The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 181-185
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Moviegoing in America. edited by Gregory A. Waller. Blackwell Press, 2002
Over the last two decades, film history has completely remade itself. Before what has been dubbed "the new film history" emerged as a force in contemporary scholarship, film history consisted of major filmic texts strung together in linear succession by period, style, national context. Film history privileged the films themselves, repressing economic, social, historical, and audience contexts. It disregarded the theories and methods of academic historiography. It neglected the historian's raison d'être: the endless uncovering of untapped archives and new primary evidence that forces reexamination of previous historical explanations.
"The new film history" identifies historians who shifted film history away from the teleological march of great works of art to analyzing the complexities of economic, historical, social, and spectatorial contexts for cinema as specific, constantly shifting conjunctions. These historians imported two important rigorous tenets from academic historiography to film [End Page 181] history. First, they employed theoretical historiographic models rather than the causal narrative model of great men helming even greater studios to render assumptions about periodization, explanation, and interpretation more precise and self-conscious. Second, following movements in 1970s academic history to rethink the nature of what constitutes the archive and what kinds of power relations it reveals and suppresses, they interrogated and uncovered new forms of primary evidence that had previously been ignored, beyond the hearsay and anecdotes peppering previous film histories. They focused instead on actual studio archives, memos, equipment manufacturers' records, regional newspapers, trade papers, oral histories, documents generated from film practices outside the Hollywood studio system like early cinema, amateur film, industrial and educational cinema, documentary, avant-garde cinema, and various national cinemas.
Gregory Waller, author of the award-winning book Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896-1930, has been a central figure in the reconceptualization of film history away from an exclusive focus on the film object toward the material structures of cinematic interface: film exhibition. As Waller and others in Moviegoing in America point out, cinema operates primarily as an industry; overinvestment in the artistry of the text camouflages two central tenets that this book highlights. First, the fulcrum of the motion picture industry is the theater. Second, the commercial film industry is actually in the retail business, creating spaces to sell product and maximize profits. As Douglas Gomery points out in his trenchant essay, national film chains like Publix hijacked their business model from chain store operating techniques to nationalize advertising and create economies of scale during the 1920s. He points out, "Sam Katz sought to make Publix the Woolworth's of moviegoing" (124).
In a clearly written and compelling introduction, Waller offers an astute but frequently overlooked historical point: film theaters, while locally based, screen national products. This book dispels any lingering notions that film culture was confined to the coasts, with ample evidence throughout various historical periods of robust, variegated exhibition activities across the nation. The intersection between the local and the national fuels most of Waller's choices as an editor. Scholarly essays and original primary evidence in the form of writings from industry insiders commingle, charting the endlessly mobile and contradictory pas de deux between regional cultures and standardization and nationalization to achieve economies of scale. Waller describes the project as a "sourcebookin the history of film exhibition and moviegoing" (4), concentrating on four defining elements—theater site, booking, programming, and moviegoing. Waller justifies researching film exhibition by arguing that this project moves from the text to the space(s) for film, from artistic issues to the social and economic. It is a clearheaded intervention of monumental significance as contemporary film exhibition fractures into multiple venues and digital interfaces morph older forms with the new.
Distinct from other books on film exhibition, Moviegoing in America revels in an eye-opening diversity of scholarly approaches, ranging from social history; economic history; cultural studies; case studies of Worcester, Massachusetts, Austin, Texas, and Kentucky; business practices; and film theory. Furthermore, unusual for most academic film history books, Waller...