Studios Before the System. Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space
Brian R. Jacobson
New York: Columbia University Press, Film and Culture series (editor John Belton), 2015
295 p., 50 b/w ill. paper, $30.00/ £20.50, hardcover, $90.00/ £62.00, e-book), $29.99/ £20.50
ISBN: 9780231172813; ISBN: 9780231172806; ISBN: 9780231539661
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
The blurb on this book is right: "a breakthrough book", "an instant classic", "a groundbreaking book". The reason for this praise has not only to do with the outstanding archival research and the excellent writing skills of Brian R. Jacobson, but also with the real paradigm shift that he defends in this exceptional book. By disclosing a less known part of the history of the cinema, the structure and organization of the space where films were made before the establishment of the major Hollywood studios around 1920, Jacobson makes us think differently of what cinema actually is. In this regard, the material history he is pleading for signifies a conceptual rupture that is not without comparison with the rediscovery of "primitive" cinema at the end of the 1970s.
Jacobson's thesis relies on a redefinition of the role of the studio in the first two decades of filmmaking, starting with the "Black Maria", developed in 1892 as part of Edison's preparations for the 1893 World Exhibition and ending with the progressive move southwards of the New York based companies in the 1910s (Jacobson's story is of course not only US based, and much room is given to the parallel history of the studio in France, with pioneering entrepreneurs and companies such as Mli ès, Path and Gaumont). For Jacobson, the studio is not just the place where a film is made, it is above all a material environment the shapes both the form and the content of what is actually filmed. The cinema studio, which in the beginning was an expansion and transformation of the photographer's studio, is not a kind of neutral or virtually empty environment enabling the cost-efficient production of movies, it is above all a structure that shapes what cinema is becoming and how it foregrounds new forms of images that both exemplify and create a new visual culture, based on the idea of man-built nature.
The very "invention" of the studio is due to technical reasons. Although it was perfectly possible to film in open air (after all, most Lumi ère documentaries were made that way, and the dramatic impact of these images cannot be underestimated), the instable and unpredictable weather conditions made it necessary to develop an environment that helped take a maximum benefit of natural light (more precisely of unclouded sunlight), on the one hand, while allowing for an extension of the possible working hours. Jacobson's study of the first studios, in the US as well as in France, gives a detailed overview as well as an astute analysis of the successive solutions that were given to this double problem. Studios Before the System describes the logic behind the creation of the open air, rotating Black Maria, and the various changes that were made with the help of glass roofs and walls and supplementary electric lighting. At the same time, Jacobson's book explains no less clearly the influence of the industrial context, which forced the companies to produce more and more films at an always increasing pace. Hence for instance the shift from rooftop studios to the construction of studios in newly developed urban areas (where land was still cheap for companies eager to build not just a studio but a real "studio city", and where sunlight was not blocked by always higher surrounding skyscrapers). Hence also the later move southwards, where the studio system as we know it from history books was established and powerfully institutionalized (in France, where similar transformations had taken place before World War I, the integration of the larger companies into the military-industrial complex during the war years was the origin of a completely different history, the consequences of which are still visible today).
The most decisive innovation of Jacobson's book however lies in its insistence on the transformative power of the studio, more precisely the role of architecture in the production of this key aspect of modern culture. Studios Before the System makes the strong claim, and it does so in an extremely convincing way, that the studio is less a material environment than a tool, a device, the mold that gives birth to a certain type of images and stories. Most decisive in this regard is the emphasis in the notion of "enframing", and the philosophical reconceptualization of this concept in light of the debate on the relationships between nature and culture. Following authors such as Mumford and Heidegger, Jacobson argues that the film industry and the images it produced performed the transformation of nature into a "world as picture" and a "world placed on reserve for the production of moving images" (p. 22). This blurring of boundaries between nature and culture, the former becoming a technologically enhanced man-made environment open for any kind of visual and other reuse, is the fundamental principle that organizes Jacobson's book, and that helps foreground the shift from the temporal or chronological expression "studios before the system" to the expanded and no longer simply spatial interpretation that appears at the end of the book: "the studio beyond the studio", the latter revealing the real meaning of the former. For what interests Jacobson is not only the genealogy of the studio system, what it was before it was called the studio system, but the cultural impact of the studio as a transformative technology that transforms the whole world into a studio. This is what helps understand why the studios, when they moved to California, started doing what they were not supposed to do, namely leaving the built studios to film in open air (initially on their backlots, then "on location"). First of all, this move was made necessary by the audience's need and eagerness to see "life as it was" in the cultural (artificial) production that a movie inevitably is. But, second, if such a move was possible (yet not always easy to do, for legal and economic reasons, among others, as Jacobson's book illustrates with many examples), the main reason was that the world itself had already become a virtual studio (and Studios Before the System forcefully shows to what extent the images filmmakers were looking for in open air were actually copies of the type of images the first studios had established as typical film images). This way, the evolution of the studios has become full circle: first the studio tries to become a machine that enables the reproduction of the world, but eventually it proves to be a machine that changes the world to such an extent that it is now the world we see as a studio.
A truly important book, which will easily find its way to the "must-read" section in all literature on film studies as well as art and technology studies.