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“Virtually every essay is empirical, detailed, and fully documented. . . . This volume is a rarity--fully, sometimes stolidly, fact based: film theory with its feet planted firmly on the ground.”
Researching and Writing the History of Local Moviegoing
KATHRYN H. FULLER-SEELEY AND GEORGE POTAMIANOS
Variously termed the new film history, film exhibition history, moviegoing history, local film history, historical reception studies, audience history, or the cultural and social context of moviegoing, innovative approaches to cinema history are some of the most vibrant and exciting aspects of media studies done in the past twenty years. These new research initiatives move outward from a primary focus on films as texts toward considerations of the contexts of their production, distribution, exhibition, and reception by viewers in particular times and spaces and more broadly to analyze the many meanings motion pictures assumed in popular culture and the social practice of moviegoing in everyday life.
Moviegoing history research is characterized by close, detailed studies of specific places, people, and chronologies. It is found at the juncture of several methodological and ideological issues-at intersections of traditional cinema studies with more data-driven research methods such as history, economics, social sciences, and history of readers in literary studies; at intersections of national and international contexts of production with local contexts of consumption; at intersections of modernity and tradition; and at intersections of the culture of the cosmopolitan urban center with the culture experienced by the small-town (and more homogeneous) rural hinterlands. It is also at the intersections of the persuasive power of movie producers, exhibitors, and film texts with the ability of viewers to make their own sets of meanings from the movies they watched. There should be room in moviegoing history for grand theories as well as specific factual evidence, of psychologically determined viewing positions as well as historically situated, specific audience members, and of examination of reaction to specific films as well as of the practice of moviegoing in which habitual attendance at a theater or exhibition space outweighed the impact of any particular film shown.
Robert C. Allen, Douglas Gomery, Gregory Waller, and Richard Abel have been leading figures in the development of moviegoing history; their influential works have analyzed historical and cultural shifts in film exhibition and reception in localities from rural North Carolina, Kansas, and Lexington, Kentucky, to urban New York City, Chicago, Des Moines, and Cleveland. Growing ranks of media scholars, including Rick Altman, Matthew Bernstein, Jane Gaines, Tom Gunning, Miriam Hanson, Mary Beth Haralovich, Richard Maltby, Charles Musser, Lauren Rabinovich, Jackie Stacey, and Janet Staiger, are researching many aspects of historical reception and moviegoing studies.
At the same time, investigations of moviegoing practices were being undertaken by American historians in the 1980s who studied film audiences in specific communities and the impact of motion pictures on their diverse cultures. Groundbreaking work has been done by Roy Rosenzweig on workingclass audiences in the small industrial city of Worcester, Massachusetts; Frank Couvares on social surveys of amusement seekers in Pittsburgh; and Kathy Peiss on gender, ethnicity, and new forms of entertainment among young working-class women in New York City. Their studies have been joined by Lizabeth Cohen's research on immigrants and African Americans using mass culture in their process of adapting to Chicago; Lawrence Levine on the tendency of movie theaters to split American culture into highbrow and lowbrow factions; and Kathryn Fuller-Seeley on the early incorporation of movies into small-town communities. Richard Butsch's research traces similarities and differences among entertainment audiences across 300 years of American history. A steady stream of exciting new work continues to appear that combines historical and cinema studies research to deepen our understanding, and to propose new research questions.
Scholars are at work in the trenches, mining historical details for analysis of moviegoing in scores of communities. We are amassing a cornucopia of moviegoing histories of specific villages, towns, cities, and regions across the nation, uncovering diverse audience groupings, and investigating the impact of a wide variety of film genres and forms (including amateur, art, educational, documentary, and exploitation films) across a range of historical contexts. Moviegoing histories have the potential to turn traditional film histories on their heads, moving outward from the studies of a few key films and great auteurs toward uncovering newly discovered details and new explanations and understandings. Their findings may add fresh nuances to longstanding issues in American film history, such as the longevity of the cinema of attractions; the chaser theory of film's declining popularity on vaudeville theater bills after 1900; the chronology of the nickelodeons' spread and transformation into "vaudefilm" and classical Hollywood-style movie theaters; and patterns of cinema's reception as marked by region, race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, age, generation, income, or education. The extent to which New York City was a cultural power across a wide, diverse United States may be further uncovered; the mechanisms through which concepts like modernity translated to the hinterlands, and modernity's impact on different types of communities will be explored. The gap between box office favorites and the canons of critically acclaimed films may be wider or narrower in various places across the nation than scholars had previously assumed. Accounting for a significant uniformity of cinema's impact across divergent communities, and/or many fascinating local variations, may be the ultimate outcome of these case studies.
At the Margins of Modernity? Local Moviegoing and Cinema History
For more than a decade, a number of film historians have explored the many interconnections between cinema and the appearance of "modern life." Emerging at the turn of the twentieth century along with an array of new communication forms and technologically mediated mass experiences (telephone, phonograph, electric light displays, mass-circulation magazines, amusement parks, radio, etc.), early motion pictures seemed to some observers to embody the same "shock of the new" that viewers experienced with the rise of modernity. Modernity was a crisis-like change of Western human experience occurring around 1900, shaped by many facets of the Industrial Revolution, or, as Tom Gunning notes, "a transformation in daily life wrought by the growth of capitalism and advances in technology: the growth of urban traffic, the distribution of mass produced goods and successive new technologies of transportation and communication." Because the sites of early filmmaking were urban, their creation and distribution controlled by corporate capital, and the most visible sites of their consumption metropolitan, some cinema historians have argued that the "modern event" of film production and film's cultural reception was overwhelmingly urban-something that was by, for, and of the big city. Cinema in the "modernity thesis" seems to transform viewers and their culture, the surrounding theaters and streets, into a vast, anonymous, homogeneous mass audience in an equally vast, skyscrapered, fragmented, rapid-paced urban milieu. It is a powerful thesis that goes far to explain the angst and bustle of city life that are well documented in the art, music, film, and literary cultural expressions of the period.
What happened, however, when that same cinematic modernizing force left the big city and ventured into other, less cosmopolitan localities? As Ronald Walters notes in his chapter in this collection, at this point a hitch in the "modernity thesis" seems to occur, for residents of hinterlands locations such as Des Moines, Iowa; Wilmington, North Carolina; Placerville, California; and Lebanon, Kansas, experienced the movies, too. Did early cinema impact them in ways demonstrably similar to or different from what their city cousins experienced? Did change occur as quickly, more slowly, or not at all? Did the towns and their citizens remain as caught between traditional culture and "modern life" as they were before? Robert Allen asks in his chapter on "the 'problem' of the empirical," where and with what theories and methods can we explore these issues?
We have not yet expanded our theorization of the transformative forces of modernity enough to account for variations in audience experience, and we have tended to minimize specific historical moments and contexts of cinema's spread across the United States. The exclusive analytical focus on urban cinema has tended to flatten out the results by leveling all experience into modernity; the narrow focus leads toward broad generalizations that begin to look less solid when we observe cinema's emergence from other angles, those of the local, the peripheral, through specific, empirical case studies. This collection certainly does not wish to criticize the "cinema and modernity" thesis or the excellent work of our fellow scholars, but it does wish to complicate and enrich our understanding of how film and cultural change intersect with and influence each other. These chapters bring magnifying glasses to issues in the early exhibition and reception of motion pictures in local places. We focus on smaller cities, large towns, villages, and rural crossroads. We pay attention to regional variation in customs and racial attitudes-to the complex interplay of social class, gender, and ethnicity.
Modernity: Is It Always a Good Thing?
In Keywords, Raymond Williams notes the changing cultural meanings of the term modern, which up through the 1800s was used in an unfavorable sense to mean that something historic (such as old buildings, language, clothing styles) was altered in infelicitous ways. At the turn of the twentieth century, the meaning of the term changed dramatically "until modern became virtually equivalent to improved or satisfactory or efficient" and was "normally used to indicate something unquestionably favorable or desirable." The practices of cultural studies urge us to scrutinize the entire range of attitudes and ideas that our culture holds to be natural, inevitable, or "unquestionably favorable or desirable," however. Episodes of resistance to dominant social and ideological norms intrigue us as moments where subordinate groups argue with large institutions about structure and meaning of cultural forms, and historians of early cinema may be lagging behind scholars who have been investigating the struggles that met other media and technological forms when they were first introduced into rural and small-town communities. Enlightening studies include Michael Berger's examination of farmers' ambivalence toward the first automobiles that came tearing down their country roads, and investigations by Claude Fisher, Carolyn Marvin, David Nye, Ronald Kline, and Jane Adams of the diverse reactions of rural people to the introductions of telephones and electricity. Pamela Grundy and Derek Vaillant, writing on early radio audience reception, suggest that rural audiences did not simply accept what was broadcast "for them" over the airwaves but actively shaped the programming through buying sponsors' products, writing letters, and showing their preference for some types of shows (regional sports events) over others (Shakespearean lectures). In American rural history, Hal Barron analyzes the persistence in rural communities of those families and individuals who chose to resist the siren call of urban modernity by remaining on the farm, and Katherine Jellison uses lenses of gender and consumer culture to argue that farm women fought hard to bring the technological advances of domestic modernity within their reach. All these rural and small-town people actively took bits and pieces of "modern life" and melded them with a mixture of traditional community ideologies to invent their own hybrid versions of modernity. Doesn't it stand to reason that small-town movie audiences, at certain times and places, acted similarly?
Let us consider several challenges for investigating early movies, modernity, and nonurban audience contexts. Unlike documented scattered protests against creeping industrialization and commercialization in rural America (resistance to automobiles, electrification, or the telephone), few people outside the big city seem to have rejected the movies outright, at least initially. Histories of moviegoing have not turned up reports of gangs of pitchfork-waving villagers chasing itinerant cinema showmen out of town. No Luddites burned projectors; no frightened rural audiences fled the screened oncoming Black Diamond Express. (Although having not yet located evidence of such occurrences does not mean they never took place, and it would be intriguing to find an instance!) Motion pictures seem to have been well tolerated wherever they were shown in villages and towns across the nation. Many itinerant rural showmen were successful, and nickelodeons cropped up as quickly in smaller towns and cities as they did in Manhattan. Rural individuals may have voted with their feet by not attending movie shows, but this was apparently not done with much organization. Perhaps because cinema was a public entertainment and not a technology meant for the home, workplace, or farm field, rural people were less concerned about the intrusiveness of movie shows into their communities than other technologies. Perhaps because they were outside the large metropolis, the movies appeared only occasionally, brought by itinerant show people to opera houses and church halls, giving communities more of a chance to accept motion pictures as "harmless entertainment" before they became a fixture as regular movie shows in buildings along the small-town Main Streets. Perhaps people outside the major urban centers were more accepting of the movies because there was a dearth of other entertainments that were not locally produced. The movies came to rural crossroads that vaudeville, circuses, melodramatic stock companies, and even some medicine shows rarely touched. Perhaps early instances of film censorship instituted by community groups and town governments could be seen as local protests against the encroachment of urban or modern motion pictures into their more traditional cultures.
Without visible early rejection or initial protests against the movies, how can we gauge the extent of audience interest in them (or the lack thereof )? This absence of data creates research challenges for historians of early film reception, questions that Robert Allen raises in his essay: How do we study the people who did not go to the picture show? How do we account for competing cultural and social influences on early audiences-a rural population so scattered and poor that gathering even 100 people for a show was too difficult, a local band concert or baseball game drawing more viewers than the one-night-stand movie show? In some communities, conservative religious groups raised objections to movie shows, but, as Terry Lindvall shows us in his chapter, in other localities the church establishment welcomed cinema as an entertainment alternative to the town's saloons and brothels.
Studying Local Audiences: Bringing Diversity to Cinema and Modernity
If the term modernity has generally been met with wide approbation, in contrast, the term globalization and far-flung audiences' experience of globalized media have been cause for scholarly concern. For years, academics worried that globalization of media content and control would inevitably lead to a vast homogenization of audience experiences, significant cultural leveling, and reduction of cultural identity and sense of place. A growing number of cultural studies scholars in anthropology and geography investigate the local reception practices of globalized media. They study how the local still operates-products are manufactured centrally for global distribution, but in many important respects have been (and remain) experienced locally; they are made sense of within communities, neighborhoods, and regions. While in other areas of reception studies, scholars utilize the specific case study, ethnographies of fan communities, or studies of Web site communities on the Internet, in cinema studies, scholars have relied for much longer on sweeping generalizations about the mass audience, the urban audience, the urban working-class audience, or the female or male audience.
Excerpted from HOLLYWOOD IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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