The issue of the relevance of textual content analysis in discussions of historical cinematic practices came up this afternoon in a nicely-matched pair of talks about non-theatrical film exhibition by Alison Griffiths and Haidee Wasson. For each presentation, the Q&A brought out curiosity about the kinds of texts consumed at the sites discussed.
Griffiths made a few appeals to the types of films screened in American prisons in the early years of the Progressive Era initiative to bring cinema to prisoners. She mentioned the surreptitious switching of film reels with stag films, the incongruity of heterosexual Hollywood narratives shown in forcibly homosocial viewing environments, and resonances between the screening of Houdini escape spectacles, the psychological escapist function of prison screenings, and the physical reality of being unable to leave the exhibition site. Though textual content was not central to the talk, these examples amount to an implicit claim about the relation between exhibition context and film text, and the impact of that relation on audience experience, at least in these specific examples. I would like to know more about Griffiths’s thoughts on the relative place of text and context in exhibition studies. In other words, what unique valences does the prison viewing context bring to a(ny) film text, and what is experientially particular about watching a Houdini escape film, whether in prison or elsewhere?
Haidee Wasson’s historical account of the numerous and various sites of portable, small-gauge cinema was less interested in the types of films consumed, likely because the foregrounded material devices accommodated such a wide variety of texts and practices, from re-issued Hollywood films to home movies. Though when Wasson suggested that portable film can be thought of as a historical intermediary between public sites of cinema (theatres) and the more private spaces of television viewing (home, business, school, etc.), I wondered if greater attention to the texts might reinforce this connection. As John Caldwell’s talk illustrated earlier this morning, it is easier to make a link between contemporary television and narrative cinema by appealing to premium cable programming, since the two modes share many storytelling and representational strategies (not to mention the production conditions Caldwell discussed more broadly). How might this tendency to define media formats according to textual genres impact Wasson’s claim?
I don't think it is coincidence that both talks inspired questions about textual content. The underlying question, then, is what can we learn about film exhibition history by the bracketing, or, conversely, the consideration of film texts?