Geography Geography and Film
Christopher Lukinbeal, Laura Sharp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0097


Since the late 1980s, when sustained inquiry into film by geographers began, this subdiscipline has come to refer to the study of films as cultural texts on the one hand, and as cultural commodities on the other. Despite the superficial nature of this heuristic, the distinction continues to be applied for pedagogical purposes. Approaching film through the metaphor of text assumes that films have an author, a figure that in practice may extend to the many facets involved in film production, as well as readers, the viewers who interpret the film’s internal content according to their own unique positionalities and contexts of viewing. Geographers deploying the author-text-reader (ATR) model tend to operate from a variety of anti-essentialist standpoints and have used this approach to answer questions about how the internal meanings of films are produced and consumed, paying particular attention to issues such as the city, mobility, landscape, gender and sexuality, and geopolitics, as well as the emotions and affects of reception that these cultural, social, and political formations engender. Conversely, geographers interested in film as a cultural commodity, an object of symbolic value circulating within the global economy, may choose instead to follow a production-product-distribution-consumption approach. According to this model, the significance of cinematic goods cannot be wholly understood by focusing on the film texts’ internal meaning but must be examined in relation to the economic conditions of their production and consumption. Film is therefore an assemblage of textual and extratextual processes and actors. Research in this area has focused on issues such as the industrial complex of film production, distribution, and consumption; the transnational practices of film industries following the information revolution of the 1970s; and the ensuing cultural hegemony of Hollywood on the global stage. Although the continued use of the text metaphor has been the subject of debate since the turn of the 21st century, this approach and its attention to film content has come to prevail in film geography research and hence constitutes a large portion of the works selected in this article.

General Overviews

There are several key collections and papers that provide general overviews of the film geography subfield at different points in its development since the early 1980s. One of the first forays into film and other popular media forms by geographers was Geography, the Media and Popular Culture (Burgess and Gold 1985). Here, the editors delineate two tracts of media research: the so-called American school, which emphasized individuals’ cognitive response to media, and the European school, which, drawing on social theory, emphasized the role of media in society. In attempts to assuage this division and also to provide a framework within which the new subfield could flourish, Kennedy and Lukinbeal 1997 argues that, rather than see film geography as composed of two unrelated areas of inquiry, the two tracts outlined by Jacqueline Burgess and John Gold should be thought of as extremes on either side of a continuum, with discrepancies but also overlap. A key bridge in this continuum is Aitken and Zonn 1994. Not only is it the first dedicated endeavor by geographers into film, this collection was also film geographers’ first application of postmodern theory. With the frame of reference of an objective and knowable reality removed by geography’s concomitant “crisis of representation,” Stuart Aitken and Leo Zonn were the first to question the relationship between the “real,” off-screen world, and the “reel” on-screen world that has since become a primary thrust in many subsequent research agendas. In Cresswell and Dixon 2002, for instance, the authors challenge the dominance of the text metaphor in film geography (see Introduction), asserting that such an approach may reify “the tired repetition of reel and real” (p. 5). Instead, drawing on Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, Tim Cresswell and Deborah Dixon put forth the trope of mobility as a way to resist the fixity imposed on film by the structure of language (see Optics and Mobility). Also addressing the “reel/real binary,” Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2006 and Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2008 argue that cinema should not be seen as a re-presentation of reality but, drawing on Jean Baudrillard, as “a simulacrum of the real . . . a machine for constructing different relations between space and time” (Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2008, p. 19). In Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2006, two succinct but divergent reviews of and projections for the subfield appeared. Whereas Aitken and Dixon focus on the geography “primitives”—landscapes, space/spatialities, mobilities, and scale and networks—Chris Lukinbeal and Stefan Zimmermann divide the subfield into four areas: geopolitics; cultural politics; globalization; and science, representation, and mimesis. The most recent overview to a geography of film and a future research prospectus is Sharp and Lukinbeal 2015. Their paper takes an in-depth look at trends in research on film geography up until 2015 and speculates on fruitful new avenues of research

  • Aitken, Stuart C., and Deborah P. Dixon. “Imagining Geographies of Film.” Erdkunde 60.4 (2006): 326–336.

    DOI: 10.3112/erdkunde.2006.04.03

    Provides a summary and critique of the film geography literature and suggests that future research should take a more critical approach to the intersection between “lived experience” and “the images and material conditions that continuously produce and reproduce our daily lives” (p. 335).

  • Aitken, Stuart C., and Leo E. Zonn, eds. Place, Power, Situation, and Spectacle: A Geography of Film. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

    An important collection for understanding the roots of film geography and the real/reel binary; while the editors take a transactional and psychoanalytic approach, the contributing essays show a breadth of perspectives, including transactionalism, semiotics, hermeneutics, and political economy.

  • Burgess, Jacquelin, and John R. Gold, eds. Geography, the Media and Popular Culture. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

    Here is another essential collection for those interested in the historical roots of the subfield. The editors discuss major theoretical approaches to media research at the time—behavioralism, structuralism, and Marxism. The nine essays touch on concepts such as landscape, hazards, and nationalism.

  • Cresswell, Tim, and Deborah Dixon, eds. Engaging Film: Geographies of Mobility and Identity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

    A significant challenge to the hegemony of the textual metaphor is attempted through the paradigm of mobility, which is put forth as “an element in the play of power and meaning within social and cultural networks of signification” (p. 4). The fourteen essays are arranged around mobility, identity, and pedagogy.

  • Kennedy, Christina, and Christopher Lukinbeal. “Towards a Holistic Approach to Geographic Research on Film.” Progress in Human Geography 21.1 (1997): 33–50.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913297673503066

    The first comprehensive overview of film and geography through the mid-1990s; it traces film geography through the traditions of environmental perception and postmodern cultural studies.

  • Lukinbeal, Chris, and Stefan Zimmermann. “Film Geography: A New Subfield.” Erdkunde 60.4 (2006): 315–325.

    DOI: 10.3112/erdkunde.2006.04.02

    Lukinbeal and Zimmermann give a brief history of film geography, highlighting the German tradition, and suggest that there are four key areas of current and future research into film by geographers. The authors make an impassioned argument against re-presentational views of cinema.

  • Lukinbeal, Chris, and Stefan Zimmermann, eds. The Geography of Cinema—A Cinematic World. Papers presented at an international symposium titled the “Geography of Cinema—A Cinematic World,” at the Institute of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, in June 2004. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008.

    The editors offer the most-developed discussion of the benefits and limitations of the author-text-reader model for use by film geographers. The ten essays are arranged around the author, the text, and the reader, depending on which modality the researcher takes as the primary means of investigation.

  • Sharp, Laura, and Chris Lukinbeal. “Film Geography: A Review and Prospectus.” In Mediated Geographies and Geographies of Media. Edited by Susan Mains, Julie Cupples, and Chris Lukinbeal, 21–35. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-9969-0_2

    Reviews the author-text-reader model overviewing literature up to 2015. It takes over from where Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2008 left off but is more comprehensive in coverage.

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