Virtual voyages: Cinema and travel

Jeffrey Ruoff (ed),
Virtual voyages: Cinema and travel.
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006.
ISBN: 0 8223 3713 4
US$22.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

“Vision ‘captivates’ us not only because it is a journey toward external things, but, also because it is a return to a reality of origin… to travel is to see, but seeing is already traveling.” (Michael de Certeau)

I love this quotation – de Certeau is one of the great philosophers of movement. Yet, in treading multiple paths across the city’s terrain, he always seems to have the solid feel of the footpath firmly beneath his feet. “To walk is to lack a place”, he reminds us, but that absence of place is precisely what allows for the city’s multiple paths of circulation as well as unexpected pockets of discovery; walking leads us to “the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, the place but is only a name, the City”.[1]  Walking in the city offers a mode of traveling without a fixed or pre-determined destination and de Certeau’s comments on vision suggest that it, too, offers a form of travel: that perception is the journeying towards other objects, bodies and locations separate to us in the world but, simultaneously, a means of returning to an initial point of origin. The constant bounding forth of perception, ultimately, returns us to the embodied surface of ourselves.[2]

If vision is already a type of travel, it is not surprising that the birth of the cinema, deeply enmeshed in what has been dubbed modernity’s general “frenzy of the visible” would have embraced the travelogue film from its beginnings.[3]  Virtual voyages: Cinema and travel, a new anthology edited by Jeffrey Ruoff, is devoted to the importance of the travelogue, with contributions from a range of high-profile scholars including Tom Gunning, Rick Altman and Hamid Naficy. In addition to charting the travelogue’s ascendancy in early cinema, Virtual voyages also deals with its formative impact on the traditions of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking and the travelogue’s current incarnation in the ‘wow-factor’ of ride-films and grand-scale IMAX features, as well as its somewhat more subdued appearance in contemporary travel lectures. In his introduction, Ruoff observes how the travelogue taps into cinema’s intrinsic features as an audio-visual vehicle; the construction of space and time and an “exploration of the world through images and sounds of travel [have] always been one of its principal features”, as he asserts (1). Following on from Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s now seminal account of the nineteenth-century railroad and the institution of “panoramic perception” as being emblematic of modernity, critics like Lynne Kirby and Mary Ann Doane have already explored the historic connections between film and the train’s profound re-configuration of vision, with its mechanical separation of the viewer’s body from the actual physical space of a ‘virtual’ ‘perception; similarly, Anne Friedberg and Guiliano Bruno have both contributed important studies on the longstanding connections between cinema, travel and the lures of ambulatory movement, with Friedberg, in particular, extending the ‘virtual’ gaze of modernity’s entertainments into the contemporary.[4]

Despite these contributions on the relation between film, modernity and travel, Ruoff argues that the travelogueper se remains largely overlooked in film and media studies, even though as “neither a genre nor a mode, the travelogue surfaces in all forms of cinema… avant-garde, popular fiction, home movies, art cinema, documentaries, IMAX” (17). A number of essays in Virtual voyages (notably, those of Gunning, Altman and Jennifer Peterson) tease out the early travelogue in relation to the dense visual culture of modernity; the travelogue’s combination of educational appeals with live experience and sensationalistic or performative display intersected with and sometimes complicated the burgeoning of (virtual) tourism. As Peterson remarks, turn-of-the-century travel films, set in the American West, were not so much “film[s] about the Wild West… but about modernity, for to see tourists waving from a crowded train is to witness the modern world. While silent travel films do indeed represent the West as an Edenic garden…they also upset the myth of the West as an uncivilized wilderness by depicting a region traversed by trains and peopled with tourists” (italics mine, 80). Similarly, Gunning’s essay charts the important role that images themselves seemed to accrue in modernity; not only in relation to the travelogue but in terms of a pre-cinematic and then concurrent history in which stereoscopes, magic lantern lectures, giant, circular panoramas, world expositions and tiny portable postcards coexisted with film. The overtly touristic viewpoint of modernity (which promoted a slew of “images without borders”) suggested that the entire world could be brought up close and personal to its viewer, as ripe for personal appropriation and feverish consumption. According to Gunning, for the “modern era the very concept of travel becomes intricately bound up with the production of images. The image becomes our way of structuring a journey and even provides a substitute for it. Travel becomes a means of appropriating the world through images” (27). Cinema inherited a considerable heritage of virtual tourism from its early formations, one that has a continuing legacy.

As Altman and Dana Benelli attest, not only was the travelogue a sub-set of the so-called “cinema of attractions”, it offers a mode of narration that possesses its own resonant links to documentary and ethnographic film. By no means did the travelogue disappear with the standardization of narrative during the classical Hollywood era. Altman, in his particular essay, takes Kristin Thomson and David Bordwell to task for their claim that “before the 1920s, documentary filmmaking had largely been confined to newsreels and scenic shorts” (62). As Altman demonstrates, the dismissal of a documentary inheritance from silent film fails to reckon with the full range of entertainment experiences offered during cinema’s first quarter century. For Altman, a more “performer-oriented approach” is needed to account for documentary traditions and especially travel films (61). The emphasis on performance needs to factor in how “films [once] only existed to the extent that they could be included in a live performance” which he details in specific relation to the “illustrated lecture” tradition of early entertainment (61). Benelli, by contrast, provides the only essay in this volume to deal with the travelogue in direct relation to the Hollywood fiction film, which comes as a bit of a surprise given Ruoff’s broad claims in the introduction to this volume. Examining the use of exotic travel imagery during the thirties period of classical Hollywood, Benelli argues that in the wake of the success of films such as Ingagi (US 1931), the studios tried to capitalize on the geographic and ethnic ‘spectacles’ of the travelogue by trying to integrate it (sometimes, unsuccessfully) into the conventions of classical narration. Benelli offers a valuable contribution to standardized accounts of classical Hollywood narration, gesturing towards a competing formal voice from within the studio system.

Lauren Rabinovitz’s essay on the somatic appeals of motion-simulator rides and Alison Griffith’s essay on the panoramic and haptic qualities of IMAX features provide a nice counterbalance of old and contemporary media, especially in lieu of the ongoing appeal of the travelogue in different exhibition settings. Their dedication to unpacking a more richly embodied experience of the travelogue (rather than relying on the singularity of a purely ‘visual’ encounter) is a valuable contribution to the more sensuous turn of scholarship, now occurring in a number of disciplines. However, in terms of Rabinovitz, in particular, I have to say that I veer towards slightly different conclusions regarding the function that travelogues-as-rides might perform. I certainly agree with Rabinovitz that the reference point of many contemporary simulator rides is no longer a particular geographic landscape, as it was for the historic travelogue; sim-rides are, instead, centered on a cinemascape (offering us the possibility of ‘entering’ and phenomenologically experiencing the diegesis in very different terms to that of a blockbuster film). She continues: “the confusion of visual knowledge in the face of too many visual stimuli and even certainty about the image’s truthfulness – its referentiality – is compensated for in motion simulator rides… by articulating its certitude in relationship to the subject’s bodily experience of multiple sensations…they nostalgically address their spectators as diegetic movie characters, who become for the moment unified subjects living inside the movies” (58-59). Without dismissing our desire to ‘step inside’ the movies that Rabinovitz highlights, I remain far less convinced that the function of the movie-ride is to compensate for our inability to negotiate the delirium of contemporary sensory stimuli or the lack of an indexical referent in a digital age. If anything, it bears reminding that the travelogue always was as, Ruoff details in his introduction, an essentially “open form” and one in which modes of “episodic narration” dominates (11).

Just what might be the consequences of the meandering, episodic wanderings of the travelogue for the contemporary era? Perhaps above and beyond that of special screening or cinema-as-event screening venues? Given the now entrenched strategies of trans-national and trans-media synergy that are practiced by various entertainment conglomerates, arguably, the travelogue is a format that is being palpably and technologically enacted at the forefront of contemporary media convergence. As Henry Jenkins observes in his recent book,Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide, convergence signals the pronounced “flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (italics mine).[5]  The emphasis, here, is less about soothing our inability to negotiate the terrain of the very media landscape which we live and inhabit and more about recognizing audiences who can, will and dotravel across a wide range of intersecting media; pursuing technologically serialized and episodic incarnations of a popular media franchise (mobisodes, theme park rides, internet fan sites, television, computer games) at their own pace and perhaps without, as de Certeau remarked, a fixed destination in sight (or, site, for that matter). In traveling across media, as with perception, we return to the surface of ourselves in the path followed – as with the beginnings of the cinema, it might be the case that film is only one possible route of travel among many.

What impresses about the collection of essays in Virtual voyages is how it uses the travelogue as a point of departure that also, as de Certeau suggested, returns perception to an initial point of origin, that of the embodied and situated viewer in the travelogue’s own production and reception history; a number of essays in this volume reveal just such historically a grounded approach, as with Naficy’s fascinatingly detailed account of the production and exhibition of Grass: A nation’s battle for life (US 1925), about the Baba Ahmadi tribe’s semi-annual migration in Iran. Virtual voyages reveals a fine appreciation of the many and varied contextual settings of the travelogue, teasing out its different incarnations in its past and present forms.

Saige Walton
University of Melbourne, Australia.

[1] de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans. Steven Randall, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p.92, p.103.

[2] de Certeau, “The Madness of Vision”, Enclitic, 7:1, 1983, p.26.

[3] This catch-cry typifies the explosion of visual media in modernity and it has been used by a number of different theorists, notably Linda Williams in connection to pornography. The term originally stems from Jean Louis Comolli, see “The Frenzy of the Visible” in The Cinematic Apparatus, Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (eds), St Martins Press, New York, 1980.

[4] On the birth of the railroad and its re-organisation of vision, see Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth-Century, Urizen Press, New York, 1979; on the connections between early film and the railroad, refer to Doane, Mary Ann, “When the Direction of the Force Acting on the Body Changes : The Moving Image”, in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film, Theory, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, New York, 1991 and Kirby, Lynne, Parallel Tracks: the Railroad and Silent Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C, 1997; on the relations between cinema, modernity, virtual and physical movement, see Freidberg, Anne, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993 and Bruno, Giuliana, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993 and Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film, Verso Press, London and New York, 2002.

[5] Jenkins, Henry, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, New York, 2006, p.2.

About the Author

Saige Walton

About the Author

Saige Walton

Saige Walton is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia, Australia. She is the author of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). Her articles on film-philosophy, film-phenomenology and the embodiment of film/media aesthetics appear in journals such as Culture, Theory and Critique, Cinéma & Cie, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Senses of Cinema, the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Screening the Past. Her current book deals with the embodiment and ethics of a contemporary cinema of poetry and is forthcoming from Wallflower/Columbia University Press.View all posts by Saige Walton →