Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Film Studies

First Advisor

Corey Creekmur

First Committee Member

Rick Altman

Second Committee Member

Paula Amad

Third Committee Member

Loren Glass

Fourth Committee Member

Allen Steinberg


Mediating the Mill: Steel Production in Film counters opinions by film scholars and critics who often see films that represent steel production and its spaces as failed aesthetic projects or as dull propaganda or educational films, and who undervalue the importance of the specificity of the steel mills and the industry represented in them. It argues that such films are aesthetically and historically rich texts for film and history, but that they can only be interpreted as such when their historical and industrial specificity is returned to or brought alongside the film texts. Using the work of Siegfried Kracauer and film and history scholars, it argues that such films can be read as artifacts of collectively held understandings, imaginings, and affects. In particular, it argues that films representing steel production provide unique insight into collectively held responses to macroeconomic events in the 20th century--from monopoly capital's consolidation and the introduction of Fordism and Taylorism, to the Keynesian compromise, to the Cold War "consensus," to the breakdown of Fordism and introduction of global overproduction, and finally to neoliberalism. Using the work of Frederic Jameson, it interprets these films as cognitive maps of steel production from subjective position within antagonisms of class and economic control. Indeed, it argues that 20th century steel production was a subject uniquely able to bring forth cognitive maps, due to the difficulty of representing it as a coherent industrial process. When filmmakers "mapped" the process, they created cognitive (and affective) maps that tell us more about the provisional acts of representation, and what drives and informs them, than about what or who is represented. Finally, it argues that this cognitive and affective work can only be grasped by close attention to the films' aesthetics, which always also allows for `suggestive indeterminacy' and polyvalent readings, especially due to the striking material world made spectacular on film.

This examination of steel production in film also expands the category of industrial film to include documentaries, animated educational films, experimental films, and popular fiction films. As such, this dissertation is made up of case studies of four sets of films of steel production and its spaces. The first set, state-sponsored social documentaries of the 1930s, includes films by Joris Ivens, Dziga Vertov, John Grierson, and Willard Van Dyke and considers how these filmmakers differently imagined the state's role in steel production in this period. The second, mid-twentieth-century sponsored films, includes films made for US Steel and other steel firms from the 1930s through 1960s, and places these films into the context of public relations as an attempt to shape how workers and the public viewed corporate interests. The third, experimental films of the 1970s, focuses on films by Hollis Frampton and Richard Serra that consider the difficulties of connecting the film artist's perspective with that of the steel worker as the western steel industry began to draw down its workforce and as economic change split the middle class. The concluding chapter examines popular dystopian Hollywood films of the late twentieth century as part of a broader shift in the US to a neoliberal economy that left little room for workers. Despite the breadth of my chapters, this dissertation draws on the work of Walter Benjamin in understanding catastrophe as the line connecting the chapters, but also in following the potential when a mass art turned its attention to the massed workers and mass spectacles of steel production.


2, iii, 222 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 203-222).


Copyright 2012 Sara Anne Gooch