Carceral Fantasies: Cinema and Prison in Early Twentieth-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)

Carceral Fantasies paints a complex, rich portrait of the historical relationship between cinema and the American penal system that crosses disciplinary borders and engages with a diverse body of scholarship. Groundbreaking in its historical exploration, rigorous and acrobatic in its theoretical intervention, and provocative in its call to action, Carceral Fantasies is a rewarding and important read for anyone interested in the history of American cinema.”
Film & History

“Alison Griffiths’s examination of how movie exhibition came into prisons is truly groundbreaking. No one has studied the culture of moviegoing behind bars in this fashion before. A unique and absolutely exciting work!”
Dana Polan, author of Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film

“A timely, challenging, and always thought-provoking text, Carceral Fantasies will become necessary reading for all working to map the medial administration of state terror and to imagine cinema’s capacities to glimpse beyond it.”
Michael Litwack, Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008)

“With this volume, Griffiths has established herself as one of the most ambitious scholars now straddling the various fields that comprise visual studies.”
Randolph Lewis, Museum Anthropology Review

“This is a scholarly, in-depth study of an important aspect of museum exhibitions today… Highly recommended.”

“Beautifully illustrated… fascinating… engaging.”
Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, Technology and Culture

Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)

“A significant contribution to knowledge about methods of recording and presenting visual culture of non-Western peoples in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

“With fascinating examples and illustrations culled from a number of international archives, Wondrous Difference is an invaluable resource for cinema historians, anthropologists, archivists, and museum professionals…. Griffiths is working within a new tradition of scholars approaching visuality with a historically integrated and culturally critical perspective…. The masterful way in which Griffiths navigates and reveals the complexity of these relationships sets a standard for others to follow.”
Amy J. Staples, Film Quarterly

Wondrous Difference will make an excellent… textbook for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses in both visual anthropology and the history of anthropology.”
Deborah Poole, Current Anthropology

Journal Articles

The Crystal Reveals the Whole: Medieval Dreamscapes and Cinematic Space as Virtual Media (Journal of Visual Culture)

This article parses the rich visual culture of the medieval period in order to consider dreaming as a kind of visual thought experiment, one in which ideas associated with cinema and digital media, including embodied viewing, narrative sequencing, projection, interactivity, and sensory engagement, are palpable in a range of medieval visual and literary works.

The Carceral Aesthetic: Seeing Prison on Film During the Early Cinema Period

This article examines how actuality and fictional films about prisoners made during the early cinema period construct a carceral imaginary that appropriated visual tropes from the Middle Ages while experimenting with motion picture’s unique signifying properties. Unencumbered by
the generic conventions of the later Classical Hollywood era, early prison films provide a
striking vantage point from which to explore the paradoxical place of prisons and prisoners in the
popular imaginary.

“The Revered Gaze: The Medieval Imaginary of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ” (Cinema Journal)

This essay investigates medieval cathedrals, the Cyclorama of Jerusalem panorama painted in
1895, and Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ through the topoi of what I call the “revered gaze.” While distinct media offer unique possibilities for representing the Passion narrative, I argue that there are remarkable consistencies in the aesthetics and practices of the crucifixion as a transhistorical story.

Cinema in Extremis: Mount Everest and the Poetics of Monumentality (Film History: An International Journal)

This essay examines how ideas of monumentality circulate textually and discursively in the two mountaineering films made by Captain John Noel, Climbing Mount Everest (1922) and The Epic of Everest (1924), shot during two failed attempts on the summit. The films’ negotiation of the complex dialectics of British national identity and Tibetan life brings the poetics of monumentality into conversation with issues of culture, memory, Indigenous agency, and history.

Sensual Vision: 3-D, Medieval Art, and the Cinematic Imaginary

Notwithstanding differences in scale and movement, 3-D cinema and medieval art are by no means unrelated; on the question of how they engage the senses, similarities far outweigh differences. Medieval visual theory helps explain a long fascination with the promised sensorial plentitude of 3-D, including the power ascribed to images, the idea of the screen as a permeable membrane; 3-D and medieval image-making as adornment, and the tactile quality of 3-D cinema and medieval art, all of which tease the spectator with the promise of a multi-sensory encounter.

Tableaux Morts: Execution, Cinema, and Galvanistic Fantasies

This essay explores how the emergence of cinema responded to the longue durée that is
visualized executions. However, rather than construct a genealogy of execution on film, I hone in on a method of execution that is virtually isomorphic with cinema’s invention—electrocution. Coming of age at roughly the same time, electrocution and cinema were exemplars of technological modernity and were shaped by shared histories of popular and scientific display.

The 1920s museum-sponsored expedition film: Beguiling encounters in an all-but-forgotten genre

This essay examines Camping Among the Indians, shot in the American Southwest in 1927 by Clyde Fisher, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) curator (and later Chairman of the AMNH Hayden Planetarium), and Ernest Thompson Seton, wildlife illustrator, children’s book author, and founder of the Woodcraft League (1902) and the Boy Scouts of America (1910). Camping Among the Indians serves as a revealing case study in reconstructive film
history, and the extant footage and sparse documentation of its exhibition illuminate the unique situation of the museum sponsored exhibition film as a vital, if overlooked, area of ethnographic filmmaking.

Wonder, Magic and the Fantastical Margins: Medieval Visual Culture and Cinematic Special Effects (Journal of Visual Culture)

What are the nature and power of special effects that induce such strong reactions in cinema spectators, and is it possible to find an analog to this contemporary public fascination in the visual culture of the Middle Ages? Proposing a reconsideration of the pre-history of cinematic special effects, I contend that their allure is broader than the historical experience of cinema, and that image-makers were exploiting the embodied modes of viewing offered by special effects long before the invention of motion pictures.

Chapters in Edited Collections

Through Central Borneo with Carl Lumholtz: The Visual and Textual Output of a Norwegian Explorer (Small Country, Long Journeys: Norwegian Expedition Films)

This essay uses Norwegian ethnologist Carl Sofus Lumholtz’s 1917 expedition film In Borneo the Land of the Head-Hunters to explore how ethnographic knowledge is constructed differently across Lumholtz’s filmmaking, photography and fieldwork diaries, and his published account of the expedition, Through Central Borneo (1920).

A Moving Picture of the Heavens:
The Planetarium Space show as Useful Cinema (Useful Cinema)

This essay examines the planetarium as an intermedial, immersive spectatorial phenomenon and neglected source of useful cinema, a space that resembled the motion picture theatre but also offered a unique experience. As a barometer of larger sociopolitical currents and trends in the mainstream culture of the time, the planetarium is surprisingly generative as a case study in immersive artforms.

‘Distempered Daubs’ and Encyclopaedic World Maps: The Ethnographic Significance of Panoramas and Mappaemundi (Photography, Anthropology, and History)

This chapter examines how an ethnographic way of seeing infused panoramic painting, a medium that sought to show off its mimetic prowess as well as vouch for the authenticity of the view and the credentials of the painter. Panoramas were not read or even made sense of as modes of ethnographic inscription, but they performed some of the same discursive functions as other forms of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ethnographic representation, offering a window onto distant culture.

Sensory Media: The World Without and the World Within (A Cultural History of the senses in the age of Empire)

This chapter explores how media affect the balance of the senses, privilege structures of feeling, and topoi of sensory pleasure in two distinct, yet surprisingly similar, spheres. As reformative spaces incorporating spectators and the objects of their gaze into disciplinary regimes, museums and prisons were uncannily similar in their furthering of normative values around race, gender, and the nation.

Bound by Cinematic Chains:
Film and Prisons during the Early Era (A Companion to Early Cinema)

How did cinema first enter the penitentiary and how might carceral spectatorship complicate our understanding of early non-theatrical film exhibition? Both the American film industry and the movement known as the “new penology” came of age between 1900 and 1920, inviting an inquiry into the fascinating ways in which they mutually informed one another.

Playing at being Indian: Spectatorship and the Early Western (Westerns: The Essential ‘Journal of Popular Film and Television’ Collection)

This chapter explores early nonfiction films featuring Native Americans and the widespread practice of casting Anglos as Indian leads in early Westerns. While early actualities borrowed from a repertoire of Native American iconography, they also constructed new ways of seeing Indigenous Americans, giving audiences an opportunity to vicariously identify with the Anglo filmmakers as well as indulge fantasies of becoming Indian.

Film Education in the Natural History Museum: Cinema Lights up the Gallery in the 1920s

Cinema’s use in the galleries of natural history museums was distinct from its role within public lectures in the same institutional venues. This chapter investigates what the commitment to visual education at American Museum of Natural History reveals about the status of motion pictures in public education in the 1920s, and how the AMNH become a major hub for image distribution in New York City.

Time Traveling IMAX-Style: Tales From the Giant Screen

Travel and movement are textually inscribed in IMAX via the phantom ride, a dynamic shot where the screen becomes porous and we are virtually transported across its borders. Focusing on the visual grammar of the Imax films Across the Sea of Time (1996) and Everest (1998), this essay explores how our attention and embodied experiences as spectators are uniquely shaped by IMAX cinema’s formal properties and conventions.