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Split Screen Nation: Vernacular Screen Forms of the American Paradox

Une nation divisée à l’écran : formes filmiques vernaculaires du paradoxe américain
Susan Courtney

Résumés

Cet essai retrace une histoire éclectique des films populaires américains, issus entre autres du cinéma hollywoodien, qui assurèrent la médiation de sentiments conflictuels à l’égard des États-Unis pendant les décennies après la Seconde Guerre mondiale, tout en mettant en évidence des oppositions implicites, et parfois explicites, entre le Sud filmique et l’Ouest filmique. L’article identifie, avant tout, un souhait de cartographier, au cours de cette époque, les États-Unis à travers des images animées, et démontre que le Sud se présente, de manière régulière, comme une sorte de problème visuel, alors que l’Ouest américain apparaît, aussi systématiquement, comme une solution pour imaginer la nation. Ces dynamiques sont abordées à travers l’optique des films d’entreprise produits par les sociétés de transport Chevrolet et Greyhound, de même que dans un remarquable film d’amateur composé d’images des années cinquante et du début des années soixante, terminé seulement en l’an 2000, intitulé Family Camping through Forty-Eight States: Travel Experiences by the Barstow Family of Wethersfield, CT, U.S.A, 1954-1961 et réalisé par Robbins Barstow.

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Preamble

1As I prepare this essay for publication, months into Donald Trump’s presidency, popular sentiments in the United States of a nation divided feel more intense, and more dangerous, than at any other time in my lifetime. And while our contemporary moment lies well beyond the scope of this essay, the film history addressed below nonetheless resonates with a palpable history of divided feelings about the United States and its most paradoxical narratives. To consider how such feelings have been mediated, in part, through a substantial if unstable history of rhetoric about “the South” and “the West” is thus to consider a history of representation that continues to mark popular ways of knowing and not knowing America, past and present.

Introduction

  • 1 Susan Courtney, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, New Yor (...)

2This essay will show that the routinely exceptional and excessive filmic territories that are the Hollywood West and the Hollywood South have long circulated amidst a still wider range of related screen forms and practices. In a book-length study devoted to that history, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, I consider how it expanded and dramatically changed in the decades after the Second World War, in the face of the civil rights movement and the Cold War.1 In those contexts, the book argues, popular film and related screen media negotiated conflicted feelings about “America” and “Americans” through an implicit, and sometimes explicit, opposition between the screen South and the screen West. And that opposition becomes especially vivid when we consider examples not just from Hollywood cinema, but from a still larger field of U.S. screen culture that included television, educational and corporate films, amateur films (including “home movies”), and military and civil defense films that featured the testing of the atomic bomb in the American desert.

  • 2 Early on in what has at times been called the “new” southern studies, Houston Baker and Da (...)

3Most simply put, the larger study brings together two mythic American scenes that popular culture routinely prefers to split apart: one of national promise and one of national disgrace. In one, “the West” returns (again and again) as an empty space-time of possibility for a rugged breed of national heroes, even when that breed, and that promise, are in doubt; in the other, pronounced forms of suffering and guilt that might accompany depictions of violence and oppression throughout the nation are continually localized onto images of “the South,” figured as a remote place undone by category crisis that looks backward (morally and temporally), and within which are contained any manner of abject subjects. Repeatedly, this “splitting” can be seen to negotiate, whether by sheer avoidance or through more complex forms of displacement and projection, the difficulty of reconciling, or even processing, the most paradoxical of national narratives — e.g., “land of the free”/land of slavery, conquest, and segregation — and the conflicted national feelings these can generate in turn. While confronting such contradictions head-on has the potential to capsize cohesive conceptions of the nation, by now familiar screen forms of the West and the South offer convenient, discrete, and consequential imaginary places upon which to collectively project avowed aspirations and dump troubling forms of national waste (forms like guilt, shame, and indifference).2 Pinpointing some of the most severe, influential, yet understudied postwar trends fueling this dynamic, and mining their potential for more complex ways of thinking and feeling about the nation, Split Screen Nation considers how their audiovisual forms have encouraged and impeded collective processes of remembering and forgetting. How, it asks, have such forms helped to shape how we imagine not only the nation’s past, but also the limits and possibilities of its present and future?

  • 3 In Split Screen Nation, from which this essay is derived, I draw on the work of Ri (...)
  • 4 Klinger rejects a popular reading of Easy Rider that assumes its “advocacy of the (...)

4Hollywood’s routine insistence, at least since the Second World War, on differentiating the screen West from the screen South has meant, in part, that these imagined territories are held apart from one another on the big screen more often than not.3 Yet films in which they explicitly collide invite us to recognize and reflect upon dynamics between them. If this became vivid most recently with Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012), the iconic example from the mid-20th century is Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). Through its structuring motorcycle road trip, as Barbara Klinger has discussed, the earlier film maps its contradictory feelings about unfinished change in America in decidedly regional terms: in its most idealistic moments, footage of hippie protagonists cruising through open western landscapes signifies new men enjoying new freedoms; but ultimately all such possibilities come to a devastating end in the South.4

  • 5 Partial lyrics to the theme song to “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” (1956 to 1963) include: (...)
  • 6 Charles Tepperman notes that a good deal of scholarship on non-theatrical film of many dif (...)

5Excavating what might be described as (among other things) a film historical backstory to Easy Rider, the current essay will demonstrate that a distinctly national frame animating relations between the screen West and the screen South also becomes especially visible when we consider evidence from a rich history of small screen practices that boomed in the decades after the Second World War. For in that period we find intensified interest in mapping the nation on screen, often via region. Television commercials from the 1950s and into the 1960s invited viewers to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” not only through that jingle but also via film footage of Dinah Shore and others “travelin’ east, travelin’ west,” and so on.5 The series Route 66, which ran from 1960 to 1964, was notable for taking viewers on and beyond that well-beaten path with location shooting throughout the country. And other examples from the period suggest further opportunities for U.S. viewers to take such nationally-minded moving image trips; from not only their living rooms and movie theaters, but also gatherings organized by schools, clubs, and other community groups that might rent and show 16mm films. Even those who couldn’t afford or would be denied roadside service during actual cross-country travel, the evidence suggests, were explicitly invited to imagine it via moving images. What is more, I argue, they were invited to imagine themselves as American citizens in the process, and that process drew heavily on filmic representations of region.6

Postwar Cultures Converge

6My central examples below will include some short corporate films from the 1950s promoting car and bus travel that were widely shown on television, in schools, and to community groups; and a remarkable amateur film comprised of footage from the 1950s and early 1960s, but not completed until 2000, Robbins Barstow’s Family Camping through Forty-Eight States: Travel Experiences by the Barstow Family of Wethersfield, CT, U.S.A, 1954-1961. Before considering these, however, it is useful to note the convergence within them of multiple strands of postwar U.S. culture, including: booms in 8mm and 16mm filmmaking; car and highway culture, generally; and, more specifically, the family road trip and the multiple mid-20th century histories at play in it.

  • 7 Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. Lawre (...)
  • 8 Ibidem, 44, 54, 49.
  • 9 Ibid., 94, 92.
  • 10 Ibid., 69.

7In her study of the rise of the road trip vacation in this period, Susan Sessions Rugh helps us flesh out some of the specific conditions that would have shaped the production of amateur road films, as well as professionally produced films promoting cross-country travel on behalf of the auto and bus industries. First, Rugh shows that the increased popularity of the road trip after the Second World War was a highly national as well as familial practice, wherein Americans “were pilgrims to historic sites and national landmarks, consuming the American landscape while tutoring their children in the history of their nation.”7 In addition, she notes that in road maps and travel guides the nation was envisioned for these travelers as both “transcontinental” (due in part to the development of the interstate highway system) and emphatically “regionalized” (whereas, Rugh notes, “a more homogenized American culture would later erase regional distinctions in maps and guides”).8 And in these contexts, she also documents, the West and the South variously stood out. Considering the popularity of travel in the West Rugh ties what she calls “the West tourists were looking for” to the era’s kiddie cowboy craze (on TV, lunch boxes, etc.) that “served up a vision of the West as America, where the good guys always won.”9 By contrast, the South shows up in her study more like a vacation nightmare, wherein “African Americans often feared for their safety, even their very lives, as they traveled the…highways of the Deep South.”10

  • 11 “Jim Crow” is a term used to refer to local and state laws enacted and enforced throughout (...)
  • 12 Rugh, Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations, op. cit., 74
  • 13 Ibid., 75.
  • 14 Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South, D (...)

8Equally important, Rugh prompts us to reconsider not only what did, but also did not, clearly distinguish the South and the West in the era of Jim Crow segregation.11 Based on letters of complaint filed with the National Association of Colored People [NAACP], she writes: “While African American highway travelers expected to have trouble in the South, they were frequently denied accommodations […] all over the country… in[cluding] the Midwest…the West…and the Northeast.”12 On one “bitterly cold night in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1949,” for example, a family in search of lodging was turned away “at eight different places.” In a letter on the family’s behalf, an NAACP executive in upstate New York expressed having been “‘shocked at this Jim Crow which took place, not in the Deep South, but in the wide open spaces of the West.”13 This juxtaposition at once bespeaks a savvy letter writer who knows which (regional) buttons to push, and resonates with many accounts of black travelers being denied public accommodations beyond the South. Indeed, registering how the West here stands in for the nation at its “wide open” best, we might revise Tara McPherson’s formulation in another context that “the South is in the nation, and the nation in the South,” to say that in postwar reality, if not on film, the national disgrace so often called “the South” was also routinely in the West, despite constellations of history and representation that have invited us to imagine otherwise.14

Seeing the U.S.A. with Chevrolet and Greyhound

  • 15 Rick Prelinger posits the umbrella term “sponsored film” over “industrial” or “ins (...)

9In non-feature film road trips from the 1950s made by professionals and amateurs alike, selling bus travel and cars, in the former cases, and remembering family vacations in the latter, we find not only moving images being used as a means to “see” and imagine the U.S. as a whole, but also, within them, a more and less pronounced, regionalized rhetoric of national citizenship. This rhetoric is detectable across a diverse range of such films, despite their having been produced for very different audiences and purposes, and despite the fragmentary and still emerging nature of archives of home movies and what archivists now call “sponsored films” (films made by professional film production companies but paid for, or sponsored by, all manner of institutions). For a variety of such films routinely imagine their ideal national subjects in and through moving image formations of the West, and they commonly contain potential disruption and critique of dominant national narratives in briefer, and typically more inscrutable, images of the South.15

10A condensed example of this rhetoric is a short film produced for Chevrolet by the Jam Handy Organization (based in Detroit, Michigan), How to Go Places (1954).16 With the premise of a summer vacation by television actress and singer, Gale Storm (then star of the TV-series My Little Margie), the 10-minute film begins by offering practical tips for travel in the family car (on packing, safe driving, keeping the children occupied, and so on). But How to Go Places goes on to articulate what it means to be not only an “expert” traveler, but also an “expert” American, and it does so in terms that become emphatically regional, and predominantly western.

  • 17 All the illustrations are taken from Family Camping through Forty-Eight States: Tr (...)
  • 18 For related histories of tourism, see for example Mark Neumann, On the Rim and David M. Wr (...)

11Although we are never told of a particular destination or itinerary for this trip, the shot that clearly signals the family’s arrival is not of any sign or monument, but of all five family members looking out from a scenic rocky perch to admire the (as of yet unrevealed) view. In this arrival shot that lasts ten full seconds, mom and two of the boys point and gaze directly, while a third boy looks through binoculars and dad looks through a tripod-mounted movie camera that he slowly pans to capture the scenery (fig. 1).17 Over this image the voice-over adds, slowly: “On any cross-country vacation trip, the real expert is the one who takes the time to discover America.” This shot thus quickly articulates discovery of the nation as seeing it, with your own eyes and mediated through assorted visual equipment.18 Indeed, the film being shot by dad also suggests the family’s means to rediscover America in the implied future of home-movies-to-be.

12What is more, in the reverse shot that follows, and several later ones, this articulation of national citizen-spectatorship clearly privileges seeing in the West as the exemplary mode of being an expert American. Immediately after the shot of the family looking out from their rocky perch is another western scene (albeit not one that bothers to look like what they would likely see from where they stand): we see enormous cacti in the immediate foreground, with men riding by on horseback in the middle ground, mountains in the far distance, and sky filling nearly half the frame (fig. 2). As cowboy music plays, the voice-over perhaps suggests more diverse views of the nation: “East or West, North or South.” But the next two slowly moving shots take us to see “the awe-inspiring wonders of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado” and “the spectacular beauty of Zion National Monument,” before we head East for one shot of “mighty Niagara” and another from a bridge over “the sparkling waters of the Atlantic” (which, not insignificantly, we will later learn to recognize as a bridge to the Florida Keys). Curiously, in the shot then narrated as “the historic Southland,” we see the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., before this condensed film map of the nation culminates with a view of Mount Rushmore. Over this last monument the narrator concludes: “All these and a thousand more within your easy reach. Isn’t America wonderful!” After more images of exemplary citizen-spectators, first mom looking out through binoculars, before both parents directly enjoy the view, a final shot leaves us with a kindred view afforded by the Chevy’s front seat as it moves through a winding scenic road. In short, western vistas also here dominate the spectator’s American journey—in screen time, scenic beauty, and the ordering of shots—comprising four shots out of the seven that provide the condensed screen map of the nation (including its first three and its climax with that most literally patriotic transfiguration of landscape, Mount Rushmore), and providing visual closure for the film (and its promotional rhetoric) in the view from behind the wheel overlaid with the caption “A Chevrolet Picture.”

  • 19 A boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland surveyed in the 1760s, this line was used to (...)

13Noteworthy, too, are the ways the rest of the country, and the South in particular, do and do not show up in relation to so many celebrated views of the West. Indeed, what are we to make of naming “the historic Southland” over the image of the Jefferson Memorial? It’s a puzzling shot both as the sole image of the South and as the sole image of the nation’s capital. As the former, it invites us to ask: by 1954 is a pretty travelogue shot of a southern plantation home – certainly a readily available, iconic film image – too risky for a corporate sponsor courting a nationwide audience? And with the latter, we might also wonder, by introducing the capital, and the shrine to this Founding Father, as residing below the Mason-Dixon line19, does the film risk (however unconsciously) exposing national (explicitly presidential) interests in the institution most typically associated with “the historic Southland”? Although, of course, there is no mention that Thomas Jefferson owned (and bred) slaves, might such history silently hover in this overlay of sound and image? Even as such questions exceed the limits of this short film, and belie my own historical vantage, the fact that they can bubble up, however fleetingly, will come to seem less random as we continue to trace other enigmatic images of the South in midcentury screen maps of the U.S. that routinely give pride of place to the West.

14Elsewhere I discuss related evidence from films that promote seeing the nation through the window of a Greyhound bus as good citizenship, America for Me (Albert H. Kelley, 1953) and Freedom Highway (Harold Schuster, 1956). In those films, too, the West appears as the exemplary filmic space for mapping such model citizen-spectatorship; and problems posed by the real South amidst battles over desegregation are detectable only (if at all) in curious detours and displacements whereby that region is somehow mapped without its vivid racial legacies. Favorite tropes among these are trips to the Florida Keys (virtually leaping over the South altogether) and memorials to presidents who owned slaves (although these films of course never say that they did).

Cultural Memory and Amateur Film

  • 20 The official language of the National Film Registry comes from the website of the (...)

15If dynamics between the South and the West are admittedly subtle in such sponsored films, they become increasingly evident in the extraordinary amateur film, Family Camping through Forty-Eight States: Travel Experiences by the Barstow Family of Wethersfield, CT, U.S.A, 1954-1961, by Robbins Barstow. For while Barstow, a prolific amateur filmmaker throughout his life, came to some small fame after his film about a dream vacation to Disneyland was added to the U.S. National Film Registry in 2008 (thus becoming officially recognized for its enduring importance to American culture”), in the present context his most remarkable achievement is Family Camping.20

  • 21 Family Camping through Forty-Eight States is accessible (in two parts) at the Inte (...)

16The film chronicles the real midcentury journey of the Barstows — “Rob” (Robbins), Meg, and their three children — through each of the contiguous states of the U.S. via car camping over the course of five one-month summer vacations. But the film was only completed in 2000, when the filmmaker had his original 16mm color silent films transferred to video, edited the material, and added voice-over narration and footage of himself on screen, at the age of 81, presenting his original midcentury footage nearly “half a century” later.21 Introducing the film and each of the journey’s five legs, Barstow explains that his family set out to “combin[e] the fun of camping with learning about America’s past and present.” As a result, the 133-minute work that results repurposes forms that, in the Chevrolet and Greyhound films, might otherwise be too easily dismissed for their purely corporate values. And the substantial historical gap between footage originally shot from 1954 to 1961, and the film’s editing and narration in 2000, as well as the film’s newfound circulation online, open up a rich space for reflection on the place of midcentury moving images in ongoing attempts to reimagine the U.S. since the civil rights era. Refreshingly, while Family Camping’s imaging and narration of the nation are also deeply marked by patriotic sentiment, that sentiment does not blind it to histories of injustice, but rather prompts it to call them out. Nonetheless, while the film routinely evokes its national faith through familiar filmic forms of the West, its most serious doubts about the nation are routinely confined within its audiovisual formulations of the South.

  • 22 The 4-F classification designated ineligibility for military service due to physical (...)

17To grapple with this regional rhetoric and its implications, it is important to recognize first that this national family film project is extraordinary for being, at once, idiosyncratic and yet utterly a product of its times. To envision and complete such an ambitious five-year project as car camping through each of the forty-eight states, with three growing children; to film the journey on 16mm color film; and then to edit the complete saga more than four decades later seems, certainly, unusual. And other evidence suggests that Robbins and Meg Barstow were not stereotypical suburbanites. Or if they were, they prompt us to expand that category to include lifelong commitments to education and social activism (fueled by progressive Christian faith), from work at a settlement house during the Second World War (Robbins had filed as a conscientious objector as well as being declared 4-F) through decades of involvement in projects for peace, civil rights, saving the whales, and public access television.22 Yet, for all the exceptional qualities of the film and its maker, Family Camping is unimaginable apart from, and suggestively knits together, postwar booms in cultures of the car and the road, vacation and leisure, the family, patriotism, and moving image production and consumption across screens, large and small. The thickness and interconnection of such cultural threads are suggested by the film’s depictions of, and references to, things like: the American Motors Rambler “Cross-Country” station wagon purchased for these trips and the copy of Station Wagon Living (published by Ford) the Barstows used to customize it; the road maps, travel guides and National Geographic books used to plot their routes; Coleman camping products; the fringe-trimmed jackets, inspired by the Davy Crockett craze, that Meg sewed for each member of her family; hula hoops; Zorro; and the “many Western movies” invoked in the film — explicitly during a visit to Monument Valley, and implicitly in the film’s framing and privileging of so many western landscapes and Barstows within them.

  • 23 While no survey of amateur films could ever be “complete” or “representative,” my research (...)

18Family Camping’s unusual geographic scope also bears distinct filmic traces of the invitation to midcentury travelers to see the U.S. as both transcontinental and broken into regions.23 The first is suggested by its two-part structure: “Part I: America’s History” and “Part II: America’s Wonderlands.” The national project is also emphasized early on in narration and footage positing the children’s interests in Native Americans (Daniel), the American Revolution (Mary), and space travel (David) as the impetus that led the family to buy their first tent to explore the country. And the design of the journey’s five legs reflects not only pragmatism (e.g., starting close to home on a shorter trip to test things out), but a regional conception of the nation. Thus, after some preliminary camping trips (and, we eventually learn, their free trip to Disneyland in 1956), Part I includes the first three summers of the “five-year plan,” introduced in title cards as: “1957: Nearby New England,” “1958: North Central States and Five Great Lakes,” and “1959: Sightseeing South to Florida and the Mississippi.” Part II climaxes the saga with the final two journeys: “1960: Great Northwest” and “1961: Scenic Attractions of the Southwest.”

19Significantly, however, Family Camping does more than just plot the linear itineraries of road maps and travel guides: it makes especially vivid the ways in which amateur travel films routinely bind together the nation’s disparate parts via images of landmarks that are memorable because family members are captured within them. Before turning to consider the crucial role played by the West in this regard, as well traces of filmic and other troubles posed by the South, it’s useful to note that the Barstows’ uniquely comprehensive interpretation of the “cross-country” trip, as well as the filmmaker’s routine inclusion of people in his landscape shots, are key to the filmic map of the nation that results. Working against the film’s considerable temporal and spatial discontinuities is a vivid sense of family cohesion, as multiple Barstows — often dressed in matching outfits sewn by Meg — are routinely visible within the frame or across adjoining shots. Throughout the film’s 133 minutes one can instantly recognize not only coast-to-coast landmarks, but also the Barstows and their station wagon, such that this model midcentury family quickly becomes the continuity device binding bits of footage together as a coherent film, and as a screen map of the nation.

20For all its obvious investments in seeing, showing, and celebrating the nation as a whole, Barstow’s film nonetheless strikingly deviates from its “home movie” roots in the 2000 voice-over’s reminders of histories that contradict narratives of freedom that pervade the heritage sites visited. On multiple occasions Barstow’s narration follows its own recapitulation of such narratives by adding that “we need to remember, however” the exclusion of “Native Americans” or “black slaves” from the national promises just stated. At one level, then, Family Camping, like white amateur travel films generally, inadvertently documents segregation in its iconic images of white people, exclusively, enjoying life on the road. Yet by calling into question the national narratives it also celebrates, the film can be said at least potentially (if usually indirectly) to invite us to register the segregated history of the midcentury “mobility” it shows. At the same time, of particular interest here is the question of how — in its use of audiovisual forms including but by no means limited to voice-over narration — Family Camping navigates the national paradox it repeatedly announces, via region. For in this film, too, the South appears as a kind of moving image problem, and the West as a routine moving image solution for imagining the nation.

21After the Barstows visit various national and familial origin sites in New England in “Year One,” and assorted local attractions in “Year Two,” “Sightseeing South” begins with a reinvigoration of the national frame with which the project began, sparked by a trip to the nation’s capital before heading further south.

22This third leg of the film’s five proves to be its most complex, for several reasons. First, I would argue, the patriotic pride that surrounds this section of the film resists the traces of slavery and Jim Crow that appear within it. In addition, this segment contains, literally and figuratively, most of the film’s treatment of racial conflict and injustice. For example, here we are told of “the forced expulsion in the 1830s of 20,000 Cherokee Indians from their mountain homes along a Trail of Tears,” yet there will be no mention of conflict between whites and native peoples in the second half of the film devoted to seeing the West. Finally, as we’ll see below, Family Camping’s midcentury images of the South are routine inscrutable, despite the 2000 voice-over’s explicit concern for the racial conflicts intensifying there at the time. The remainder of this essay will, therefore, focus on Family Camping’s curious South before turning to its routinely exalted West and then concluding with reflections on the larger history of vernacular screen forms for imagining the U.S. that becomes clearer with this film’s juxtaposition of the two.

Trouble in “Sightseeing South”

  • 24 Monticello and Mount Vernon are historic homes of two of the nation’s most famous founding (...)

23With a reanimated sense of national purpose that comes with a day in Washington D.C. and visits to national landmarks in Monticello, Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, the Barstows’ trip South begins with a series of one-shot dashes down the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia that culminates with a shot of an enormous funnel cloud looming over a lone mobile home.24 Over this image, the narrator explains that they “rushed through Georgia” for fear of a tornado (fig. 5). After this race to Florida, we visit many tourist attractions there from Cape Canaveral to the Keys, with predictable footage of Barstows at the beach, an alligator farm, Miami’s Seaquarium, and so on. For the spectator, after the dash through the southeast that culminates with the ominous funnel cloud, and its evocation of some palpable (and for this film uncharacteristic) uncertainty, Florida’s vacationlands feel—not surprisingly, and not unlike the Greyhound films—like a more comfortable place to be.

24Even though Family Camping often races to cover its vast ground, where it noticeably speeds up and slows down continues to be suggestive. One obvious slowdown with perhaps less obvious effects occurs during a visit to a popular theme park, Cypress Gardens. There we see the Barstow kids in shorts and t-shirts come upon two young women (employees) dressed up as hoop-skirted “southern belles.” When we next watch one of the park’s famous water ski shows, our Connecticut narrator somewhat hesitantly explains that a human pyramid is “carrying the flag of the southern Confederacy in what they called ‘a salute to Dixie,’” before he excitedly moves on to recount in detail (and with slow motion replays) the “thrill[s]” of no less than five featured water ski stunts. Insofar as Barstow, as cameraman, narrator, and editor alike (“then” and “now”) seems genuinely taken with the water ski spectacle, the extended time and repetition at this precise moment feels hard not to read as a kind of filmic swerve away from the Confederate tributes just witnessed.

  • 25 The Amateur Cinema League (ACL) was formed in 1926 to “attract thousands of members” in su (...)

25But it is after so much sightseeing in Florida, followed by brief glimpses of Biloxi and New Orleans, that we confront the most complicated filmic moment of the Barstows’ trip South. This occurs with a one-shot view of Alabama that is noteworthy, in part, for its deviation from the usual clarity of the film’s visual style. By the 1950s, Robbins Barstow, a member of the Amateur Cinema League since the age of sixteen, had been making films for decades.25 As a result, Family Camping is typically free of the shaky framing and randomly cropped compositions common in home movies. But in the single shot of Alabama, Meg and Mary’s heads are cut off at the bottom of the frame, with what seems to be their tarp-draped luggage rack behind them; and at the upper left edge of the frame a sign reads “Ladies Rest Room” (fig. 6). The image alone is hard to decipher, but the voice-over quickly fleshes out what the image here apparently cannot. We hear that in Alabama “we were upset to see signs of segregation with separate restrooms, drinking fountains, and lunch counters for whites and blacks.” Even with this narration, it remains impossible to clearly match what we see to what the narrator describes. (The sign does not, for example, designate “white” or “colored,” and we don’t see any clear sign of the segregation the voice-over reports.) Then, as if answering the visual confusion of this shot with the clarity of an icon, and one with extraordinary ethical force, the film cuts to an inserted still image of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington (four years later) as the narrator explains, “that direct experience [in Alabama] lead our family to support the civil rights movement to end racial discrimination.”

26Multiple kinds of difficulties in representing the South on film are suggested by the fact that the only midcentury image of segregation Family Camping can name as such is so difficult to read, even when the narrator in 2000 wants to tell us and show us something of its powerful effects. And the routinely odd filmic formulations of “the South” detected in Family Camping’s account of “1954-1961” arguably resonate with those of the related corporate road trip films from the 1950s. To be sure, the challenges are very different for an auto or bus industry aiming to sell to a nationwide audience in the midst of segregation than for an elderly progressive keen to celebrate his family and his country from the vantage of the 21st century. And we need not minimize those differences by registering that, even as the screen Souths that result are significantly varied and variously incoherent, the accrual of incoherence across such different moving image practices can nonetheless signify powerfully on the national map — as enigma, problem, representational hole.

The National Sublime of the (Amateur) Screen West

27By comparison, Family Camping’s treatment of the West looks and feels much more straightforward. At times, the film can be humorously self-conscious, as when the narrator describes the family we see piling back into the station wagon at one point as having “climbed into our 20th-century covered wagon and headed West,” or when the soundtrack that opens Parts I and II gets us in the mood for the “Barstow Travel Adventure” to come with the rousing theme song from How the West Was Won (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Richard Thorpe, 1962).

  • 26 Susan Sessions Rugh, op. cit., 93.

28Even so, far more sincerely than in the corporate-sponsored films considered above, and often reverently, western landscapes are beloved in Family Camping and become, without question, its privileged sites for mapping the nation.26 For nearly an hour Part II, “America’s Wonderlands,” invites us to enjoy, along with Barstows routinely captured gazing in front of the camera as well as behind it, “beautiful vista[s] for peaceful contemplation and soulful inspiration.” Indeed, throughout this second western half of the film we find ourselves in shot after shot, with the Barstows, perpetually “feasting our eyes” on “new horizons before us” — be they “glacier lakes,” “snow-capped peaks,” “the mystical vistas of Monument Valley” or “the awesome reality” of the Grand Canyon (figs. 7-9).

  • 27 In his famous speech accepting the presidential nomination, Kennedy called upon Americans (...)

29What is more, such pleasure in looking at the West—itself clearly shaped by a long history of visual American culture, from 19th century landscape painting to photography to the Hollywood Western—is almost immediately rendered in spiritual terms; and this spiritual rhetoric in turn fuses with, and animates, expressly national sentiment that also intensifies in the West. We learn that upon arrival in the Badlands in 1960 the Barstows “didn’t even set up our tents […] but slept out in the open under the wide western sky. […] we felt that now at last we had reached God’s country.” Marked by the return of the music from How the West Was Won, the 1961 trip serves as the film’s climax, and is introduced with narration linking this final journey to the spirit of the New Frontier, called upon by “the youthful John Fitzgerald Kennedy [who] had just become President of our United States [,] and [whose] vigor […] helped to inspire our family to gear up to meet this final goal.”27 Even as footage here envisions this JFK-inspired “vigor” playfully, with all five Barstows jumping on trampolines, the film nonetheless easily reverts to its more reverent tone. Later, for example, after noting the purchase of “some western clothes and cowboy hats in Durango,” the narrator ties the views at Mesa Verde National Park to God and country at once. As we look with Barstows on as well as off screen, we see “the incredible view from Park Point lookout” of vast open space beyond the mesa. And here the voice-over is moved to recite the lyrics of the patriotic hymn, “America the Beautiful,” reporting that this view “brought to life for us the words ‘O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!’”

Conclusion

  • 28 Rebecca Solnit writes of similar phenomena marking representations of Yosemite from the 19(...)

30In the face of so much visual pleasure taken, and offered, in the West, Family Camping’s efforts to interrupt, or at least supplement, conventional white national narratives of heritage tourism, as discussed above, quietly cease in Part II. After such western vistas are featured for almost an hour, the onscreen narrator closes the film by concluding that this journey gave his family “tremendous appreciation of the great breadth and beauty and wonderful diversity of this marvelous country.” If this conclusion is not unexpected — due not least to the spectacular landscapes visited in the West and to the history of visual culture that has invited viewers to find ourselves there — equally obvious are the ways in which western histories of conquest so easily drop out of such sublime images. This visual cultural tradition in play throughout the film’s second half, whereby images of beautiful and seemingly uninhabited western landscapes displace well-known histories of human life and conflict that have taken place within them, is particularly vivid when the Barstows visit the Badlands.28 Here, in a part of the country thick with histories of indigenous people at home, displaced, and wiped out — not far from the Lakota people’s sacred Black Hills (which the Barstows will also visit, with the camera and the voice-over focused on buffalo, rocks, and Mount Rushmore) and close to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre (which is not mentioned) — we hear rather of the unmitigated jubilation of the family from Connecticut (whose own heritage is audible here in the New England accent that deliver this line) at having arrived in “God’s Country, away from civilization.”

31More to the point, the 2000 narrator of Family Camping is concerned about, and announces elsewhere that on this journey the family was “reminded” of, the “great harm […] done to the Native Americans”; yet amidst the taking in of so many scenic views in the West, the only (two) references to such history are either neutral or positive. It is in the midst of a celebratory narration of Meg and Rob looking out at “the mystical vistas of Monument Valley” with its “most photogenic landmarks” which served as the “setting for many Western movies,” that the narrator notes its location within the “Navaho Tribal Park on the nation’s largest Indian reservation.” Having taken such Hollywood-inspired pilgrimages to Monument Valley myself, I cannot underscore strongly enough that, in pursuing such visual pleasures in the West, Family Camping is by no means alone. At the same time, the film helps us reflect on the larger contexts in which such pleasures operate, and the histories and cultural memories they can mediate.

32The powers of landscape in the screen West to reroute us from encounters with history that might otherwise provoke feelings of anger, guilt, shame, or remorse is suggested once again in a visit to the Taos Pueblo. There we see Rob and a resident shaking hands, and hear of the “remarkable experience of entering a whole new world” and “for the first time [… having] had the opportunity to talk face to face to Native Americans in their own habitat to share with them their pride in their continuing contrasting culture.” And this commentary, too, concludes with an emphasis on that culture being “perpetuated in this beautiful setting with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for a backdrop,” and a pan of that vista—one that seemingly inadvertently but perhaps not incidentally ends up featuring the Barstows’ and other visitors’ station wagons. And this scene at the pueblo occurs just moments before the recitation of “America the Beautiful” inspired atop Mesa Verde.

33In short, even in a film committed to telling in 2000 what amateur travel footage from the 1950s typically does not show, the power and pull of the screen West to render the nation cohesive, even in the face of what is here finally called the “diversity” that has nonetheless threatened to rend it, is still at times remarkable. If this amateur screen map of the U.S. can help us see mass-produced films afresh, it is perhaps with a sense of the genuine difficulty —whatever one’s intentions — of telling and showing, thinking and feeling, this nation’s story in all its contradictions in the face of histories of moving image form that have made it so much easier to split those apart.

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Bibliographie

“2008 Entries to National Film Registry Announced,” Library of Congress, December 30, 2008. <http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2008/08-237.html>, accessed on April 24, 2018.

BAKER Houston & NELSON Dana, “Preface: Violence, the Body and ‘The South’,” American Literature 73.2 (2001): 231-244.

BARSTOW Robbins, “I Am an Amateur Moving Image Archivist,” The Moving Image, 11.1 (2011): 150-154.

BHABHA Homi K., “Introduction: Narrating the Nation,” in Homi K. Bhabha (ed.), Nation and Narration, New York: Routledge, 1990, 1-7.

COURTNEY Susan, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

DYER Richard, White, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

FOX Margalit, “Robbins Barstow, 91, An Auteur of Homemade Movies,” New York Times, November 14, 2010. <https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/arts/14barstow.html>, accessed on May 22, 2018.

GORDON Jane, “Peace and Love: A 55-Year Partnership for Social Progress,” The Hartford Courant, July 28, 1999.

KATELLE Alan D., “The Amateur Cinema League and its Films,” Film History 15.2 (2003): 238-251.

KLINGER Barbara, “The Road to Dystopia: Landscaping the Nation in Easy Rider,” in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, The Road Movie Book, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, 179-203.

MCPHERSON Tara, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

NEUMANN Mark, On the Rim: Looking for the Grand Canyon, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

PRELINGER Rick, The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006.

RICH Frank, “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?,” New York Times, December 27, 2010. < https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/opinion/26rich.html>, accessedon on May 22? 2018.

RUGH Susan Sessions, Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

SHAFFER Marguerite S., See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

SOLNIT Rebecca, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

TEPPERMAN Charles, “Mechanical Craftsmanship: Amateurs Making Practical Films,” in Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, Useful Cinema (eds.), Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011, 289-314.

WROBEL David M. & Patrick T. LONG (eds.), Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

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Notes

1 Susan Courtney, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

2 Early on in what has at times been called the “new” southern studies, Houston Baker and Dana Nelson articulated “a putatively split and decidedly Manichean geography” at work in routine figurations of “The South” by and for the nation: “In order for there to exist a good union, there must be a recalcitrant, secessionist ‘splitter.’ To have a nation of ‘good,’ liberal, and innocent white Americans, there must be an outland where ‘we’ know they live: all the guilty, white yahoos who just don’t like people of color.” My use of similar language to describe split national screen forms resonates with the logic they articulate, and aims to connect it – and the South so imagined – to another historical logic that equates the West with the nation at its “exceptional” best. Houston A. Baker and Dana D. Nelson, “Preface: Violence, the Body and ‘The South’,” American Literature 73.2 (2001), 231, 235.

3 In Split Screen Nation, from which this essay is derived, I draw on the work of Richard Dyer and others to offer a strategic (and by no means comprehensive) history of more and less subtle forms and dynamics that have linked as well as opposed the screen West and the screen South since the silent era. This includes consideration of their formal similarities in the silent era and, especially, their increasing differentiation in the studio era.

4 Klinger rejects a popular reading of Easy Rider that assumes its “advocacy of the hippie” and “denunciation of society,” to argue instead that the film is “fraught with inconsistencies and ambiguities,” “invok[ing] both affirmative and critical visions of 1960s America.” Analyzing its “juxtapos[ition] of ‘America the Beautiful’ with ‘Amerika the ugly,’” Klinger links the former to a patriotic history of western landscape imagery popular at the time in magazines like National Geographic and Life; and she registers the film’s location of the latter “in the South,” although she links that region’s visual forms in the film, evocatively, not to other representations of the South but to Pop Art images of death and disaster. Klinger’s analysis, and its exploration of Homi Bhabha’s notion, in her words, that “the concept of nation is always deeply ambivalent” have been influential to my thinking about Easy Rider and the larger history of screen forms at play in popular modes of reimagining the U.S. Barbara Klinger, “The Road to Dystopia: Landscaping the Nation in Easy Rider,” in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds.), The Road Movie Book, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, 199, 181, 183, 193-198,182-183.

5 Partial lyrics to the theme song to “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” (1956 to 1963) include: “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet / America is asking you to call / Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A. / America’s the greatest land of all […] / Travelin’ east, travelin’ west / Wherever you go Chevy service is best / Southward or north, near place or far / There’s a Chevrolet dealer for your Chevrolet car / So make a date today to see the U.S.A. / And see it in your Chevrolet.”

6 Charles Tepperman notes that a good deal of scholarship on non-theatrical film of many different kinds “has shown that many institutions understood movies as an instrument capable of extending and reinforcing various modern discourses of citizenship.” Charles Tepperman, “Mechanical Craftsmanship: Amateurs Making Practical Films,” in Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson (eds.), Useful Cinema, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011, 290.

7 Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008, 41.

8 Ibidem, 44, 54, 49.

9 Ibid., 94, 92.

10 Ibid., 69.

11 “Jim Crow” is a term used to refer to local and state laws enacted and enforced throughout the U.S. South, from the late 19th century to the civil rights era, that made racial segregation and discrimination legal in all manner of public institutions and everyday practices.

12 Rugh, Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations, op. cit., 74.

13 Ibid., 75.

14 Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003, 254.

15 Rick Prelinger posits the umbrella term “sponsored film” over “industrial” or “institutional” film because “sponsorship […] links films funded by for-profit and nonprofit entities, and it runs through works made for internal viewing (such as training films) and titles targeting customers, business partners, and the public.” Rick Prelinger, The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, San Francisco: National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006, vi-vii.

16 How to Go Places is accessible at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/0250_How_to_Go_Places_M03238_21_11_38_00.

17 All the illustrations are taken from Family Camping through Forty-Eight States: Travel experiences by the Barstow Family of Wethersfield, Connecticut, USA, 1954-1961 (2000). The film is available at: <https://archive.org/details/barstow_americas_history>, accessed on July 9, 2018.

18 For related histories of tourism, see for example Mark Neumann, On the Rim and David M. Wrobel and Patrick T. Long (eds.), Seeing and Being Seen. Marguerite Shaffer describes a much earlier swerve in national attention from the South to the West with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, wherein “the national gaze [was redirected] away from the carnage of the Civil War and toward the expanding possibilities of the West.” Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001, 7.

19 A boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland surveyed in the 1760s, this line was used to describe a border between free and slave states before the American Civil War (although slavery also occurred above it), and the term is still sometimes used to evoke a division, more generally, between the North and South of the US.

20 The official language of the National Film Registry comes from the website of the National Film Preservation Board. In 2008 Disneyland Dream was named to the Registry (which dates it as “1956,” although it was not completed until 1995), after having been discovered by the archival community. It and other Barstow films are now in the Library of Congress and accessible via the Internet Archive. “2008 Entries to National Film Registry Announced”; and Barstow, “I Am an Amateur Moving Image Archivist,” The Moving Image, 11.1 (2011): 150-154. See also Margalit Fox, “Robbins Barstow, 91, an Auteur of Homemade Movies,” New York Times, November 14, 2010: 32 and Frank Rich, “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” New York Times, December 26, 2010: WK14.

21 Family Camping through Forty-Eight States is accessible (in two parts) at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/barstow_americas_history; and https://archive.org/details/barstow_americas_wonderlands. While it is dated “1961” (when the midcentury footage ends), it was actually completed in 2000.

22 The 4-F classification designated ineligibility for military service due to physical conditions. Jane Gordon, “Peace and Love: A 55-Year Partnership for Social Progress,” The Hartford Courant, July 28, 1999 [accessible via newsbank.com]. I am also grateful to Robbins and Meg Barstow for sending me a copy of her memoirs, Meg’s Life Story: Eighty Years of Illustrated Remembrances (self-published “in anticipation of my 80th Birthday, April 22, 2001”).

23 While no survey of amateur films could ever be “complete” or “representative,” my research suggests that home movies featuring the West quite common. At the Internet Archive, for example, one can view titles with names that include: “Family Trip West,” “Out West Vacation,” “The Glory of the West in Natural Colors” (an original title, included within the 1938 film itself), and Wallace’s Kelley’s 1939 film, preserved by the Center for Home Movies as “Family Trip West.”

24 Monticello and Mount Vernon are historic homes of two of the nation’s most famous founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Williamsburg, which also remains an extremely popular tourist destination, was the capital of the Virginia Colony (the first British colony in the U.S.) in the 1700s.

25 The Amateur Cinema League (ACL) was formed in 1926 to “attract thousands of members” in subsequent decades. As Tepperman explains: “Members of the ACL often moved far beyond the ‘point-and-shoot’ aesthetic of home movies, and distinguished their work through attention to the planning and finishing (pre- and post-production) of their films.” Tepperman describes such filmmakers as “serious amateurs,” a term that clearly applies to Barstow. Charles Tepperman, op. cit., 290, 310. See also Alan D. Katelle, “The Amateur Cinema League and its Films,” Film History 15.2 (2003): 238-251.

26 Susan Sessions Rugh, op. cit., 93.

27 In his famous speech accepting the presidential nomination, Kennedy called upon Americans “to be pioneers on that New Frontier, the frontier of the 1960s.” “Texts of Kennedy and Johnson Speeches Accepting the Democratic Nominations,” New York Times, July 16, 1960: 7. Elsewhere I analyze in that speech as well an implicit opposition between western and southern rhetoric in the stark opposition Kennedy draws between “national greatness and national decline.” Susan Courtney, op. cit., 23-24.

28 Rebecca Solnit writes of similar phenomena marking representations of Yosemite from the 19th century to the present. Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 219, 136, 246-47.

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Susan Courtney, « Split Screen Nation: Vernacular Screen Forms of the American Paradox », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVI-n°1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2018, consulté le 23 juillet 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/9537 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.9537

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Auteur

Susan Courtney

Susan Courtney est Professeure d’études filmiques et des médias, et Professeur d’anglais à l’Université de la Caroline du Sud. Co-fondatrice de « Orphan Film Symposium », un projet de recherches sur les images mouvantes comprenant toute œuvre audiovisuelle ignorée ou tombée dans l’oubli, elle est l’auteure de Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South and Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 1903-1967.

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