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  • The Cinema of Affections:The Transformation of Authorship in British Cinema before 1907
  • Joe Kember (bio)

Before referring to authority, the term "author" means "someone who increases" (from augere, "to increase") and more specifically, who increases confidence, credit, in other words, the salesman.

—François Jost, "The Authorized Narrative"

In the context of early cinema, François Jost's purposeful definition of the concept of authorship has a direct and suggestive application. Before about 1907 in North America, Britain, and Continental Europe, as revisionist historians have painstakingly shown, the most significant figure guiding the interpretation of moving pictures was very often a showman whose role was indeed one of increasing confidence in the appeal of each film and of successfully marketing values associated with the show.1 The art of "telling the tale" to credulous or knowing audiences, of taking their pennies, convincing them (honestly or not) of the quality of the entertainment, and then guiding them through the films was, in large part, the responsibility of live performers, as representatives of the fairground, penny gaff, and magic lantern trades frequently emphasized.2 As one cinematograph showman clarified, "You must have a showman or tale teller proper or its [sic] no use" (Norman 68). By contrast, the visible actions of performers on-screen or the ascription of authorial intention to the films apparently offered relatively little diegetic guidance to audiences. Moreover, the interactions and transitions between live and mediated forms of performance that took place during a show are both poorly documented and difficult to reconstruct from the largely anecdotal sources that remain.

In part for these reasons, the long-standing critical debate in film studies that has sought to identify the fundamental agencies "responsible for" film or to describe the models of agency most cherished by historically specific audiences presents a problem for studies of early film. If an audience's interpretation of a film remained radically contingent on the activities of live performers during exhibition, and if in large part the volitional content of a film is substantially unknowable for this reason, then our attempts to describe early institutionalized spectatorial conventions remain speculative at best. In response, the work of many revisionist historians on early film exhibition has celebrated the disparate and often unexpected nature of the information that has been successfully uncovered, detailing local practices associated with particular showmen or venues. In place of models of spectatorship derived from studies of centralized film production, the heterogeneity of early film has been embraced within an "overarching and metacritical historical paradigm," emphasizing an essential difference between early and classical cinemas and their spectators (Pearson 158). Some work concerning early film practices has instead drawn parallels between early and avant-garde cinemas (Gunning, "An Unseen Energy") or has suggested the potential of local live exhibition strategies to actively resist centralized production practices and undermine the hegemonic grip of the nascent culture industries (Lacasse).

Other studies deliver an inclusive methodological purchase upon such definitively diverse historical evidence. Foremost among these has been the model of the early cinema of attractions.3 Originally developed by Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault in the context of North American film exhibition, this model has also become equally influential in the context of early European and especially French film exhibition (Abel 59–101).4 The expression is derived, as Gunning explains, from Eisenstein, who argued that the ideal film form would consist of a series of disparate and often competing attractions, not unlike the attractions of an amusement park ("The Cinema of Attractions" 59). The tendency of the cinema of attractions was to prioritize visual pleasure at the expense of the [End Page 3] diegetic, the spectacular at the expense of familiar routines and conventional performances, exhibitionism in place of intimacy. Yet, as Gunning also notes in a passage that has attracted less attention, the early film should not, for this reason, be conceived in a manner "irreconcilable with the growth of narrative cinema," since this would misrepresent its "ambiguous heritage" for later narrative cinemas ("The Cinema of Attractions" 61). Extending this latter suggestion, this essay argues that the audience's capacity to discern a sense of intentionality behind the image track, a tendency most often...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1542-4251
Print ISSN
0149-1830
Pages
pp. 3-16
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-06
Open Access
No
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