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  • Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations
  • Lauren Rabinovitz
Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations. By Jonathan Auerbach. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2007.

Body Shots is a series of meditative essays on American cinema from 1896 to 1903. The “body” of the title applies to the human body in motion. Auerbach claims it is the animated, moving human form that organizes the very first movies rather than the notion of visual spectacle for its own sake (as is commonly argued by early cinema scholars): “It was primarily the human figure, moving in and through and creating space that enabled cinema to become what it became” (2).

Reacting to Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” thesis regarding the earliest pre-narrative movies, Auerbach argues that the human figure not only provides unity and coherence to the new medium but a basis from which to compare early cinema to its aesthetic and popular antecedents as well as to new media in the twenty-first century. Invoking twentieth century philosophers from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Gilles Deleuze as well as a range of cinema theorists, Auerbach reflects on filmic representation of the body through five case studies: (1) American films from 1896 to 1901 that depict President McKinley’s campaign, election, funeral, and his assassin’s execution; (2) six Lumière and Edison films that coordinate an action or routine in order to self-consciously depict a visualized, objectified body; (3) three Edison facial close-up films emphasizing orality; (4) U.S. chase films as the prototype for filmic narrative by relying upon human bodies in pursuit of another human body as the building block for “story;” (5) Life of an American Fireman (1902–03) as the first film narrative whose principles of spatial causality depend [End Page 165] upon the logic of the figure in space, that is to say, a dependency on corporality, rather than on cause-and-effect action unfolding in time.

From the outset, Auerbach eschews sociological concerns (questions of how bodily presentation differentiated social identities during the politically tumultuous years of 1896–1903) as well as historical contextualization for reception. For example, in What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (1901), Auerbach fixates on “the relentless, planted stare [at the camera] of a curious boy in a brilliant white shirt” (124). He argues that the figure upstages the self-presentation of a woman whose skirts are lifted upward on a city street and thereby makes ambiguous the status of the film as a window onto the world (124–25). Both Miriam Hansen and I have written about the operation of dual modes of theatricality and absorption in this individual film, pivoting not on the boy’s return gaze to the camera but on the woman’s return laugh at the camera. Auerbach refuses to acknowledge that the sexual difference of the two “returns” might make a difference in how self-consciousness is rendered. Similarly, for Auerbach, figures running in chase films are all simply human forms in locomotion whereas men, women, children, men in drag and/or blackface, the fat, and the skinny all have differentiated movements that elaborate upon the depiction of movement itself.

Instead, the author “redeems” early cinema for a radical post-modern contemporaneity that makes it both a study of the newness of cinema aesthetics as well as purposeful for the study of the human form in relationship to today’s new media. Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901), an exterior actuality coupled with a studio re-enactment of the electrocution of McKinley’s assassin, is for Auerbach both the disintegration between public and private spaces (characteristic of modernity and post-modernity) and “a postmodern impression of its own fictionality in relationship to the fictionality of the world it purports to represent” (38). Repurposing early cinema for a study of the inter-dynamics of body, space, and motion in new media is by turns clever, erudite, illuminating, and maddening.

Lauren Rabinovitz
University of Iowa


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pp. 165-166
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