- American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices
The period between 1908 and 1917 was a time of tremendous change for American cinema. The increasing complexity in representational practices and formal techniques, including the transition from single-reel to multiple-reel films; the rise of the studio system and the growing cult of celebrity; the shift in exhibition from a variety format in nickelodeon theaters to feature programs in movie palaces; and the expansion and diversification of film audiences, are some of the considerations that prompt Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp, in their anthology American Cinema's Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices, to boldly state that these years "arguably witness the most profound transformation in American film history to date" (1).
The essays in this anthology never lose sight of the impact and effects of this transformational period, even while debating its terms. The book's use of the term "transitional era" to describe these years reflects Keil's earlier writing on the subject1 but proves to be a source of contention within the volume, as several authors find the term limiting or inadequate to fully describe the period. The editors welcome these debates, and their inclusion in this volume serve to highlight and mirror the complexity of the era.
The first section of the anthology, "Defining Transition: Revision and Debate," features [End Page 145] provocative debates over the suitability of the term "transitional" to describe the era, as well as discussions of the applicability of the modernity thesis to transitional era films. In the opening essay, Tom Gunning examines the 1911 D. W. Griffith film The Lonedale Operator and claims that the impact of modernity continued to be felt in motion pictures after 1907, at which time the shocks of the cinema of attractions began to be absorbed, not always seamlessly, into longer and more complex narratives. Gunning questions the use of the term "transitional" to describe the era, arguing that this term shifts focus away from the period itself and onto the years that precede and follow it. He instead refers to the period from 1907 to 1913 as the "single-reel era." This terminology has its own set of problems, however, as it implies that single-reel films existed within a discrete timeframe, when in fact they coexisted with multiple-reel films throughout the 1910s. Furthermore, the term "single-reel era" foregrounds technological and narrative aspects while minimizing the many social, cultural, and industrial factors that helped define American cinema during these years.
Charlie Keil, in his essay, examines the theory that links the development of early cinema to a culture of urban modernity. Keil questions how modernity, which is closely linked to the cinema of attractions, continues to shape films during the transitional era, with their decreasing reliance on an aesthetic of attraction. Keil finds fault with the limited ability of the modernity thesis to account for stylistic changes that occur during the transitional era, and, while he concedes the broad point that modernity had an influence on cinema, along with other components of turn-of-the-century culture, he cautions against privileging the impact of modernity above all other determinants that shaped early cinema. Ultimately, Keil "calls for a more moderate stance in advancing arguments about how film relates to cultural trends of the period" (4).
In the next essay, Ben Brewster eschews the neat periodization that typifies so many accounts of early cinema, and demonstrates that short films and features existed as parallel institutions throughout the transitional era. Furthermore, he shows that stylistic and institutional contexts informed and influenced one another throughout this period. Like Gunning, Ben Singer argues against the use of the term "transitional" to describe the era, suggesting instead that "transformational" better captures the magnitude of the changes that took place during these years. In his essay, Singer tracks the shift from shorts to features, pointing out, like Brewster, that the two formats coexisted for a time before features eventually took over as the dominant mode of production. Singer offers the unexpected revelation that...