American Movie Critics: Hugo Munsterberg

Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.

Hugo Münsterberg is an interesting case in this anthology – he wasn’t a reviewer or newspaper critic like many of the selections in the book are. Rather, he was a professor of psychology at Harvard. In 1915 he became enamored of films and published The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (from which this piece is excerpted) in 1916, which stands as one of the first theoretical books about film and the way our brains understand what we see projected on film. In the selection editor Phillip Lopate has chosen, Münsterberg talks about how the audience for movies has broadened since its inception, the psychological effect movies have on us, and the potential dangers and virtues cinema has for affecting the morality of those who watch them. These sociological, psychological, and moral questions are ones that remain with us to this day to one degree or another, which is probably why Lopate saw fit to include Münsterberg, even though he isn’t talking about specific films in this piece as most of the other critics in the anthology will. I don’t think he mentions even a single film by name! It’s fascinating to have this rather abstract document of how cinema was perceived in 1916, and see what value it still holds for us today.

Here are the thoughts it conjured up for Ryan and myself:

Müsterberg caught my attention with his paragraph that begins p. 11:

Six years ago a keen sociological observer characterized the patrons of the picture palaces as “the lower middle class and the massive public […]” This would hardly be a correct description today. This “lower middle class” has long been joined by the upper middle class. [11]

While attendance at the movies has certainly slipped in the time since Müsterberg wrote this, film itself still speaks to a massive audience across all class lines.

Why do you think that still is? That one row at the multiplex can have blue collar workers sitting next to corporate VP’s?

I also marked that paragraph, but towards the end where he writes –

Today you and I are seen there quite often, and we find that our friends have been there, that they have given up the sneering pose and talk about the new photoplay as a matter of course.

The fact that Münsterberg by 1916 is already seeing this shift in movie audience is pretty interesting. It’s tempting for us to think that everything prior to talkies was primitive (though those of us who are fans of silents know better), but Münsterberg makes it clear that the shift in audience appreciation for movies occurred much earlier, more in line with the advent of feature films.

As far as why that is? At the time I think it must’ve been the advances in cinematic technique that made going to the movies an experience more on par with going to a stage play – longer films, with better stories better told, and recognizable actors – that’s what allowed the movies to transition from lower-class entertainment to broader acceptance among upper classes as well. What kept it there? Low prices and high availability.


Even though prices are rising now, movies are still among the cheapest entertainments available. If $10-14 at a theatre is too high to do all the time, you can rent them three months later for $1.50, and movies are ubiquitous – perhaps especially for those of us (like us) lucky enough to live in Toronto or Los Angeles, but the ability to see a movie is still much more widespread than the ability to see a stage play, or a live music concert. So in a sentence, accessibility combined with quality (or the potential for quality) entertainment.

Though Münsterberg takes it as a given that he and his friends and by proxy, the upper middle class in general, are no longer sneering at movies, he’s still under some pains to defend them as worthwhile (despite wide audience acceptance, movies didn’t gain the full support of the academic/critical world until the ’60s). I confess I’m not clear on what his thesis statement actually means, though.

The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us.

This is his psychology background coming through, clearly. I suppose he’s trying to describe the psychological effect of the movies; I like it more the more times I read it, but in a very abstract/subjective kind of way – what does this statement mean to you?

It means a lot, actually, so I’m going to have to take it piece by piece.

The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness….

When I step into a movie, the dark room and (relative) isolation allows the world to momentarily slip away. Even though what I’m watching will spark thoughts of what’s happening and what has happened in my own life, it feels as though those thoughts are coming to me through a kaleidoscope. The pattern of them and order of them aren’t what I would have expected before the lights went down. My very thoughts have lost their weight, space, and time.

Mia Farrow gets lost in the screen in Woody Allen's 1930s-set The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Mia Farrow gets lost in the screen in Woody Allen’s 1930s-set The Purple Rose of Cairo.

The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones.

This bit, sorta further to that previous point, makes me think of the wonderful thing about film is as something of a performance art: it doesn’t wait on you. In a cinema, there’s no standing uninterrupted and staring at the canvas while you soak it in…there’s no rewinding and catching something you missed…there’s no re-reading and re-reading of a passage and trying to grasp its meaning. It rolls along whether you’re settled in the car or not. Drama and dance does this too, but film has the added bonus of being free of time and place in a way that dance and drama aren’t. There are laws of physics to a movie, but they are far fewer than all other performance art forms. Hence the ‘ease of musical tones’.

It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us.

So if I combine those two ideas, perhaps that underlines why I love the medium as much as I do.

It’s as immersive and isolating, but doesn’t allow one to linger in those feelings. Even if they do, they can only linger for two hours or so before the lights come up and they are kicked back out into the cold.

I really like your parsing of Münsterberg’s thesis. It’s interesting that he considers the outer world falling away during movies while at the same time he praises movies for their realism – their ability to bring us to faraway places or show us things we hadn’t seen in a way that seems real.

Escapism and realism combined? To me this is one of the major cruxes of why movies are compelling. They show us things that really do exist, or that don’t exist but are made to seem as though they do (even including fantasy), but in a way that allows us to escape our own problems, or to shine a new perspective on them, for a couple of hours.

But, my original question still stands regarding class divide.

Well, why do YOU think it is? My answer was accessibility (monetarily and formally) and respectability. Movies are one of the only art forms that has both, which is why both lower and upper classes go to them. Classes are also more fluid in North America: more based on wealth than heredity. So one generation’s lower class could be the next generation’s upper, and they brought their love of movies with them. Over a century, that’s had quite an impact.

Accessibility is certainly high on the list – as is the way classes can move up and down from generation to generation. But I think one thing that might do it, which was touched on in the introduction is omnipresence.

It’s plausible to find an upper-class child whose parenting has led to them never played a video game, or a lower-income child who has never been taken to a ballet. It’s hard to fathom either one never being exposed to a movie. When you and I were kids, movies were on TV every other night (if not more frequently, depending on what stations your parents subscribed to). As we grew up they became even more accessible with the ability to rent videos and DVDs.


So everyone in the western world has seen a movie. The same way that everybody has heard some sort of recorded music. But where music has thousands of years of history and evolution behind it that makes it a given, film has come this far in just over a century.

The other major portion of Münsterberg that struck me was how concerned he is (taking up at least half his essay!) with the moral qualities of movies.

The intensity with which the plays take hold of the audience cannot remain without strong social effects. […] No psychologist can determine exactly how much the general spirit of righteousness, of honesty, of sexual cleanliness and modesty, may be weakened by the unbridled influence of plays of low moral standard. […] There must be a moral wholesomeness in the whole setting, a moral atmosphere which is taken as a matter of course like fresh air and sunlight. [12, 13, 15]

This is something that continues right up to this day, though we don’t tend to talk about it as bald-faced as he does anymore, outside of specific moralist groups that are generally sluffed off by the general film community.

Münsterberg is in an interesting position whereby he is defending film against the more elitist people of his day who don’t think film as a form has anything valuable to offer, and simultaneously arguing that cinema needs to aspire to a greater aesthetic and moral ideal than most films are doing. Do you feel anything in this section has relevance for film today? Is Müsterberg asking for something (moral relevance) that films don’t actually need to provide, or do filmmakers have some responsibility in this arena? (I think one place where we DO see similar arguments made today is in terms of representation – it’s quite common to see calls for more women and minorities both in filmmaking and in films.)

A pioneering gangster film, D.W. Griffith's 1912 The Musketeers of Pig Alley.

A pioneering gangster film, D.W. Griffith’s 1912 The Musketeers of Pig Alley.

I had underlined the long paragraph about morality too (great minds!). While certain groups are usually quick to point to film as being a “bad influence”…I don’t think they’re wrong as often as we think they are wrong…they just have a hard time proving their point because they tend to get too tied up in dogma.

I’m not sure if it’s the job of the artists (read: directors and producers) to represent the virtuous, because then a question of motivation must be raised. Their job is first and foremost to tell a story.

I actually believe it’s the job of critics and scholars to point out a film’s virtues…especially as time goes on. The director might think they’re doing something in the name of the righteous (we’ll talk about this again when we get to Birth of a Nation), but time proves their intentions cloudy at best. Likewise, there might be a film that everybody tossed of as a trifle or a miss, but inside of it is some sort of hidden moral that we probably should have listened to or indeed proved prophetic. Fans and moviegoers aren’t always going to catch these things, because they’re reacting on a visceral level. It’s up to people like Münsterberg…and maybe us to underline them after further time has passed and thought has been given.

I actually agree with you that sometimes we maybe should pay more attention to the idea that film can be a good or bad influence. As I mentioned off-handedly, some types of the morality critique are swallowed much more easily than others, based on whatever the prevailing norms in society are; i.e., today a critique about minority representation is taken more seriously than one about premarital sex, while the norms in the 1950s would’ve been much different.

I also don’t think it’s the filmmakers’ job to police morality, but like your D.W. Griffith example, whatever values a filmmaker has are likely to seep into his or her work. (That, in fact, is kind of the basis of the auteur theory.) And it is valuable to have critics and theorists who can find those underlying themes and values and tease out what they mean in the larger context of society. Some of the most influential critical movements of the twentieth century, in both literature and film, take this tack (Marxist and feminist critique being only two of the big ones). I’m glad we have those voices, because art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and understanding how it relates to society, both positively and negatively, is enormously important.

That said, I think it’s quite important to be able to discuss the technique of filmmaking apart from its ideological underpinnings. Though some might disagree, I think it is possible to appreciate the technical prowess of The Birth of a Nation without capitulating to its ideological ugliness. And some critics are better at formal criticism while others excel at ideological criticism – that’s why having a multitude of critical voices speaking and listening to each other is essential, I think, to an ongoing cultural understanding of the art form.

An iconic shot in the controversial The Birth of a Nation.

An iconic shot in the controversial The Birth of a Nation.

Next time: Carl Sandburg!