Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cinema of Attractions

Tom Gunning’s interesting article on the early film and the incredulous spectator, looks at early reactions to the new art form known as cinema. According to Maxim Gorky (a spectator from 1896), the mixture of realism and non-realism in film, “presents not life but it’s shadows.” Yet if the audience in watching in the shadows of the theater, does this shadowed life not become more magnified? Making our relationship to what we see on the screen all the more powerful? While the article explains that during the earliest showing of film (especially Lumiere’s Train) audience were terrified by the accosting images that were presented. Unable to grasp that film was not reality, many of the audience members screamed and ran for the exit doors. This knee-jerk response seems totally suitable to me though, for no one knew how to psychologically assess film yet. It also seems like a funny commentary on the way people feel that film can be dangerous, even at it’s most harmless.

“Excitement bordering on terror,” proclaimed a Montpellier journalist in 1896, seems to for-shadow future cinematic genres and explains our complicated relationship to film in terms of enjoyment. I myself am lured by the lurid, and transfixed by the objectionable, the psychological attraction to a cinema of terror is a complex one. The first decade of cinema is known as cinema of attractions, due to addressing the audience with an assaulting image. The are no dramas to be followed, just a presented moment meant as a “dose of scopic pleasure.” Yet the pleasure’s consisted of such things as railroad smash ups, elephant electrocutions and mug shots of female crooks, all quick and sensational viewing experiences. Yet there were also educational films that presented magnified insects, such as Charles Urban’s Unseen World series.

Another type of film, “curiositas” draw the viewer in with horrible sights as a means to excite, the act of seeing or the thirst of knowledge. These seem to act as a sort of precursor to exploitation cinema, or mondo documentaries of the 60s. The carny like presentation mixed with the repulsive attractions, were objectionable to many who found the entertainment vulgar or unrefined. Yet, I find most of these early films as merely a study on the relationship with humans and the need to watch things. Are we not attracted to what is shocking? Do we not slow down when we approach a car wreck, to witness what could be our own horrible destinies? Maybe there is something cathartic about viewing what could be our own personal fate in the dangerous world in which we inhabit.

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