance.)
The weakness of the text is tempered somewhat by the 238 stills -- most of them rare -- that are given generous space in this large-format paperback. Some of them are so exceptional that they seem to have provided the raison d'etre for the articles, instead of the other way around. The Nikon generation of movie still photographers could learn a thing or two about composition, even focus, from these examples of what should qualify as a subsidiary art form.
Film scholarship and criticism have come a long way since 1952, and it may be unfair to judge the early Image for its zealous nostalgia in view of the dearth of serious writing on film at the time. The entrenched silent film buff, hungry for behind-the-scenes details of the parade gone by, may find much to devour that has a fragmentary, incidental appeal. But it may be in the nature of compendiums -- especially of magazines, which are already compendiums -- that in their attempt to provide something for everyone, they end up satisfying no one. In other words, to borrow film terms, this "Image" lacks focus and depth-of-field.