As Vance Kepley has recently pointed out (following David Thomas's study of early film in Winona, Minnesota), "moviegoing fit into patterns of behavior which were designed to enhance [a] town's general sense of community" (538). Similarly, in her discussion of early cinema in Wilmington, North Carolina, Anne Morey notes that "[e]ven in communities of similar size, location, and composition, theaters, and audiences responded to movies as a national phenomenon with remarkably individuated local manifestations" (9). Yet according to Morey, a "summary of traveling exhibition in Wilmington demonstrates. . .[that] the content of the of the films . . . ranging from fight films to Spanish-American War actualities, served to reinforce a sense of national identity and connection that may have undermined certain purely local mores" (12).
This dialectic between the local and the national was especially evident in the larger city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin where we see an attempt to construct a sense of community among the cities' residents and with other regions across the state. Support for the war in Milwaukee was strongly intensified by the fact that Milwaukeeans were preparing for the state's fiftieth birthday celebration, planning the first annual summer carnival, and designing the Milwaukee's first flag. The March 31, 1898 "Carnival Edition" of the Milwaukee Sentinel boasted of 'Wisconsin's War Record," claiming that "'Honest Old Abe'" [was] Given Prompt and Staunch Support" and that "Over Half Her Voting Population Went to the Front." The April 24, 1898 Sunday Sentinel featured an illustrated article about "Women Who Are Ready To Go To War" that contained testimonies and portraits of eleven female nurses who were anxious "to care for disabled soldiers. . .[and] to go anywhere they are needed":
The patriotic spirit of Milwaukee is not confined to the members of the National guard, nor to the hundreds of other men who are ready to volunteer their services in defense of the flag. The women of the city, deprived of the privilege of bearing arms for their country, quietly do the next thing--a characteristic action of true women--and volunteer to go as nurses to the field, the Cuban hospitals or the war hospitals of the Eastern cities, wherever the needs of the soldiers will be greatest.
According to the "Music and Drama" section of the March 26, 1898, Milwaukee Journal,
High-class vaudeville is recognized by the theater-going public as the most popular form of amusement now in vogue, nor is there any reason why this should not be so. A vaudeville programme is made up to afford the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number . . . . The most appropriate and popular number on the [Alhambra's] bill is that marvel of perfection in instantaneous photography, the American Biograph with panoramic pictures of the ill-fated battleship Maine as she lay in New York harbor prior to her disastrous trip to Havana. Alongside of her lies the Massachusetts, the two noble vessels making an inspiring sight to all patriotic citizens. Another picture of interest to all in these times of contemplated war is that taken of the Spanish warship Viscaya, while steaming out of New York harbor, after the short visit she made us about three weeks ago enroute to Havana.The Milwaukee Journal's description and the accompanying advertisements are early attempts on the part of exhibitors to target middle-class consumers while also attracting an immigrant working-class audience by offering inexpensive "high-class" entertainment (see Merritt). Indeed, in January the Alhambra Theater had already included "Lumier's Cinematographe" [sic] as part of its "$1.50 show [the 'legitimate' theater ticket price] for a quarter."
The Alhambra's utilitarian description of the vaudeville program anticipates later descriptions by film historians of film as the "democratic art" (Jowett), which Judith Mayne has criticized for "mythologiz[ing]. . .movie houses and nickelodeons [as] the back rooms of the Statue of Liberty" ("Two Spheres" 73) For Mayne, "consumerism [in the 1890s] offered the image of a homogeneous population pursuing the same goals--'living well' and accumulating goods. The movie-theatre seemed to offer an ideal space for the exhibition of this image, for workers and middle-class people alike needed only to pay a small admission price in order to share equally in the spectacle offered on the screen" (69). Mayne thus acknowledges the ideological function of early cinema and "vaudeville [which] provided a context for the public space of the movie theater as both cross-class entertainment and as standardized performance" (77). Yet Mayne also uses the model of the immigrant filmgoer to escape the dominant paradigm of the "passive" classical Hollywood spectator:
I will argue. . .that while cinema quickly became an agent of the new culture of consumerism, it also kept alive fantasies of resistance to that culture. . . . Since the mythologies of early cinema tend to portray the immigrant-spectator as little more than a passive consumer of the moving-picture show, the roles of "fantasy" and "imagination" in the film-going experience are open to misunderstanding. Fantasy may imply "escape," but it is also a potential form of resistance, an imaginary refusal of real conditions of existence.What one is supposed to make out of this "imaginary refusal of real conditions of existence" is somewhat unclear, yet Mayne's argument (first published in 1982), like Gunning's "cinema of attractions", needs to be understood within the context of larger trends in film historiography during the late 1970s and early 80s. In the end, Mayne's claim that immigrant spectator "actively" resisted the dominant ideology of early film images becomes highly problematic when applied to the reception and exhibition of Spanish-American War films. Indeed, if we shift or expand our focus to include ideologies of race and imperialism in addition to ideologies of ethnicity, gender, and consumerism, it becomes increasingly difficult to place politically progressive fantasies and daydreams in the minds of immigrant spectators in response to Spanish-American American War films.
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