The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 178-181
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Exhibition: The Film Reader. edited by Ina Rae Hark. Routledge Press 2002
Though it is still a neglected area in the film studies field, film exhibition has experienced significant growth as a subject of research in the last two decades. Ina Rae Hark's new anthology Exhibition: The Film Reader celebrates this achievement by assembling fifteen previously published essays and book chapters that discuss and analyze the showing of movies from the nickelodeon era to today's multiplexes. Thisis the first title in Routledge's new In Focus Film Reader series coedited by Hark and Steven Cohan, which aspires to provide "comprehensive resources" for film studies students. This compact volume (181 pages), including a fine selected bibliography, succeeds admirably.
One reason for its success is Hark's conceptualization of it. Hark has divided the book into sections focusing on three aspects of exhibition: [End Page 178] the theaters themselves (their location, architecture, and audiences), the business of exhibition (how theaters were operated for profit from the 1920s through the 1980s), and a third intriguing perspective, which Hark terms "the meanings of the exhibition site." This refers to how the screening spaces themselves signify to their audiences.
In her introduction to the volume and in her selection on "Where the Movies Were," Hark emphasizes the importance of variable exhibition practices in differing locales and over time. Here we can revisit Russell Merritt's landmark, perceptive, and highly readable 1976 essay on nickelodeon theaters and their significant function in building an audience for film as a distinctive entertainment medium (although Hark has edited out the specifics of the Boston nickelodeon scene, on which Merritt based many of his generalizations). Another welcome reprinting is Charlotte Herzog's 1981 general outline of how theater design developed, highlighting the influence of tent shows, vaudeville houses, penny arcades, and other predecessors of the "architectural style" of the movie palace. More recent scholarship and more diverse viewing locales are represented by Gregory Waller's groundbreaking study of black filmgoing in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1907 to 1916; like the nickelodeon owners and their ambivalence toward lower-class patrons as described by Merritt, Waller finds that white owners of black theaters in the Jim Crow era had only mild enthusiasm for their clientele, who are humbled by prevalent segregation practices. Waller himself offers a primer on how to carefully sift scant evidence for traces of exhibition practices and their significance.
Likewise, the excerpts here from Kathryn Helgesen Fuller's seminal study of movie theaters in small towns explore the significance of nickelodeon names and the ways in which the advent of the theater palace made small-town movie fans feel marginalized and bereft. Barbara Wilinsky's fascinating essay explores the high art/low art associations surrounding the art theaters of the 1950s that often showed more sexually explicit material than the mainstream houses, and provides an excellent analysis of the discourse surrounding such venues. William Paul, in "The K-mart Audience at the Mall Movies," provides a superb account of the interactions of audience demographics, film style, distribution patterns, and theater design since the 1970s. In showing how the popularity of action films (formerly classified as exploitation) led to distribution patterns (saturation booking) and new theater design (multiplexes) to address Hollywood's conception of its audience, Paul posits a mutual but complex causality between the distribution, exhibition, and production phases of the industry, in the course of providing an invaluable explanation of why we see commercial movies the way we do today.
The second section, on "The Business of Exhibition," does offer, in Hart's words, "a snapshot of the business of exhibition at specific moments," but it also provides less compelling reading. Its highlight is a portion from a chapter in Douglas Gomery's masterful exhibition history Shared Pleasures. This piece describes how Balaban and Katz's theater chains developed a circuit of movie palaces through smart locations, lavish theaters, attentive service, elaborate stage shows, and other distinctive conveniences, and Gomery makes a persuasive case for their importance to exhibition history. Suzanne Schiller discusses...