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Alumni Interviews Spring 2021

CMS Alum Nathan Holmes (Ph.D. 2012) on Cinematic Spaces, Urban Life, and a Research Method of Flânerie

Nathan Holmes, Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at SUNY Purchase College, traces his interest in cinematic and social spaces back to growing up in a small town. As Holmes remembers, “Films were always a way to get somewhere else (to Paris, New York, Hong Kong etc.). This changed slightly as I got older and became interested in the ways that film also preserves ephemeral aspects of urban life from the past—buildings and spaces, but also modes of dress and sociality.” Holmes grew up near Toronto, where it was a game for moviegoers to spot Toronto sites and architecture in American films narratively set in New York. “I think that attuned me to the ways that particular locations disguise or reveal themselves on film,” he explains. Such a mode of spectatorship is exemplified by Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which Holmes calls “an exuberant compilation of Los Angeles cine-spaces. I and a lot of other people I knew excitedly sought out all the films Andersen references in that film, from The Exiles to Messiah of Evil and Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles.” 

Cinematic spaces feature prominently in Holmes’s first book, Welcome to Fear City: Crime Film, Crisis, and the Urban Imagination (SUNY Press 2018). The book, a 2019 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, explores the ties between location-shot crime films of the 1970s and attitudes toward urban life. The book is equally in tune with both civic and cinematic culture; Holmes interweaves a vast array of sources, from industrialization studies and home décor magazines to film scripts. “I conducted research at a few different archives, but many of these materials came from spending a lot of the time in the stacks of the UChicago Regenstein Library, browsing through magazines and journals. Flânerie has become a very overdetermined term, but I guess that’s what I was doing in the library.” Holmes probed the various discourses and disciplines that concerned the post-war American city. “At one point I was trying to locate every potential context in which urban blight would be depicted or referred to. This led me through architecture, sociology, political journals, and general interest magazines. This research method was definitely more of a ‘scenic route’ rather than the most direct or efficient way to work through the topic.”  

In Welcome to Fear City, Holmes alternates between close readings of films and excavations of their historical backdrops. As he explains, “I was interested in the social and cultural milieu and reception of 1970s urban crime films, but there were also particular films that aesthetically and conceptually demanded a closer look.” Holmes says that pairing New Historicism with close analysis was difficult, but they came together when he realized that crime films offer a particular form for experiencing and reinterpreting the city within American culture during that time. “I wanted to show that crime fictions—especially, but not exclusively, those based around detection—involve structures of observation, encounter, and pursuit, and that these structures necessarily entail problems of point-of-view, interpretation, and continuity. Although crime expressed cultural feeling, it did so in a cinematic discourse that allowed spectators to see transformations in the American city differently.” Holmes argues that 1970s crime films did not just reflect the urbanism of their times but took part in and added to the discourse. To understand how urban-set films did this and why white suburban audiences watched them so assiduously, Holmes takes up close, textual analysis. For example, in his second chapter, “Everyone Here Is a Cop: Urban Spectatorship and the Popular Culture of Policing in the Super-Cop Cycle,” Holmes demonstrates the different ways that the cultural idea of the “supercop” was generated within law enforcement, reactionary right-wing politics, and popular culture. He focuses specifically on The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin, 1971). For Holmes, “This film exploits ideas of law and order but is also more ambiguous and richer than that rhetoric: it’s addressed to particular urban anxieties and fantasies that went beyond the figure of the police officer. I think, in the end, I learned that my understanding of cinema is as both an artistic and aesthetic form, and a social form. While this fact can lead research in divergent directions, there’s an interesting problematic there to inhabit and explore.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against racial injustice have led Holmes to reflect anew on topics from Welcome to Fear City. “Many of the issues addressed by the Movement for Black Lives have their origins in the period I researched for my book,” he says. “Post-war suburbanization, transformations in policing, the withdrawal of social programs from the poorest areas of cities, finance capitalism—these are the primary material or structural factors determining present-day racial inequalities, so it’s good to see scholars investigating this era in film and media studies. More recently, highlighting the economic and class character of racial inequality and its histories—which I think is less-discussed—has become a focus for me. To me, the pandemic has really forced a revaluation of the public realm and the spaces—streets, restaurants, movie theaters—that compose it. Don’t we all watch crowded scenes in film and television more closely now, and don’t they now provoke a desire and sense of loss? I think the public landscape has changed in our absence from it, and I am really interested to see what it looks like when we return.”  

Meanwhile, Holmes is working on a second book about how buildings and backgrounds in pre- and postwar American film evoke public life. The “building book,” still in its nascent stages, grows out of his previous book and an article he wrote on office space and production design in All the President’s Men. “I’m exploring a connection between genre and generic architectural settings in Hollywood film. There’s been some exciting work in this area already by Pamela Wojcik in The Apartment Plot, Merrill Schleier in Skyscraper Cinema, and more recently John David Rhodes’s Spectacle of Property, among others. I’m basically interested in how public or semi-public settings like offices, train stations, prisons, hotels, bars and nightclubs, create what I’ve been calling social infrastructures, and how studio-era Hollywood modelled public life, common spaces, and interdependence. I want to look at 1930s-1950s Hollywood and move away from the types of location production examined in Welcome to Fear City. But I want to continue to challenge the presumed neutrality of setting and background and their supposed subordination to narrative. What would it mean to think of backgrounds as playing a more determinate role in aesthetic creation and reception, and in social life in general? This approach is aligned with some questions that have come out of the environmental humanities and climate change about the impossibility of ignoring the once-invisible supports that make human life possible.” 

Holmes’s teaching also delves into contemporary politics. He recently taught a class at Purchase called “From Transformers to Trump,” in which wanted to see if the method Siegfried Kracauer used in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler would be helpful for understanding Trumpism. The first part of the class covered the book and the key films Kracauer discussed, while the second part shifted to the present. “It was a difficult class to teach because I very much did not want it to be about comparing Trump to Hitler, or pre-2016 USA to Weimar Germany,” Holmes recalls. “That said, there were some interesting parallels. The sunny militarism of the Transformers films is very much akin to the ‘cult of the machine’ Kracauer discusses. The weakness of the liberal response to the right in Germany has in many ways been mirrored in the unflagging centrism of the Democrat establishment and the culture that surrounds them. Likewise, the ways in which Germany’s studio-bound filmmaking and visual effects produced a ‘frozen ground’ of artifice corresponds with the aesthetically moribund green-screen CGI of recent superhero films.” The class also investigated Kracauer’s idea that film reflects social dreams and desires. They studied the visual motifs described in From Caligari to Hitler, such as the spiral of chaos, the head in the lap, and the use of mountain landscapes—all the details, and detailed analysis, that make Kracauer’s ideological critiques so compelling.  

Teaching at Purchase has been enriching for Holmes because of his department’s strong ties to filmmaking, cinema studies, and even UChicago. “Tom Gunning began his teaching career here, and there are many faculty and staff that remember his classes fondly,” he says. It’s a connection that Holmes continues to chart, not least in his evocation of the many talk and screening events in CMS at UChicago. “These events showed me what a college could look like, and I think we should be more strongly demanding the same for our public institutions.” In his teaching and research, Holmes embraces a notion of cinema he learned in CMS—that it encompasses experimental and avant-garde filmmaking, Hollywood film, and art cinema, independent cinema and commercial film from around the world. “At UChicago, I learned that all of these genres and modes of production could be thought of as part of what cinema is or could become.” 

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