Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Malleable Metaphor: Portrayals of the American Indian in American Cinema from 1950 – 1970

     At a certain point within Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man, the audience watches what is historically known (largely depending on your outlook) as either the Battle at Washita River or the Washita Massacre.  However it is described, historically what occurred at Washita River on November 27, 1868, was that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry rode into a peaceful band of Southern Cheyenne, led by Black Kettle, who were on their way to a reservation encampment.  On that day, 105 peaceful men, women, and children were brutally killed in the name of Manifest Destiny and westward American expansion.  As shot by Penn, the sequence is shocking in its brutality and depiction of violence, and absolutely heartbreaking when viewed by American Indian audiences (as witnessed in Niles Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun).  However, as viewed by audiences at the time the film was released, the sequence is less of a depiction of an actual massacre of American Indians at the hands of the American government, and more of an indictment against American presence and military actions during the Vietnam War.  Similarly, the sequence was compared to the shootings at Kent State University in June of 1970, in which the Ohio State Guard opened fire on unarmed students.  Penn’s Little Big Man is a great example of the way that the American Indian was utilized as a sort of metaphor.  The American Indian, as portrayed in American cinema and other hegemonic forms of American media, has long been used as a metaphor.  The Indian has been cast as the vanishing American, or the enemy Other in order to build ideals of American nationalism.  The Indian has been utilized as a metaphor for other races or groups, such as the persecuted artists or Communists during McCarthyism in the 1950s, African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s through the 1970s, and also, finally, as a metaphor for various youth movements (such as the hippie movement) during the 1960s and 1970s.  While the American Indian in reality has long been marginalized and oppressed by the very society and government of the country from which they have originated, the image of the American Indian has stood as a form of malleable metaphor for American cinema throughout different social epochs.
            In her book “Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film,” Jacquelyn Kilpatrick discusses American Indian stereotypes and how they came about.  Kilpatrick cites four primary sources: James Fenimore Cooper and his collection of stories titled The Leatherstocking Tales, the dime novel of the American west, a growing sense of nationalism connected to the post-Civil War reconstruction and development of the west, and the Buffalo Bill Wild West show.  American Indians have always suffered from a precarious situation in regards to representation in American media.  The inherent problem with Indian representation in American media lies within authorship and influence.  Early representations of Indian people and culture were entirely authored by white culture.  These white-authored representations can be broken down into two distinct stereotypes: the bloodthirsty savage and the noble savage.  The bloodthirsty savage was made popular by the dime novel of the American west.  Here, the Indian was simply an obstacle to manifest destiny and white ownership of land and wealth.  The noble savage, popularized by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales is equally damaging.  Here, the representation, often thought to be sympathetic, helps to build “an American nationalist mythology through identification with the natural landscape and its original inhabitants…thereby gaining psychic as well as physical control.”[1]
            Films produced featuring stories of the American west continued to perpetuate American Indian stereotypes for decades after The Indian Wars; films such as John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach or William Seiter’s 1939 film Allegheny Uprising are prime examples of the complete and utter lack of authenticity and cultural awareness involved in Indian portrayal. The Indians in these films are often unseen until it is necessary for the villainous attack on white settlers or school children.  They are not especially skilled fighters, and seem to communicate only through screaming and whooping. At no point in these films is the audience ever asked to identify with the American Indian.  Identification with the Indians in these films may even be considered an impossibility as the Indians are never truly fleshed out characters, but are instead often unseen by the viewer until the narrative demands a villain.  This lack of Indian presence is in itself a type of stereotype.  “The Hollywood Western never produced an Indian antagonist more memorable, or more familiar, than the one whom we never quite see.  He can be formidable enough, this near-invisible Indian foe, in the great mythic tale of ‘winning the west…’”[2] Until approximately 1950, the Indian of American cinema was most often utilized as a metaphor for the obstacles overcome in discovering, settling, and owning the land that would be the United States of America. 
            The representation of the American Indian, and the first change in how the Indian was utilized as a metaphor, took place within a western genre film released in 1950.  Delmer Daves’ 1950 film Broken Arrow tells the story of Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), and to a lesser but surprising extent, the Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler).  As the film begins, Jeffords saves the life of a young Apache boy.  The boy’s tribesmen therefore spare him when they come upon him and the boy together.  When he tells other white settlers in town of the event, they are either incredulous or suspicious of Jeffords’ racial purity and loyalty to the white race.  Jeffords eventually meets with Cochise in an attempt to parley for safer crossings for United States postal carriers, whom Jeffords has recently been put in charge of.  Impressed with Jeffords bravery (having simply ridden into the hostile Apache camp), Cochise becomes close with him and eventually becomes blood brothers.  Through his friendly integration with the tribe, Jeffords comes to view them as human beings instead of as simply the enemy or the Other.  He even takes an Apache wife, Sonseeahray, with whom he falls in love with (and vice versa).  While Jeffords and Cochise learn tolerance from within their friendship, and through tolerance a more in-depth understanding of one another, groups on the outside and to the extreme of Jeffords and Cochise infringe on this general understanding.  These groups are hostile white settlers, who want no peace and generally discriminate even Jeffords for his “racial disloyalty,” and a faction of bloodthirsty Apaches led by Geronimo who simply want to kill the white settlers.  Eventually, the tropes and characteristics of the western genre come into play, and the film is somewhat resolved in a shootout between these two groups, Geronimo’s faction and Jeffords and Cochise.  While Jeffords and Cochise both survive, Sonseeahray is murdered and both sides acting in hatred must recognize what their actions have brought unto others and themselves. 
            The film takes a largely positive and sympathetic view of the American Indian, and is famous as the first post World War II western film to take such a view.  Cochise is portrayed incredibly sympathetically.  Within the spectrum of representation, the image is far more sympathetic than Stagecoach or Allegheny Uprising.  Cochise is portrayed as high intelligent, and a benevolent and kind leader who speaks in English instead of the indiscriminate whooping and hollering that so many Indians had spoken for decades in mainstream Hollywood films.  Even a white military figure, General Oliver Howard, speaks about the fact that God and the Bible say nothing about the “pigmentation of skin,” and is generally sympathetic to and admiring of Cochise’s military strategy and plight.  However, though the film is consistently sited as the beginning of a cultural awareness in Hollywood, “Broken Arrow was prompted in part by resistance to McCarthyism.”[3] The Indian is used as a sort of metaphor in order to explore stereotypes and social normatives.  After World War II, when life once again became “good,” the fear that non-Christian Communists were making headway into the country and provoking nuclear war was palpable, and Senator Joe McCarthy pounced upon this fear.  Congressional committees were developed, and soon many Hollywood leftists found themselves on blacklists and unable to work for fear that they were espousing Communist values to American cinema audiences.  “One result of the blacklists in Hollywood was the shock of suddenly finding oneself among the oppressed…In order to make a point about other types of humanity and their equality to those in power, the filmmakers turned once more to American Indians.”[4]            
            This is especially seen to be true when one takes into account the concurrent events surrounding American Indian affairs in the 1950s.  Shortly after the release of Broken Arrow in 1950, the American government enacted the House Concurrent Resolution 108 on August 1, 1953.  The resolution enacted an extreme and fundamental change in Indian policy through this resolution.  The perceived paternalism toward the American Indian by those in power caused them to pass the resolution, which “declared it to be the policy of the United States to abolish federal supervision over the tribes as soon as possible and to subject the Indians to the same laws, privileges, and responsibilities as other citizens in the United States.”[5] While that does not sound immediately threatening, the reality is that House Concurrent Resolution 108 laid the groundwork for the process of “termination,” in which Indians would be removed from their tribal reservations and properties and placed within urban cities such as New York City and Los Angeles.  Additionally, it would terminate the federal government’s recognition of the sovereignty of tribes and the trusteeship of Indian reservations.  Children were removed from their families on poorer reservations and placed with white foster parents, and adults were lured from the reservations to large cities under the pretense of housing aid and jobs that simply did not exist.  The irony of Broken Arrow is that while the film espouses the need to understand a marginalized or oppressed minority, the American government and society were both ignorant to and not understanding of Indian needs.  So, though the film uses the Indian as a sort of metaphor for the increasingly sympathetic views of American society toward oppressed f, the fact that the film was conceived and released in the era of McCarthyism, as well as the era that would lead to the American Civil Rights Movement, is especially enlightening in how the Indian was utilized as a metaphor in the 1950s.
            The American Civil Rights Movement (also commonly referred to as the African-American Civil Rights Movement) refers to a number of movements by different groups throughout America (predominantly in the south) that utilized civil disobedience and largely non-violent protests with the desired outcome of winning civil rights for minorities and ending racial discrimination.  The movement had precursors since before the Civil War, but eh Civil Rights Movement is commonly assigned approximately thirteen years, from 1955 – 1968.  A number of events led up to it, and simplifying something as complex as the long history of the fight for equal rights for minorities in the United States is sure to leave much out.  However, racial prejudices throughout the country began to be called into question en masse post-World War II.  Black GI’s who had served overseas began to question the prejudicial treatment of their lives after their service.  Having been good enough to serve and die for their country, it stood to reason that they deserved the same rights as all white men.  Likewise, a number of court cases, such as Sipuel v Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (stating that the university could not discriminate based upon race) and President Truman’s Executive Order #9981 (ending segregation within the armed services) began opening doors to the movement while simultaneously providing legal precedence.  Events taking place within 1954 and 1955, however, really solidify and bring to light the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement.  The year of 1954 saw the important court case Brown v Board of Education in which the Supreme Court struck down segregation laws within public schools.  The next year, 1955, saw important civil disobedience of Rose Parks, which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which Rose Parks (a secretary for the NAACP) quietly yet resolutely refused to give up her bus seat to make room for a white passenger.  Her subsequent arrest led to the massive boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama’s busses, leading to an 80% loss of revenue.             
            The American Civil Rights Movement was an incredibly complex movement with many different facets.  However, by and large, it has widely been looked upon as the struggle for black American’s equal rights.  “However, since much of America in the late sixties and early seventies was apparently not yet willing to pay to see a film about an oppressed African American, one way to tell the story of society oppressing a minority was to make a movie about a Native American.”[6] This growing attitude toward the dangers and evils of racism are especially apparent within John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers.  The film is arguably one o the most influential films ever made.  It has admirers that range from Jean-Luc Godard to George Lucas.  The film tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who has just returned home from the Civil War, having fought the war on the side of the Confederacy.  The day after he returns home, a Comanche raiding party murders his brother, sister-in-law (within whom he was in love), and number of his other family members.  Two of his nieces, meanwhile, are taken as captives.  Together with Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a man of mixed white and Indian blood who has been adopted by the family, Ethan hunts for his two nieces.  Finding one (possibly) already dead, the search turns into a quest to find the youngest niece: Debbie (Natalie Wood).  After a number of years spent searching for her, the two men find the camp of the Indian chief Scar, who was the Comanche responsible for leading the raid that killed Ethan and Martin’s family.  Upon finding the camp, the two men discover that Scar has taken a grown up Debbie as one of his wives.  Ethan is disgusted, and decides that it is better to kill Debbie, as she has “been taken by a buck.” As the movie comes to its conclusion, a gunfight ensues between the American military and the Comanche camp.  Ethan runs through the confusion, looking for Debbie so that he can murder her as Martin attempts to stop him.  Finally catching Debbie, Ethan lifts her up and is immediately reminded of how he lifted her as a child.  Instead of killing her, he says, “Let’s go home” and returns her to the family homestead.  As the surviving family members carry Debbie into her home, Ethan watches from the doorway and then turns his back on them…walking into the desert and away from the homestead.
            The film is incredibly dense, and problematic in a number of ways.  However, what is interesting in context to the Indian used as a metaphor is how the film is really the story of a single man: Ethan Edwards.  It is important to note that Ethan is an incredible racist.  Ford first begins to underline his racial prejudice by making Ethan a veteran of the Confederacy.  Though other films have portrayed sympathetic views of Confederate soldiers (Buster Keaton in The General, for instance), Ethan is also imbued with other negative character traits.  For instance, there is a hint that Ethan has been gone for a number of years due to some nebulous illegality, as he is flush with gold pieces and a Mexican Revolutionary War medal.  He also refuses to admit any sort of familial ties to Martin due to Martin’s mixed white and Indian blood, and is openly scornful to Martin in front of the family who appears very much to accept and love Martin.  “What makes this film particularly disturbing is the attitude of Wayne’s character.  He treats the ‘half-breed’ with disdain for most of the movie, and his goal throughout the film is not to bring the girls back but to save them from their dishonor by killing them.”[7] Ethan’s hatred and racism ultimately ends up making John Wayne, the “hero,” the single most frightening character within the film.  As the ending shootout scene occurs, it is Martin Pawley who kills the Comanche Scar by shooting him, and yet it is Ethan who drops to his knees and cuts Scar’s scalp from his skull.  Through doing this, Ethan is immediately linked to the enemy Other through the action of the scalping.  His hatred and racism is made manifest through his linking to Scar’s barbarism.  Only through his sudden refusal to murder his white niece is he somewhat redeemed.  However, upon returning her and realizing how racism and hatred nearly brought him to murdering his last remaining niece (and only connection to her mother with whom he was in love), Ethan leaves the civilized society of family and home to return only to the desert wilderness.  It is as if Ford is claiming that this sort of racism and hatred have no place in modern society. 
            However, as Ford was espousing a liberal view on racism during the beginning of the fight for civil rights during the American Civil Rights Movement, the American government was continuing its extermination policy.  June 17, 1954 saw the Termination of the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin.  They were one of the first tribes to feel the effects of the termination policy, and “in 1954 Congress provided for the withdrawal of federal jurisdiction from the tribe…”[8] Though there was a tremendous outcry against the termination policy, the Menominee action was not reversed until 1973.  The relocation programs also continued, resulting in a detrimental paternalism wherein Senator Watkins, the principal congressional promoter of the termination policy, stated that, “Now, doing away with restrictive federal supervision over Indians, as such, does not affect the retention of those cultural and racial qualities which people of Indian descent would wish to retain…”[9] However, that is exactly what the termination policy era was bringing about.  “The Congressional policy of termination, advanced in 1954 and pushed vigorously for nearly a decade, was a combination of the old systematic hunt and the deprivation of services.  Yet this policy was not conceived as a policy of murder.  Rather it was thought that it would provide that elusive ‘answer’ to the Indian problem.  An when it proved to be no answer at all, Congress continued its policy, having found a new weapon in the ancient battle for Indian land.”[10] So while Ford was espousing a liberal view of racism and racial hatred, Indian policy continued to oppress the Indian.  Indeed, Indian policy did not do away with the termination policy for a number of years.  It was not until March 6, 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson delivered a special message to Congress “of a new direction in Indian policy which recognized Indian self-determination.”[11] Thought the Civil Rights Act of 1968 followed only a month later (April 11, 1968), issues concerning American Indian freedom of religion, tribal sovereignty, and equal rights status would not be granted until later in the 1970s and 1980s.  Indeed, some tribes to this day are still fighting for tribal recognition from the American government.
            As the eras of McCarthyism and the American Civil Rights Movement began to move into the era of the late-1960s and the 1970s, the American Indian portrayed in cinema once again went through a drastic change.  Having been first portrayed as a human being while being used as a metaphor for the oppressed in 1950 with Broken Arrow, and then used as a tool to explore racism in the era that saw the beginning of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1956 film The Searchers, the Indian once again became another metaphor in 1970 within Arthur Penn’s film Little Big Man. Based upon the 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, the film tells the story of Little Big Man/Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white man who was raised by the Cheyenne.  The film seems primarily concerned with following Little Big Man/Jack Crabb as he oscillates between living life within the white world and the Cheyenne world.  Having been raised among the Cheyenne, he is eventually captured and placed in a religious foster home.  Running away from his foster home after realizing the hypocritical way in which his foster mother lives her life, he makes a living as a con man, then a gunslinger, and then as a shop owner.  He eventually returns to the Cheyenne, takes a wife, and lives as a Cheyenne (even having a child with his wife while also taking her sisters as his other wives).  However, his family is slaughtered in the Washita Massacre (save for his adopted father Old Lodge Skins), and he lives a hollow existence until he decides to extract revenge upon George Armstrong Custer, who led the attack at Washita.  He becomes a scout for Custer, and watches as Custer dies at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  The film ends abruptly.  Having been relating his life story to a historian, Little Big Man/Jack Crabb suddenly throws him out and looks blankly and sadly into the distance. 
            Within Little Big Man, the viewer is introduced to the single most interesting change American Indian portrayal since the cinema began.  As the film “is a search for identity,” the Indian becomes a metaphor for hegemonic white America, and more specifically the youth generation, and those that would come to be described as the Baby Boomer generation. Having lived through the tumultuous years of the American Civil Rights Movement, and coming of age during the Vietnam War, the generation of this era saw a number of youth movements such as protests of the Vietnam War, the free love movement, and the formation of the hippie subculture.  There are many instances within the film that stand as metaphors for these social groups, such as the aforementioned Washita Massacre.  Parallels can easily be drawn to images of woman and children being gunned down during the Vietnam War.  “No one watching the film could miss the obvious connections being drawn – the greedy, violent white men, the heartless and murderous military, even the Asian look of Little Big Man’s wife.”[12] However, parallels can also be drawn between the Indians and the protestors of the war, such as what occurred at Kent State University in Ohio earlier that year.  Additionally, when Little Big Man/Jack Crabb is living as a Cheyenne and takes on his wife’s sisters as additional wives, this is much more representative of the concurrent (to the time of the film’s release) youth attitude toward free love and the openness or outright rejection of the marriage institution than it was an honest portrayal of the complexities of the Cheyenne belief in marriage.  Finally, the hippie subculture came to romanticize the Indian and subsequently came to utilize fashion styles reminiscent of Indians while espousing a romanticized conception of living together with man and nature, effectively becoming Indians much in the same way that Little Big Man/Jack Crabb has.  A much more in-depth study of the Indian as a metaphor for the hippie subculture is necessary, but one need look no further than to compare the images of the American Indian as portrayed in American cinema to pictures of the hair and clothing styles of the hippie, as well as the communal attitude they espouse, in the 1960s and 1970s to see the very clear parallels between the hippie subculture and the Hollywood Indian.
            However, Indian issues at the time of the release of Little Big Man were actively attempting to refute these romanticized images.  The late 1960s and the early 1970s saw the most active resistance to dominant hegemonic society and government by the Red Power movement.  The Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 1968 – 1971, the seven day occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building that was the result of the Trail of Broken Treaties March on Washington D.C., and most famously the 1973 Occupation of Wounded Knee.  Each occupation ended poorly for the occupants, as they faced armed government removal in all three instances.  Perhaps most important to the issue of how the Indian were looked at as a sort of historical or romanticized metaphor is the Wounded Knee occupation.  While there was an outpouring of community support for the American Indian at the time, their status as a romanticized metaphor effectively ended any support for the movement with an event that surrounded the slaughter of a cow at Wounded Knee.  Having been effectively blockaded by the FBI, the Indians at Wounded Knee were hungry and attempted to slaughter a cow.  “Reporters and photographers gathered to watch.  Nothing happened.  None of the Indians – some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations – actually knew how to butcher cattle.” Fortunately for the hungry Indians, some of the reporters did indeed know how to do so and butchered the cow for them.  “The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes.  Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.”[13] While dominant young white society began to see itself in the historically romanticized image of the American Indian, the Indian himself/herself was desperately attempting to fight for their rights and recognition.
            The American Indian has historically been utilized by dominant white society as a metaphor for a number of things.  As explained here, the Indian has been used to represent oppressed minorities and groups, as a symbolic tool to explore racism and hatred, and finally as a romantic version of the Other that the baby boomer generation could identify themselves as in order to separate themselves from the previous generation.  Even today the Indian has continued to be used a metaphor or as a symbol for dominant society.  The Indian can be seen in sports team mascots.  Indian tribal names have been claimed in also naming anything from gum to helicopters and sports utility vehicles.  Additionally, the cinema has continued to provide romanticized or inflammatory images of the American Indian as metaphors for the past (Dances with Wolves, 1990), for the sexualized and romantic Other (Last of the Mohicans, 1992), and as the romanticized naturalist or ecologist (Avatar, 2010).  While these images have graced movie screens across the nation for decades however, the American Indian has largely been marginalized and ignored.  However, the recent growth of an American Indian cinema (seen in examples such as Smoke Signals in 1998, Barking Water in 2009, and On the Ice in 2011) have begun the process of placing the American Indian in a current temporality and doing away with the use of the Indian, or themselves, as a metaphor.  One may hope that this burgeoning cinema will in fact do its part in ending the use of the Indian as a metaphor, and bringing a sense of temporal presence to the culture that has not been assigned to them in the form of being a metaphor for something or someone else.

[1] Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (Lincoln and London: University of Lincoln Press, 1999).  P. 3.
[2] Prats, Armando Jose. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western (Itchaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002). P. 23.
[3] Kilpatrick, P. 58.
[4] Ibid, P. 57 – 58.
[5] Prucha, Francis Paul, ed. Documents of United States Indian Policy (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).  P. 233.
[6] Kilpatrick, 71.
[7] Ibid.  P. 60 – 61.
[8] Prucha.  P. 234.
[9] Ibid.  P. 239.
[10] Deloria, Vine.  Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (New York: Avon, 1969). P. 60.
[11] Prucha.  P. 248
[12] Kilpatrick. P. 93.
[13] Smith, Paul Chaat.  Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). P. 11.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Understanding an Approach to Film Theory: Christian Metz and Freudian Psychoanalysis

           Born in France in 1931, Christian Metz was a film theorist first made famous for his semiotic approach to cinema studies. Having been a proponent of semiotics for some time, Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier was his first incorporation of the psychoanalytic approach to cinema studies.  Freudian psychoanalysis, first written upon by Sigmund Freud and later contributed to by Jacque Lacan and Melanie Klein, had been applied to cinema theory previous to Metz.  Jean-Louis Baudry, for example, had previously written psychoanalytical film theory in regards to dream states and the cinematic apparatus. .  Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier is his work on psychoanalytic theory, and how it can apply to cinema studies. The book is broken into four parts: “The Imaginary Signifier,” “Story/Discourse,” “The Fiction Film and its Spectator: A Metapsychological Study,” “and Metaphor/Metonymy, or the Imaginary Referent.” Within “The Imaginary Signifier,” the first section of the book, Metz begins to deconstruct the cinematic image, and begins his study by questioning why an audience goes to a film.  By applying Freudian psychoanalysis to the film going experience, Metz illustrates how a film satisfies three important desires: the desire for ego, the desire to desire, and the desire for the object through fetishism.  These three desires are only, however, an aspect of what Metz discusses within “The Imaginary Signifier” chapter.  By incorporating the earlier elements of this first section, the reader comes to a deeper understanding of what drives Metz and how he came to his conclusions, which will be expounded upon within the later sections of the book.  While certain elements of Metz’s writing, the translation (since Metz wrote in French and was translated into English), and some of his arguments do indeed deserve some criticism, his early outline of what the cinema is and why we consume it is indeed enlightening and worthy of discussion.
            According to Metz, the cinema satisfies three Freudian desires.  These desires, when combined make up a set of specific features that distinguish the cinema from other arts…such as literature, painting, music, theater, etc.  The first of these features, Metz argues, is the fact that cinema satisfies the desire for the ego.  “The cinema’s signifier is perceptual (visual and auditory).”[1] The cinema is a conglomeration of images and sounds that stimulate and are read by more senses than most other art forms.  Whereas literature is perceived through sight and music is perceived through the auditory, cinema is perceived through both sight and sound.  An important paradigm, however, is revealed when the cinema is compared to art forms such as the theater, opera, and other art forms of the same type.  Not only do these spectacles stimulate the same senses as the cinema, they take place in reality.  That is, art forms such as theater also involve sight and sound sensory perceptions, and additionally they take place within a real space and a real temporality.  When you visit the theater, the events take place directly in front of you within a real location and temporality.
            Cinema, meanwhile, is made up of images recorded at a different time and place.  The image you see when you watch a film does not exist in the time and place that the image is being scene.  It was recorded previous to viewing, and was (most likely) recorded at a different location from where it is currently being projected.  “But the perceived is not really the object, it is its shade, its phantom its double, its replica in a new kind of mirror.”[2] This mirror, Metz argues, is entirely unique in the arts.  The mirror that is the cinema or the cinema screen lies within a sort of duality.  On one end of the duality is the fact that the cinema is an extremely perceptual art form because it stimulates sight and sound simultaneously.  However, the other aspect of this duality is that what is ultimately stimulating the senses, is the lack of presence and the fact that what we perceive is not real.  Therefore we perceive the imaginary.
            Though “film is like the mirror,” Metz states that it is different than the primordial mirror of Lacan’s mirror stage because there is one thing that is never reflected in it: the spectator.  When the child is held up to the mirror, it perceives itself being held by the mother, who Metz describes as “its object par excellence.” This form of primary identification of self leads the child to form ego, and the mirror image becomes the idealized self.  However, as previously stated, the cinema screen is an entirely different sort of mirror.  It is a mirror that does not reflect the spectator.  So, the spectator identifies with something else during the projection of a film.  According to Metz, the spectator comes to identify with the camera himself.  “Absent from the screen, but certainly present in the auditorium, a great eye and ear without which the perceived would have no one to perceive it, the instance, in other words, which constitutes the cinema signifier (it is I who make the film).”[3] As we perceive everything but ourselves when we look into the cinema screen, ultimately we become the camera and identify with it.  Its pans and tracking shots become our head turns.  Only through the use of uncommon camera angles and movements are we suddenly jarred into realizing our own presence-absence within the filmic image.
            The second desire fulfilled by the cinema is the desire to desire.  Or it satisfies, as Metz describes, the passion for perceiving.  He argues that “the main socially acceptable arts are based on the senses at a distance…”[4] Painting, theater, music, and cinema…all are, in some way, removed from the spectator.  Fine art and painting is meant to be looked at from a distance in order to both appreciate the style and to be respectful of the artwork itself.  Music is perceived and enjoyed from a distance between those making the music and those perceiving it.  Either the musician is recording music in a location whereas the audience will listen to the music in an entirely different location, or is performing on a stage similarly separate from the audience.  Likewise, theater sets up a specific boundary between audience and spectacle.  The cinema sets up similar audience-stage boundaries to the theater or live musical performance.  However, it is different in the aforementioned quality of lack.  The images of the film are taken from real objects, but since those objects existed in a different space and temporality, the audience is doubly removed from them. 
            Whereas the previously discussed features of the cinema are not specific to only the cinema (as elements are similar to other art forms such as painting, sculpture, music, opera, etc.), “what distinguishes the cinema is an extra reduplication, a supplementary and specific turn of the screw bolting desire to lack.”[5] It is, in fact, a kind of double withdrawal.  Not only is the spectator removed from the images and sounds they perceive while they are sitting within a theater; they are also removed from the actual filmed or recorded object since it exists within its own space and temporality outside of the spectator’s perception of it.  Since the object is, in a sense, not giving consent in being viewed (since it would break the illusory fourth wall), the scopic regime of cinema becomes a sort of voyeurism.  It is a sanctioned, and yet unauthorized, scopophilia. 
            Cinema also, according to Metz, satisfies a third desire.  This is the desire for an object, which in turn is satisfied by fetishism.  Freud’s explanation of fetishism is based upon child development.  When a child perceives its mother’s lack of a penis, this initiates a fear of castration.  The child believes that the mother at one time has a penis, but has since lost it.  This creates a fear of castration in boys, and a sense of loss or former castration in girls.  “At the same time, the child, terrified by what is has seen or glimpsed, will have tried more or less successfully in different cases, to arrest its look, for all its life, at what will subsequently become the fetish: at a piece of clothing, for example, which masks the frightening discovery, or else precedes it (underwear, stockings, boots, etc.).”[6] The fetish will come to always represent the lack of penis, or avoidance of castration.  By adhering to the fetish, the lack is replaced with “fullness.”
            Similar to how fetishism disavows the lack of the penis, the filmgoer disavows knowledge of the lack of absence of the pro-filmic image.  “It is understood that the audience is not duped by the diegetic illusion…yet, it is of vital importance for the correct unfolding of the spectacle that this make-believe be scrupulously respected…”[7] This creates another binary within the spectator.  The spectator knows that the images that they see before them are not real.  They realize that the story, plot, characters, etc. are fictional.  Yet in order to be enjoyed, these fictive elements must be disavowed and instead fetishized as real.  The spectator is both incredulous and credulous.  In describing this binary, Metz uses the example of the audiences at Le Grande Café in 1895 whom fled the theater when viewing Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at a Station.  The viewing audience is distinctly aware that what is unfolding before them is indeed fictional and not taking place within the same location or temporality.  However, this knowledge must be sublimated (though never entirely) in order to the cinema to “work.”
            These are the three desires that, according to Metz, the cinema fulfills.  The cinema screen acts as a mirror that does not reflect the spectator, who instead interjects himself as the camera within the filmic space.  This perceived lack is desired, and ultimately festishized in order to be enjoyed by the spectator.  However, in order to understand how Metz has come to the conclusion that cinema does indeed fulfill these three desires, and in order to understand Metz’s psychoanalytic approach, it is important to incorporate the earlier sections of the chapter that preceded Metz’s explanations of the desires cinema fulfills. “Reduced to its most fundamental procedures, any psychoanalytic reflection on thee cinema might be defined in Lacanian terms as an attempt to disengage the cinema-object from the imaginary and to win it for the symbolic in hope of extending the latter by a new province: an enterprise of displacement…”[8] Thus, in order to understand how to apply psychoanalytic theory to the cinema, Metz first must explicate on exactly what the cinema is and disengage from the more romantic and illusory conceptualizations normally applied to it.  Instead, he describes the cinema as a “technique of the imaginary” which is characteristic to a capitalistic and industrialized social epoch.  This is true in two senses.  The first characteristic being that film consists of fictional narratives that depend upon the primary (and industrial-technological) imaginary of photography and phonography.  Most importantly to Metz’s theory, however, is the Lacanian sense he has referred to.  The imaginary designates the lure of the ego or the mirror image that makes “man the double of his double.”[9] So, the cinema is defined by Metz in a duality that consists of technological-industrial produced sounds and images that create an imaginary that produces the lure of the ego, and will eventually fulfill psychological desires. 
            This is obvious in the fact that film is considered a “good object.” The good object-bad object duality, Metz begins to outline why we go to the cinema to have our desires fulfilled.  The cinematic institution is comprised of both the cinema industry (the mechanical reduplication of images in a series recorded in a fictional time and place for capitalistic gain), and within the mental machinery of the audience (the desire to consume films).  It is this second characteristic, or machinery, that creates this good object-bad object binary.  This dual kinship reveals that the external machine (the film industry) and the internal machine (the spectators psychology) actually present a facsimile of the latter to the former.  The institution depends upon the good object, as the audience is not forced to consume films.  Therefore, the film industry must cater to the psychological desires of the spectator in order to exist.
            Metz then explicates upon a third machine: the cinematic writer.  Film historians, critics, and theorists, according to Metz, operate as a third machine within the cinematic institution.  The cinematic writer seems primarily concerned with collecting as many good objects as possible, while vehemently denouncing the bad object.  Using a rough example, Metz refers to the filmmakers of the French New Wave.  “When they had not yet made any films and were working as critics for Cahier du cinema, (they) based a broad sector of their theory on the denunciation of a certain type of film, the ‘French quality’ film…it constituted them as bad objects…”[10] However, as he describes in the next section, “Loving the Cinema,” the theorist must both love and not love cinema in order to separate himself or herself from the medium in order to look on it completely objectively.  “To be a theoretician of the cinema, one should ideally no longer love the cinema and yet still love it…have detached oneself from it by taking it up again from the other end…”[11] As Metz describes and explicates upon this third machine, it becomes obvious that he is stating not only his understanding of cinema, but also exactly how he has and feels it must be approached in theorizing upon a psychoanalytic film theory.
            Having outlined his conception of the cinema and his conception of what his place is within the cinematic institution, Metz asks himself a question.  “What contribution can Freudian psychoanalysis make to the study of the cinematic signifier?”[12] Taking three words or terms within his question (contribution, Freudian psychoanalysis, and cinematic signifier), he begins to unpack this very question.  He begins with the word “contribution,” and quickly asserts that psychoanalysis is not the only method of writing about the cinematic signifier, and can only be used in contribution to others.  Metz identifies two other contributing methods: semiotics/linguistics and history.  Like psychoanalysis, semiotics/linguistics is a science of the symbolic.  Indeed, he describes linguistics and psychoanalysis as a secondary and primary process (respectively), “whose immediate and sole object is the fact of signification…”[13] History is important as well, as knowledge of the signifier is rooted in historical/critical background.    While linguistics and psychoanalysis may lead gradually to a science of the cinema, it is only through the historical element that the symbolic becomes social. 
            Unpacking the next term or nodal point within his question, Metz begins by describing Freudian psychoanalysis.  That is, psychoanalysis in the tradition of Freud, of which has been added to and built upon by both Melanie Klein and Jacque Lacan.  He then, on page 22, separates Freud’s work into different categories.  For example, The Interpretation of Dreams is listed as a metapsychological and theoretical work, while Totem and Taboo is shown as an example of studies with an anthropological or socio-historical aim.  After separating the works into six different types, Metz explains that the works that one would think would be most pertinent to the cinema (works in categories such as studies of arts and literature) end up being less helpful than those studies not explicitly tied to entertainment.  Texts such as the metapsychological and theoretical studies are what interests Metz the most.  He can apply them to four different types of psychoanalytic study of the cinema: a nosographic approach (psychoanalyzing the filmmaker), biographism (where neuroses are actualized with indifference to the filmic text), the psychoanalytic study of film scripts (which transforms the script into a signifier), and studies of textual systems.  It is this fourth analytic study of cinema that Metz is attempting to anchor himself to.  “Those that have the textual system and interpretation as their aim…but set out for it from the manifest filmic material as a whole (signifieds and signifiers), not from the manifest signified (the script) alone.  It is the film as a whole that is now constituted as a signifier.”[14] While the previous methods have identified neuroses of filmmakers or have utilized the script as signifier, this fourth method incorporates the entirety of the filmic experience, from the viewing of it to the method in which it is displayed and consumed.  This is what Metz identifies as his approach to psychoanalytic film theory.
            Indeed, this is his approach to unraveling the cinema-signifier.  Psychoanalysis of cinema does present a number of issues.  Freudian analyses of scripts do not differ from analyses of other aesthetic studies.  The differences between a script and a novel are not great enough to truly give a psychoanalytic study of film scripts legitimacy as being strongly characteristic to the cinema.  “To sum up, what distinguishes studies of scripts…from the approach I am trying to define here…is…not so much that they are indifferent to the signifier as that they are indifferent to the cinematic signifier.”[15] For instance, Metz argues, what about films that have no scripts?  Abstract and avant-garde films have no script, so a script-based psychoanalysis would not apply.  Instead he initiates another approach.  This fourth approach consists of a direct examination of the cinematic which exists outside of any given film or any set of films.  Now that Metz has “more or less” unwound and unpacked his question about how Freudian psychoanalysis can contribute to the knowledge of the cinematic signifier, he asks what features of this sort of analysis are specific to cinema and the cinematic signifier, and thus different from other art forms.  With this, we return to the three desires that the cinema fulfills that other works of art do not, and which have already been previously discussed.
            As Metz concludes, he makes it clear that though he feels he can stop by describing these three desires and how he came to an understanding of them, or how they play a role in the knowledge of the cinematic signifier, that this is only the beginning of a discussion that he is still “not certain of it all at once…Psychoanalysis does not illuminate only the film, but also the conditions of desire whoever makes himself its theoretician.  Interwoven into every analytical undertaking is the thread of self-analysis.”[16] Though Metz loves the cinema, he also does not love the cinema.  He needs to retain it to be questioned.  Particularly, he needs to question why the spectator goes to the cinema when they are not forced to, how the spectator learns the “rules” of the game (such as the disavowal of lack), and how the spectator becomes part of the cinematic institution.  Thus, to Metz, understanding film comes about as an act of loving the cinema.  However, in order to love the cinema, one most not love the cinema in order to “step back” from and look at it with enough objectivity in order to understand it. 
            Though Metz’s theory is basically sound, there are a few issues that do seem nebulous or inconsistent with the theories put forward by Metz.  For instance, Metz claims that the spectator identifies with the camera, becoming a sort of “god” who makes the film.  However, this seems overly simplified.  While Metz only briefly mentions that camera movement can shake us out of the reality wherein it is the spectator making the film, this leaves no room for the filmmaker themselves.  Many filmmakers explicitly guide us through a film and leave us no room to identify with ourselves as the makers of the film or the film camera.  We have very little control, for instance, over the filmic realities of mysteries, noir films, or horror films.  As a matter of fact, these films are popular due to the fact that the audience member normally only knows as much as the protagonist character(s).  I would argue that films such as these lends themselves more so toward theories of audience identification (Noel Carroll’s, for instance, or Berys Gaut’s), which Metz does not seem to agree with as he states, “As for identifications with characters…they are secondary, tertiary identifications…taken as a whole in opposition to the identification of the spectator with his own look, they constitute secondary cinematic identification in the singular.”[17] However, when information within the film is held back from the spectator (such as in Hawks’ 1946 film The Big Heat), it’s impossible for the spectator to view himself as camera or the god of a fictive world making the film, as there is not the foreknowledge necessary to feel so.  Instead, they are relegated to only a spectator status and, in my opinion, must look for their mirror self elsewhere (character identification).
            Another issue within the writing, though it is a small issue, is the fact that Metz relies upon the example of the audience of Le Grande Café running in terror from the approaching train imagery within Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at a Station.  While the example does fit nicely into his examination of how the audience must have the dual experiences of incredulity and credulity in order for the cinema to work, the fact that he used the mythological and commonly thought to be fictional reaction of the audience fleeing in terror does indeed undermine his example.  This is especially true when his love-not love of cinema binary that he finds necessary in theorizing on cinema is taken into account.  A truer separation from his love of cinema would, one hopes, involve less historical romanticism and more in-depth analysis or examples of that audience would be much more apt.  Instead of “fleeing from terror,” merely referring to shock associated with the cinema of attractions (as coined by Tom Gunning) would have made a much more cogent example without romanticizing a historical past.
            Having come full circle from one assigned reading of partial text to a reading of the text in its entirety, what is immediately striking about The Imaginary Signifier is how dense Metz’s writing is.  To a reader with no true background in Freudian psychoanalysis, reading and understanding Metz can be incredibly difficult.  This is a definite criticism of Metz’s style of writing.  He assumes foreknowledge of facts and definitions that the reader may or may not have.  There are very few explanations given, and those that are given have to be extracted from incredibly esoteric and nebulous material.  This is partially due to Metz’s meandering and (as he states) free-associating and unplanned path to knowledge.  Sometimes his ideas do indeed flow easily into one another.  Other times, however, his writing is overly pedantic or obfuscating.  However, this is also likely to be connected to another issue with the writing, which is the fact that Ben Brewster has translated Metz’s text from French to English.  While it is possible that some clarity of writing may have been lost in translation, or that the translation could clear up some of the overly obfuscating language, ultimately it is Metz’s writing style combined with a perceived (by Metz) amount of knowledge of the reader that makes this so dense a reading experience.
            Aside from these criticisms, Metz’s writing does eventually offer a cogent and concise beginning to a psychoanalytic film theory (though, as mentioned, a focused reading is necessary).  What is especially fascinating and ultimately satisfying to the reader is how Metz explicates upon his understanding and his conception of the cinema.  Having the knowledge of how Metz came to this conception is especially helpful in the later sections of “The Imaginary Signifier.”  He backs up his opinions with knowledge and logical assumptions about not only how we consume media, but about how forms of media differ from one another, and how we must understand the unique cinematic signifier.  Additionally, what is finally the most satisfying, to me at least, is how Metz hinges his theories on questions.  These are questions that he admits freely to not having immediate answers to.  However, in the way that Metz unpacks and unravels the meanings within his questions, the reader is given the opportunity to come to a greater understanding of the question and of their own conceptualizations and ideas.  Metz is not necessarily saying that “this is truth” or “this is fact,” but instead “this is how I conceive.” This is far more interesting and thought provoking than writers who implicitly state their theories as fact.  Additionally, his theory is sound.  He has backed up his thoughts with (mostly) sound examples and logical assumptions that, though the reader can question, the reader can also predominantly agree with. 
            Though I may not agree with one or two of the points upon which he writes, I find his overall conclusion to be extremely satisfying, thought provoking, and correct.  Though I do believe that there is more to character identification theory than Metz does himself, his theory on the presence-lack duality of the filmic image does account for the spectator’s desire or need to find their reflection within the mirror that is the cinema screen.  Though I do find that other theories (the aforementioned work on character identification done by Gaut and Carroll) can also account for the spectator’s reflection within the filmic image, the expression of lack is essentially valid.  Additionally, the audiences’ desire for the lack constituted by the filmic image, and the subsequent fetishization of the image in order to disavow the unreality and accept the imaginary both seem, to me, indicative of a signifier solely exclusive to the medium of the cinema and not characteristic of other art forms. 

[1] Metz, Christian. “The Imaginary Signifier,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). P. 694.
[2] Ibid, P. 696.
[3] Ibid, P. 697.
[4] Ibid, P. 703.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, P. 706.
[7] Ibid. P. 707.
[8] Metz, Christian. Imaginary Signifier, Tran. Ben Brewster (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). P. 3.
[9] Ibid, P. 4.
[10] Ibid, P. 9.
[11] Ibid, P. 15.
[12] Ibid, P. 17.
[13] Ibid, P. 18.
[14] Ibid, P. 32.
[15] Ibid, P. 34.
[16] Ibid. P. 79.
[17] Metz, Film Theory and Criticism. P. 701.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Distracting Modern Views: How Tom Gunning Refuted Modern Conceptions of Early Cinema

            Within dominant western societies, we tend to think in straight lines in terms of temporality.  The monarchies of the ruling classes, events such as wars, and even the human life is though of as having a beginning, middle, and end…all taking place within the framework of a straight line wherein one event leads to another and progresses from that event’s ending.  Far different from other culture’s conception of temporality (such as the more circular conception in some Asian and indigenous American cultures), western societies assign this straight line conception of temporality to everything.  One can witness this effect within the construct of film history.  As taught in many undergraduate film studies courses, film history begins with filmed actualities by Edison and Lumiere.  As cinema progresses, this “infantile” stage of the cinema naturally leads to more sophisticated narrative forms, resulting in a straight line from Edison and Lumiere to classical cinema, and then onto Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, New Hollywood, and so on.  These classes are often broken down even further by semester, as Film History I often deals with film history and movements previous to World War II, and then Film History II deals with film history and movements post-World War II.  However, within this conception of film history laid an incredibly problematic issue.  By applying our modern conception of the cinema to the films made during the early years of the cinema, we are effectively robbing it and removing it of its historically contemporary underpinnings and meanings.  There are counter arguments to this popular conception of film history, however.  Tom Gunning stands out in his perception of the early days of cinema, and much of his writing has stood to refute this “straight line” understanding of the early days of the cinema.  Within his essay “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” Gunning uses the example of the modern myth of audiences terrified before the images of Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train in order to explicate on the differences between what he refers to as a cinema of attractions and narrative cinema.  As he explains, “History reveals fissures along with continuities, and we must recognize that the experience of these audiences was profoundly different from the classical spectator’s absorption into an emphatic narrative.”[1] In order to explicate on his point, Gunning draws upon the history of the birth of the cinema, but contextualizes it within the era of its birth.  Further, through explaining the differences between the cinema of attractions and narrative cinema, Gunning underscores how important this contextualization is.

            Gunning begins to construct his historical argument by referring to the myth of frightened audiences screaming in terror at the image of a train approaching the screen in Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train.  Modern myths about this film assert that audiences screamed in terror at the image of the approaching train, and that some even ran in terror from the image for fear of the train hitting them.  “The first audiences, according to this myth, were naïve, encountering this threatening and rampant image with no defenses, with no tradition by which to understand it.”[2] Gunning begins to refute this myth by contextualizing the invention of the cinema in the era in which it was made.  As argued by Gunning, the audiences of the cinema of attractions were made up of audiences far more sophisticated than many modern film theorists would like to admit.  Drawing upon the exhibitions of the magic theater, illusionists, and trompe l’oeil art, Gunning points out that audiences were not only used to the illusionism of the cinema, but were indeed avid to actually consume it in that fashion.  Far from being frightened enough to actually flee from the approaching cinematic train, the audience’s shocked reaction was expected and fostered by filmmakers and exhibitors.  “The audience’s sense of shock comes less from a naïve belief that they are threatened by an actual locomotive than from an unbelievable visual transformation occurring before their eyes, parallel to the greatest wonders of the magic theatre.”[3]
            To further strengthen his argument, Gunning then points to the characteristics and tropes of the cinema of attractions in order to illustrate the differences between the cinema of attractions and classical narrative cinema.  These characteristics and tropes underline the shocks offered by the cinema of attractions.  They include (but are not limited to) the projection of still images that would eventually give way to motion, subjects within the film that would acknowledge the camera and the viewing audience (often even mugging for it), and narrators or orators that would prepare the audience for the shock in the way that a carnival barker would.  “Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity.”[4] By drawing upon Arrival of a Train at the Station, as well as Electrocuting an Elephant (Edison, 1903) and Photographing a Female Crook (Biograph Company, 1904), Gunning points out that audiences during this era of the cinema actively sought out the shocks of the cinema of attractions to appease their curiosities and enjoy the visual magic and exhibitionist characteristics of film.  “Contemplative absorption is impossible here.  The viewer’s curiosity is aroused and fulfilled through a marked encounter, a direct stimulus, a succession of shocks.”[5] As audiences came to view these early films in anticipation of these shocks, it is extremely unlikely that the myth of audiences fleeing the moving image in terror have any veracity at all.  By underscoring the “shock” characteristic of the cinema of attractions, Gunning effectively illustrates the importance of contextualizing film history by contextualizing the different ways in which early audiences and modern audiences conceived of and consumed films.
            Within the last section of his essay, Gunning begins to theorize upon why there was this historical (for the era) need for the shocks of the cinema of attractions.  “The peculiar pleasure of screaming before the suddenly animated image of a locomotive indicates less an audience willing to take the image of reality than a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality.”[6] Drawing upon the writings of Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, Gunning postulates that the increasingly modernized, and especially urbanized, societies consuming these films were met with new sights and images every day.  This increasingly industrialized and consumer-oriented society began looking for thrills that were served to them by distracting them with the shock of the cinema of attractions due to the lack of (or loss of) fulfilling experiences.  “Attractions are a response to an experience of alienation, and…cinema’s value lay in exposing a fundamental loss of coherence and authenticity.”[7]
            In formulating his historical argument, Tom Gunning uses the primary mythic example of the audiences’ fleeing before the image in Arrival of a Train at the Station in order to explicate his theory upon the difference between the cinema of attractions and more modern conceptions of the cinema as a primarily narrative form of entertainment.  As explained by Gunning, audiences of the era were actively expecting the shock of the image, as the cinema of attractions was a cinema of visual shocks that had much in common with other entertainments of the era, such as the magic theatre trompe l’oeil art forms (paintings, architecture, etc.), and even freak shows.  Additionally, Gunning also illustrates exactly why these audiences were so inclined to distractedly consume the shocks of the cinema of attractions, as the then contemporary society had become increasingly modernized and began to look for thrilling new experiences.  Gunning has carefully led his readers through a short and concise essay masterfully, and finally reaffirms his conclusion that by removing the historical context of film history, we are doing ourselves a great disservice.  The myth that audiences fled in terror before Arrival of a Train at the Station is not only ridiculous.  It is historically incorrect.  “The audiences’ reaction was the antipode to the primitive one: it was an encounter with modernity.”[8]
            Though Gunning’s arguments are indeed incredibly convincing, one or two issues with our modern conception of film viewing go relatively ignored.  Much of this has to do with Gunning’s assertion that the cinema of attractions largely disappeared.  Though he does make a passing mention that it does appear occasionally, primarily within musicals and slapstick comedies, I feel that films produced today do actually fit Gunning’s description of the cinema of attractions much more so than films of classical Hollywood or even New Hollywood.  The blockbuster cycle that would become popularized in the early 1980s seems nearly as good a description of Gunning’s cinema of attractions.  Though they are indeed supposed narratives, these narratives are often derivative and repetitious.  The main attraction of films today rely more so on special effects (or “shocks”) as well as marketing and exhibition (particularly the common place usage of 3D today than they do on narratives.  James Cameron’s film Avatar is a great example of a derivative and repetitious narrative taking a backseat to the visual shocks offered by modern cinema.  Gunning did write this essay quite some time ago (copies can be found within collections published in 1989), so it was published during the early years of the blockbuster cycle.  It is a small issue taken with the essay, however, and does not undermine his primary argument in the least.
            His primary argument is finally and definitely convincing.  Gunning draws upon a number of instances, such as the then contemporary forms of art that also espoused shocks for entertainment value, that were contemporaries for Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at the Station.  By illustrating how audiences of the era expected shocks within their forms of entertainment (as well as other pastimes), Gunning solidifies his groundwork for explaining the cinema of attractions.  Then, by explicating the characteristics and tropes of the cinema of attractions, as well as society’s hunger for these shocks, he effectively argues the believable point that contextualizing film history is necessary.  Conceiving early cinema as the beginning of a straight line of history that leads to narrative cinema does injustice to the cinema of attractions, which was actually an entirely different form of cinema from what we conceive it being today.  Gunning points out these issues brilliantly, and makes a strong and ultimately convincing case for those who are writing or studying film history to broaden their horizons and think outside of modern conceptions, idealizations, and myths.

[1] Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator,” in Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Seventh Edition. P. 750.
[2] Ibid, P. 737.
[3] Ibid.  P. 741.
[4] Ibid.  P. 743.
[5] Ibid. P. 745
[6] Ibid. P. 747.
[7] Ibid. P. 749.
[8] Ibid. P. 750.