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Always Crashing: Automobility and the Cinema

  • Author(s): Stock, Michael James
  • Advisor(s): Noriega, Chon A
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the myriad of ways automobility and the cinema are interconnected: how they interface with and influence each other; how the cinema represents automobility on screen; how the Traveler-Spectator experiences automobility at the cinema; and how, ultimately, the cinema becomes organized around automobility after the 1920s. Within this book-length work, I explore the similar and shared poetics of spaces of automobility and the cinema, and how they each frame perception, revealing that while the cinema helps shape perception within the automobile, so too does perception in the automobile shape perception in the cinema. My multidisciplinary approach melds cinema studies with historiography, phenomenology, sociology, and architecture – using the works of Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Walter Benjamin, Wolfgang Schivelbush and John Urry as central reference points. My project addresses issues of embodiment and identification while examining the origins and implications of ideologies that are inscribed in automobility and disseminated through the cinema.

Mixing historiography with close textual analyses, my dissertation charts the development of the unique relationship between automobility and the cinema from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st: from the actualities and “phantom ride” films of the late 1890s and early 1900s to the proto-road movies of the 1930s, films noir of the 1940s, driving education films of the 1950s, and the first wave of road movies of the 1960s and 1970s that would eventually lead to the second wave that followed in the 1990s. Utilizing Mikhail Bahktin’s conception of the chronotope, I also address the unique time-space of the automobile, and the resulting correlation of temporality and time consciousness. With the crash these conceptions of space and time are irrevocably altered – for those in the cinema, as in the crash itself. To contextualize this shift historically, I investigate the role that cinema played in crash research of the 1940s and 1950s, and how, in turn, the innovations of crash research pioneers like Hugh DeHaven, John Paul Stapp and Derwyn Severy would go on to forever alter the portrayal of automobility on screen, especially after the publication of Ralph Nader’s bestselling book, Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965. My dissertation closes with a discussion of how this interwoven relationship of automobility and the cinema has ultimately shaped the preferred mode of cinematic spectatorship in the 21st century – at home or on the go – via our home theater systems, laptops and smartphones.

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