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.

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