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  • “Movie”:How a Single Word Shaped Hollywood Cinema
  • Gary D. Rhodes

“In America we make movies. Leave the films to the French.”

– Sam Shepard, True West (1980)

It is commonplace to accuse corporate Hollywood of manipulating its audiences, of generating, rather than pandering to, “vulgar” tastes. But the early history of film production and marketing suggests that audiences have wielded more power than Hollywood has ever been able to control or contain, and that power can be glimpsed in the history of a single word: “movie.” W. W. Hodkinson, one of the founders of Paramount Pictures, called the word “movie” the “greatest single retarding influence in the history of the motion picture.”1

There are no departments of “Movie Studies” at American universities or colleges or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. New York University offers a degree in “Cinema Studies,” whereas both the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin opt for the term “Film Studies.” Other academies employ the same or similar words; for example, the campus of Florida State University houses a “College of Motion Picture Arts.” Similarly, no scholarly organizations devoted to the subject area use the word “movie” in their names. Instead, there are groups like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the University Film and Video Association, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The same could also be said of academic publications, which include the likes of Cinema Journal, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, the Journal of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and this publication itself. The singular exception would be Movie, the journal edited by Ian A. Cameron from 1962 to 2000, and its successor, Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, in which the term “movie” was specifically chosen to be provocative.

By contrast, a number of scholarly books do feature the word “movie” in their titles, including (but certainly not limited to) Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (University of Wisconsin, 1992); Richard Maltby and Melvyn Stokes’ American Movie Audiences (British Film Institute, 1999); Tom Stempel’s American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing (University of Kentucky, 2001); and Richard Abel’s Americanizing the Movies and “Movie-Mad” Audiences, 1910-1914 (University of California, 2006).

The consistent feature of these monographs is an emphasis on audiences, exhibition, and culture, as opposed to, say, production or criticism. Moreover, the particular geographic focus in these books is usually the United States, the country where the term “movie” originated as slang for “moving picture.” When discussing issues relevant to historically-situated film exhibition or viewers, scholars will, indeed, sometimes use the term “movies” because it refers to the low-brow experiences of what otherwise might be referred to, from an auteurist or formally analytical perspective, as “films” or “cinema.” “Movies” refer, that is, to a form of reception—usually “American”—and thus to a form of culture (again, usually American) as much as they refer to particular aesthetic objects. As Frank P. Tomasulo has said, “Like it or not, the term ‘cinema’ (or, as Hitchcock pronounced it, cinuhMAAH) has high-class connotations, no? And ‘film’ is in between in this hierarchy: movie – film – cinema.”2 In another example of this hierarchy, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s university textbook is entitled Film Art: An Introduction, not Movie Art: An Introduction.3

By contrast, some film critics speaking have embraced the term, in some measure because they are speaking to everyday moviegoers. Pauline Kael (1919-2001), the voice of popular American criticism during the academic development of “film studies” during the second half of the twentieth century, published books using the word “movie” almost to the exclusion of other “cinematic” terms, emphasizing the lust and liminality of the movie experience (e.g., I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Taking It All In, Deeper into Movies, Movie Love). Roger Ebert (1942-2013), the other dominant popular critic of the art, made “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” (the terms he used, with Gene Siskel, in his television show, At the Movies) into household expressions and likewise titled his books generally against...


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