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1906 Movies and Spectacle LAUREN RABINOVITZ New institutions that staged grand displays, impressive performances, or “spectacle” characterized turn-of-the-century modern life. Department stores featured magnificent architecture and fabulous displays of material goods. Grandiose international expositions provided immersive catalogues of culture. Dime museums dramatized and sensationalized topics and celebrities of the day. Traveling panoramas offered large-scale depictions of history and landscapes. Newly built electric amusement parks (early exhibition sites for cinema) provided a carnival of noise, light, and motion. But the definitive mode of modern spectacle was the motion picture and, in this year, new approaches to movies secured the status of motion pictures as spectacle. The social conditions for the invention of modern spectacle began well before this year and well before the beginning of the movies when intense industrial growth in the late nineteenth century changed European and American societies. In the United States, immigration and country-to-city migrations responded to new manufacturing and commercial jobs and resulted in massive population and employment shifts that remade the physical spaces and institutions of U.S. cities. By the turn of the century, urban inhabitants were themselves transformed as they adjusted to changing ideas about speed and distance and to the assaults on their senses from the noise, congestion, and visual bombardments in the modern city. Cultural critic Walter Benjamin has written convincingly that early twentieth century urban spectacles, including motion pictures, transformed modern social consciousness and modified the institutions of mass society. His ideas build on sociologist Georg Simmel’s concerns about mob psychology and about nervous overstimulation in modern city life, examining a variety of novel spectacles (such as expositions, shopping arcades, and movies) for how they transformed modern social consciousness, modified the institutions of mass society, and radically reframed what counts as modern knowledge (Benjamin Arcades; Simmel). Benjamin grasped that modern 158 spectacle is central to what matters in modern societies. Anxiety about new lived experiences required innovative reassurances in the forms of spectacle that perceptual knowledge would assume. Movies served their audiences by adjusting them to contemporary features of city life, its modernization, consumerism, and alienation. Movies became transformed into spectacle in three ways. First, motion pictures sensationalized chief events of the year: the 18 April San Francisco earthquake, the 25 June murder of architect Stanford White by wealthy playboy Harry Thaw, Mafia activities in New York City, and the passage of food reform legislation on 30 June as a result of public outrage over conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry. In all these examples, movies depicted horrible urban excesses of national crime, scandal, and disaster with simulated tourism and voyeurism as the means for overcoming anxiety about different kinds of catastrophes of modernity. Second, movies that predominantly played at new nickel theaters and at amusement parks participated in larger programs of theatrical, architectural, and kinesthesiac spectacle; movies were always experienced in combination with illustrated songs, band, or orchestral music, live animal or human acts, thrill rides, or technological feats of electric, water, or mechanical displays. Third, the new fad of simulating travel in “virtual voyage” installations (such as Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World) was a novel kind of cinematic spectacle that extended the pleasures of well-known moving panorama “rides” like the Trans-Siberian Railway by turning the theater space into a bouncing, breezy sightseeing conveyance and by projecting the thrilling destinations onto the screen. ■■■■■■■■■■ The Spectacle of Current Events On 18 April, a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco, and fires subsequently swept the city. The U.S. government reported 700 deaths, although this figure has been continually revised upward throughout the twentieth century and may be closer to 3,000 direct or indirect deaths in a city whose population was around 400,000. Approximately 225,000 people, or more than half the city, were left homeless due to the destruction. The quake and subsequent fires destroyed more than 28,000 buildings in a five-square-mile radius that included downtown San Francisco and Chinatown. The damage and loss of life made this one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The nation rallied to aid San Francisco in its effort to rebuild. While newspapers reported the destruction in words, motion pictures provided 1906 — MOVIES AND SPECTACLE 159 grand, detailed illustrations of the ruins, fires, and relief efforts. Motion picture manufacturers either sent itinerant camera operators to San Francisco to capture the scene as soon as possible, or they restaged the annihilation...


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