Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Moviegoing in America
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).

Dominique Sipière
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 Balio’s 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 Mayne’s 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. Stokes’s collections of articles published with Richard Maltby (BFI, 2001) show—after an older French collection about moviegoing edited by Francis Bordat and Michel Etcheverry, Cent ans d’aller 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. Waller’s 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 Temple—than 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 I’m 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 reception—how 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.

Waller’s 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 Hulfish’s 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.