People’s Cinema History

Mapping Movies takes a ‘bottom up’ approach to history. The project puts moviegoers encountering cinema in the places and spaces of everyday life at center stage. For the first half of the 20th century, movie theaters were landmarks of local geography that reflected the status and identity of urban neighborhoods and the civic-mindedness of small towns. These landmarks helped organize the mental maps and flow of people through space.

Charting the people’s history of cinema, however, is a slow and complex undertaking. The micro detail required for such a history is vast and, given the ephemeral nature of moviegoing, unlikely to have been documented and preserved in traditional archives. Oral histories and ethnographic research are often required to gain access to moviegoing practices and memories of cinema on a case-by-case basis. The methodological challenges multiply exponentially as researchers grapple with the tens of thousands of locally embedded venues where movies have played across the full span of the medium’s history.

As part of the historical research process, GIS mapping offers considerable potential for representing diverse experiences of cinema on a variety of scales by integrating quantitative and qualitative data. In Putting Cinema History on the Map, I refer to this as “little g” as opposed to “Big G” GIS, an approach that balances the omniscient perspective of “big data” against smaller projects built from a bricolage of partial, multiple and competing perspectives formed through a mixed methods framework that Knigge and Cope call grounded visualization. To the extent that such an approach is open-ended, integrating the contributions of a variety of collaborators and end users, it also becomes a form of “vernacular mapping” that forces cartographers and historians to share the authority to produce knowledge with the public (see Gerlach and Bowles).

The visualization above is from Springfield, MA where polygons created using H. P. Douglass’s ‘social quality’ data (ethnic and racial census tables, rates of juvenile delinquency, amounts of charity received per household, etc.) have been overlaid with points (locations) and lines (paths) gleaned from oral histories. Oral histories are also embedded as audio files linked to the map. Detailed case studies of moviegoing and everyday life in Springfield’s North End and Hill districts are found in Four Hours of Hootin and Hollerin and Like Nickels in a Slot.