- Commemorate, Celebrate, and Continue
Few articles on film history have had as strong an impact as Tom Gunning’s “The Cinema of Attraction(s): Early Film, its Spectator, and the Avant-garde,” which was first published in Wide Angle in 1986. The article’s focus was on a re-interpretation of early cinema, which had until then been perceived mainly as a “primitive” form that had not yet discovered its true nature, namely that of a sequential narrative following a chain of cause and effect. Challenging this established view of film’s teleological goals, Gunning argued that different periods might see different emphasis placed on the spectacle of visual attraction as opposed to the “cinema of narrative integration.” But, although Gunning’s argument was concerned first and foremost with the historiography of early cinema, his comments on how postclassical Hollywood cinema could in many ways be considered similar to the cinema of attractions, as blockbusters in the post- Star Wars era seemed to be moving away from narrative integration by placing a far stronger emphasis on spectacle and kinetic experience, his argument sent shockwaves throughout media studies.
To commemorate, celebrate, and continue the debate surrounding Gunning’s groundbreaking publication, Amsterdam University Press recently published a collection of academic essays on Gunning’s impact on the field of media studies in the past two decades. Grouped into five main sections, a highly diverse selection of international academics sheds light on numerous aspects of Gunning’s theory. Editor Wanda Strauven has done a formidable job compiling this collection of twenty authors, including heavyweights like Warren Buckland, Charles Musser, Thomas Elsaesser, Vivian Sobchack, and—reflecting back on his own legacy—Tom Gunning himself. As a kind of appendix, Gunning’s original article can be found in a special “Dossier” section, along with similarly influential work from that period by Donald Crafton and André Guadreault, and Charles Musser’s famous retort to Gunning’s article.
Highlights in the collection are distributed evenly across the book’s five main sections. The first collection of four articles, on theory formation, opens with Gunning’s look back at the processes that culminated in the publication of his article, contextualizing his theory within a period of general dissatisfaction among film historians about the placement of early cinema, and the terms that were being employed to describe it. Scott Bukatman closes this section with an excellent article that connects Gunning’s theory to Laura Mulvey’s similarly influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
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The anthology’s second section deals mostly with questions of terminology, with articles emphasizing repeatedly how the names we decide to give perceived periods in a medium’s history ultimately have a decisive influence on how the medium’s development is interpreted. The move away from a teleological perspective on film history was one of Gunning’s main objectives, and the four strong articles in this section discuss early cinema from that perspective most explicitly. The book’s middle section [End Page 93] brings the audience to the fore, with its most accomplished article, Thomas Elsaesser’s essay on film spectatorship, using the popular early “rube” films as an example of the complex ways in which early film viewers saw themselves represented both inside and outside the cinema screen.
Film and media historians will find a solid collection of articles on various kinds of visual attraction in the book’s third section, most of which deal with forms of spectacle and exhibition practices, from cinema’s direct illusionistic eighteenth-century precursors to exhibition practices in the 1920s and 1930s. The most fascinating contribution here comes from Nicolas Dulac and André Gaudreault, whose article on optical toys not only provides the reader with a well-structured introduction to items like the phenakisticope and the praxinoscope, but which also manages to establish the link between these kinds of early animated loops and contemporary forms of animation used on the Internet and mobile phones.
The fifth and final section in the anthology is the only one to focus specifically on contemporary digital...