Re-negotiating Resistance


In The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser cites accounts of New York City spectators "shrieking their approval" at images of U.S. troops, the flag, and the battleship Maine, offering standing ovations when images of the Spanish warship Viscaya were accompanied by a "huge illuminated sign . . . bearing the inscription: 'No hidden mines here.'" (244). Elsewhere Musser argues that "[u]nder such circumstances, the lecturer's spiel was unnecessary and would have been lost in the roar of the crowd":

Instead, there was developing a relationship between the viewer and the screen that would characterize much of early cinema. Audiences generally acquired prior knowledge of events through a variety of cultural forms, providing an explicit framework for appreciation . . . . Unlike today's audience for television news, vaudeville spectators generally read the papers and could appreciate the films within this context. The cinema itself was increasingly looked upon as a visual newspaper. ("American Vitagraph" 43)
Generally speaking, my research of the reception of the Spanish-American War in cities like Worcester, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee supports these claims. As Musser has also pointed out, however, during the Spanish-American War, "[t]he situation varied from city to city. In Rochester, where the biograph opened in late March, a film of the Viscaya had to be eliminated from the program" because, according to the Rochester Post Express, "At first the audience hissed. . .with every performance. . .[but] [f]inally the gallery gods showed their disapproval with potatoes and other garden truck. . ." (244). This description suggests an active spectator, but not the kind of interpretive community or "alternative public sphere" many film historians have in mind when they invoke such terms. Alternatively, Shohat and Stam cast the overall film-viewer relation in the following politically pessimistic terms: "For working classes of. . .Euro-America, photogenic wars in remote parts of the empire became diverting entertainments, serving to 'neutralize the class struggle and transform class solidarity into national and racial solidarity'" (100).

In the end, the reasons for the lack of sustained concern among film historians for the political implications of Spanish-American War films is perhaps best understood in light of pioneer social film historian Robert Sklar's own description of the project of radical historiography as an attempt to "reconstruct a past in which common people struggled to determine their own lives and institutions" ("Oh! Althusser!" 20). According to Sklar, central to radical historiography are concerns for "the cultural transactions [which] occurred in [the] audience. . . [and] whether [the cinema] constituted an autonomous working-class public sphere or was the site for the absorption of hegemonic domination . . ." ("Oh! Althusser!" 20). It may be that the Spanish-American War films and their reception do not lend themselves to the radical historical project precisely because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests "hegemonic domination" in the United States during the war. Indeed, the newspaper accounts discussed above demonstrate that the possibility of subversion was quite limited in these regions. Having said that, there were important differences in these local experiences of the war, and the cinema did not have a uniformly hegemonic role in the larger ideological process of recruiting support for imperialism and the war effort.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, "the situation" varied greatly between nearby cities (such as Boston). The lack of receptivity in Boston was due in large part to the burgeoning anti-imperialism movement there, including the first mass protests staged in Boston during the summer of 1898. As the Anti-Imperialist League explained in its first appeal to membership, "We are in full sympathy with the heroic struggles for liberty of the people in the Spanish Islands, and therefore we protest against depriving them of their rights by an exchange of masters" ("Address to the People"). While these documents protest an exchange of imperial powers, before and during the fighting in Cuba, pro-intervention sentiments were expressed across the political spectrum. As Jim Zwick explains, the prominent and representative anti-imperialist Mark Twain "[l]ike many Americans . . .thought that the war with Spain was fought solely to free Cuba from Spanish oppression, and . . . supported it for that reason" ("An American Anti-Imperialist"). Consequently, many future anti-imperialists were initially supportive of intervening in Cuba during the earliest stages of the crisis, uncritical of the propagandistic messages of Spanish-American War films.

I am not arguing against the theoretical possibility of an oppositional cinematic public sphere, but suggesting that the celebratory ethos of racist imperialism, patriotic nationalism, and masculinist militarism during the Spanish-American War provides fruitful ground for testing the methodological and political limits of theories of the audience which a prioristress subversion, negotiation, and resistance. This is not to say that nineteenth century film audiences were comprised of cultural dupes unable to "resist" filmic messages. It is only to stress that it is important to speak of gradations and ranges of possibilities for subverting dominant ideology within different historical contexts and interpretive communities (and in light of the empirical evidence).

Matthew Frye Jacobson's Special Sorrows is an important text in this regard since, among its many fascinating insights, it demonstrates a wide range of political and emotional responses to the Spanish-American War from immigrants in the U.S. Yet in contrast to immigrants' later "[d]enunciations of American expansionist policy [which] became more. . .venemous over the course of 1899, when U.S. hegemony was enforced, not by legislative amendment merely, but by force of arms" (176), the ambivalences expressed by many immigrants concerning the inconsistent (if not hypocritical) U.S. foreign policy--and in response to the renegotiations of gender, ethnic and national boundaries instigated by the Spanish-American War--amount to a difference in kind. Furthermore, although Jacobson demonstrates how Irish, Polish, and Jewish immigrants in the Unites States were at times ambivalent about American imperialism during the war in Cuba, William G. Gatewood reminds us that "[m]ore than any other segment of the population, Negroes had cause to be critical of an imperialistic course launched in the name of humanity by a nation so enamored of white supremacy" (21).

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