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  • The Places You’ll KnowFrom Self-Recognition to Place Recognition in the Local Film
  • Martin L. Johnson (bio)

The local film, one produced and theatrically exhibited for an audience drawn by the novelty of seeing people and places they know on screen, has primarily been researched as a phenomenon specific to individual filmmakers of the early cinema period. In fact, Tom Gunning goes as far as to call this period (1895–1907) the “era of local cinema” because of the particularity of film exhibition practices as well as evidence of local film production.1 Using business records and extant films, historians have produced detailed accounts of individual itinerant filmmakers and filmmaker-exhibitors who worked in the first decade of the cinema. 2 In this body of case studies, the conception of the local film has been boiled down to the phenomenon of individual spectatorship. Whether termed self-recognition, the reflected gaze, or more simply, “seeing yourself in the movies,” the brief moment when audience members sees themselves on screen has been defined as the primary attraction, and by extension, meaning, of the local film.3 Though the local film as a historical phenomenon continues until at least the 1950s, scholars have addressed it primarily as a residue of early cinema practices such as itinerant film exhibition and the incorporation of local entertainments, like amateur vaudeville, into an evening’s entertainment.4

Though self-recognition is indeed an important, even defining, characteristic of the local film, seeing oneself on screen is not the only attraction of the local film and, in fact, becomes less important after the early cinema era ends and the transitional era begins in 1908.5 Instead, place has equal, if not greater, importance to the analysis of local film, particularly once permanent movie theaters are established in towns and neighborhoods. The concept of place recognition—the moment when audiences see places they know on film—that I use in this article allows us to consider local film as being defined as much by audience perception of local places as by their recognition of themselves and others. Whereas the idea of self-recognition assumes that the subjects of a film are watching themselves on screen, filmmakers also create place through the combination of temporally and spatially disconnected images. Film audiences in some towns saw multiple local films over a period of years or decades, each of which presented local people and places in different ways. The diversity of local film productions makes place a more mutable category than it may first appear. By considering the importance of place recognition and creation for the production and exhibition of local films, I hope to offer a new research agenda for this emerging field of study that uses exhibition sites rather than individual filmmakers or spectators as the locus of meaning of the local film.

This article uses three case studies of local film production and exhibition in the United States in the transitional era (1908–1917) and the classical Hollywood era (1918–1948) to argue that the local film is more productively analyzed in the context of [End Page 24] its immediate production and exhibition than as the practice of one or several itinerant filmmakers.6 These studies offer rich details about practices that were described in trade newspapers such as Moving Picture World and Motion Picture Herald.7 First, using an example of a home-talent film produced in 1916 by C. D. Tinsley, a movie theater owner and studio photographer in Corning, Iowa, I show how a filmmaker could use place recognition to attract film audiences even if his films did not feature many local people. In the second case, I consider a civic film, a type of film intended to portray a community (often a town or city) as a governmental entity, commissioned by Alvin Sloan, a theater owner in Washington, New Jersey, who used the film to depict the town as he imagined it. Last, I consider Burlington, North Carolina, which was visited by at least three itinerant filmmakers—Marilyn B. Lundy of the Boston Amateur Theatre Guild, H. Lee Waters, and Melton Barker—between 1937 and 1942, as an example of how local filmmakers...