Embodied Hollywood is a historical study of how technical workers in the Hollywood studio system turned manual labor into artistic craft and set the standards for an industry. The book makes the case that craft organizations, unions, and practitioners utilized images and the language of physical work to promote bodily labor’s impact on film style. It does so by reading organizational, trade, and studio histories across various technical crafts where manual, tactile, physical, athletic, sensual, and intuitive techniques are manifest on and off screen. Craft laborers, Embodied Hollywood argues, theorized and translated the manual aspects of their work as part of the creative and industrial process of filmmaking.
Central Argument and Conclusions
Embodied Hollywood challenges the central myth of Hollywood invisible style: the notion that the craft of technical film production is best when it goes unnoticed and when the seams of its production and the strain of its labor are hidden behind-the-screen. Embodied Hollywood confronts how these accounts have been narrated in both academic film histories and Hollywood lore to showcase how the very exhaustive work and physicality of laborers behind-the-scenes have always appeared on-screen. By highlighting how craft technical workers have promoted intense regimes of manual practice and physical training, Embodied Hollywood asks readers to rethink Hollywood style, not as hidden or invisible but as an enormous multiplicity of work documented within craft organizational documents and studio promotion. Instead of emphasizing the invisible labor of the unsung heroes, I argue that craft organizations and practitioners publicly promoted their work as visible manual labor throughout Hollywood’s history.
Embodied Hollywood demonstrates how, within studio system production, the technical crafts promoted the manual and physical labor of their members as artistic work. The book developed from my own background working in the film industry and teaching film production. Through these experiences, I became fascinated by how film production practitioners negotiated the complex interaction between their physical work on set (from simple gestures to grueling tasks), their artistic goals, and the expectations and limits of their craft training. For instance, I listened to cinematographers discussing how athletic conditioning altered the ways they carried cameras and composed the frame, and I observed how editors negotiated the moment when their hands instinctually slapped the computer key to cut a shot. Embodied Hollywood tells the story of why this language and description has mattered to the creative work of practitioners and how craft organizations and unions leveraged the bodies of their workers to fundamentally transform studio system style and politics. While most scholarship has emphasized the artistic ambitions of these craft organizations, Embodied Hollywood showcases how workers saw manual, athletic, and intuitive techniques as inextricable from stylistic considerations. In this way, Embodied Hollywood reveals an industry built by both the heads and the hands of its workers.
In Embodied Hollywood, I follow the historical threads of craft labor across different periods of Hollywood production where cinematographers, grips, electricians, editors, and Steadicam operators made legible and felt the vital role of physical labor and their own bodies in their stylistic techniques. By navigating industry and public perceptions about their craft as labor, technicians from the 1920s to the 1970s were forced to define the overlap between hourly wage work and artistic production. What these practitioners made clear was that style and technique had always required intellectual ambition and physical sense. While some of this work involved heavy-lifting and running to position cameras and lights, other tasks involved a subtlety of touch and a “gut feeling” for how a shot should be composed or how it should be cut. Rather than eschew these discrete tasks, I showcase how workers thought about the physical strength of lifting cameras or the dexterity required of hands cutting a strip of film as central to the creative process of composing a shot or building the rhythm of a sequence. Across Embodied Hollywood I argue that technical practitioners theorized these embodied craft activities for two primary reasons. The first was to integrate this manual knowledge into codified modes of craft training, thus making bodily activities inseparable from studio style within the day-to-day work of the craft. The second was to translate their specialist knowledge to other practitioners, the industry, and the moviegoing public so that their craft could not only be appreciated but be seen and felt on-screen as labor at work.
I trace how workers utilized trade outlets and leveraged the power of union and craft organizations to publicize and protect their embodied craft. Throughout studio system history, workers navigated industry boom years when it was advantageous to proclaim their bodily contributions and also weathered turbulent industry down-turns when such promotion might cost life, limb, or job. While such discrete craft and guild-oriented institutions are often thought as insular, Embodied Hollywood highlights how technical crafts learned and borrowed from one another in actively using the rhetoric and images of manual labor and sensual intuition to negotiate industrial politics with other unions, guilds, and studios. By locating the bodies of workers as already palpable sites of bottom-up film theory and history within studio filmmaking, Embodied Hollywood reevaluates and challenges the industry’s own self-proclaimed myth of “invisible style.”
For Book Proposal and Sample Chapters, please email me at kebird[at]utep.edu