Because someone has to win one of the NEH Fellowships, and I didn’t see any NZ/Australia-based winners from the last few years, I put together an application. According to the NEH, applying for the fellowship has an eight percent chance of success. Seeing as how I have lived through a once-in-a-lifetime series of earthquakes and I’m moving to a place that has gone through once-every 100/50/etc floods, I will take comfrot in the gambler’s fallacy. The narrative section of my application:

“The World Atlas of American Cinema, 1927-2000” combines digital cartography with close readings of representative films to write a history of twentieth century American sound narrative cinema at the intersection of the geographies of narrative location, production, consumption and taste. The Atlas project will reorient and redraw the boundaries of film history both literally and figuratively by cataloguing films’ narrative locations on digital maps to examine where we mean when we say “American cinema.” Does American cinema mean a movie set in contemporary suburban Los Angeles, 1970s New York, a mid-century Midwestern small town, a Gilded Age Wild West town, a Civil War plantation, all of the above, or none of the above? Has American cinema meant the same narrative locations throughout its history? Where are the privileged – and invisible – narrative locations in American cinema? Film has from its beginnings been a major part of urban – and increasingly suburban – life, in theatres, nickelodeons, picture palaces, and multiplexes. As film exhibition has migrated, have film settings migrated as well? Do the films that make up the top twenty box office, year-end awards lists, and film studies syllabi describe the same country?

To answer these questions, the Atlas will first approach American narrative cinema as a massive data set. I will use the American Film Institute Catalog indices, and observation, to collect data on the major narrative locations for films found in the yearly top-twenty of domestic box office list, on prestige lists such as the Oscars, and in undergraduate film studies course syllabi. I will then superimpose this cinema-location data onto maps of contemporary demographic, economic, political and industrial data taken from, among other sources, US Census data and the National Association of Theater Owners’ yearly Encyclopedia of Exhibition. The Atlas will expand the work of digital humanities, one of the critical new areas for humanities research in the twenty-first century, by tracing the interactions of American cinema’s narrative locations and the historical-contextual maps of the American century will reveal previously invisible connections – and gaps – in the popular, critical, and academic geography of Hollywood film, will provide the impetus for more focused attention to the particular locations of American identity as reflected in the films that Americans watch, admire, and study.

Research and contribution

Broadly speaking, on the one hand spatial approaches attend to the spaces in the text’s narrative, as in Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema and Barbara Piatti and Lorenz Hurni’s “Literary Atlas of Europe” project, and other the other to spaces of the text’s reception, as in Franco Moretti’s “Planet Hollywood,” Robert Allen’s historical maps of cinemas in North Carolina, “Going to the Show,” and Richard Maltby’s “Mapping the Movies: The Changing Nature of Australia’s Cinema Circuits and their Audiences 1956-1984”. This project seeks to bridge the two modes of analysis, with the historical changes in the spaces of the texts’ reception in cinemas and university classrooms driving the selection of representative texts for filmic analysis. By locating the intersections of cinematic analysis – the complex, historically- and geographically-informed readings of representative (and outlier) films – and textual analysis – the changing geographies of production, distribution, and exhibition – this project will write a new history of not just of the geography of the films that comprise American cinema, but of the physical locations that define and place American identity.

Methods and work plan

“The World Atlas of American Cinema, 1927-2000” is a spatial film history project, rooted in the approach taken in D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, distant reading projects such as the Stanford’s Literary Lab’s, “A Geography of Nineteenth-Century English and American Fiction,” and online projects such as Sébastien Caquard’s “Canadian Cinematographic Territories Atlas.”

The first step in the project is the creation of maps. To create the maps of film locations, it will be necessary to create a database that defines the significant narrative locations – not shooting locations – of films released in the United States. The key groupings for films will be: 1) the yearly top twenty grossing film 2) the films nominated for Oscars, National Board of Review awards, and New York Society of Film Critics awards, and 3) the films shown in introduction to film studies courses in the United States. A second set of maps based on Census demographic data would also be produced, identifying possible film audiences in terms of population, mapping, for example, the most populous, most affluent and most impoverished areas as well as identifying areas of identity-group concentration. A third set of maps tracing the distribution and growth of exhibition sites will also be generated. These three sets of maps will then be superimposed onto each other both to place them in conversation and to demonstrate the shifting geographies of American cinema and American identity.

In placing these three sets of maps in conversation with each other, a diachronic picture of the geography of film will emerge in a research monograph. The project will be broken into sections based on periodization: Pre-War Hollywood (1927-1944) Post-War Post-Paramount Hollywood (1945-1960), New Hollywood (1961-1976), and Blockbuster Hollywood (1977-2000). These four sections will be divided into chapters that offer broad investigations of the specific areas – box office hits, critical award-winners, the period’s presence in university courses. Each period will also feature short in-depth analyses of particular films that highlight significant trends in the history of American cinema, either as emblematic of a trend, or as a significant outlier. One example of this sort of chapter is my Post45 article “Burt Reynolds, Hollywood’s Southern Strategy.” The article first notes the contrast between the population and economic growth of the South and the rarity of its presence as a narrative setting and then identifies Reynolds as the figure who almost single-handedly brings images of the fastest-growing, economically-vibrant region to the rest of the country.

Competencies, skills, and access

[a bunch of junk about my CV] This project seeks to bridge film history, screen studies, and cultural geography, both by providing a model for writing cinema history and by interrogating the ways in which cinema imagines and locates national identity. It will explore the ways in which cinema and history are located in shifting national, regional, and city-specific locales.

The maps I generate will be based on a number of research-archival sources. The freely-available decennial United States Census, as well as the United States Statistical Abstract, will form the backbone of the demographic and economic contextual material. The research on exhibition will be centered on the back catalog of industry publications such as The Film Daily, Motion Picture News, and Motion Picture Daily, and the National Association of Theater Owners’ Encyclopedia of Exhibition. The research on films taught in introductory-level film studies classes in the United States will be drawn from the Syllabus Finder function of the George Mason Center for History and New Media. I have arranged for access to archival materials at the Frances Howard Goldwyn branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, the University of Southern California Special Collections Library, the University of California-Los Angeles Performing Arts Special Collections Library, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The maps for the project will be generated on ArcGIS. GIS is not the project’s raison d’être, nor is GIS the primary tool for analysis, but digital cartography is the first step to the creation of the Atlas. In 2012 I completed coursework in GEOG 205: Introduction to Geographic Information Systems at University of Canterbury to upskill myself in digital cartography and GIS analysis.

Final product and dissemination

This research will generate a variety of outputs: a book-length research monograph with maps, and articles suitable for journals such as Cinema Journal, Velvet Light Trap, and Film Quarterly. These materials will be aimed at an academic audience. However, as my previous publications in open-access, academic-popular online journals such as Senses of Cinema and Post45 indicate, I am also interested in making my research accessible to the wider cinephile public. To that end this project will produce a mobile app that will augment the monograph’s more traditional approach to cinema history by integrating animated maps, video essays, and film-specific podcasts into the history the Atlas writes.