The Cinema Dreams its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet

Paul Young,
The Cinema Dreams its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet.
Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 8166 3599 4
ISBN-13: 978 0 8166 3599 3
US$25.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

In The Cinema Dreams its Rivals, Paul Young offers an ambitious and thoughtful, if uneven, contribution to the history of Hollywood cinema by examining its relationship with the beginnings of radio, television and the Internet. Like other revisionist historiographies of ‘older’ media that were once conceived as ‘new’ (a re-appraisal of media history that has been embraced by scholars such as Rick Altman, William Uricchio, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin), The Cinema Dreams its Rivals challenges the tag of ‘new media’ as being exclusive to the digital era and the isolationism of film from longstanding networks of cross-media exchange and dialogue, both past and present.

Baulking at what he labels the “overemphasis on technological specificity and difference that characterizes much intermedia analysis at present”, Young’s study refreshingly attempts to move beyond individualized media ontologies (xiii). His approach is a productive one in that it concedes no static ‘essence’ to media or aesthetics, considering the ‘identity’ of Hollywood cinema through its relationships with other media. As Young rightly claims, “media discourses operate at many levels – including the claims made about the medium’s intrinsic qualities made by inventors and engineers, marketers, thinkers, mass media critics, and consumers – [that] shape media identity as surely as does technology” (xiii). Focusing on the various discursive environments (industrial, technological and popular) surrounding the early days of radio, television and the Internet, Young explores how the American cinema represented intermedia rivalry to itself and the public, through the vehicle of the ‘media fantasy’ film.

‘Media fantasy’ is a concept adopted from Carolyn Marvin.[1] Marvin’s work on electric communication in the nineteenth-century argued for media fantasy as the cultural negotiation of the hopes and fears elicited by new technologies, at a time in which the future of those technologies seemed undetermined. In these terms, media fantasy is steeped in a complex mixture of utopian possibility, imaginative projection and historic fact. Citing Martin, Young states that the realm of media fantasy “is never pure fantasy, since [its] point of departure is a perceived reality… [the] conditions people know and live in, and real social stakes (Marvin cited in Young, xxiii). For Young, media fantasy films (which range, considerably, from films like Traffic in SoulsKing Kong and The Glass Web to The Lawnmower Man) perform a similar cultural negotiation of the field of technological possibility on the part of Hollywood. The cinema’s ‘dreaming’ of its rivals through the media fantasy film is an imagining/imaging the possible meanings that might have clung to those technologies, at a time in which radio, television and the Internet were in their infancy and their potential challenge to the ‘classicism’ of Hollywood as an institution was at its height. Reconstructing the forgotten futures of these electronic media and how Hollywood perceived them, Young writes of how fantasy “may be the only node of cultural practice from which we can excavate the most fervent wishes and strongly held beliefs, both destructive and socially progressive, that saturated the emergent identities of media before becoming obscured by institutional conventions and sheer, mundane familiarity” (xxiv).

Unfortunately, it remains unclear throughout as to what the parameters of the media fantasy ‘film’ actually are, aside from Young picking and choosing which films might fall under this methodological umbrella. Are we delving into an individual film genre here, one with its own set of rules and conventions? Or, is the media fantasy film a trans-historic constant within the cinema, along the lines of what Miriam Hansen would identify as cinema’s role as a public sphere in its own right? Young never makes this clear. Not surprisingly, certain sections of The Cinema Dreams its Rivals work better than others. The tendency to veer off into more symptomatic modes of film interpretation can be distracting. Young’s analyses of media fantasy films are at their most compelling when they explicitly relate to the media under discussion; it is difficult, for instance, to read the paranoia of forties film noir, as Young does, as a response to the emergence of television rather than within the broader postwar context, especially given the absence of television itself from many of the films that he uses to demonstrate this claim. That said, the first two chapters boast an impressive survey of silent cinema, detailing a range of early films that are unavailable to many: the ways in which early cinema imagined itself as a medium through the figures of the amateur cameraman or amateur film viewers (Uncle Josh) as well cinema’s connections to the telegraph and wireless technology will appeal to those interested in the study of early cinema and its reception. Likewise, Young’s discussion of the racialised implications of ‘hot’ music and jazz within early broadcasting and the coming of sound to the cinema is fascinating; here, the return to many by now familiar and much discussed films (King Kong, Hot VoodooThe Jazz Singer) actually brings about new insight, given Young’s focus on Hollywood’s relationship to early radio and broadcasting. The book’s final chapter, however, on how Hollywood envisioned the rise of digital media (The Lawnmower ManThe Net, Strange Days) is disappointing and inconclusive, failing to make any real gesture towards the possible ‘futures’ of the media fantasy film. Furthermore, Young retreads much theoretical ground here; the kind of hopes and fears that accompanied the rise of cyber culture have already been amply covered by critics like Scott Bukatman, Steven Shaviro and Claudia Springer in the early to mid nineties.[2] In the end, Young seems at something of a loss as to how to conclude The Cinema Dreams its Rivals, adding, as a coda, that his book is a “preliminary study” of Hollywood’s relationship to other media competitors and one with its own blind spots (249).

Nevertheless, in interweaving close film analyses with shifts in media industry history and an intricate attention to empirical research (cartoons, newspaper reviews, media advertisements), The Cinema Dreams its Rivals certainly succeeds in capturing the discursive environments that framed the advent of ‘electronic’ media in Hollywood. And yet, many might come away with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction at the skewered ‘experiential’ history of film and electronic media that Young presents. That is, whereas the experience of ‘live’ electronic media held the promise of real-life social interaction (read: progressive change), the experience of Hollywood has consistently been one of ‘classical’ narrative absorption whereby it cultivates private-in-public modes of viewing and the monadic isolationism of spectators from each other. For Young, media fantasy films reveal the industrial tensions that press at the maintenance of ‘classicality’ as an industrial practice. These films give voice to the “network of utopias and anxieties that orbit around the Hollywood cinema’s own status as a predominantly classical, predominantly narrative medium… [they are] rhetorical defences of classicality against those newer media rivals that offer very different, more deliberately social forms of reception to their users” (xxv–xxvii).

According to Young, the electronic media that he examines are fundamentally different in their experiential engagements to Hollywood cinema; sharing qualities of ‘live’ transmission or immediacy, privatized consumption and real-life social exchange between individuals. Hollywood, by contrast, has “exerted more energy, more effectively, than any other cinematic institution to stabilize a specific aspect of its mode of reception… to replicate the public-in-private character of watching movies in theatres no matter how circumstances, filmic and extrafilmic, might threaten it” (1, 5). Interestingly, Young suggests that the ‘norm’ of classical Hollywood cinema is not a historical stage, an aesthetic essence to be extracted from film or a set of narrative/stylistic conventions but a “definition of the medium imposed on it by an institutional process”; a specific mode of spectatorship (its private-in-public nature) remains its outcome, a fact that remains the case today insofar as film has endured “ninety years of classicality”, says Young (1, 5, 246). So, whereas electronic media are situated as socially interactive in their experiential dimensions, the history of Hollywood film that Young maps is an attempt to maintain ‘informatic intimacy’ in the face of these live/interactive rivals. As he writes, Hollywood attempts to “deny the experience of sociological interaction with other spectators in front of the screen by displacing it onto an experience of informatic intimacy… an experience of co-presence with the people and places on screen… sacrifices intersubjective exchange with other viewers for the opportunity to experience the private lives of characters” (44, italics mine).

And yet, just because Hollywood has attempted to restrict interaction within the space of the movie theatre does not mean that the kind of ‘classicality’ that Young identifies was ever consistently achieved, unchallenged or even experienced in the terms Hollywood proposed. According to Miriam Hansen, whose work on the public sphere provides an obvious influence on The Cinema Dreams its Rivals: “early cinema, because of its paradigmatically different organization of the relations of reception, provided the formal conditions… a structural possibility of articulating experience in a communicative, relatively autonomous form”.[3] Significantly, she continues: “something of that order persisted even after the classical codes were elaborated and the textual inscription of the spectator became standard practice… there remained a significant margin between textually constructed molds of subjectivity and their actualization on the part of historical viewers” (italics mine).[4]

While Young has made a significant contribution to the history of Hollywood’s inter-media relations, the division he draws between ‘classical’ and privatized absorption in film and the ‘liveness’ of electronic media allows no space for more contingent modes of viewing, especially in terms of actual bodies sitting in front of the screen. In the end, The Cinema Dreams its Rivals perhaps raises more questions than it can answer regarding the ‘public’ nature of film and how that might be configured, experienced and contested within ‘classical’ viewing. For those interested in unpacking different attendant modes of viewing (other than that described by Young), that exist beyond the purview of this book, this might prove a frustrating read: shifts in contemporary exhibition practice, questions of fandom, cult cinema, star studies or even our own individualized engagement with the ‘liveness’ of cinema at a sensory, phenomenological or mnemonic level are not really addressed. Only media fantasy films do the ‘dreaming’ in this book but surely the industrial dreaming of Hollywood’s rivals was not a one-way exchange?

Saige Walton,
Melbourne University, Australia.


[1] Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
[2] Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993; Claudia Springer, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Post-Industrial Age, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996; Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism, London: High Risk Books, 1997.
[3] Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 90.
[4] Hansen, p. 90.

Created on: Sunday, 17 June 2007

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 →