History of science documentary

May 27, 2016
The World History of Organized

Films of fact by Timothy Boon mends what, up to now, has been a gaping hole in both history of science and media studies—an examination of the specific historical circumstances that determined how, in the twentieth century, science, technology, and medicine were presented to the British public in the form of the moving picture. Boon is Chief Curator at the Science Museum, London, and has published extensively on science, technology, medicine, and film. He persuasively argues that any appreciation of the contemporary public understanding of science requires knowledge of the specific circumstances directing the century-long liaison between science and the moving picture. His book amply demonstrates the intricacies of that two-way relationship as played out in twentieth-century Britain. Films of fact is structured chronologically, beginning with the one-minute film, Cheese mites, first shown in London in 1903 and proceeding through seven chapters to end in 1965 with the popular British television programme, Tomorrow’s world. Each chapter addresses a non-fiction genre (in some cases genres), analysing the larger scientific, technological, social, and cultural forces in play at the time. Through core chapters 2 to 5, Boon adroitly weaves the career of the eminent British filmmaker Paul Rotha. In each chapter, Boon presents his own insightful reading of key films and television programmes, the end result being a comprehensive analysis of science in British non-fiction film.

‘Science, nature and filmmaking’, the first chapter of the book, deals with the beginnings of scientific film in the 1890s as an experimental instrument for scientific and medical research. It goes on to map the science film’s move to theatre and music hall, where film techniques developed in the laboratory, such as microcinematography and slow motion, were presented to the general public in the form of “actualities”, combining the instructional capacities of images with their power to amaze. The next four chapters are devoted primarily to the documentary genre and Rotha’s key role in the development of scientific documentary. In the inter-war years, documentary was constructed by film pioneers such as Dzega Vertov, John Grierson, and Rotha, as a distinctive medium linking science and technology to the citizen and the state in such a way as to reveal the deeper social and political reality underlying the world of appearances. The documentary, utilizing the analytically sophisticated and emotionally literate film technique of dialectical montage, presented to audiences a highly aestheticized account of the ability, power, and responsibility of human beings to transform their world. However, Boon argues that documentary was shaped as powerfully by forces concrete and historical as by the idealist(ic) vision of its founders.

Source: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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