The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood CinemaFor film scholars interested in the narrative settings of cinema examined through a “cultural materialist approach to film history” (p. 4), combined with digital cartography, Christian B. Long’s The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema, 1960-2000 proves a singularly appealing text – one where you will find engagement not only in Long’s insights but in your own mind as it flips through other films that may or may not fit the geographical boundaries Long carefully maps out in his introduction. Long’s text focuses on narrative location as opposed to shooting location to construct an “imaginary” geography of where America resides in Hollywood cinema – the places that are privileged, the invisible spaces, the assumptions about our history, migrations, and urban/suburban/rural sites. Long primarily utilises popular and prestige films in his study – films that were box office hits, or top-grossing films, and prestige films, including those nominated for Oscars along with those highlighted on year-end “best” lists compiled by Roger Ebert or the American Film Institute.

In the introduction, Long makes the case for what he considers a neglected area of film studies: “I want to make the case for privileging narrative location over narrative or film style by treating a film’s where as an under-explored and powerful explanatory force, asking why through where.” (p. 10) In deciding what to include in this spatial examination of Hollywood cinema, Long hopes to demonstrate how narrative location reveals changes in American culture, politics, and demographics. By gathering geographic data, Long reveals how Hollywood creates the “physical contours of the United States” for a mass audience that also determines American attitudes and ideologies about our national landscape. (p. 20) The introduction offers a compelling initial example of what Long plans to accomplish by exploring Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992). He first illustrates that few African-American films are nominated for Oscars, then determines how essential location becomes in films that feature African-Americans – that is, if one were to learn about location and demographics only from Hollywood films, one might easily conclude that there are no African-Americans residing in the plains, Pacific Northwest, or industrial Midwest, which consequently makes it appear that the civil rights movement never occurred in those areas, when of course it did. Long’s maps clearly show that although places like Topeka, Kansas were essential in the fight for equal access to education during desegregation, they do not appear in “Hollywood’s imagination of African-American life in the United States.” (p. 24) Malcom X is of particular interest because it contains flashbacks to Malcolm X’s early life in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1920s, as Lee maintains the actual location from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).

Smoky and the Bandit (Needham, 1977)

Smoky and the Bandit (Needham, 1977)

The first chapter, “Burt Reynolds Brings the New South to Hollywood,” contributes a long-overdue analysis of Southern cinema in the 1970s via Burt Reynolds, who has received little academic attention, yet was “one of the top-ten box office draws every year between 1973 and 1982.” (p. 36) For Long, Reynolds’ stardom not only indicates the “reddening of America” (p. 35), but the evolved view of the south as its population grew significantly in the 1970s. No longer was the south portrayed in films as primarily antebellum, agrarian, or solely associated with a backwards/backwoods mentality. It was a location that could be diverse, urban, air-conditioned, middle-class, and professional. The first example, Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), perhaps revives rural stereotypes, yet Reynolds’ character, Lewis Medlock, signals the new urban southern man. In Long’s examination of The Longest Yard (Robert Aldrich, 1974) and Semi-Tough (Michael Ritchie, 1977), football is shown as a connective thread between men of diverse backgrounds and classes, as well as a connection between the South and the North as the NFL expands into Southern states. Although Long dismisses White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973) as a “Southsploitation” film, he notes the importance of both narrative and shooting location in White Lightning since it was filmed in Arkansas upon Reynolds’ insistence – one of the first examples of a state giving incentives for a film to shoot on location. Long’s deconstruction of Southern stereotypes in New Hollywood films culminates in Sharkey’s Machine (Burt Reynolds, 1981), which goes against the grain by presenting a wintry Atlanta landscape, racial diversity as opposed to merely overt racism, and prominently featuring Atlanta’s suburbs along with its urban skyline, using the Peachtree Plaza Hotel in establishing shots throughout the film. Finally, in Smoky and the Bandit and Smoky and the Bandit II (Hal Needham, 1977, 1980), Long explores the modern south as seen from the interstate, a popular narrative location in 1970s films, specifically Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). Long links Reynolds to Hollywood, and indeed America’s new vision of the South and Southern men, in the 1970s as states below the Mason-Dixon line began to grow in economic and political power.

In “New Hollywood, the Contemporary Midwest, and Collective Action,” New Hollywood films (from 1960 to 2000), are revealed as primarily metropolitan and coastal, with very few set in the contemporary Midwest – notable exceptions included Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969) and Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978), located in Chicago and Detroit respectively. In Long’s study, Midwestern films engage with issues of class and race that other New Hollywood films shy away from since Hollywood privileges the individualized white male middle-class experience. As with previous chapters, Long includes a number of critics, such as Drew Casper and Thomas Schatz,1 to define New Hollywood cinema and map Midwestern spaces in these films. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967), and Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973), Medium Cool is set in the contemporary Midwest, occasionally using a documentary-style narrative to explore racial repression in America. Whereas most film critics focus on the documentary-style narration in their analysis, or the Democratic National Convention in setting, they steer clear of the issues raised by African American characters. Long, however, addresses the issues of racism through narrative location, namely the filming of neighbourhoods and apartments in the South Side of Chicago, exposing “politics emerging from the bottom up.” (p. 77) The depiction of Detroit in Blue Collar similarly tackles issues of race and class through union corruption in the auto industry.

Chapter three, “Getting around the Suburbs in the Blockbuster Era’s Bit Hits,” looks at blockbuster hits set in the suburbs between 1975-1992, illustrating that blockbusters set in the suburbs generally do not critique the suburbs, but instead show suburban spaces as separate from the city – the city where people to go to work but not raise their kids. For Long, the shift to suburban spaces after 1975 results in a closer examination of transportation and commuting. Long claims that commuting from the city to the suburbs in Big (Penny Marshall, 1988) and Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) demonstrates the “dance between city and suburb for the sake of children showing that while the city might be the middle of things for professional advancement, the suburbs are important for growing up and family stability.” (p. 106) For Billy (Jared Rushton) in Big, it is a commute back and forth from Cliffside Park, New Jersey and New York to visit his friend, Josh (Tom Hanks). Risky Business also emphasises a young man’s initiation into adulthood, except for Joel (Tom Cruise), it comes via driving his father’s Porsche, which grants him access to Chicago, and to sex, as he searches the cityscape for his elusive lover, Lana (Rebecca DeMornay). In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986), Ferris (Matthew Broderick) uses a Ferrari, borrowed from his friend’s clueless father, to head to Chicago. The suburbs, for Ferris, limit possibilities for adventure, so the “day off” features some of Chicago’s famous landmarks like Wrigley Field, the Sears Tower, and the Art Institute of Chicago. However, although Ferris and his friends commute by taxi once in Chicago, Long points out that they oddly never use the El, a celebrated distinguisher of Chicago. For Long, the greatest affection for the suburbs appears in Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992) since neither Wayne (Mike Meyers) nor Garth (Dana Carvey) seek Chicago for fulfilment or initiation, instead choosing Aurora, Illinois as a place to create, eat donuts, and, of course, party. And while the suburbs to city commute (something akin to going into the forest in fairy tales) remains a trope for coming-of-age experiences, other blockbusters set in the suburbs feature grown-ups who have achieved their suburban dream only to discover it harbours a nightmare, as in Long’s consideration of The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979) and Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982).

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes, 1986)

“Politics for Couch Potatoes: Video Rental Success Stories” follows the shift to home viewing via VCRs, allowing films that challenged the conservative values of the Reagan Era to achieve home screening, if not box office, success. Long looks at four slightly subversive films that were not box office draws yet were in the top twenty-five video rentals in the year of their video release: The Flamingo Kid (Garry Marshall, 1984), The Emerald Forest (John Boorman, 1985), Gorky Park (Michael Apted, 1983), and Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983). Though Long categorizes The Flamingo Kid as a nostalgia film in the genre of The Breakfast Club (1985) or Footloose (Herbert Ross, 1984), he demonstrates how The Flamingo Kid tackles changes in the American economy, looking at the past to reflect the present as Jeffrey (Matt Dillon) turns away from corruption and quick money to instead achieve an education. Furthermore, Jeffrey exposes the cheating in the film, making him a “‘whistle-blower’ against ‘the system.’” (p. 147) On an international scale, Gorky Park examines tensions between America and the Soviet Union, familiarising the Moscow landscape for Americans by filming mainly in apartments and residential areas (actually in Helsinki) while steering clear of Moscow’s visual signifiers, such as the Kremlin or Saint Basil’s. Long reveals how the Soviet detective, Arkady (William Hurt), makes the Soviet Union more accessible/relatable to audiences because Arkady is a good man working within a corrupt system in the vein of American film noir.

In “Imagining More for Medium-Sized Cities,” Long defines what constitutes a medium-sized city in America, then selects three to explore:  Nashville, Las Vegas, and Pittsburgh. He finds time and again that the city’s identity, what it is or was once known for, becomes key to its cinematic identity. For Nashville, the country music industry, symbolised by the Grand Ole Opry, dominates such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted, 1980), Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975), and Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1993). Likewise, in Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988), Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991), and Casino (Martin, Scorsese, 1995), Las Vegas is used for gambling, and once again, a city is reduced to one prominent trademark. The film that transcends its city’s signature feature, the steel industry, is Wonder Boys (2000). Through interviews, Long shows that director Curtis Hanson purposefully filmed steel bridges in Pittsburgh to symbolically reflect the inner challenges of the characters, so instead of defining or limiting the city, these bridges give it a “new identity” that is not stuck in the past. (p. 105) Long does, however, criticise the film for not accurately representing Pittsburgh since the cast is almost entirely Caucasian while over 25% of residents are African-American. (p. 188)

Wonder Boys (Hanson, 2000)

Wonder Boys (Hanson, 2000)

The last chapter, “Not Such a Small World After All: Disney Live-Action Films in the 1960s,” examines Disney’s live-action films, set mainly abroad, which have received almost no critical attention. Although this chapter perhaps should have appeared earlier in the text for chronological clarity, it does reveal the culmination of an American ideology that Long has been building in each chapter. Through analysis of Search of the Castaways (Robert Stevenson, 1962), Bon Voyage! (James, Neilson, 1961), and Monkeys Go Home! (Andrew McLaglen, 1967), Long disturbingly illustrates how American imperialism, and the American way of life, are privileged in Disney live-action films. The most chilling example is Monkeys Go Home! where American Hank (Dean Jones) inherits an olive farm in southern France, then proceeds to run the farm by purchasing four chimpanzees from NASA to pick his olives and thus avoid labour costs. Besides uncomfortable parallels to slavery, Long solidly links the film to American agriculture – its growing taste for margarine in the 1960s, Cesar Chavez and the Delano grape strike in 1965, and Walt Disney’s anti-union and anti-communist beliefs.

In Imaginary Geography, Long shows that Hollywood films render much of our country invisible: “False geographies depend on Romantic preconceptions to reduce the complexity and diversity of the American landscape (even the city landscape) to attractive scenery or archetypal images.” (p. 235) Since Long’s study ends in 2000, there is more to explore critically in terms of setting in recent Midwestern films like Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) or Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (Martin, McDonagh, 2017). Additionally, the emergence of films on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon has also changed the viewing landscape in America. However, it seems that the conclusions of Long’s study ultimately places the responsibility on filmmakers to consider setting, and the “real” America, in a more accurate and nuanced manner.

Christian B. Long, The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema, 1960-2000 (Bristol: Intellect, 2017).


  1. See Drew Casper, Hollywood Film 1963-1976: Years of Revolution and Reaction (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons), 2011. See Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood” in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, edited by J. Collins, H. Radner, and A. P. Collins (New York: Routledge), 2003, pp. 15-44.

About The Author

SShannon Scott is a Professor of English and Film at the University of St. Thomas and Hamline University. She has published articles and book reviews in various academic publications, book collections, and newspapers, including Film & History, Screen Bodies, and Alphaville: A Journal of Film and Screen Media.

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