Blowing Media’s Cover

Elisa Jochum (University College London), ‘Blowing Media’s Cover: How Mail and Movie Interfaces Work in American Cinema (1939-1955)’

This paper investigates mailboxes as interfaces between people and the postal system, citizens and their government, senders and recipients. I explore how the filmic medium, as an interface in its own right, emphasises the workings of mailboxes. What does cinema communicate about itself by thematising the interface that is the mailbox? In the larger project from which this paper is drawn, I focus on 100 American fiction films from 1939 to 1955 – a period when the mail was an important medium for the government, soldiers, migrant workers, and families. Mailboxes were the loci where people negotiated their relationships and identities daily anew. In this paper’s contribution to the Excavating Media conference, I pursue the following question in three case studies: How do mail and movie networks condition communication and how can we catch their manipulations in the act?

My methodology combines media theory, material culture, and archival historical research. I take up Siegert’s invitation to think about mailboxes as “user interfaces” and relate the concept to works on how architectural surfaces as well as movie screens produce meanings. I understand film as a twentieth-century archive of spatial practices while emphasising how filmic representations shape our perceptions of these practices.

I use Lady Scarface (1941) and The Maltese Falcon (1941) to explore how cinema negotiates the mail system’s trustworthiness through the figurehead that is the mailbox. How does film appropriate this mailbox to discuss whether cinema is itself a reliable medium? I analyse, through Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), how filmic representations turn mailboxes into interfaces onto which characters project feelings. How does cinema mobilise film viewers’ own fears and desires through the mailbox? With these questions, my paper proposes new ways of unmasking the workings of media.

Elisa Jochum is a final-year PhD student in Film Studies in the Centre of Multidisciplinary & Intercultural Inquiry at University College London. Her interdisciplinary thesis traces postal spaces both within filmic representations and in comparison to cinema infrastructures. Elisa has spent a semester of her thesis research as a Visiting Assistant in Research at Yale University and she is a founding member of the Ephemeral Cities Research Group at UCL. She has presented an earlier version of the proposed paper at the international conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Chicago, 2017). She will present a paper on postal crime at the upcoming conference of the International Association for Media and History in Paris. Elisa holds a MA with Distinction in Film Studies (UCL) and a BA in Media Studies and Film Studies (Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz).


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