Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, assistant professor in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics & Society, is a co-editor of American Energy Cinema, a new collection of essays focusing on how energy is portrayed by Hollywood.
The essays include discussions of films like Convoy (1978), which features hundreds of cowboy truckers trying to outrun the law in their big rigs, and Transformers (2007), in which aliens turn into a wide variety of cars.
Stanford-McIntyre said the work creates an enjoyable and accessible space for historians and scholars to examine how gas, oil, coal, nuclear power and the ongoing tensions around electrification are captured by popular culture.
"These are films made to sell – they are largely made to give people what they want, or at least what executives think the people want," Stanford-McIntyre said. As such, they often aren't subtle, seeking instead a direct, emotional message.
"We know that these are made-up characters, but we still care about them," she said. And, in that emotional gray-zone, essay contributors have space to discuss propaganda, popular perceptions of technology, and the fear that underlies much of our understanding of technology.
A disaster movie, for instance, might be the rare time someone considers what would happen if the energy grid were to shut down. A filmmaker might be incentivized through product deals or lobbying to portray an industry or innovation positively, then face backlash from a disillusioned audience, she explained.
Stanford-McIntyre said she hopes that the collection is a bridge between the energy humanities and popular culture for educators seeking to engage students in larger discussions around the cultural implications of energy through history.
The collection started as three excited scholars, Stanford-McIntyre and co-editors Robert Lifset and Raechel Lutz, sitting around a table at the American Society for Environmental History annual conference in 2018. It has grown over the past five years to a collection of 23 essays from a wide variety of voices from across the humanities and social sciences.
The upheavals of the pandemic and supply-chain disasters distorted the timeline for the project, but Stanford-McIntyre said she's proud of what they've brought together.
"It really has transformed into a labor of love," she said.