Education in the School of Dreams. Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film

Jennifer Lynn Peterson,
Education in the School of Dreams. Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film
Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2013
ISBN 978 0 8223 5453 6
US$27.95 (pb)
369 pages
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

One can easily argue that travelogues were present at the very birth of cinema, given that the Lumiére Brothers’ first film program in the Boulevard du Capucines in Paris included at least two titles which can be identified as such: La Places des Cordeliers à Lyon and La Mer (Baignade en mer). From that moment onwards, travelogues have been popular and continue to garner interest to this day on television, on the internet, even in movie theatres, as witnessed by the success of many new IMAX presentations, despite numerous technological changes over the past century plus, from silent to sound, film to digital. And while travelogues in the 1920s shifted to the margins of attention, as classical Hollywood narrative became institutionalized at the center, they constituted an essential portion of early cinema’s variety program of shorts. Yet, travelogues have until recently received scant attention from film historians and scholars, even those focused on pre-classical cinema. That’s more surprising, because travelogues illustrate a core thesis of early cinema studies, as it has evolved since Brighton (1978), namely that the invention of cinema must be seen on a continuum of evolving forms of visual culture that included photography, lantern slides, panoramas, and optical toys. Travelogues in the cinema had 19th century predecessors as well in illustrated travel lectures, photographically illustrated magazines (National Geographic), World’s Fairs, tableaux vivants, and travel literature.

Happily, Jennifer Lynn Peterson’s Education in the School of Dreams. Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film has now arrived to fill that particular gap in scholarship. Based on Peterson’s 1999 University of Chicago dissertation, Education incorporates research conducted for several subsequent articles, including a contribution to Jeffrey Ruoff’s anthology, Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel (2006), which offered a first introduction to the topic of travelogues from Hales Tours to IMAX. Previous academic discussion of early travelogues has primarily focused on their support of imperialist aspirations and racist ideologies, as cameramen from the major companies captured scenes from all over the globe as a form of visual colonization. Jennifer Peterson argues that travelogues – in spite of these admitted tendencies – allowed room for subversive readings, because of the absence of an overdetermined narration (either live or on the soundtrack), and their uniquely cinematic visual style, which offered cotemporary audiences moments of poetic reverie.

Jennifer Peterson’s introduction, ‘The Dream World of Cinematic Travel’, by its very title, begins to stake out her territory between the cinema’s ability to reproduce realistically natural landscapes, and the audience’s usage of those images for purposes that were not necessarily educational. As Peterson notes: “In picturing the world that does exist, early travel films created a world that does not exist: An idealized geography that functioned as a parallel universe on the cinema screen.” (3) Focusing on the so-called “Transitional era”, between 1907 and 1915, Peterson notes that travelogues were subsumed under the rubric of and marketed as “educationals,” but that they “actually function as a form of mythification.” (6) At the same time, the cinematic techniques utilized by travelogues explicitly foreground the act of looking. Formally, the genre vacillates between landscapes and portraits, i.e. between views of nature and architecture and views of human beings. It is this tension between producer’s intentions to deliver educational content and actual audience reception that is at the center of her analysis, although she is quick to note that she is not presenting a Freudian or psychoanalytic take on travelogues.

Chapter 1, then, traces the travel film’s genealogy back to 19th century lantern slide lectures in the tradition of the world traveler, Burton Holmes. The immense popularity of Holmes and other entertainers of his ilk was based on their ability to mix education with sensational and exoticized content, constructing a tourist view of the world for middle class audiences which transformed the globe into an endless stream of commodified landscapes. At the same time, as other scholarship has demonstrated, Holmes transported ideological positions in keeping with the imperialist and racist attitudes of white American society. Peterson also introduces the concept of the picturesque, contrasting images of “primitive” peoples, like Native Americans, with middle class male and female tourists, who are roughing it in the wild. She also concludes that because Holmes’ films were accompanied by an anecdotally inflected narration, which created a strong authorial presence, they differed from early travelogues, which lacked an embodied speaking subject and therefore created space for the audience to supply their own subjectivity.

Chapter 2 focuses on the discourses around travelogues in the American film industry, in particular the long running debate among exhibitors and critics, whether travelogues were popular or unpopular with nickelodeon audiences. Peterson argues that, during the Transitional Era in American cinema, non-fiction genres, like travel films, industrials, nature films, etc. played a “more central role than in any other phase of film history.”(64) Indeed, in the beginning there was little differentiation between these various genres and even fictional subjects. She thus traces the history of travel films from the cinema’s origins in the 1890s through the Transitional Era to the genre’s marginalization as an appendage to feature films, once movie palaces replaced nickelodeons as the dominant site for exhibition. And even though a great majority of travel films originally came from foreign countries, like France, the genre enjoyed, according to Peterson, “a persistent if limited commercial appeal throughout early cinema’s transitional era.” (94)

Peterson’s subsequent chapter, ‘The Five-Cent University’, looks at the Progressive Era’s push to frame the cinema as a genteel educational experience that could potentially ‘uplift’ the unwashed masses. In this context, she analyses the work of American film distributor, George Kleine, who was initially a big booster of travelogues, responsible for importing large numbers of foreign films to that purpose, before eventually switching to distributing Italian feature films that helped hasten the demise of the short film program. Peterson makes excellent use of the previously underutilized Kleine company papers, which are available at the Library of Congress.

Chapter 4, then, delves more deeply into the aesthetics and ideology of travelogues, noting the contradiction that, while most European and American made travel films reproduced the dominant imperial ideology of the superiority of Western Civilization in the face of non-white cultures, their fragmentary construction as a collection of often spatially and temporally disjunctive views worked against such a master narrative and allowed for audience resistance.

These moments occur in particular when native peoples return the gaze of the camera, thus exposing the viewing subject’s voyeurism, or demonstrate through action their discomfort at being objectified by the camera. Peterson makes a convincing argument here, and yet, she is possibly speculating here a bit too much, based on her own diversity trained, teleological view, since she can offer no evidence that audiences in 1915 would actually have been sensitive to the subtle feelings of Third World peoples subjected to the camera’s unrelenting gaze.

Given the central importance of the picturesque in travel films, Peterson devotes her next chapter to tracing the notion of the picturesque in 18th and 19th century aesthetics, as manifested in both high and low cultural forms. According to Peterson, “The picturesque relentlessly aestheticizes the world, depoliticizing it and structuring it in terms of a set of reductive conventions that can be easily understood.”(179) Furthermore, it masks conflict under the veneer of tranquil surfaces, but, because that surface was never seamless, the picturesque could occasionally turn on itself and open a space for viewer resistance. Thus, a favorite 19th century subject for the picturesque were peasants in native dress, framed as examples of people left behind by time (and modernity), contrasting the old world with modernity. Yet, such sentimental views seemed increasingly outmoded in the 20th century, as farmers and workers organized to demand their rights.

Chapter 6 gets to the heart of Peterson’s argument that travel films, because of their lack of an over-determined narrative and because of their visual beauty, allowed audiences to fall into “a state of poetic reverie.”(208) And while the author again admits that there is little documentary evidence of actual spectator behavior in nickelodeons, she theorizes that such audiences perceived travel films as a form of Ersatz-travel, armchair tourists viewing the world from the comfort of their nickelodeon seat. Indeed, as Peterson’s research demonstrates, many scenics were screened in complete silence (without even musical accompaniment), while nickelodeon audiences, which could be quite loud and raucous, often fell silent during travelogues. It is on this deafening silence in the cinema that Peterson pins her concept of audience reverie, especially when connected to long, slow panning shots of landscapes, so prominently featured in travel films. Such a dream-like state would of course completely contradict the genre’s educational function, as the author admits. And if true, the thesis would have disturbing implications for travel films, once the genre was transplanted to the non-theatrical, educational market, i.e. to the classroom, where reverie would not be called for. However, Peterson avoids thinking through that implication.

In Peterson’s final chapter, the American West, as depicted in Transitional Era travelogues, is portrayed as a mythological space between wilderness and modernity, a space still of pristine natural beauty and ‘primitive’ native peoples, yet available to middle class tourists through the convenience of modern modes of travel such as trains and automobiles. It is no coincidence that American railroad companies often financed scenics, while the creation of National Parks further incentivized tourism to the West. The ideology of Manifest Destiny, which allowed European Americans to commit genocide on Native Americans in their ‘conquest’ of the West, is supplanted by a “consumerist ideology of recreational tourism,”(236) in which native people appear as props in a natural landscape. It is unlikely that contemporary American audiences thought of Native Americans as anything but props in the landscape, so Peterson seems to have less of a case here for oppositional readings, and actually doesn’t make one. This chapter could therefore have just as well come much earlier in the book, given the arc of Peterson’s argument.

Finally, in an epilogue, Peterson returns to the ideals of 19th century romanticism, to the solitary wanderer through the woods, who like Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, searches for picturesque views of nature, which catalyze moments of intense reverie. Presenting far away, exotic, never before seen images of places and people through a slow moving camera pans, Transitional Era travelogues afforded early cinema audiences a similar experience in the dark silence of the nickelodeon. It is the achievement of Peterson’s book that she returns to historical consciousness both the genre and the audience experience.

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →