Saturday, April 2, 2011

And now, the news

On this day in 1902, the first full-time movie theater opened, in, fittingly, Los Angeles, California. In an age when movie theaters have become almost exclusively a source of entertainment, it is easy to forget just how large a role theaters in the United States played throughout the twentieth century in creating a broad "American" identity, forged around shared experiences, ideals and--perhaps most important--increasingly universal access to national and international news. Yes, there were always important exceptions to the ideal of a universal "American" identity, and well there should have been, but we cannot underestimate the significance of an emergent world where citizens in San Diego, Portland, Boston and Charlotte could all see, hear and absorb a single presentation of the news.

Newsreels could inspire (World War II scrap metal recycling) and amuse: Stan Laurel at swim meet. They helped encourage a world of style that crossed international boundaries: 1954 Dior fashions. They brought news from around the world to American cities and towns (D-Day 1944), and unfortunately, they could sometimes present interpretations of events that, while arresting in their footage, omitted important context: Watts riots in 1965.

In the 1950s, television began to supersede newsreels as a source of news and information, and today, of course, we face an inundation of information from myriad sources. In some ways, our world may never be as universal again, even as the society portrayed by newsreels remained far more complex than the silver screen would ever show.

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