Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley (ed.),
Hollywood in the Neighbourhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing.
University of California Press, 2008
ISBN: 9 780520249 73 8
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press
Not so long ago – when serious film study meant the textual analysis of films – this book could not have been published. Post-structuralism and reception studies introduced the audience into the equation: though film study still meant analysing films, it was accepted that every audience, individually and collectively, saw the same film differently. More recently still, the contexts of production, distribution and exhibition have also been considered worthy of serious study. Such study is not new, of course – but the sense that it is pushing against the tide has diminished.
So this book fits easily into the ‘new film history’ – that which acknowledges the complexity of the film scene, and applies historiographical principles and methods across all the aspects of its study. It is this burgeoning field, and particularly the history of film exhibition, that is addressed in the introduction to this book, and all the chapters then throw light on specific areas and issues within it.
Robert C. Allen is one of the pioneers in the field, and in his contribution he argues that the majority of Americans lived outside the major urban areas, and so did not experience cinema through the vast picture palaces or shop-front nickelodeons so typical of the urban experience. He also points out that it was only in these large urban agglomerations that a case could be made for large proportion of immigrants within movie audiences. Allen makes a case for the importance of the rural and the local in the examination of moviegoing, and that is what the rest of the book then addresses. The researchers present their findings on rural areas and small and large towns, across America, including the South (Gastonia and Wilmington, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia), the Midwest (Des Moines and Anamosa, Iowa; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; the fictional Hilltown, Indiana; Lebanon, Kansas; rural Ontario, Canada), and the West (Placerville, California; rural Colorado).
Along the way, they investigate from the very beginning of film with the Itinerant showmen, to the problems faced by the exhibitors of the thirties, during the Great Depression, or of the forties, faced with competition from television. They address issues of the introduction of sound technology, the effect of changes in transportation on movie audiences, the use of film by the government for rural education, censorship, the attitudes to film encouraged by religion, or the racial segregation of audiences. They explain the varied exhibition strategies employed to get through the hard times, including the institution of Bank Night.
In the final chapter, Ronald G. Walters places all this within the debates about the relationship of film to modernity, proposing that ‘modernity’ can be defined in many different ways, and that movie-going can be interpreted as having very different relationships to each of these definitions.
The research methods employed are as diverse as the subject areas. The researchers mine the traditional newspaper and trade paper archives, but also company archives, personal memoirs, and government publications. They interview both the exhibitors and their audiences, crossing between traditional historiography and sociological methods. They use statistics when these throw light on the material, such as the census data that establishes where the majority of Americans lived at the time of the introduction of film. It is this variety of approach that makes the collection particularly valuable as a student text, providing models for student projects on their own local exhibition history.
As an Australian, used to discriminating about film exhibition across geographically and culturally diverse communities, I particularly appreciate the way this collection turns the microscope on small areas and discrete communities, distinguishing among them, without ever assuming that one experience is typical of all. And it is refreshing, also, to find a book about America that does not assume that the American experience can be generalised to the rest of the world.
This is a valuable contribution to current debates, both about film exhibition itself and about how and why the ‘new’ film history contributes to the larger picture of film history as a whole.
Created on: Tuesday, 1 December 2009