Geography Geography and Film
Christopher Lukinbeal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0097


A sustained inquiry into film by geographers began in the 1980s. Films were studied as cultural texts and as cultural commodities. Film as text assumes that it is authored, read, and interpreted according to the 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, sexuality, and geopolitics. 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 twenty-first 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. There has been a rising interest in cinematic cartography with some special journal collections published as notable books, including Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema in 2007 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press); a special issue on cinematic cartography (Cartographic Journal 46, no. 1 [2009]), edited by Sébastien Caquard and D. R. Fraser Taylor; Film, Mobility and Urban Space: A Cinematic Geography of Liverpool by Les Roberts in 2012 from Liverpool University Press; the special collection “#Mapping” in NECSUS 18, no. 2 (2018) by Avezzù, Castro, and Fidotta; and Media’s Mapping Impulse by Lukinbeal et al. in 2019 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag). More recent publications are reflective of place-based film studies where landscapes are produced or consumed. A special issue, Doing Film Geography (Volume 87, Supplement 1), with fifteen papers was edited by Chris Lukinbeal and Elisabeth Sommerlad for GeoJournal in 2022. The editors’ work reflects a growing movement toward empiric place-based fieldwork paired with a variety of analytic techniques, such as hermeneutics, economics, cartographic, and nonrepresentational theories, to name a few.

General Overviews

The first edited collection on film and media geography was Burgess and Gold’s, Geography, the Media and Popular Culture (see Burgess and Gold 1985). The editors outline two areas of media geography: an American school that emphasized cognitive and humanistic approaches, and in contrast, a European school that emphasized ideology and power. Aitken and Zonn 1994, the researchers’ first edited collection of geographers on film, emphasizes the postmodern turn, dramaturgy, political economics, film, and social theory. Clearly in the decade since Burgess and Gold, much of the previous divisions had eroded away. Further, a scientific geography and cartography “crisis of representation” was occurring in the 1990s. This was the debate mimesis, or the “real” off-screen world and the “reel” on screen, and their interrelationship. The crisis of representation was the idea that the known and knowable world could never be fully understood and was based on cartographic logic that framed the world as picture and that underlies Western reason (see Lukinbeal and Sommerlad 2022). If you accept that cartography is memetic, then it also comes with cartographic anxiety, which is entrenched in film language through establishing and reestablishing shots that ease the anxiety of the viewer by relocating them in a known space in the diegesis (Sharp 2018). Kennedy and Lukinbeal 1997 provides the first compressive overview of film geography using post-structural theory on the one hand and an environmental perception theory called transactionalism. Their essay highlights J. K. Wright’s AAG Presidential Address in 1946 for exploring the place of imagination in geography and opening the door for future research on popular culture, arts, and literature. Echoing Wright’s call, Watson 1969 states that our ideas of the earth are equally important as the earth in what constitutes geography. By 2000 the textual metaphor dominated film geography. Engaging Film: Geographies of Mobility (Cresswell and Dixon 2002) challenges the memetic dominance implied in the textual metaphor (see Introduction). The textual metaphor reifies and perpetuates “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,” many have 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). Whereas Aitken and Dixon 2006 focuses on key themes in geography like landscapes, space, mobilities, scale and networks—Lukinbeal and Zimmermann 2006 divides the subfield into four areas: geopolitics; cultural politics; globalization; science, representation, and mimesis. Sharp and Lukinbeal 2015 discusses the ATR, or author-text-reader, model of studying film geography and offers alternatives to each. Lukinbeal and Sommerlad 2022 notes that a shift in film geographies from a text to a practice is underfoot. Here, “the emphasis is not on presentational meaning, but on what representations do and how they do it” (p. 2).

  • 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 Elisabeth Sommerlad. “Doing Film Geography.” In Special Issue: Film Geography. Edited by Chris Lukinbeal and Elisabeth Sommerlad. GeoJournal 87.Suppl. 1 (2022): 1–9.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10708-022-10651-2

    Lead essay introducing fifteen papers on film geographies. The collection includes film scholars in the Society and Cinema and Media Studies Urbanism/Geography/Architecture Scholarly Interest Group. Focus is on film as practice and representation-in-relations to approaches. Section includes cinematic cartography, film industry geographies, videography, and documentaries.

  • 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. ““But how do you show that in a film?” Absence, Cartographic Anxiety, and Geographic Realism through the Landscapes of Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala.” GeoHumanities 4.1 (2018): 80–96.

    DOI: 10.1080/2373566X.2018.1447313

    While this article is one of the first to theorize about the geography of “absence” in a film, it also does a good job at explaining how cartographic anxiety is related to film form following the works of Giuliana Bruno and especially her Atlas of Emotion.

  • 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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