Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Federal Films: Bureaucratic Activism and the U.S. Government Motion Picture Initiative, 1901-1941
by Zwarich, Jennifer, Ph.D., New York University, 2014, 387; 3635322
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation describes the emergence and expansion of U.S. government motion picture work over the first four decades of the twentieth century. It situates the early history of federal filmmaking within the long progressive drive to reshape representative government into a more active proponent of the welfare of its citizenry and argues that despite reigning critiques to the contrary, institutional sponsorship actually gave social meaning and efficacy to this mode of social documentary. Indeed, I argue that U.S. government film production can be understood as a kind of social activism that was simultaneously propelled and limited by the contours of the federal bureaucracy. Envisioning government film work as “bureaucratic activism”—with all the power as well as the inefficiencies, entrenched rigidities, red tape, politics and establishment loyalties implied by the term “bureaucratic”—is useful here. It helps capture the contradictory nature of a pragmatic enterprise that actively and optimistically sought social change from within the confines of the status quo.

Federal films are examined in this history as spaces of complex negotiation— as points of contact between the structure(s) of the American democratic state and the imaginings of progressive bureaucrats about both their relationship to that state and its relationship to its citizens. Relying largely on original research in little-mined federal collections, I argue that the interpretations of social problems and solutions attempted in and by these film texts represent more than attempts to bolster institutional authority and reinforce the status quo (though, of course, they were such attempts). These aims were mediated by a will—evident both within the film texts and in the extemporaneous correspondence of their administrators and producers—to explain or justify such authority claims by literally and figuratively visualizing them as not arbitrary but rather in the interest of nurturing or protecting the common good. Federal films, seen in this way, don’t automatically obviate social change but instead represent attempts to relate social change to the ideal of democratic government. Viewed in the context of the specific change initiatives they were produced to aid, federal films were reflections of and on democratic governance itself.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kahana, Jonathan
Commitee: Acland, Charles, Kahana, Jonathan, McCarthy, Anna, Streible, Dan, Wolfe, Charles
School: New York University
Department: Cinema Studies
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 76/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: American history, Communication, Film studies
Keywords: Film history, Government films, Progressivism, Publicity
Publication Number: 3635322
ISBN: 9781321163117
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