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Road Shows

New essay collection looks at travel and the cinema

For the price of a movie ticket, you can go almost anywhere, and it was this aspect of cinema that inspired Assistant Professor of Film and Television Studies Jeffrey Ruoff to put together Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel (Duke University Press, 2006), an anthology of essays examining travelogue films. Ruoff says the book, which includes his essays, those of other leading film scholars, as well as work by relative newcomers to the field, deals with "cinema as a mode of transportation."

Jeffrey Ruoff
Jeffrey Ruoff

The idea for the book grew out of a 2003 workshop held at Dartmouth using a grant from the Dickey Center. The grant brought visiting scholars Paula Amad, Peter Bloom, Alison Griffiths, and Lauren Rabinovitz to Hanover to share their essays on travelogue films, all of which are included in the text. According to Ruoff, Virtual Voyages is the first book-length study of the travelogue, "a form that has been overlooked by film studies," he says. "Conceiving of the cinema as a mechanism for travel returns us to questions about the basic cinematic apparatus. The anthology proposes historically grounded readings that illuminate our understanding of the medium by seizing different instants in its 100-year evolution."

The coevolution of travel technology and cinema provides much of the fodder for Virtual Voyages. Ruoff explains that, "images of travel have gone hand-in-hand with new forms of transportation. There is a symbiotic relationship between motion pictures and the railroad in the early 20th century, in which railroad companies used moving images to advertise rail transportation, while audiences flocked to watch virtual railroad travel when it was still too expensive for most people to experience it firsthand." He also says that, "in filmed accounts of early cross-country road trips, the automobile itself frequently emerges as the star of the show."

In addition to his role as editor, Ruoff authored a chapter of the book, "Show and Tell: The 16mm Travel Lecture Film." His essay addresses the American tradition of itinerant lecturers showing lantern slides, and later motion pictures, about faraway places accompanied by a live commentary delivered from the stage. Travel lecture films are largely believed to have died out as a form of entertainment by the 1920s due to the advent of movie theatres. However, according to Ruoff, the genre actually thrived after World War II due to the commercial availability of 16mm film and, in fact, the art form persists to the present day. "[Modern] travel film lecturers narrate travelogues in concert halls, universities, and clubs across North America," says Ruoff. "They are independent filmmakers par excellence-they produce, direct, shoot, edit, narrate, and distribute their feature travelogues." He notes, however, that the genre is endangered, quoting one travel lecturer as saying, "'We are the last of the vaudevillians. We go from town to town, set up our projectors, our sound systems, do our shows, and then drive on.'"

By GENEVIEVE HAAS

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Last Updated: 12/17/08