In the first decade of the twentieth century, moving images were a ubiquitous popular culture form, a fixture of fairgrounds, vaudeville houses, and emergent stand-alone nickelodeon venues. As one of many “cheap amusements” available to the working class, cinema became enmeshed in Progressive Era debates on regulating democracy and culture. For a fleeting moment from roughly 1907-1915, Jennifer Peterson contends, educational films – “instructive entertainment [that packaged] didactic intentions as an aesthetic commodity” (p. 2) – were viewed as a promising means for breeding better-educated, cosmopolitan American citizens. Of educational media, nonfiction travelogues were singled out for their ability to democratise travel, bringing exotic locales to the local movie house to expand the horizons of the lower classes. In Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film, Peterson uses travel films as a cipher to unpack the social, political, and economic transformations of early twentieth century America. Under her deft analysis, films that have hitherto been read as banal visual forms parroting an imperial gaze possess a subversive, and even liberatory, potential.
Peterson uses cinema to traverse commodity culture, capitalism, colonialism, and class, and, as such, her book will be of interest to a wide range of readers. In putting travelogues at the center of her narrative, Peterson anticipates critiques that may accuse her of “artificially inflating” a historically marginal media genre. She argues, however, that the very nature of the travelogue’s “minor quality” yields its significance. Taking Deleuze and Guattari’s “minor literature” as a model, Peterson theorises travelogues as a “minor cinema”, explaining:
Travel films allow us to document and catalogue moments of domination and resistance in early cinema. What we gain by seeing travelogues as a form of minor cinema, then, is a larger political resonance for our task of cataloguing these moments of rupture. We also gain a sense of the travelogue’s significance as distinctly modern, potentially unsettling, experience for its spectators. (p. 16)
Peterson situates “scenics”, the earliest iteration of those moving images that trafficked in location-based imagery during the earliest years of cinema, as heir to a much longer tradition of travel literature and landscape painting, as well as the nineteenth century magic lantern, photograph, and illustrated travel lecture. Peterson contends that what makes moving images distinct (and by extension, so compelling) from earlier visualised modes of travel are their very ability to move. For Peterson, the camera’s mobile gaze of tracks and pans, and the transport activities depicted within the films’ frames, reflect the accelerated pace and fragmented sensory experience of the modern industrial world. Such a reading situates cinema alongside other technologies, like the railroad, as inculcating individuals into a rapidly evolving culture of time and space. Peterson places travelogues at the heart of these transformations, fostering a “new form of sensory perception of the world: not direct experiences but experience through media.” (p. 141)Peterson’s description of modernity, rooted in the works of Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, is accepted by many (but not all) early film scholars. It is Benjamin’s description of mass culture as a “dreamworld” from which Peterson draws her book’s title, and his approach inspires Peterson’s faith that “tools for demythification […] can be found in mass culture itself under certain conditions and for certain viewers.” (p. 6)
In addition to the very mobility of the moving image, Peterson contends that scenics are distinct from their nineteenth century travel media precursors because they lack an embodied authorial voice. She illustrates this distinction through the career of Burton Holmes, already a popular travel lecturer when he began incorporating film into his presentations. Peterson notes that in Burton’s shows he lectured over the visuals, crafting a narrative that heavily structured the experience for his audience. Burton’s physical presence and voice, placing himself within the visualised locale, stands in contrast to travel films, which, without a narrator, possess a greater open-ended potential for a spectator’s subjective interpretation. Burton’s lecture career, which continued into the 1930s and 40s, demonstrates Peterson’s assertion that pre-cinema travel forms continued to operate parallel to, but somewhat distinct from, the scenic film.
The nonfiction travelogue’s notable lack of an authorial presence – it is also worth noting that the overwhelming majority of extant films Peterson studied have no credited crews – places it at odds with a film studies tradition that has historically tended to focus on the masterpieces of a directorial auteur. As such, Peterson is part of a burgeoning field of film scholars whose rigorous archival work is refining media historiography. (Jeffrey Ruoff’s 2006 anthology, Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel, for example, was the first major book-length survey devoted to nonfiction travel film from its Hale’s Tours roots to its IMAX present. Peterson was a contributor.) Rereading the formative decades of the American film industry through a nonfiction lens reveals a different set of “watershed” dates. Among Hollywood fiction film scholars 1917 is often singled out as the culmination of a process of “narrative integration”, the storytelling and stylistic form that has largely defined Hollywood mainstream cinema ever since. In contrast, Peterson suggests that for nonfiction 1915 is more definitive, for this year marks the absolute end of the “single-reel era” (the primary length of nonfiction films in a variety format), and because war in Europe disrupted Pathé and Gaumont’s nonfiction stateside film distribution, inaugurating a precipitous decline in circulation from which the genre never recovered.
After laying this groundwork, Peterson turns towards the broader social transformations taking place within the United States that coincided with cinema’s emergence. Millions of immigrants flooded into the United States in and around the turn-of-the-century. Efforts to uplift and Americanise the new populace fed the “crisis of citizenship” that characterised Progressive Era discourse. The moving image, with its lower class connotations, became a target for contemporary reformers and educators. While the campaign to make cinema respectable has been widely studied, Peterson argues that “a more nuanced sense of class dimension and the aesthetic appeal of early nonfiction film” is needed. (p. 109) Closely analysing press and sociology from the era, she cautions against the tendency to reduce early films into concrete categories of highbrow versus lowbrow. She notes, for example, the multiple valences of a phrase like “high-class”, one that initially functioned as both a commercial strategy to entice status seekers and a pragmatic gesture to placate reformers. She continues that: “‘High-class’ also indicated the extent to which class and education combined in the period to signify what was socially validated.” Over time, however, the Progressive Era’s “educational mandate” eclipsed the importance of the “high-class” label used for marketing nonfiction films. Peterson concludes: “This shift marks a transformation from the nineteenth century notion of static class divisions into the Progressive Era notion that class divisions might be more permeable.” (pp. 114-115)
As immigrant “others” increasingly took up residence in the United States, travelogues brought a more comfortably distant, colonised “other” to movie screens. Reflective of unbalanced imperial power relations, Peterson recognises the genre’s links to other state policies of control such as cartography, surveying, and census taking. She follows that “travelogues mimicked such colonial strategies, but as commercial films, they were not engaged in the enterprises of state control. Rather, they present generalised and popularised versions of imperial ideology” generating an “idealised geography” and “aestheticised Otherness” that balanced both spectators’ fears and desires (p. 139). In analysing how these Western films “spoke” for the colonised and their lands, Peterson draws heavily on postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said and Homi Bhabha. While asserting that the travelogues such as Indian and Ceylonese Types (1913), L’Oasis d’El-Kantar (1913) and In Egypt (1920) (all housed at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, the largest archive of early travel-themed films and home to the majority of moving images Peterson cites throughout the book) erase any signs of social and political discontent, Peterson also finds momentary flashes of rupture. In discussing the closing shot of In Egypt, where a veiled woman stares directly into the camera, she posits: “The woman’s glare refuses the film’s fetishistic desire to possess her; her stare undermines the film’s attempt to capitalise on her geographical, cultural, racial, and gender difference” (p. 169).
Acknowledging that place and distance are relative, Peterson also turns to the American West as an illustrative case study in the representation and economics of place. Peterson notes how travelogues, many financed by railroad companies and state travel associations, served as advertising and publicity for the region’s increasingly commodified frontier of national parks and nascent cities. In an advanced capitalist system, she notes, even a word like “picturesque” assumes a fetish character, evolving from its “refined” roots in eighteenth century art and into “a commercialised form of the sublime” emblazoned on travel posters and other forms of mass advertising (p. 176).
The open-ended potential of travelogues that Peterson hints at in the exhibitionist gaze of the colonised is pushed even further by her (admittedly) speculative claim that: “In providing vicarious travel experience for film audiences, [travelogues] open themselves up to the spectator’s projections, fantasies and reveries.” (p. 60) Peterson posits that the formal elements of travelogues – discrete images of exotic locales shown in succession akin to “snapshots in a photo album”, floating movements encapsulated in the frame, and a lack of authorial voice that empowers the spectator to assume the role of Author – have the potential to create a sense of “poetic reverie”, which she defines as a mesmerising, “dreamlike state of free association” and wonder. This formulation leads her to speculate that, “rather than education, early films functioned as a school of dreams, presenting strange and obscure pictures that taught lessons not about geography but about desire.” (p. 233)
Travel entertainment continues to be a reliable presence in moving image culture – programs such as Ron Fricke’s Samsara, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown or BBC’s Planet Earth immediately come to mind. Its typicality is perhaps one reason it lays in the valleys, rather than the peaks, of scholarship. From its position of consistent marginality, Peterson picks up early cinema’s travelogue and uses its as a lens to refine our understanding of film history and American society during the opening decades of the twentieth century. Peterson’s project is a valuable window into a dynamic historical moment and a testament to ways that reading against the grain can yield insights into even the most seemingly prosaic and politically retrograde forms of media content.
Jennifer Lynn Peterson, Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).