- Off to the Pictures: Cinema-going, Women's Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain by Lisa Stead
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
Lisa Stead's recent book Off to the Pictures: Cinema-Going, Women's Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain offers a rich exploration into interwar British cinema's impact on female identity during the interwar years as seen through short stories, fiction, film criticism, and magazine articles. What makes this a truly valuable work, however, is her strongly applied methodology of "intermediality." Not that dissimilar from intertextuality, scholars following this approach bring together different media, in this case writing and film, to illustrate their historical crossover influences. Stead also emphasizes another element: namely the roles played by gender, and specifically, the incorporation of women's history. Such an added dynamic makes the study less focused on cultural products and more on the social history that her approach illuminates, one born out of intermedial methodologies –one may describe it a social intermediality. Stead explores a number of female writers who either focused on or were involved in the interwar cinema industry or cinemagoing cultures to illustrate the direct effect of these cultural products on everyday life and visa-versa. Women writers illuminated the connection between social and film histories that film scholarship has found difficult to find. Further, Stead succeeds in "address[ing] the erasure of women from intellectual history" (demanded by L. K. Hankins) within film studies (152). Stead convincingly argues through a series of case studies that a cinema-literature intermediality helped interwar British women self-fashion, or at least, understand their gendered roles through the links between text and cinema.
Scholars have always found it difficult to locate the access points of historical reception practices, especially in film studies. One of Stead's missions with this project is to offer a new approach, one borrowed from intertextual methods:
Part of the project of this book is to evidence the ways in which women's use of film culture goes beyond these more limiting constructions and theorisations of a relatively abstract spectator, inescapably bound within the objectifying processes of cinematic spectatorship. Yet the pictures that interwar literature paints of women's cinema culture accommodate both more resistant and submissive responses to these processes, and are never easily reduced to a generalised constructive and restrictive, or liberating and resistant, understanding of reception practices(111).
What Stead has sought to do, and largely accomplishes, is to remind us that not all audiences were the same –even within similar demographics –and that people often held varying and complex responses to films. These responses were captured in complimentary cultural products like literature. Recently, other film scholars have been cautious about the anonymous film audiences often used in film history and theory. "Although the mention of these hypothetical crowds is therefore an invitation to think historically about the social," Kate Bowles has recently pointed out, "it does not in fact meet the test of social history."1 Stead's social-intermedial method offers one step towards correcting this.
Off to the Pictures is divided into two parts containing three chapters each, though it does not make this distinction explicit. The first half is more thematic and explores various intermedial [End Page 101] writing methods to foreground social and gender history. Stead lays the foundation of her three-sided argument uniting writing, cinema, and female identity, while providing the media context of the interwar years in the introduction and first chapter. She explores in the second chapter short stories and their film "tie-ins." Tie-ins connected short-form literature with film segments to extended cinema's reach (39 and 42) in the market. They were also an example of "non-linear consumption" as multiple media were consumed simultaneously rather than individually in silos, another pillar of the need to think intermedially (64). Chapter three engages Lawrence Napper's concept of middle-brow modernity that illuminates the social standing and tastes for the British middle-class domestic fictions that inserted themselves between the working-class, with its affinity for Hollywood...