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Response to Review of Useful Cinema

Patrick Russell’s exacting portrait of our edited volume Useful Cinema not only expertly captures our design of and conceptual frame for the book, but conveys its relationship to a burgeoning field of scholarship on the history of instructional, industrial, and institutional films and technologies. These generally neglected films are now a source of considerable interest. Their abundance upsets many presumptions about the historical dominance of the fiction feature film; their ubiquity tells us something about how we learned to live with moving images as part of our domestic and work lives long before the digital age. He sees our volume as part of a wave that includes work by such scholars as Lebas, Hediger, and Vonderau. To these one should add the recent field-defining Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible (1); the 2012 Screen Conference at the University of Glasgow had as its theme ‘Other cinemas’, focusing on educational, amateur, and institutional film genres; and the American journal Velvet Light Trap has dedicated an upcoming issue to ‘Useful Media’. In other words, Russell is quite right to position Useful Cinema as one effort among several to consolidate what have been fairly isolated historiographic forays into devalued and marginal moving image practices.

Russell articulates an aspiration we share for expanded and continued work. Our primarily US-focused volume needs more international companionship. And while we tried to assemble studies that represent a full range of institutions – including schools, factories, voluntary societies, libraries, museums, and professional organizations – there are many more that deserve equally close historical and archival attention to examine and explain the entwinement of institutional practices with moving image media.

While we certainly accept, and take seriously, criticism of our editorial voice in the introductory chapter, we do not see our hesitation to be more ‘simple’ about ‘useful cinema’ as a misstep. On the contrary, it strikes us that as more work is being done we ought to be even more reflexive, allowing for more complexity when working to establish the categories and concepts that comprise the architecture of any research paradigm. The goal is not obfuscation or superficial fancy-talk, but rather to use all scholarly tools on the way to greater understanding and clarity: theory, abstraction, criticism, experiment, archival rigour, and so on. As a way to designate moving image work that emerges from, circulates within, and promises to advance particular institutions, the category of ‘useful cinema’ is a productive concept. It helps us understand functional film, as distinct from documentary and entertainment. And it avoids genre specificity, because any sample of functional film will encompass a number of different genres and sub-genres. But the concept is not always so straightforward, as we are not only interested in discussing film texts proper. We expect Useful Cinema to invite investigation of cinema’s whole range of technologies, forms, and uses. This might eventually include celluloid as a storage device (inventories, microfilm, and aerial maps), projectors as display devices (daytime screens and desktop theaters) and institutional policies (funding bills, worker training programs, and information infrastructures). It should be noted that actual ‘usefulness’ is different from the drive to make and deploy cinema in order to achieve certain objectives. Crucially, we do not propose that entertainment films or committed documentaries are ‘useless’ or uninteresting by default. In other words, ‘useful cinema’ is necessarily a provisional array of ideas, texts, and practices that concern the functionality of media.

The study of ‘useful cinema’ is still in its early days. In this book, we have offered up the term as part of our own determined if broad impulse to understand cinema’s enduring functionality in a range of institutional settings. In the end, as Russell seems to appreciate, the ultimate goals for us with this volume were to forward original and specific historical studies in order to spark future studies that will extend and contest the claims we, and our contributing authors, have made. Hopefully, the aspects of indeterminacy currently integral to the concept – as we see it – will be generative for elaborating and fortifying research in this area. This will be the ultimate test of ‘useful cinema’s’ own utility.


  1. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, ed. Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible (Oxford, 2012).Back to (1)