The Early Film Spectator


One of the most influential attempts to account for the early filmgoing experience has been the work of Tom Gunning, which shifts the analytic focus from economics, technology, and business history, to questions of aesthetics, early film form, and early spectatorship. According to Gunning, "the primary motive force of the earliest filmmaking [is] the cinema of attractions . . . [which], rather than telling stories, bases itself of film's ability to show something." For Gunning, the "cinema of attractions" is "exhibitionist," based in an aesthetic of display and visibility in ["c]ontrast. . .to the voyeuristic aspect of later narrative cinema. . . " (D.W. Griffith 41). Like Noel Burch ("Primitivism and the Avant-Gardes"), Gunning has even claimed that early cinematic form anticipated the American film avant-garde which, although having different aesthetic and political motivations, nonetheless "rediscovered" many of the representational strategies of the earliest filmmaking ("An Unseen Space," "Cinema of Attractions").

In the tradition of Sergei Eisenstein's "montage of attractions" from which it was partly derived, the notion of a "cinema of attractions" can be seen as a political intervention, since it poses a strong counterargument to traditional film histories that present early cinema as a "primitive" precursor to classical Hollywood narrative film. In 1995, Miriam Hansen summed up this new film historical scholarship as follows:

For more than a decade now, scholars of early cinema have been shifting the image [of cinema's] past, from one of prologue or evolutionary stepping-stone to the cinema that followed. . .to one of a cinema in its own right, a different kind of cinema. This shift has yielded detailed studies of early conventions of representation and address . . . and of . . . production, exhibition, and reception. At the same time, it has opened up the focus of the investigation from a more narrowly defined institutional approach to a cross-disciplinary inquiry into modernity, aiming to situate the cinema within a larger set of social economic, political, and cultural transformations. ("America" 362)
Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Roy Rosenzweig, Kathy Peiss, Elizabeth Ewen and others, social and feminist film historians' discussion of cinema's public sphere as "alternative"--and at times "oppositional"--have assigned their own alterity to early cinema with varying concomitant degrees of political progressiveness.

Such arguments need to be understood within the context of the development of film studies as a discipline and in relation to debates within the field. For example, Tom Gunning's influential writings on the cinema of attractions appeared in a special issue of Wide Angle devoted to questions of narrative, and positions the theory in opposition to classical narrative realism, the enemy of 1970s film theorists against which counter-cinemas and formal avant-gardes were opposed.

Miriam Hansen addresses this problematic in her preface to "Early Cinema: Whose Public Sphere?" when she writes:

[T]he reclamation of early silent cinema as a proletarian public sphere. . .inevitably raises questions as to the epistemological status of such a concept. Does it correspond to any empirical constellation that would substantiate the claim? Or are we dealing with yet another projection of leftist media theory. . .motivated by the desperate desire to redeem the cinema as a "good object" in the face of so much evidence to the contrary? (228)
In addition, within the context of mainstream feminist film scholars exposition of the theoretical impossibility of female spectatorship, Hansen's appeal to the historical female spectator also has radical theoretical potential since, like Judith Mayne's work on early cinema, it provides important correctives to Gunning's largely gender-neutral approach. Despite her self-conscious critical awareness, however, Hansen's scholarship on early cinema is often invoked precisely to cast the early cinema in the role as a "good object." For instance, in her survey of theories of film spectatorship, Judith Mayne, herself an important participant in theoretical discussions of early cinema, writes that "Miriam Hansen's study of early American film examines how the cinema functioned, particularly for women, as an 'alternative' public sphere, that is, a space where women were free to enjoy the pleasures of voyeurism and active spectatorship otherwise denied them" (67).

During the Spanish-American War, descriptions of war fever in many newspapers across the country reflected (and constructed) the ideologically charged ethos of wartime culture that in turn facilitated the "receptivity" of early audiences and made Spanish-American War films an especially powerful "attraction" in the larger "cinema of attractions" (one which was also intensified by the broader cultural narratives and the larger discursive continuum of the Spanish-American war text). In addition to arguing that the Spanish-American War provided the intertextual raw materials--and consequently the narrative--for most 1898 films, then, I would also like to extend Judith Mayne's important revision of Gunning's thesis (Women at the Keyhole 158-68; 178-83) and Constance Balides's claim that "the attraction of women within the cinema of attractions has political implications over and above those of a general--though certainly historical--conception of exhibitionism" (Making Dust 140), to include Spanish-American War films.

As Mayne points out, "[t]o some extent, of course, the conclusions one draws from early cinema depend upon which films one takes as representative of the era" (159). For Mayne, taken together, revisionist arguments about early film are "equally convincing. . .", suggesting "the need to understand the 'primitive' era of filmmaking as composed of different and competing notions of 'otherness'" (159). In the context of the late 1990s, however, these arguments for early cinema's radical alterity have lost some of their political punch. By focusing too narrowly on the film texts-themselves and overinvesting in debates specific to film studies as they developed out of the psychosemiotic theoretical paradigm of the 1970s and 1980s, the ideological function of Spanish-American War films have slipped through the methodological cracks. In the case of the Spanish-American War film spectator, one could argue that war films, while certainly encompassing the tropes, themes, and generic conventions of "otherness" discussed in early cinema studies scholarship, are also part of a much older history of military and screen practices which, taken together, amount in large part to more of the representational same.

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