- Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations
Between 1895 and 1915, cinema became the medium we know today, fashioning character-driven narratives that unfold in a spatial and temporal continuity created by editing, for spectators who sit in silence in movie theaters. The development of the fully formed narrative film and the complex technological, formal, and historical processes that contributed to its formation [End Page 1082] are the substance of early cinema history. Not a very exciting field at first—its early histories were essentially nationalist and technological—the discipline came into its own in the late 1970s, when historians began to question the very idea of what defined “primitive” or “early” cinema. Two theories came under scrutiny: the notion that early cinema had nothing to do with what we understand to be cinema, or, conversely, that it incorporated in embryo all the stylistic and editing devices that would be seen in the mature narratives of Hollywood—that its evolution was gradual but inevitable.
Scholars began to look again at the characteristics of this new medium before its conventions had become entrenched. The resulting new theories of rupture brought to light the disjunction between the very first films and the later dominant style. The most famous of these, Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions,” explicated in a series of articles from 1985, emphasized the importance of effects of display and shock in early film rather than incipient narrative or identification with character. Building on Gunning, other writers aligned the experience of the concatenation of images that made up early films—at first not more than a minute long—to the late-nineteenth-century urban visual experience of posters, electric illumination, and department stores: in other words, to the experience of modernity.
Jonathan Auerbach, a professor of English at the University of Maryland who has recently turned his encyclopedic knowledge to the study of early cinema, considers such theories inadequate. He prefers to locate cinema at its moment of emergence, “imaging what it could or might have been rather than where it came from or what it became. By strenuously entertaining alternatives and possibilities that perhaps never are actualized,” he writes, “we put ourselves in a better position to understand the medium and its governing paradigms as they came to materialize” (p. 104). The alternative that he strenuously entertains is the body in motion; for Auerbach, bodies in film are the foundation of plot, the impetus for technological innovation, the origin of character identification, creators of scenic space, constructors of time, and much more besides.
The first chapter, an analysis of the 1896 McKinley at Home, claims that the film of presidential candidate William McKinley’s stroll across his lawn metaphorically joins home to country, domesticity to sentimentality, and national politics to each viewer’s “collective front porch.” The second chapter considers those bodies that gazed at the movie camera self-consciously as the world around them was being filmed, as well as those bodies that “acted.” The detailed history of self-consciousness in this chapter is followed by another equally erudite archaeology of the visualization of sound, which, Auerbach thinks, represents cinema’s “desire for sensory wholeness.” The last two chapters—on films featuring chases and on Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman—focus on the movement of bodies (and fire engines) through windows and streets as they are used to construct a [End Page 1083] coherent screen space. Auerbach concludes with the moving body’s opposite: the relation of the still photograph and cinema and the way in which, in preserving life, both are haunted by death.
Body Shots draws on an overwhelming number of sources from a multiplicity of disciplines. Auerbach is as at home in the work of Diderot as he is with Freud or Gilles Deleuze. The net of his broad reach lets through odd mistakes: among others, I noted Antonio for Antonia Dickson, the erroneous attribution of grid backgrounds to Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge in the 1890s, and a mistaken history of the way Marey’s...