- Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema
Dan Streible's meticulously researched Fight Pictures makes a convincing case that films of contemporary boxing matches were paramount in the rise of the motion picture business in the United States, but does little to put this development into any significant social context. Film scholars will find that the book fills a lacuna, but students of disciplines like history and American studies will be disappointed at the lack of applicable analysis to their fields. While the narrative is richly detailed and reveals an impressive range of sources, Streible's inability to make meaning of the importance of turn-of-the-century fight pictures ultimately limits the work's effectiveness. It is quite possible that the main utility of Fight Pictures will be as a sourcebook for other scholars looking for primary materials from which to construct their own studies of the early film industry.
While competently written, the book is plagued by a morass of superfluous detail that sometimes makes it difficult to keep up with the narrative and make analytical sense of it. Streible's eagerness to include vast amounts of information from the wealth of primary sources he mined reveals the ambitious scope of the project and his passion for film history, but more careful editing and a reduction in length would have made the book better. There are whole chapters—the one on fake fight films comes to mind—that could have been cut without damaging the work. This overload not only prevents readers from separating the wheat from the chaff, it also prevents Streible from making coherent arguments beyond his main thesis that the rise of fight films and the motion picture industry were concurrent and interdependent.
Streible's failure to put his information into a larger sociopolitical framework is captured by his attempt to analyze the significance of women's attending screenings of the first-ever feature film, the 1897 heavyweight title bout between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. Rather than giving readers any historical context about what this act meant, Streible reduces his investigative scope to the relatively unimportant question of whether women were titillated by seeing scantily clad fighters on screen. His seeming bewilderment on how to do more with the information at hand is captured by the chapter's conclusion. He writes, "The public discourse that surrounded a motion picture of so little aesthetic or formal interest testifies to the need to pay more attention to the social conditions of exhibition and reception when evaluating a film's place in history of cinema. More important, the question of this film's reception by women calls into question conceptions of the historical development of cinematic form and movie audiences." (95) Such vagueness [End Page 291] seems a more appropriate starting point than finishing point for a chapter entirely devoted to a single motion picture, but Streible's attempt to figure out the cultural impact of the film goes no further. Such shortcomings are the rule rather than the exception throughout Fight Pictures, and thus reduce the impact of a richly detailed and well-researched book.