Volume X, Number 1, Spring 2014


"American Studies and Film: From Blind Spot to Symbiosis" by Réka M. Cristian

Réka M. Cristian is Associate Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. She is the author of Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity. Essays on Literature, Film, and American Studies (2012), co-author of Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories (2008) and founding editor of AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary and its AMERICANA eBooks division. Email:

In memory of Liliana Hamzea

 

“The motion picture is sometimes noticed […] but it has not yet been critically evaluated
as a factor in our civilization―an understanding which might very profitably be conducted
within the framework of American studies.”
Tremaine McDowell American Studies (1948)

“In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic […]
The break between the two […] does not exist: life is cinema.”
Jean Baudrillard America (1988)

“American cinema is international like the fairy tales were international.”
Bertrand Tavernier

 

I. Film and American Studies: A Blind Spot Connection

Both American studies and film studies are fields encompassing multitudes of meanings with complex connections; albeit this association has, paradoxically, long been neglected by film theorists and American studies practitioners alike. Despite a massive outpouring of publications on American studies and on film, separately, there are still few texts and even less in-depth research about the relationship between the two fields. Besides, it would be inadequate to talk about contemporary American studies without considering the intricate implications of the American cinema, a ubiquitous cultural product that has long been the global export success of the United States.

Although film has long inhabited a marginal field in the context of American studies, contemporary approaches to New American studies can find prolific terrains of research in connection with film studies, which has started to find its way into the field of the Americanist discipline. The two fields have a myriad of common subjects, methods, aims, and interests which still need to be addressed through a collaborative enterprise. Even though there have been a burgeoning number of publications on the American cinema and film, it took decades after the establishment of American studies as discipline for a handful of critics to question the lack of engagement of movies within the field of American studies.

In 1975, Marie Claire Kolbenschlag drew the attention to the power of moving images when she remarked that film is a real “microcosm” reflecting the “imaginative articulation of U.S. experience and ambience” (2004) both on the domestic scene and on the international arena. Later, in 2002, Sam B. Girgus recapitulated Kolbenschlag’s ideas by claiming that film promulgates diverse “conceptions and representations of American identity” (12) in a global culture where American popular culture and moving images lie at the heart of America’s image. Obviously, Hollywood’s, New Hollywood’s, and the independent filmmaking’s imaginaries of America―perceptions and misperceptions alike―are, in today’s globalized world, as important as they were earlier, if not more.

Peter C. Rollins’s 1974 article on “Film and American Studies” published in American Quarterly―the official publication of the American Studies Association―was among the first focus studies regarding the connection between the two fields. Rollins saw the most visible points of convergence between cinema and American studies particularly in the realm of teaching. He remarked that while in higher education courses there was an “obvious student interest in film” (245), the elitist approach of that period prevailing in the ivied domain of American universities ignored the cinematic art considered, in the given context, “a mere diversion and at best a journalistic tool” (245). Based on his teaching experience, Rollins suggested the inclusion of film topics related to American history and American literature, accordingly, in the course offering of History and English departments. Twenty-four years later, in the comprehensive Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context’s thirteenth chapter entitled “Film, Television and American Studies: A 1998 Update,” he was still concerned about the inadequate presence of movies in the country’s higher education courses, but was more optimistic at this point: he added that academics finally began “to use film seriously” (247) with special regard to the medium in its cultural context. What is more, in this book Rollins concentrated mostly on the work of Americanists and urged them to provide “special insight and leadership” (247) in teaching and research in American studies through film, an approach today still ‘under construction.’

Following Rollins, Vivian C. Sobchack published in the American Quarterly journal, an intriguing study entitled “Beyond Visual Aids: American Film as American culture” (1980) in which she highlighted the prominent role of the cinema in American culture. For her, the medium “doesn’t just illustrate but has been and is American art, history, politics, culture, and institution from 1895 to the present,” adding that “without the inclusion of film, American Studies is not studying America” (300) at all.

Similar to various popular culture artifacts, the American cinema was either missing from or only superficially present in the theoretical field of the American studies after the eighties. In 2006, two noteworthy articles warned once again about a significant lack of interest in the implication of movies within the Americanist discipline. One was Jonathan Auerbach’s “American Studies and Film: Blindness and Insight” which came out also in the American Quarterly. Auerbach observed that “[n]o systematic analysis of film” was yet performed “by academics,” (31) noting that the attitude of the discipline of American studies towards film remained virtually unchanged. He was appalled by the “puzzling lack of engagement with movies” (31) despite a self-evident pairing of film and the wider Americanist field. To exemplify his statement, Auerbach pointed out that while in the period between 1953 and 1973 there was only one article on film in the major academic Americanist forum, “[b]y the late 1970s and early 1980s, film had already shown up on the American studies radar, belatedly a full generation after the emergence of the American studies itself in the United States” (31-32). And indeed, Rollins’s and Sobchack’s articles are eloquent examples in this direction.

The other 2006 study in this regard was Lauren Rabinovitz’s “More than Meets the Eye: Movies in American Studies,” published in the American Studies journal. Rabinovitz was intrigued by the stagnant liminal presence of film and remarked that “original scholarship on cinema remains at the margins of American studies” with “only five essays that incorporate cinema as cultural artifact between 1996-2006 in the discipline’s main publication, the American Quarterly” (78). As a possible solution, she advocated the use of “social history of cinema that contextualizes films within cultural knowledge” (79) by pinpointing the need to see behind the textual implications of movies and the network of “processes and experiences” (83) enveloping the films themselves, a creative strategy that could bring together the above-mentioned fields.

Significantly, both Auerbach and Rabinovitz concentrate on visual metaphors: the first highlights the trope of “blindness,” connoting the invisibility and the absence of movies materialized as a paradigmatic blind spot within the Americanist field, while the second focuses on the trope of the “eye,” suggesting visibility and presence, and thus a clearly discernable opportunity in the making considering the inherent potentials of the visual medium in and through American studies.

II. Film’s Alternative Paradigm Dramas in American Studies

When describing the development of American studies as a discipline in “Paradigm Dramas in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” published in American Quarterly in 1979, Gene Wise delineated a series of so-called “paradigm dramas” (171) he defined as “actual patterns of thinking in action” (175). These paradigm dramas were defined as “representative acts” of culture endowed with special, “trans-actional quality” (169) that offer “enormous potential for work” in American studies, especially “useful in bridging” gaps between the disciplines it employs (169). Wise used the creative thespian metaphor of the paradigm drama to map and describe a series of distinctive acts in the disciplinary matrix of the American studies in the seventies such as landmark publications, courses, conferences, programs, grants, academic events, and other important cultural processes that shaped the paths of the discipline.

Film, considered in this seminal essay as a popular culture artifact, was indirectly referred to because, as the author noted, the practitioners of the popular culture field “have broken away to form a separate movement” (189) from the larger discipline. According to Wise, American popular culture―cinema included―is a genuine “American Studies creation” (189) that dissociated itself from the larger “parasite” (188). From this perspective, the (re)placement of relevant paradigm dramas with alternatives related to the world of movies among Wise’s classical paradigm dramas seems not only logical but also a legitimate step.

Although long-present, film is still a ‘fresh’ topic looking for methods of inquiries within the discipline of American studies with the link between the disciplines themselves still deficient despite the fact that movies alongside film theory and criticism are as significant representative acts as the literary works or historical documents that shaped the paths of traditional American studies. Movies have been a crucial component of the American life and culture that inspired innumerable writers, critics, journalists, and theorists alike. From the cornucopia of works about film and American culture I have chosen below a brief selection of representative acts bridging the American cinema with various areas of American studies; they are important works that opened new ways in the interpretation and reinterpretation of America through which they can be considered alternative paradigm dramas.

In 1915, when American studies was a discipline in the making and film was far from being accepted as a full art form, the poet and performance artist Vachel Lindsay prophesized in his pioneering work, The Art of Moving Pictures, the vast potential of cinema in shaping American culture and democracy in the United States. He anticipated the medium’s effect on the global level also when he said that “[t]he state that realizes this may lead the soul of America, day after to-morrow” (2004). Lindsay described film as a universal instrument of visual culture with tremendous impact and foresaw this form of art as a “new weapon of men” (2004), an idea later echoed in the intriguing work of the independent film producer and writer Frances Stonor Saunders entitled The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (2001), where she acknowledged―besides other art works―the role of movies, mostly of the Hollywood cinema, as a major cultural and ideological ‘weapon’ especially important during the World War II and the Cold War.

In 1960, the avant-garde filmmaker and film theorist Maya Deren emphasized in “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality” the important role of the American mainstream but also experimental films when she claimed that cinema should “explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province” (70). Her interdisciplinary urge foresaw a novel approach regarding the connection between American films and its creator(s): the 1962 Americanization of auteur theory. This theory, formulated by film critic Andrew Sarris on the premises of the French la politiques des auteurs prompted the rise of academic film studies―hosted for a long time, as Robert Stam noted, mostly in literature departments (92)―and can be considered a significant alternative paradigm drama, especially in the context of comparative, cross-cultural approaches emerging during the sixties in the field of American studies.

However, as Wise writes, in a commitment “to a distinctive American Studies venture” American studies scholars “retreated” (210) to their disciplinary heavens and despite an increasing interdisciplinary trend starting from the sixties, they left open the opportunity to include paradigm dramas of cinematic relevance into the official map of the field. Nevertheless, the Americanization of the auteur theory―among many other yet less mapped works pertaining to American film and cinema―are genuine alternatives since they fit the criteria set by Wise for these paradigms, especially through their inherent potential for the “ritual rhetoric of newness” (210).

Although omnipresent in everyday life―as Rollins, Auerbach, and Rabinovitz have also shown―movies were visible to a lesser extent in the larger field of theoretical American studies until the late 1970s and early 1980s. A distinguished exception and one that can definitely be included among the alternative paradigm dramas with cinematic relevance is the “Film and American Studies” 1979 Special Issue of the American Quarterly (Vol. 31, No. 5), which strange it may seem, appeared in the same year after the publication of Wise’s study (Vol. 31, No. 3). Nonetheless, during the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a proliferation of new cultural hierarchies in the United States. The popular culture scholar George Lipsitz was one of its advocates: in his influential study entitled “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory and American Studies” (1990), he suggested that “a theoretically informed” American studies should begin by listening to all forms “found within the concrete contests of everyday life” (328), movies included. Later, Lipsitz labeled this emerging area the “other American studies” and pointed out that the novelty of this realm consisted in the employment of “organic grassroots theorizing about culture and power that has [since] informed cultural practice, social movement and academic work” (2002). Similar to Lipsitz’s organic grassroots theorizing, John Belton’s cultural overview entitled American Cinema/American Culture (1994) emphasized that it was the movies―throughout various processes of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception―that responded critically and in a complex way to social, economical, and political issues of certain decades. He concentrated on film as a genuine collective experience, concluding that, particularly in this regard, movies were the primary cultural ‘nests’ of a homogenous, middle-class American culture.

The filmic alternative paradigms of American studies comprise a quite heterogeneous compilation of publications and theories, films and documentaries, institutions and events. In terms of earlier publications, besides Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture, Gilbert Seldes’s work on the early history of the American cinema entitled The Movies Come from America (1937) is also of pioneering importance. A crucial moment in the joined realm of film studies and American culture is marked by Andrew Sarris’s influential work on The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968). Here, Sarris canonized American directors and ranked a number of movies performing, as Stam noted, an “invaluable rescue operation for a number of neglected films and genres” that facilitated the entry of moving images into higher education by promoting the legitimization of cinema studies as a valid academic field (92). Additionally, Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (1975) is another milestone publication on the relationship between film and American culture. This book was, according to William Grimes, one of the “first histories to place Hollywood films in a social and political context, finding them a key to understanding how modern American values and beliefs have been shaped” (2011) by the mainstream cinema.

Of a complex significance in subtly conjoining American studies, gender, and cinema is Parker Tyler’s prolific oeuvre on American mainstream and underground, alternative American films including Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1972), one of the first studies on queer identities in American films. Along this line of thought, Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (published in 1981) outlined the first history of LGBT Hollywood that was adapted in 1996 into a documentary movie with the same title which was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. This adaptation, alongside Gerald Peary’s comprehensive documentary of a hundred years of American film criticism entitled For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism (2009) are significant alternative paradigm dramas focusing on filmmaking, film criticism, gender, and cultural studies. Moreover, Peter Decherney’s Hollywood and the Cultural Elite: How the Movies Became American (2005) is another noteworthy cultural act discussing the ways in which several cultural institutions, “museums, universities, and even government agencies embraced film and the film industry to maintain their hold on American art, education, and the idea of American identity itself” (2). Decherney’s work emphasizes cinema’s important affiliation with these institutions through which Hollywood “successfully wove” itself “into the fabric of American culture” (4).

One of the prominent institutions incorporating filmic works was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The museum’s film collection, founded as the Film Library in 1935 with the primary aim to “illustrate the historic and artistic development of motion pictures and to establish the medium as a major art form,” holds today over 22,000 films. According to Auerbach, the establishment of this film archive at MoMA marked “a crucial moment in the history of film studies in the US, legitimizing cinema as an art form worthy of close attention” (34). Another prominent institution hosting movies is the National Film Registry, established in 1988 as part of the Library of Congress’s Audio-Visual Conservation that, according to its webpage, includes a continuously expanding list of films “of enduring importance to American culture,” and other visual works that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Outside the United States, the American film has been subject to a vast number of various cross-cultural studies―a fact that points to the international importance of film as a specific cultural product―but a comprehensive introspection into the relationship between film and the field of American studies is still in the making. However, an important step in this regard is the 2010 special issue on “Film. European Film-makers Construct the United States” published by the online European Journal of American Studies, which comprises intriguing articles on the construction and deconstruction of America by European (Ex-Yugoslav, Spanish, British) and immigrant filmmakers, as well as by the German émigrés, mythmaking during the Cold War, and the transatlantic cultural hybridities in film, to name just a few.

III. A Symbiotic Affair

The connection between American studies and the larger world of movies is more than a random connection; it is, as the above-mentioned alternative paradigm acts have shown, rather as a collaborative enterprise. Moreover, the two fields are into an enduring dialogic relation, complementing or supplementing each other, an interrelationship that can be described in many cases as a symbiotic association. Symbiosis, implying “living together in more or less intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms,” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, appears in the case of the American cinema and American studies as “more or less intimate associations,” generally in “close union” throughout the history of American studies as an institutionalized discipline vis-à-vis the history and development of the American film. Let me succinctly illustrate a few of these “intimate associations” in the following.

Although they developed in separate institutional contexts, the paradigm acts in American studies shared virtually the same timing with the institutional development of movies in the United States. Moreover, in the case of the film world, these watershed moments are, interestingly, in connection with the development of censorship.

The timespan between the 1920s and 1930s, which was labeled as the pre-institutionalized period of American studies―including paradigm dramas such as Vernon Lois Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (written between 1914 and 1927) as the shaping book of the discipline, the foundation of American Literature journal (1929), alongside the appearance of American history and civilization programs at Harvard, Pennsylvania University, and George Washington University (the 1930s)―coincided with the Pre-Code era or the censorship-free period of the film industry that began with the establishment of the first modern American film studio in Inceville (between 1912 and 1922), which produced the first generation of American films without any censuring restrictions. As Kolbenschlag remarked, the “U.S. film came into existence at that crucial point in time when the frontier had recently vanished, when the reality had receded into the past but the afterimage remained more vivid in the rearview mirror of popular imagination” (2004). Early American films enjoyed an unrestricted artistic freedom and proliferated accordingly in the absence of censuring ‘frontiers;’ they became “rearview,” shaping films of American identity that reflected “the myth rather than the immediate reality” (2004) during the period when the emerging field of American studies began to map the elements of its usable past. Even though they were essential tools in the national mythmaking processes, films were left out from the elitist, academic discourse (then mostly centering on literature and history) during the dawn of American studies as discipline because movies were then part of the mass or ‘low’ culture, a ‘less serious’ subject of academic inquiry. Nevertheless, the thirties ended with the founding of American studies as a distinct discipline parallel with the impressive development of the motion picture industry, of Hollywood, as America’s most visible image-maker, which soon came under the strict supervision of the Production Code Administration (PCA), the censoring office of films (1930-1934) with its powerful Hays Office.

Between the late 1930s and early 1960s, the institutionalization of American studies took place under the aegis of the so-called consensual, exceptionalist perspective, catalyzed by the ideological climate of the Cold War, leading to the consolidation of the discipline’s programs throughout the country (some involving massive corporate foundation grants), to the founding of American Quarterly journal in 1949, and to the establishment of the American Studies Association in 1951. In terms of film, these three decades roughly corresponded with the Golden Age of Hollywood and the classical Hollywood cinema with massive studio film productions and blockbusters, all under the strict supervision of the PCA. This was the period in which American studies merged into a national institutionalized discipline and the same period when Hollywood became America’s significant institution. However, towards the end of the tumultuous sixties, the challenging of PCA’s censuring office by what has became the commercial American art cinema―especially important in this regard were A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan, 1951) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1965)―led to the demise of movies censorship as such; the PCA had to be substituted with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film-rating system at the end of the decade (1968). Simultaneously with the overturning of movie censorship in the filmic context, the subversive sixties and the seventies brought significant changes in the field of American studies. The field witnessed a series of dissenting events merging into what was known as the American Studies Radical Caucus questioned earlier approaches by addressing complex issues involving multiculturalism and interdisciplinarity; the incidents related to this Caucus, among others, led to the appearance and development of comparative (1970s and 1980s) and international (1990s) approaches to American studies. The post-sixties changes in American studies took place concomitantly with the rise of Hollywood’s own decentering and diversification: the rise of New Hollywood (1960s through 1980s), the proliferation of independent film studios (1970s), the appearance of home videos (1980s)―all of which due, directly or indirectly, to the absence of the former censoring office.

Starting during the 1990s and culminating especially in the first decades of the new millennium, various technological developments that have been reshaping, among many other realms, on a global level the cinematic world, too, lead to a special turn in American studies and film alike: the transnational direction.

IV. The Transnational Approach

As Sobchack observed, the connection between American studies and film studies―which she envisages as two “broad, fluid” fields―is “rather like standing before the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers” (280). Although independent of each other and quite complex in themselves, these areas are “mutually interdependent, each illuminating and providing context for the other” (281) because, as Sobchack stressed, film studies is integral part of American studies as American studies is part of film studies (280). To accommodate this commonly shared “part,” we need an appropriate interpretive space to host this symbiosis, which, in the current context of global discourses, can be best provided by the transnational interpretive modes.

Film is an inherently transnational medium that appeals to global audiences; therefore the use of transnational discourses to describe the relationship between film and New American studies seems a logical strategy to link the two fields as an effective way to test this dialogic syntax. Shelley Streeby noted that today, when “global flows of culture incite American studies scholars to theorize the popular in new, transnational ways” (432-452), film, too, seems to find its “staging ground” within the realm of New American studies, especially after the transnational turn that was described by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in her 2004 presidential address to the American Studies Association, in which she emphasized that “the United States is and has always been a transnational crossroads of cultures,” with the majority of apparently American narratives and “phenomena”―films included―as genuine “stories of transnational flow, as is the story of America itself.” (43)

The practitioners of both American studies and film studies have widely varying methodologies that have recently started to thrive on transnational grounds of inquiry and practice especially in the digital realm; each field has developed comparative, global approaches trying to conjoin other fields, including each other. However, their methodologies can be best brought to work, as Rollins recommended, through teaching practice that today must include all the possibilities enhanced by our continuously expanding digital world (e-learning, various forms of digital collaboration ranging from MOOCs and cloud learning to blended learning, etc.). Alongside a growing number of American colleges and universities, many institutions of higher education outside the United States have accommodated movies in their curricula and are intensely using American films as major cultural texts in their various courses on America. In Australia for example, Joy McEntee’s students are “encouraged to consider how the politics and economics of production and reception have interacted with technology to drive aesthetic development and to engage with theoretical concepts and debates that have shaped Film, Literary and Cultural Studies discourses” (135) generally. For better results, McEntee suggests a new “conceptualization of teaching” which would reflect “the methods and ways of knowing specific to the several disciplines that constitute ‘American Studies’” (149). In similar courses worldwide, American studies has successfully transgressed its disciplinary boundaries managing to open up an interdisciplinary space of exciting and multiple possibilities for film, which, as Auerbach noticed, a particularly important “mode of cultural transmission” and a major “resource of understanding US culture” (31) in the current transnational context.

 

Works cited

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