Current Research and Writing
One way to explicate my current research and scholarship is by listing the books on which I am actively working/writing. Here are seven. I probably could provide a baker’s dozen, but these are generally in an advanced state. Many of the items appearing on the Recent Essays page or the recent presentation in my vita feed into these undertakings. Admittedly it is slightly embarrassing to have some many “works in progress.” Some were digressions of existing projects that became their own undertakings.
1. Media Shifts: Transformations in Audio-Visual Media and the US Presidential Elections of 1892/1896, 1948/1952 and 2004/2008. This book consists of four chapters. The first looks at the extensive use of documentary-like programs (stereopticon lectures) for political purposes, particularly by Republicans in the 1892 election. They are examined within a media formation that included public pageantry, political oratory and newspapers. The second chapter looks at the 1896 election. Having lost the previous contest, Republicans largely abandoned illustrated lectures but embraced a screen novelty—the cinema—for campaign purposes. Biograph’s McKinley at Home created a sensation when it was shown in New York theaters in the month leading up to the election. Cinema was only one of several communication and transportation novelties that came into play during the campaign: the phonograph, the telephone and the bicycle were all innovative components of this election. Once again, my purpose is not to isolate specific technological breakthroughs but to see how they operated within and help constitute a new media formation.
Chapters 3 and 4 consider the shift from film to television. The principal reason why President Truman won the US presidential election in 1948—the most surprising upset in electoral history—was because of the screening of The Truman Story in virtually all US movie theaters the week before the election. His Republican rival had arranged for a campaign film to be made for his campaign—The Dewey Story. The glossy production was slated to go into movie theaters, but Truman lacked an equivalent. Truman was furious and threatened the Hollywood industry. But since he was certain to lose, why not avoid this confrontation. The Truman Story was assembled from newsreels and proved unexpectedly effective. This was the same election that Carl Marzani and Union Films made a number of 16mm films for Henry Wallace. TV was already beginning—covering the Republican and Democratic conventions. But only in 1952 would Eisenhower turned to political commercials on television.
The final two chapters focus on the 2004 and 2008 elections, which offer some intriguing parallels with the earlier era. The 2004 election saw the Democrats using long-form documentaries. Robert Greenwald produced four of them (Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, Outfoxed, etc.) There was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and many more. These were shown in theaters but also widely distributed using DVDs—and sometimes screened in house parties. Despite their success, the Democrats lost the election. Four years later, Barack Obama and his supporters largely abandoned the long-form documentary and embraced the Internet—generally with much shorter pieces, including hundreds of music videos in which professional, semi-professional and amateurs sing his praises. My essay “Political Documentary, YouTube and the 2008 US Presidential Election: Focus on Robert Greenwald and David N. Bossie” reflects elements of these two final chapters. Obama was the candidate of Hope, but then so was William McKinley in 1896.
2. A Feminist Moment in the Arts, 1910-1913. I was asked to write something for an exhibition catalog on the 1913 Armory Show–the International Exhibition of Modern Art. the idea was to provide some cultural context–modern art, modernity and cinema–the fragmentation of time and space. The kind of thing that Tom Gunning has already done so expertly. But I was interested in the way women assumed a prominent role in the film industry (as producers, directors, writers and stars) at this moment and was curious how it played out in the New York Art world. There is an untold story there and I tried to tell some of it in the limited space that I had. But the story is even richer and more complex. So that is chapter 1. Chapter 2 is on Sarah Bernhardt and the world of theater, Chapter 3 is on Mary Johnston’s feminist career as a novelsist, Chapter 4 on Alice Guy Blache, Lois Weber and the American Film Industry. Chaapter 5 on Floyd Dell, my alter ego who wrote Women as World Builders: Studies in Modern Feminism (Chicago: Forbes, 1913).
3. Theater Transformed: Stage and Screen in the 1920s. This is a book I have been working on for almost two decades. The Al Jolson article, one of my recent essays, fills a void that was at the center of the book. In this regard, all the key chapters are now written. The underlying idea here is that cinema is a theatrical form of entertainment like the stage. At present this form of public culture is in retreat, given all the other kinds of screens that are around today (ironically, offspring in some ways of the cinema itself). So what did the theater offer patrons in its heyday? What were the rewards of theatergoing and what were the differences and the relationships between stage and screen? Certainly the cinema transformed theatrical entertainment, but what was it like when stage and screen were complimentary and proximate equals? I look at these questions through the lens of focused theater/film relationships. This goes from essays on DeMille’s comedy of remarriage, which spawned a popular cycle of plays, to films by Germaine Dulac, Oscar Micheaux, Ernst Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers (the long 1920s). Again the idea here is to think about theater as a space and what it has meant as a form of public culture.
4. Crossing Boundaries: Paul Robeson, Performance and Film. I have about six articles/chapters on Robeson and his work in film, theater and the concert hall. Two more chapters remain to be written and one or two others reconfigured for the book. Biographers have generally been so caught up in Robeson’s politics and often so embarrassed by his films that there is no in-depth critical understanding of either the films or what he was trying to achieve. The book will explore the integrated media system that Robeson used—not just film and theater but the concert stage, radio, phonograph recordings, and the press.
5. May’s Kiss: The 20-second Film that Changed American Culture. Much of this is written and much more of it is researched. It will be a great little book but I don’t want my next book to be on early cinema. The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss is at the center of a complex web of relations. Irwin fired Rice almost immediately after they made the film. Then at the end of the theatrical season, Irwin went on vacation and the middle-aged Rice went on the vaudeville stage and used the film to become a kissing star. Things just spun out of control from there. Again a study of how a new media form can upset the apple cart and have unintended consequences.
6. Truth and Documentary in the Age of George W. Bush. Actually this is meant to be part of a three-volume history of changing conceptions of film truth in documentary—from the beginnings of photography to the present day. This is just the final volume (I thought it should be written first so I would have an end point.) Media Shifts started as a study for the final chapter (on what happened to documentary during the 2008 campaign). A couple of articles/chapters have been published and others are in various states on my hard drive.
7. Virtual Binaries. I have a long presentation on Errol Morris’s documentaries, which I imagine turning into a small book entitled Virtual Binaries: The Documentary Work of Errol Morris. This would include a DVD insertion of my almost finished 70-minute documentary Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch.