Drawing largely on Thomas Elsaesser’s work on media archeology and through extensive archival research, in On the Screen: Displaying the Moving Image, 1926–1942 Ariel Rogers deftly provides a heretofore unseen historical record and critical study of the evolution of screens in Hollywood filmmaking in “the long 30s” (1926–1942). In addition to pictures, Rogers largely incorporates publicity materials (for films and theaters), trade publication articles, newspaper and magazine articles, film reviews and textual analysis in combination with other scholarly works on film to document the evolution of screen technologies and to show how they can significantly impact readings of films from the period under review.
Along with shedding new light on the history of audiovisual media, Rogers makes the critical aim of her book clear in stating that she wants to “harness her investigation” of the screen technologies of the classical and contemporary era to “propose a means of assessing the historical specificity of the dispositifs opened up with particular contexts” – which she delivers throughout the book.1 Rogers argues that a consideration of dispositifs (“a heterogenous collection of elements producing subjectivity”) allows scholars to map out the multifaceted and reciprocal relationship between film’s “technological, psychic, and social arrangements” as well as “among its material configurations, textual operations, and spectatorial address.”2 In the Introduction and Coda, Rogers specifically frames her book as a reaction and challenge to (1970s) apparatus theory’s technological determinism and against scholars (such as Leo Manovich) who have wrongly associated compositing techniques with avant-garde films or more contemporary films (whereas her study shows screen technologies in the long 30s, such as rear-projection in Chapter 1, were also aimed at “synthesizing multiple spatiotemporal fragments”).3 Another of the book’s central claims is that the “technological reconfiguration of screen technologies in the long 30s contributes to the wider context of spatial reconfiguration (of public and private spaces) in modernity” – which shows that the evolution of screens in the long 30s was motivated by various economic, technological, social, industrial, and cultural factors.
Rogers frames the book with a detailed description of specific technological innovations in screen technologies (outside of film) – she begins by discussing the Memex (a multi-screen display on a desktop invented by Vannevar Bush in 1945) and ends on a discussion of X-rays (discovered at the end of the nineteenth century) to address how a heterogeneity of screens have continually shaped human beings’ experience of time and space when watching media and when moving through other everyday mediated spaces. The book would be a useful rhetorical model for graduate students writing a thesis or dissertation as it provides a nuanced and well-researched account of a specific period of film history and offers a specific intervention in the field with far-reaching implications. Although the study is largely focused on American screen technologies, drawing on the work of Arjun Appadurai, Rogers argues that the screen practices of the long 30s (and today) are part of a “transnational and global flow of culture.”4
The body chapters all focus on specific innovations in screen technology in the long 30s (chronologically). In Chapter 1, Rogers provides an “archaeology of rear-projection” (and special effects such as those used in King Kong and Gone with the Wind) and “related surfaces” to show how “proliferating expanses of glass, cloth, and cellulose” – all with different qualities of “transparency, scale, and movement” – marshal “heterogenous profilmic fragments into particular formations of diegetic space” to allow the viewer to synchronously experience images and sounds produced by multiple screens.5 The experiments discussed in Chapter 2 include large-screen and widescreen systems and modes of filmmaking (which “harnessed the screen’s qualities of scale, scope, and flexibility”) and the experiments discussed in Chapter 3 include “screen and theater design modifications” made in the long 30s (which showcase how theaters came to represent “a field of screen practice marked by flexibility and fluidity”).6 Chapter 4 showcases how “extratheatrical screen practices” are also motivated to “synchronize” real and visual realms, especially in the domain of television.7 In the Coda, Rogers argues that contemporary screens “expose and actualize the expansiveness of mediated space surrounding us.”8 The book is organized around discussing the evolution of screen technologies as potentially disruptive yet ultimately unifying (Chapter 1), transformative (Chapter 2), integrative (3–4), and finally, penetrative (Coda) of the barrier between diegetic space of the film and between the virtual and actual realms of viewers. The coda is particularly useful to read as it summarizes all previous chapters and connects the study of screen technologies in the long 30s to screens of the late 2010s and beyond. The discussion of elemental media (fire, air, water) and screens’ mobility are also central to the book’s discussion of how screens mediate our world.9
Throughout the book, the question of medium-specificity and autonomy looms large and remains unacknowledged.10 Rogers’s book provides a transmedial, transnational, and transdisciplinary history and study of screens - which creates an erasure of the material distinctions between film, television, and emerging media screens. This is problematic because the various dispositifs at play in the arrangement of traditional film theater viewing spaces is one that is unique to the cinematic medium. Affect theory also seems curiously absent from this book as it might bring about new questions for scholars interested in exploring how the spatiotemporal arrangement of films relates to how our bodies react to films to make meaning out of them.11 Despite these exclusions, Rogers’s detailed and impressively supported account of how film screen technologies have proliferated is a timely and relevant study when one considers that humans are becoming increasingly more reliant on screens and the diversity of screens in the media landscape seems to be ever-growing.
Stephanie Oliver is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research interests include film history and the study of Hollywood films in relation to feminist film theory, genre theory, auteur theory, reception, and star studies.
- Ariel Rogers, On the Screen: Displaying the Moving Image, 1926-1941 (Columbia University Press, 2019),18. [^]
- Ibid. [^]
- Ibid., 7. [^]
- Ibid., 8. [^]
- Ibid., 35. [^]
- Ibid., 67 and 92–93. [^]
- Ibid., 143. [^]
- Ibid., 209. [^]
- Ibid., 196. [^]
- See Immanuel Kant, Clement Greenberg, and Michael Fried. [^]
- See Linda Williams and Vivian Sobchack. [^]