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Camera Obscura 17.1 (2002) 1-29

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Regulating Mobility:
Technology, Modernity, and Feature-Length Narrativity in Traffic in Souls

Kristen Whissel


The first two decades of moving-picture history offer numerous examples of films and industrial practices that give insight into the cinema's complex position within the expanding network of technological modernity. 1 From the cinema's initial obsession with speeding locomotives, out-of-control automobiles, and urban street scenes, to the nickelodeon's location as a convenient stop on busy urban thoroughfares, and the narration of the pleasures and horrors of technology, the moving pictures simultaneously participated in and provided representations of technological modernity's transformation of everyday life. 2 The link between early cinema and the proliferation of new technologies went beyond the moving pictures' ability merely to represent changes in everyday life. Indeed, the effectiveness of such representations often turned on the cinema's structural affinity to other technologies, relations that could be exploited in the deployment of new narrative devices whose increasingly abstract constructions of space and time placed greater demands on audiences. Noting [End Page 1] that "after 1908 the most frequent device for portraying phone conversations was parallel editing, cutting from one end of the telephone line to another," Tom Gunning goes on to suggest that, "the fit between the spatio-temporal form of the event and that of its portrayal has a particularly satisfying effect which one suspects rendered the innovative technique particularly legible to film audiences." 3 In what follows, I would like to explore the idea that in the process of negotiating some of the more historically significant transitions in narrativity, individual films exploited the cinema's structural affinity not just with specific technologies—such as the telephone and the railway—but with the broader, expanding network of communication and transportation technologies specific to American modernity.

To greater and lesser degrees, recent analyses identify George Loane Tucker's Traffic in Souls (US, 1913) as a threshold film that sheds light on broader struggles leading to changes in the relationship between the cinema's technical base, its mode of address, exhibition practices, and spectatorship in the early 1910s. According to Ben Brewster, Traffic in Soulswas the first US multireel feature-length film not based on a previously existing literary or theatrical source. Moreover, the film's narrative structure defied contemporary conventions for organizing multireel features into a linked series of relatively autonomous mininarratives marked by denouements that corresponded to reel breaks. 4 The latter structure, Eileen Bowser argues, allowed exhibitors to show individual reels separately in weekly succession and thereby preserve the variety format that guaranteed the high audience turnover rates on which their profits largely depended. Thus the standardization of the single-reel format gave exhibitors a large measure of control over how and when films were consumed, for as Bowser explains, "The longer the film, the less opportunity there was for the showman to intervene, and the less time available for nonfilmic elements. The exhibitor, perhaps unconscious of this loss of control, nevertheless strongly resisted it. As many of the exhibitors pointed out, one unsuccessful short film in the program could be offset by a good one, but if the feature was poor, the show could not be saved." 5 As a six-reeler that had to be projected continuously or risk narrative incoherence, Traffic in [End Page 2] Souls offered a model for feature-length textuality that would allow production companies to wrest a measure of control over film consumption. Moreover, to the pleasure of the film's exhibitors, it was a popular success, particularly with female spectators. 6

While the film can be seen as an artifact of the struggles marking the slow and uneven shift toward the standardization of the continuously projected multireel feature, it also marked a struggle between the industry as a whole and the reform movement that sought to uplift it. Based on the public scandal over the white slave trade and lurid tales of innocent girls seduced and then sold into a life of prostitution, the film provoked...


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