Tag Archives: Hugo Munsterberg

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.

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