to Book Reviews
Back to Cercles
Gregory A. Waller
Oxford & Malden: Blackwell, 2002.
£60.00, $68.95, 368 pages, ISBN 0-631-22591-9 (hardback).
£17.99, $29.95, 368 pages, ISBN 0-631-22592-7 (paperback).
Université du Littoral
The general conception of this volume is obviously reminiscent of
classical anthologies such as The Movies in Our Midst published
by Gerald Mast in 1982 or Tim Balios The American Film Industry
(1976), but its focus deserves special attention: moviegoing has
now become a specialty of its own, after several studies about spectatorship
(a branch of gender studies in the early 1990s, with books
like Judith Maynes Cinema and Spectatorship, Routledge,
1993) related to the powerful wave of historical research in film
departments. It came partly as a reaction against interpretation (or
its excesses?) and the call for both a new formalism based on films
as texts and historical approaches (David Bordwell).
In 1992 Janet Staiger (Princeton), one of the authors of the most
impressive contribution to this school (The Classical Hollywood
Cinema, Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Routledge,
1985) used a rather deceptive title: Interpreting Film, for
a book which did not interpret films or even study the activity of
interpretation itself. Her subtitle was the proper cue: Studies
in the Historical Reception of American Cinema in which she
promoted what she called: A Historical Materialist Approach.
One of her case studies was Birth of a Nation, a film Melvyn
Stokes and a few others have made a cornerstone in this trend of research.
Stokess collections of articles published with Richard Maltby
(BFI, 2001) showafter an older French collection about moviegoing
edited by Francis Bordat and Michel Etcheverry, Cent ans daller
au cinema : Le Spectacle cinématographique aux Etats-Unis,
1986-1995 (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1995)both the
vitality and the difficulties which are to be found in this field
and, of course, in Gregory A. Wallers own collection.
As a starting point, Waller quotes Gilbert Seldes who, in 1937, insisted
that the audiences were less attracted by actors or filmmakers (far
from being called auteurs then)Charlie Chaplin or Shirley
Templethan by the fundamental passion. In other
words a desire to go to the movies, which means to go to any
movie rather than not go at all (1). Of course things changed,
but these 300 pages or so are focused on one single aim repeated by
Robert C. Allen at the end of the book: What Im calling
for is the study of the historical conditions of filmic reception,
a study which may lead us to a better understanding of the mechanisms
of receptionhow these mechanisms are formed, sustained, change,
and vary (306).
Such a project entails historicizing film exhibition (4)
along four main lines:
a) The site: how were film theaters decorated and equipped. Their
sizes, locations and management.
b) Acquiring and promoting films.
c) The programs themselves: frequency, length, music and specialization.
d) The audiences: nature, frequency, race, gender and age. Attitudes
inside the theaters.
The anthology avoids concentrating only on the usual large towns and
cities and several articles or documents are devoted to smaller localities
such as Worcester, Mass. or rural Kentucky theaters.
Wallers anthology is presented in the expected chronological
order, dividing the first century into four main parts of comparable
dimension, which means that the first thirty years get more attention
than the seventy other ones:
1) Capturing the Audience, Creating a Business (1896-1916)
2) Palatial Palaces and Everyday Practices (1916-30)
3) Picture Shows and New Theaters: The 1930s and 1940s
4) Drive-In, Art House, Multiplex: The 1950s and Beyond.
More interesting within this chronological plan is the nature of the
documents: each part begins with a short introduction and longer articles
written in the 1990s, before a series of short primary documents taken
from the press (individual reactions, descriptions of a new occurrence
or from historical reports and treatises. For example, David Hulfishs
General Treatise on Picture Taking, Picture Making, Photoplays,
and Theater Management and Operation, published in Chicago in
1915, gives a vivid picture of the new business:
Sheet music sales. It is a favor to many patrons to advise them where
sheet music of the song may be obtained. An announcement slide, the
song on our program is always for sale at our ticket window,
has no objection and does not seem advertising matter because it pertains
to the theater.
In the first part (before 1916), two modern studies (31 pages) are
followed by a dozen contemporary documents (35 pages), but this ratio
is altered as the reader reaches later periods. Part four, for instance,
alternates three recent studies covering 31 pages and only eight primary
documents of similar dimension.
As it is, the whole book may seem a little unsexy. But it is obviously
extremely useful and some documents are unexpectedly thought-provoking.
As usual, with this sort of anthologies, the reader feels very grateful
for the last part: a detailed guide to Research and Resources,
a list of suggested research projects and a substantial (all English)
bibliography, followed by a convenient index. This book is a must
for all American Studies libraries.
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this
site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the
copyright owner. Please contact us before using any
material on this website.