“By focusing on the hidden details of exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite or the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.” 1
This passage from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction seems to allude to the philosophical tradition of questioning the nature of vision and its relation to reality and truth. Plato’s parable of the cave describes how an unenlightened existence, one without philosophy, is akin to the imprisonment of humans within a cave. Chained in position, reduced to the status of static spectator, one watches the dancing shadows projected on the wall, ignorant of the source of these shadows–actual objects being projected by the light of a fire. Strangely enough the parable seems well-suited to the fundamental elements of film which are essentially images lit up on a screen for a mass audience via a hidden apparatus that flickers in behind. Benjamin version of events however provide a more unorthodox system of agency than Plato’s, one that is squarely on the side of the masses, positing that it is the everyday, “the necessities which rule our lives”, that has become a prison; it is mechanical reproduction, the advances of industrialization and technology, that allow one to momentarily escape: the simulated experience of “calmly and adventurously” traveling provided by motion pictures. The initial shock of film, its unbridled potential to branch off into any number of discursive formations, was what was so exciting about early film, before the regulated structures of leisure and pleasure, the culture industry, became part and parcel of the capitalist economy. Benjamin’s critical historical consciousness related to film came well after the days of “primitive cinema,” but well before the enforced narrative norms of Hollywood. His ideas reflect a guarded optimism, however, as to the potentially positive uses of new modes of production and representation by and for the masses (who he saw as imprisoned within the alienating confines of the capitalist system of production). He saw in the flicker of one-tenth of a second the mechanisms and tools for their future liberation. He ends his essay with a warning of the danger of cinema’s fascistic uses that were starting to haunt his present moment, 1936.
Although the Lumiere brothers’ films preceded Benjamin’s essay by about forty years, I find the above passage by Benjamin particularly appropriate to understanding the realities of everyday life for the bourgeoisie and the working classes at the close of the 19 th century. The economic and class upheavals that characterized the latter half of the 19 th century could be momentarily escaped through new visual forms of diversion. The viewing of these very first films bear all the markings of active spectatorship and a collective recognition of the familiar aspects of everyday urban experience, “an alternate vision of cinema, a range of film/spectator relations that differ from the alienated and alienating organization of classical Hollywood cinema.” 2 Furthermore, the very fact that this new “art form” was made by technical means only, and not by any need for exclusionary talent or manual expertise, made the author/reception relationship seem all the more democratic–anyone could make a film, anyone could be in a film, but also anyone could understand a film.
As viewers newly positioned within the twenty-first century, we may find it difficult to imagine what it would have been like to experience the very first films by the Lumiere brothers over a century ago. A frequently repeated story claims that members of the first audiences of the film Arrival of a Train at Ciotat had reacted by jumping out of their seats as the train appeared to be on the verge of exiting the screen to run them over in the darkness of the theatre. Another story tells how spectators would approach the screen at the end of a projection and poke at it with their fingers or walking sticks, wondering whether any props existed behind the screen. Could a water tank exist behind the screen to account for the verisimilitude of the boat rowing out to sea? But then how could one account for the quick scene changes from the train to a busy Paris street streaming with horse-drawn carriages? Of course most of the first spectators didn’t really expect the train to run them down nor did they really believe that they were duped by smoke and mirrors. This was the first time that they had ever experienced anything that transcended the artifices of illusion that the panorama, diorama, photograph or stereoscope had provided them with. The only experience that they could ever have had that even came close to these films was a real train pulling into a station, a real boat leaving the harbour, a real street bustling with traffic. Even the movement of inanimate objects within film such as leaves rustling in the wind or dust settling after the demolition of a wall aroused the most intense fascination in the viewer who had never seen such spontaneous movement and accurate detail together captured cinematically. Suddenly overlooked fleeting events and practices of everyday life took on gigantic proportions. As a social and aesthetic experience, “the reception of films was without institutional precedent. The “proper” relations among viewer, projector, and screen, the peculiar dimensions of cinematic space, were part of a cultural practice that had to be learned.” 3 These first instances of film spectatorship reflect the eruption of a new subjectivity created through the collective organization of human perception: the blurring of the actual time and space of film experience with a past time and distant place captured on film ran through the audience like a shock. It wasn’t until a period of adaptation and transformation in the cinema towards fictive forms of linear narrativity (after 1906) that this blurring would become commonplace and even effective in producing a complete subjective fluidity between who was seeing and what was being seen. Certain subject positions and viewing habits could easily be enforced. Even the devices of temporal ellipsis, spatial separation, and the idea of simultaneous action would soon be visually/diegetically logical and taken for granted. After the initial shock of disbelief would subside, the acceptance of reproduction over the uniqueness of reality, the elimination of aura that brought things closer spatially in the darkness of the theatre, was to be experienced as a commodification of space-time that was in keeping with the experience of other fields of industrial capitalism such as labour and travel: “With its dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, with the rapid succession and tactile thrust of its sounds and images, film rehearses in the realm of reception what the conveyor belt imposes upon human beings in the realm of production” 4
My analysis of Lumiere films will be based on this distinction between the prison-world of social and economic realities of late nineteenth-century life and the escape from the confines of such realities through the semblance of a fluidity of identity, time, and space via the cinematic medium. At the level of the “optical unconscious” however, these first instances of film contained all the traces of the alienating effects of a prison-world; the novelty of viewing a moving picture was less distracting than shocking, less an adventure than a mediated reflection of the actual conditions of work and leisure, perhaps an unconscious reaction to the shifting class and gender positions at the end of the 19 th century: “We penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday, by virtue of a dialectical optics that perceives the everyday as impenetrable and the impenetrable as everyday.” 5
While Benjamin saw in film and photography (as forms of mechanical reproduction) the possibility of agency for the masses, the exhibition value of these art forms seemed also to be in danger of falling under the logic of exchange value under capitalism (the commodity reflecting the social relations of the time: profit made by the owners of property from the exploitation of workers, alienated from the means of production, and dependent for their livelihood on the machines of mass production provided by owners of capital). While Marx made the notion of superstructure (art and culture) supplementary to the base (economy) in the grand scheme of power relations, Benjamin was one of the first to anticipate the blurred lines between the economic and the cultural, the beginnings of their symbiotic union. Under the aegis of mechanical reproduction, art forms came to reflect new industrial modes of production, these very modes that, if placed in the right hands, could revolutionize the balance of power, and distribute across class lines.
According to Benjamin, the reproduced image is deprived of aura, of a unique existence in real time and space, an existence that looks back at us on an equal footing: “The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in return. To experience the aura of a phenomenon means to invest it with the capability of returning the gaze.” 6 The images, cities, and people that the spectator perceives in a film speak of a world spatio-temporally inaccessible to the viewer: the spectator and the actor are each imprisoned in their respective spaces, without aura, that “unique appearance of a distance” that allows for reciprocal communication, the return of the gaze. While early film provided a communal experience for spectators, who could not help but feel like they were participating in a new revolutionary form, without set rules in terms of production and reception, this could too easily lead to absorption and distraction once the experience became habitual. In the right hands, film could either become a vehicle for mass action or the beginning of passive reception to “invisible” ideological constructs. The latter formation reflects the present consumption of film, the alienation of one individual from another while experiencing the same phenomena as they sit side by side in the theatre. The one-way direction of spectacle, the despatialization of experience, and the pacifying effect of distraction diminishes the necessity for intersubjectivity.
This notion of a prison-world of everyday life also ties in quite well with Foucault’s notion of a panoptic gaze resulting from new modes of social and political control institutionalized by the “regime panoptique”. The disciplines of imagined scrutiny rendered the body the site of an internalized gaze, reinforced by the creation of tightly administered institutions that came to structure all facets of public life. As an emerging institution, cinema could be analyzed as embodying the panoptic gaze virtually, a gaze that filters through all modes of administered culture, in terms of production, distribution, reception, and content. Being constructed on a mobile and virtual gaze, the pleasure of cinematic spectatorship seems to be based on a masking or a reversal of the internalized panoptic gaze. Even though one is statically positioned within a public space, the darkness of the theatre makes one feel as if one has escaped the prison-world of everyday life, that one has transcended the confines of a fixed identity, a fixed time, and a fixed space. As a film spectator obscured in darkness, one almost feels as if one has taken on the position omnipotence; one feels freed from the effects of surveillance as well, more in the position of an empowered voyeur. However, one only possesses an imaginary visual omnipotence since the film being viewed is only a reconstitution of reality. One chooses to view such and such a film but is not in control of the camera’s gaze. In fact, the manipulation of the gaze only moves in one direction in film spectatorship, from that of the projected image to the viewer. Although the spectator may feel omnipotent and relieved of disciplinary constraints, s/he is actually engaged in a form of visual control by a new institution of coded representation. Dominant ideologies and behaviours are by no means forced upon the viewer but insinuate themselves through a number of discursive forms of identification and repression. In early cinema, if the spectator feels like the tower guard in his/her vicarious identification with the camera eye, then those subjects/actors being filmed must have a sense of being under surveillance. The self-consciousness of so many of the filmed subjects in the Lumieres’ early films attests to this. The “actors” acknowledge that they are being scrutinized by a future anonymous audience, a disembodied, virtual audience rather than a physically present body. The confined architectural space of the theater, adapted to the purposes of mass diversion, and the special atmospheric conditions of darkened audience participation as opposed to the seductive, epiphanic glow of the miraculously detailed incidents on screen kept the spectator in awe. Never in the history of secular culture did an experience come so close to an experience of the sublime, of suspended disbelief. And yet this cinematic apparatus was based on the principles of exhibition value, the eradication of aura, not cult value (Benjamin).
In the space of this essay, the construction of subjectivity in early spectatorship will be analyzed in four well-known films by the Lumiere brothers: Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, Arrival of the Congress Members at Neuville sur Saone, Arrival of a Train , and Leaving Jerusalem by Railway . The first two and the last two films will be paired up because of their parallel and contrasting structures and content. The general analysis of the Lumieres’ films will in turn be broken down into three categories:
• How new material and psychological demands put forth by the bourgeoisie paved the way for the invention of the Cinematographe;
• How documentary style and subject representation was deeply embedded in a bourgeois ideology, along with its attendant anxieties;
• How the cinematic apparatus was to contribute to the production of a different type of viewing subject, one that was in keeping with the positivist project of optical experimentation on the body, that had already been underway since the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The Lumieres’ documentary style was particularly effective in instituting a slippage between reality and its simulation because it forwarded images of everyday life under the guise of scientific truth, all the while entertaining the audience through the shock of the “real” produced by the apparatus. As Benjamin noted, the blurring of reality and representation in film could be conceived as relating to the fusion of science and art as an integral element of fascination for the spectator:
In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behaviour item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily. This circumstance derives its chief importance from its tendency to promote the mutual penetration of art and science. Actually, of a screened behaviour item which is neatly brought out in a certain situation, like a muscle of a body, it is difficult to say which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science (p.236).
As well as being invaluable historical documents of everyday social life at the end of the 19 th century, what I hope will become apparent from my analysis of these films is the Cinematographe’s fusion of scientific invention with the burgeoning competitive entertainment industry. The success of this industry was dependent on the production of a new subject, one driven by the compulsion to see and consume all things new and all things simulating the real . The construction of identity from identification with “actors,” while nascent in early cinema, was only the starting point for a complex system of identification with and subjection to the gaze that was to be de rigueur in subsequent productions (Mulvey).
Between 1891 and 1896, an invention of international scope was in the making. Thomas Edison in the United States, Robert W. Paul in England, Max and Emil Sklandowski in Germany, and Louis and Auguste Lumiere in France were racing to invent and market the first film cameras, projectors, and reels of celluloid film that were to record the hieroglyphs of time and space, to be projected onto a screen. The cinema was in fact an idea that had been maturing for a long time. As an apparatus it was not an invention in the strict sense of the term, but more of a bricolage of many different inventions, aesthetic and optical (as with its inspiration from the chronophotograph, and the diorama), and technical (as with the use of the mechanisms of the sewing machine and the bicycle for the application of continuous motion). Alan Williams believes that this ever-widening circulation of overlapping ideas and techniques contributed to motion pictures being invented concomitantly around the globe:
The cinema, as bricolage, combined three nineteenth century technologies that had existed for well over fifty years as separate developments. These were the analysis of movement, the optical synthesis of movement, and photography. Once all three technologies were widely diffused, cinema was conceivable as a goal to almost anyone in the educated upper-middle classes, which explains why so many people in virtually all Western countries tried to “invent” the medium so desperately, long before the last necessary ingredient, flexible celluloid for film stock, was available (p.11).
In 1891, Edison had made a breakthrough with his Kinetoscope, the first device in which optical synthesis of photographically analyzed movement was accomplished, but it was far from perfect; images could not be projected onto a screen and the extremely heavy equipment could not leave his studio, the Black Maria, where he was restricted to filming vaudeville-type acts against a black backdrop. The fact that the moving picture could only be viewed by the solitary spectator made commercial distribution of the device difficult. When the Kinetoscope made it into Europe, it was the Lumiere brothers’ father Antoine who saw the commercial possibilities of this apparatus: the projection of the flow of images/events before a mass audience which accounted for the commercial success of Daguerre’s diorama. The Lumiere Brothers, under the inspiration of their father, were the first to manufacture and distribute films that were made outside the controlled environment of the studio, capturing the outdoor world of everyday contemporary life using the most efficient lightweight equipment yet: “Louis Lumiere designed his device on the model of the portable still camera … which was almost a hundred times lighter than the Edison machines and mechanically simpler. He also made his machine reversible, capable not only of taking cinematographic views, but of projecting them as well” (Finler, p.24).
It is essential to understand the invention of film within the context of nineteenth century economic market competition between nations, and especially of private enterprise, that drove inventors to want to be the first to perfect and distribute the cinematic apparatus. In his book Age of Empire , Hobsbawm explains how liberal capitalism’s initial internationalism, whose basic building-blocks were the atoms of enterprise, became increasingly nationalist around the mid-nineteenth century: “…the developed world was not only an aggregate of national economies. Industrialization and the Depression turned them into a group of rival economies, in which the gains of one seemed to threaten the position of others. Not only firms but nations competed” (p.42). This nationalist tendency is reflected in the competitiveness between film inventors from different countries. New inventions meant quick profits, and potentially big business. Therefore, entrepreneurial foresight was as important as technical insight. Before the invention of film, the Lumiere Brothers had been successful entrepreneurs in the invention and mass production of photographic plates, and it was no accident that their first film, the Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory , was one of the many self-promotional film events they were to make in the first years of production and mass distribution. When Edison’s Kinetoscope appeared in Paris, the Lumieres’ had the commercial vision to see great potential in a more efficient way of distributing animated photographic images. One of the reasons why Edison was not more hasty in trying to perfect and distribute moving pictures was because, like many of these early inventors, he could not see the long term applications of the moving picture. As a device for scientific research, it seemed limited to the type of experiments in human and animal motion that Marey and Muybridge had done successfully a few years earlier. The development of cinema also seemed to have been sparked by the shortcomings of photography for establishing evidence; there has been an increase in demand for a documentary photographic practice that could establish the truth of events through verifiable live action (as opposed to reenactments of actualities that photography had already attempted to do). But in terms of pure optical entertainment value, the marketability of such an apparatus was not yet obvious. The successful bricoleur who came up with the cinematic device in the end had to be part inventor, part entrepreneur and part showman; between Louis Lumiere, his brother Auguste, and their father Antoine, each contributed their talents in making it to the finishing line before the others. They not only had the technical aptitude to make photographic images move with the semblance of real life, they saw it as a profitable enterprise and as a future form of entertainment for the masses.
At first sight, these one-minute single frame film shots seem to deal exclusively with documenting, in a completely objective manner, the quotidian life of the bourgeoisie and working class people of their native city of Lyon (and later that of foreign peoples in other parts of the world). But within this documentary “objective” style, the manner in which the subjects are shot and framed speak of a somewhat privileged take on reality. On the one hand, the framing of these subjects by the camera’s adoption of a “long shot”, a distant perspective, always allowed ample space for the development of action in all directions, thus revealing a quasi-scientific attitude toward the natural movement of the subjects in everyday activities. This distant, deep sense of space, and depth of focus, as well as the continuation of action hors-champ (in-and-out of the frame), was important in conveying a sense of naturalness to the scene while the film-makers ‘classified’ their subjects. Under the scrutiny of the disembodied camera eye, one gets a definite sense of a desire to present a categorization of subjects according of class, gender, and race, all the while allowing the unified body of people to disperse with a sense of spontaneity of movement. However, it has been noted that Lumiere actualities display a spatial coherence through “a complex pattern of symmetries that offer closure,” are “structured by diagonal lines of perspective that have a long tradition in Western painting and photography” and often display a “deep staging and composition to locate a plot…with a beginning, middle, and end” (Jonathan Auerbach, p. 799).
The subtleties of framing and constructing a continuous single shot film are also accompanied by a no less subtle choice of content. One could understand the documentary impulse as being necessitated from the outset by a certain self-promotional need and because of the type of audience they initially addressed. The very first film they produced, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory , was made not just because the subject and site were convenient. There were a multitude of other subjects the Lumiere’s could easily have filmed. The first film they chose to produce and screen for the public was a film about their workers leaving the Lumieres’ very successful enterprise, specialized in the manufacturing of photographic equipment. While this could be seen in part as an instance of self-promotion first and foremost, the film also reveals other coded meanings. The fact that the workers are leaving the factory, and not entering it for instance, seems significant; leaving the factory reflects a time when the worker is happy to be off work, ready to go about occupying their time with more leisurely activities perhaps. The worker is also no doubt relieved to be released from the surveillance-type situation that characterized so many factories at that time, the new Taylorist-style methods of scientific work management that would assure that they worked efficiently. The workers do appear to be by-and-large happy and eager to be leaving the factory, all appears to be in dynamic motion, a few running, or on bicycles, playing with a dog, or conversing in a lively manner. The fact that the majority of them are very tidily dressed and donning hats fit for a petit-bourgeois status, reflects perhaps a certain uncertainty as to their class status, working class and yet perhaps straddling the lower middle class as well. This uncertainty and fluidity of class boundaries was characteristic of the late nineteenth century. Apparently the camera was concealed so that a complete naturalness of attitude was to be attained and so that no direct acknowledgement of the camera was possible by the workers. Another important aspect is the fact that most of the workers appear to be women. In an age of increased mass entertainment and of increased circulation of photographic images, employment in the photographic industry meant good work for women since it did not entail heavy labour and tended toward more assembly line production. This image of the happy, healthy worker is one that the bourgeois entrepreneur wants to promote in terms of their own privileged class position, especially since there had been so much social unrest amongst the working classes after the Depression of the 1870s. The success and then sudden defeat of the Commune de Paris in 1871 was a reminder to the bourgeoisie of the potential of social revolution amongst the masses that could erupt at any time and the unfortunate bloodshed that this could entail. Therefore the portrayal of the working classes in a favourable and positive fashion was no doubt an unconscious decision on their part to counteract any potential hostility from the masses toward the capitalist structure of bourgeois liberalism. This positive view of the factory workers should be interpreted as a practical, commercially driven decision on the part of the Lumieres but also, on a more unconscious level, as a way of appeasing the anxieties that the bourgeoisie felt vis-à-vis the workers. This recurring image of the worker in many of the Lumieres’ films (road workers, shipyard workers, laundresses, etc.) was offering up an ideal, docile image that the ouvriers could identify with and upon which the bourgeoisie could project feelings of confidence. It was important to make workers as well as the bourgeoisie the main “protagonists” in these first films since the lower and middle classes were projected as the chief future consumers.
Another reason why the Lumieres’ chose this documentary genre was no doubt because of their first immediate audiences, those who would be their first investors: they filmed for the photographic congresses, for conferences of learned societies and academies, and performed demonstrations for scientific periodicals. Because they were inventors and men of science by nature, the Lumiere brothers chose the “wonders of science” route to market their apparatus. Scientific societies would hardly be impressed by Edison-style dance numbers on the screen so the Lumieres chose to film images that would be suitable for contemplation by the serious and technically informed bourgeois public — a public interested in the question of realistic representation and analysis of movement, not trick photography. Another one of the first films they made, which was also self-promotional, was the Arrival of the Congress Members at Neuville-sur-Saone . In comparison with the Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory , this film is distinctly different in intent. Here, the Lumieres filmed the photography congress members disembarking a boat on their arrival at Lyon as a way of flattering the members the next day when the brothers were to unveil their invention to them. What better way to impress an audience than by making them the focus of a ground-breaking invention? In this film they did not hide the camera from view as they had done with the workers. These full-fledged bourgeois subjects not only acknowledge the presence of the camera by directly staring into the camera but also display a distinctly bourgeois bodily rhetoric, the removal or tip of the hat to the camera marks them as members of polite society. Another contrast to the factory worker film is the predominance of men disembarking the boat. This is yet another sign of class; for although lower class women worked outside the home, and although bourgeois women were slowly making some headway into the professional world, it was still proper for bourgeois women to stay at home and attend to domestic affairs.
One of the main features that distinguishes these two films is the presence or absence of the gaze. The bourgeoisie are granted the power to see, acknowledge, and even interact with the process of filming through his/her display of politesse . The worker is not. As with their inferior position within the factory, the worker is held up to scrutiny by the gaze of the spectator without being given the privilege of looking back. Such an intentional class contrast between these films, that otherwise are so similar in their structural unfolding (the long line of bodies leaving a particular space and disappearing off-frame), seems to elicit something more than just an objective documentation. The films seem to betray an underlying anxiety vis-a-vis the potential breakdown of class boundaries. The very fact that a documentary-style portrayal of these differences should be offered up to audiences points to the Lumieres’ unwitting wish to maintain such class differences. They probably felt that their very livelihood depended on it.
The so-called “primitive” cinema of the turn of the century was far from being the cinema of today as an institutional form of representation and mass consumption. Apart from the first screenings of the Lumieres’ films at scientific conferences, the films were to enjoy wide distribution within urban centres at fair grounds, variety shows, summer parks, and traveling shows. The scientific interest in the moving image was obviously limited compared to the unanimous shock and pure visual excitement the films produced in the first viewers. It was inevitable that the motion picture would move to the next most logical site, that of institutionalized leisure spaces. Unlike the institutionalized context of film spectatorship today, these locations of a distinct ‘variety format’ were appropriate to the one-minute length of the films, easily slotted in between acts, so as to emphasize the diversity of entertainment. Furthermore, the silent nature of the films meant that musical accompaniment became an integral part of the film experience. It may seem surprising that Lumiere films, predominantly documentary in character, should find themselves sandwiched indiscriminately amidst comic skits, dances, and magic shows. However, it seems that these popular sites, in offering such diverse forms of diversion, accommodated a heterogenous public whose class boundaries were increasingly fluid, especially in terms of cultural taste. With the popularity of photography amongst the bourgeoisie and with the panorama’s and diorama’s dependence on mass spectatorship and the mobilized gaze, we find a disciplinary crossover between “high art” and mass forms of spectacle based on a common interest in simulated reality (e.g. history/city panoramas). Film spectatorship seemed to favour this mixing of middle and working classes in the very variety of its genres: news films and actualities, views of everyday life, work, and leisure, travelogues and scenics, dance numbers, acrobats, trick films, and comedies. What film history has tended to obscure is the very heterogenous character of the medium’s origins, sharing many viewing practices with such visually-dependent forms of mass entertainment as the diorama, the vaudeville act, the fair, the wax museum, even the morgue. In her discussion of film-viewer relations before Hollywood, Miriam Hansen writes: “Just as it borrowed inventions from other areas of technology (such as the bicycle and the sewing machine), early cinema relied for its subject matter and representational strategies on a vast repertoire of commercial amusements that flourished around the end of the century” (p.29). This unparalleled diversity, novelty and “realism” of amusements, distinct from the contemplative practices of higher class culture, reflected the increasingly fragmentary experience of urban everyday life and its consumption by the masses:
The rapid succession of seemingly unrelated films and live performances encouraged a mode of reception incompatible with that mandated by the traditional arts — a tendency toward ‘distraction’ or ‘diversion’ that notably Siegfried Kracauer, and following him, Walter Benjamin valorized as a practical critique of bourgeois culture. If the traditional arts required an extended contemplation of and concentration upon a singular object or event, the variety format promised a short-term but incessant sensorial stimulation, a mobilization of the viewer’s attention through a discontinuous series of attractions, shocks, surprises. This type of reception was perceived very early as a specifically modern form of subjectivity, reflecting the impact of urbanization and industrialization upon human perception (Hansen, p.29).
Jonathan Crary describes the fragmentary nature of such visual attractions as having a destabilizing effect on one’s subject position:
Vision, in a wide range of locations, was refigured as dynamic, temporal, and synthetic. The demise of the punctual or anchored classical observer began in the early nineteenth century, increasingly displaced by the unstable attentive subject… It is a subject competent both to be a consumer of and an agent in the synthesis of a proliferating diversity of “reality effects,” a subject who will become the object of all the industries of the image and spectacle in the twentieth century (p.68).
The very novelty of early film was such that it was the cinematic apparatus itself rather than the content of the films themselves that most attracted the spectator to the theatre or variety show. When advertising their films it was the newly invented apparatus that was foregrounded, the “Cinematographe Lumiere”, not the actual titles of the films. Early audiences would go to demonstrations of the camera and projection apparatus just as they would go to exhibitions of all types of inventions, such as the X‑ray and the phonograph. This was a form of educational entertainment for the masses who were curious about all novelties that displayed the progress of science and industrialization. It was this curiosity vis-à-vis visual demonstrations, visual experiments, and visual pleasures and commodities, that increasingly came to characterize the public sphere of the bourgeoisie. It was no longer just one homogeneous public that had the leisure and wherewithal to engage in rational discourse (between educated, propertied equals); industrialization and its attendant increase in commodities, inventions, and leisure time paved the way for new public configurations, spanning fluidly from middle to working class, bound ever more closely by an attraction to display/exhibition and an attentiveness to diversity and detail:
Within the new system of objects, which was founded on the continual production of the new, attention, as researchers learned, was sustained and enhanced by the regular introduction of novelty. Historically, this regime of attentiveness coincides with what Nietzsche described as modern nihilism: an exhaustion of meaning, a deterioration of signs. Attention, as part of a normative account of subjectivity, comes into being only when experiences of singularity and identity are overwhelmed by equivalence and universal exchange (Crary, p.63–64).
The individual body, as well as the social body, became the repository of new micropowers, not only through the controlled movements of a Taylorist assembly line work, but also in the acquisition of certain experiences through the shocks and starts of new ways of seeing brought about by technology (photography, travel, etc.) and new institutions of culture and entertainment.
In his essay “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, Tom Gunning advances the term “cinema of attractions” as a more historically accurate description of early films:
The potential of the new art did not lie in imitating the movements of nature or in the mistaken path of its resemblance to theatre. Its unique power was a matter of making images seen. It is precisely this harnessing of visibility, this act of showing and exhibiting, which I feel cinema before 1906 displays most intensely (p.56).
Rather than being based on narrative events and actions, early films were characterized by conscious display, even exhibitionism. The spectators as well as the individuals within the film seemed to take great pleasure in participating in the spectacularization of the event rather than passively consuming as an unacknowledged voyeur. Films were often replayed a few times over, so much was wonder and shock appeal an integral part of the moving pictures experience. In terms of the distinctions that could be made between different genres, such as Melies’ fantastical narrative versus Lumiere’s documentary film-making, Gunning proposes that one unite them in a conception that sees cinema less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power. In distinguishing the cinema of attractions from that of later Hollywood paradigms, Gunning emphasizes:
…the recurring look at the camera by actors. This action, which is later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusion of the cinema, is here undertaken with brio, establishing contact with the audience. From comedians smirking at the camera, to the constant bowing and gesturing of the conjurors in magic films, this is a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator (p.57).
Although I agree with Gunning in terms of the importance of display and exhibitionism in early films and of the importance placed on the spectator’s pleasurable shock and surprise at images never seen before outside their natural setting, I do think that there is a distinction to be made in terms of whose gaze is privileged within the film, especially when coming from different class positions. As I mapped out in the films Workers Leaving the Factory and Arrival of the Congress Members , one must first negotiate who appears to have been given the power to see within the film, who is being seen, who is implicitly being scrutinized, who the film appears to be addressing and why, and what kind of spectator is being constructed in the viewing of certain subject matter and in the manner in which the film is shot. There are indeed many instances of the direct stare or of the self-conscious performance of the subject in these Lumiere films. This exhibitionism as acknowledgement of the camera’s recording of actions and of the viewers act of seeing must be analyzed not only in light of the actual injustices of class inequality, but also in light of the anxieties caused by the fluidity of class structures implicitly displayed through the intentional segregation and classification of class, gender, and race within these films. Furthermore, the scientific accuracy of the camera in recording the details of one’s physiognomy, composure, and dress, is such that the resulting behaviours could be understood as being in line with the self-disciplining attitudes towards methods of surveillance. The film camera becomes an instrument of accuracy which the body tends to want to conform to. Under the objective gaze of the camera that enforces the “truth”, that never lies about what it records, the filmed subjects tend to exaggerate their movements, to overact in a self-conscious (somewhat stiffened) manner, as if the camera eye were enforcing an indirect form of surveillance, an indirect judgement on their actions. A case in point is a film of the Lumieres’ called Partie de cartes (Card game) where the waiter who serves the bourgeois men drinks puts on an act of exaggerated amusement as he watches the men play cards while the men remain relatively calm. This contrast in demeanor reflects class distinction. The servant offers himself up to the viewer as an object of amusement while he is at work, while the well-to-do men have to keep up their image of self-control and of self-satisfaction during their leisure time.
It wasn’t until after the photographic and scientific press presented the Lumiere films as not being a true invention like the photograph or the X‑ray — straddling the entertainment and science and technology industries — that the Lumieres found themselves obliged to do the fairground circuit. But the instant commercial success of their many private and public projections allowed them, within the first few months of production, to hire a group of photographers to shoot scenery and people in other parts of the world, footage that was to make up a large part of their film repertoire. The footage these Lumiere representatives shot was to imitate the Lumiere documentary film signature, making their product consistent, thus recognizable and marketable. Surprisingly, I think that the decision to quickly exploit this new medium all over the world was related to the fact that both Edison and Lumiere considered the cinema to be an invention without a future, another optical invention in a long line of nineteenth century illusionist inventions like the stereoscope that would never get past its status as novelty or as another fairground attraction: “The great success of the first screenings, along with a fear that the cinema might prove to be a short-lived phenomenon, meant that during the following months the Lumieres sought to exploit the new invention quickly by expanding their activities all over the world” (Finler, p.14). This meant that they would film footage of actualities occurring in all areas of the world, including other European cities, Russia, North America, the French colonies of Africa and Indochina, and the Middle East. This tendency of course was a direct result of increased economic interaction between nations, colonialism, and tourism, facilitated by the invention of the railroad and the steamship. The cinema was but one cultural phenomenon amongst many that was to directly reflect this increased trend toward globalization occurring throughout the nineteenth century, that which David Harvey describes as the “shrinkage of space that brings diverse communities across the globe into competition with each other” (p.271), a progressive time-space compression between all places in the world effected by the circulation of resources and capital. This had been occurring at an accelerated rate especially since the depression that swept out of Britain in 1846–7 and which quickly engulfed what comprised the whole capitalist world at that time. This moment of crisis changed the conceptions of time and space irrevocably because of the rapid increase in the circulation of money and commodities as well as of migrating capitalist labour practices between countries and continents. Thus, when discussing the production and distribution of film one must keep in mind the intense competition between countries brought about by increased globalization, and by extension, the race for acquisition of colonies for economic profit:
The vast expansion of foreign trade and investment after 1850 put the major capitalist powers on the path of globalism, but did so through imperial conquest and inter-imperialist rivalry…En route, the world’s spaces were deterritorialized, stripped of their preceding significations, and then reterritorialized according to the convenience of colonial and imperial administration. Not only was the relative space revolutionized through innovations in transport and communications, but what that space contained was also fundamentally re-ordered. The map of domination of the world’s spaces changed out of all recognition between 1850 and 1914. Yet it was possible, given the flow of information and new techniques of representation, to sample a wide range of simultaneous imperial adventures and conflicts with a mere glance at the morning newspaper (Harvey, p.264).
The content of early cinema, its capturing of foreign landscapes and peoples, images of trains and steamships, wasn’t the only aspect that reflected time-space compression. In its very form, the cinema was a synthesis of time and space through the manifestation of continuity and movement. The capturing of a past time and distant space, an elsewhere and elsewhen other than the time and place of cinematic reception, makes the cinematic device the very embodiment of time-space compression. And because the process is photographic and reproducible, an identical film can be viewed in many different places at the same time. In his book The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 , Stephen Kern describes the economic, political, social, and cultural repercussions of this phenomenon of space-time compression in which cinema would play a major role:
It is possible to interpret how class structures, modes of production, patterns of diplomacy, or means of waging war were manifested historically in terms of changing experiences of time and space. Thus class conflict is viewed as a function of social distance, assembly lines are interpreted in conjunction with Taylorism and time management studies, … the phonograph and cinema are evaluated in terms of the way they modified the sense of the way they modified the sense of the past…the politics of imperialism is seen as the universal impulse to claim more space (p.4).
Much of the poignancy and beauty of the Lumiere films as a documentary genre, capturing complete slices of nineteenth-century life, was in how these various social, economic, and ideological factors intersected in the very form and content of virtually all of their films.
With Arrival of a Train at Ciotat and Leaving Jerusalem by Railway we not only have a reference to the phenomenon of increased travel and tourism in the second half of the nineteenth century; we are also granted a view of the privileged mobile status of the bourgeoisie versus the static position of the foreign other within their natural environment. The train was the technological invention par excellence of the nineteenth century, one that revolutionalized travel for the European bourgeoisie; it was a determining factor in the phenomenon of space-time compression, the bridging of distances between cities by the rise of industrialization, imperialism, and capitalist trading practices. Just as film was dependent on the traversing of boundaries of time and space in its production, the travel genre film and the railway film were important for the history of cinema as being based on the experience of separation. As Charles Musser notes:
The traveler’s world is mediated by the railroad, not only by the compartment window with its frame but by telegraph wire which intercede between the passenger and the landscape. The sensation of separation which the traveler feels on viewing the rapidly passing landscape has much in common with the theatrical experience of the spectator. Separation joins discontinuity as one of the fundamental conditions of the new mode of perception which the cinema was to introduce into modern society and help to institutionalize as natural (p.20, Early Cinema).
This experience of the passing landscape was already utilized with resounding success in the moving panorama and diorama throughout the nineteenth century, and later was to find its apogee in the phenomenon of Hale’s Tours in the United States when an entrepreneur turned a train car into a theater that showed images of passing landscapes filmed from a train. Angela Miller describes how the panorama, and later the cinema, would use foreign landscapes, and the impression of simulated travel, to construct an ideological narrative:
[The panorama] did not merely allow space to be imaginatively inhabited; it also put this space in the service of a specific historical ideology. Visual appropriation was a step toward the conceptual control which accompanied the extension of America’s and Europe’s emerging urban-industrial order over increasingly wide areas of human experience. The panorama, with its sense of an amplified geographical and political perspective, served well the needs of a public for information about new areas being colonized by Europe. As the cinema would later do, it offered a sensationalized simulacrum of the real — rendering the newly colonized regions of the world accessible and visible, glorifying the imperial state…(p.47).
Both Arrival of a Train and Leaving Jerusalem by Railway refer to the experience of a privileged mobile gaze. As has already been noted in the beginning of this paper, Arrival of a Train could probably be considered to be the first ‘horror’ movie ever made. The focus of the first half of the film is on creating an intense visual impact on the viewer by the diagonal deep space of the train advancing from a point of invisibility until it seems to come directly upon the spectator through the screen. So much of the force of the film comes from the great use of black and white contrast, the gradual and then very sudden invasion of the black train’s diagonal movement against the white empty space of sky and landscape. The intention of this perspectival view and diagonal motion seems to have been to shock the first audiences, thus satisfying their growing desire for exhilarating experiences of speed. The second part of the film focuses on the to-and-fro motion and the off-frame movement of passengers disembarking and embarking onto a train. The accent seems to have been placed on the rapidity of the process of exchanged position, the dynamic flow of motion, the effect of deep space within the film as passengers advance into the screen, recede into the distance, and sashay this way and that across the visual field. The odd passenger looks surprisingly into the camera but only sustains a fleeting glance for they seem to be in a rush to keep to the train schedule. Only one lower class passenger is present within a sea of well-dressed bourgeoisie. As in Workers Leaving the Factory , what is striking about this film is the presence of so many women in comparison to the number of men. Although middle-class women were not as prominent in the work force, their increased presence in the public sphere was instigated by their new status as privileged consumers. Shopping, travel, and later, going to the cinema, were amongst the most popular forms of leisure activity for bourgeois women during this period. This interaction between machine and bourgeois passengers speaks of the primacy of the mobilized gaze in terms of the very activity of train travel and the mobile status of the bourgeoisie in everyday life and abroad. Train travel wasn’t just a way of getting from one city to another but was fast becoming a privileged experience marketed as a commodity. The tourist industry, like the motion picture industry later on, was to capitalize on the increased leisure time and disposable income of the well-to-do bourgeois citizen. Furthermore, the tourist industry was to successfully market an organized mobility, designed as packaged “sights” in narrative sequence. Anne Friedberg explains how:
[t]he subjective effects on the tourist are not unlike those of the cinema spectator. Tourism produces an escape from boundaries, it legitimates the transgression of one’s static, stable, or fixed position. The tourist simultaneously embodies both a position of presence and absence, of here and elsewhere, of avowing one’s curiosity and disavowing one’s daily life (p.59).
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway however reflects train travel in a diametrically opposite manner. In approaching this film I wish to call attention to two passages from Edward Said’s Orientalism in order to set the parameters for the prominence of the Western gaze on the foreign other:
The idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe (p.63).
To save an event from oblivion is in the Orientalist’s mind the equivalent of turning the Orient into a theater for his representations of the Orient…Moreover, the sheer power of having described the Orient in modern Occidental terms lifts the Orient from the realms of silent obscurity where it has lain neglected (except for the inchoate murmurings of a vast but undefined sense of its own past) into the clarity of modern European science (p.86).
These passages are particularly relevant in terms of how train travel and film can be envisioned as a way of erasing the physical distance between geographically distinct places and peoples, and can be construed as theatrical in terms of dramatic visual framing that is integral to the experience of both film and train travel. The first striking difference between Leaving Jerusalem and Arrival of a Train is the fact that in the latter film the camera is static and the people move, while in the former, the camera moves and the people stay fixed, as if being left behind. Also, in Leaving Jerusalem , the train is not visible at all; only the movement of the camera shooting suggests that one is perceiving as an “omnipotent” spectator from a position on the back of the train. The invisibility of the image of technology (the train) in this landscape is important in constructing the illusion of a non-progressive space, one that is stuck in the past and untouched by industrialization. This absence of the image of the train as industrial progress helps perpetuate the image of the exotic that Europeans have attached to the Orient throughout the nineteenth century, an image that rationalizes their colonization of the region. The foreign ‘other’ on the station platform is static, as if being left behind by more privileged passengers. Initially the focus of this film is on the background landscape: the image of the ancient walls of Jerusalem that look almost like ruins in the distance. The landscape is evocative of a mythical place within the context of a proper bourgeois Christian upbringing. By filming Jerusalem then, one is not only capturing a distant place, but a different time, a historical and mythical place of the past. As Said explains it in the above passage, Jerusalem, as an extension of the nebulous category of the Orient, has been buried in the sands of its own past up until the moment the Occidental gaze came along to document it with the progressive eye of science. The camera’s panning across and away from a dispersed crowd of men of mixed races and religions reinforces in a structural manner the idea of a space and people fixed in the past. Arab, Turkish, African, Jewish, and the presence of one Franciscan monk, contrasts significantly in its multiculturalism and in the strong religious history of this space that continues to exist in the Middle East. When Said says that “the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined”, the image of this multiplicity of races and religions in Jerusalem is a perfect example in terms of conveying the non-specificity of the term Orient in the European imagination. It only seems to confirm a sense of the unknown in the eyes of the Occidental spectator. In Arrival of a Train , one only distinguishes the differences between wealth and poverty, women and men; the Western context is decidedly secular and economic in comparison to other cultures, reflecting their embracing of capitalism, positivist, and liberalism.
While not explicitly colonial-minded in content, Leaving Jerusalem advances a somewhat romanticized vision of the Orient in its choice of framing, sequential juxtaposition, and active panning over the landscape and people. There is an uneven exchange of power structures implicit in the way these men are portrayed. These foreign others do not move from this space, they only watch the train (as image of industrial progress) go by. These men are looking directly at the camera, but as observers they are deprived of the active, mobilized gaze (from a Western perspective) from the moving train. They seem to look back at the spectator as mysterious “others.” A few of the men do walk forward along the platform and smile at the camera, but the majority are immobile and just seem to stay fixed in place. The ideological subtext seems to be that these foreigners are docile, and do not pose a threat on the European viewer. They are reduced to the commodified Western image of the Oriental as constructed in touristic discourse. For the middle class or lower class spectator, this serves as a form of armchair travel, either an image of where one might want to visit or a place that one can’t afford to visit (but doesn’t need to because they already feel as if they have been there). This fixing of the image of the “Oriental other” in a static, obscure, and unchanging subject position seems to be acting as a purposeful ideological framework that yet again seemed to serve to enforce a false sense of security for the middle classes at a time when class positions seem more and more fluid at home. This fixed image of the other also seems to reinforce the need for strong nationalist identifications within European countries at a time when competition between countries continued to grow, just before the whole exploitative venture of colonization was beginning to be questioned. The objectifying Western gaze onto the foreign other in Leaving Jerusalem seems to be rationalizing the invasion of the progressive European influence onto foreign passive soil through the voyeuristic commodifying act of tourism.
It is not a coincidence that the image of the bourgeoisie, the worker, and the foreign ‘other’ were to be amongst the most privileged objects of study within the Lumieres’ films. As separate social categories that were increasingly interconnected and merging with one another in the vast web of nineteenth-century capitalist labour and exchange practices, the representation of these local and foreign images photographically satisfied a growing thirst to preserve historical and social memory, thus serving to legitimize, through certain framing practices, the very persistence of such social and economic structures.
From its inception the photograph was channelled scientifically and anthropologically in the service of establishing evidence. A way of making history, like the recording of “scenes of a crime”, the photograph did not lie, it made reality transparent, and therefore could be used as proof of scientific truth and as ideological reinforcement of preconceived middle class ideals. Throughout the nineteenth century, photographs were circulated more and more in shops and billboards and newspapers and books, in asylums, hospitals, labs, and in police stations. The recording of the body became a science through photography and physiognomic theories so as to support the notions of class superiority by the bourgeoisie. Under the objective eye of the camera, all was considered to be scientific evidence. Categorization of bodies, body parts, body movement, dress, posture, and facial expression, all were used as ideological proof of the superiority of a bourgeois identity, a class of conspicuous consumption, of bought status. And yet, it was through the photograph that all were considered to be analyzed on an equal footing.
The images of the body of the worker and of the foreign ‘other’ that proliferated and circulated through photography, and later film, throughout the nineteenth century are homologous to that of the exchange of money as a sign of social power:
“They are equally totalizing systems for binding and unifying all subjects within a single global network of valuation and desire. As Marx said of money, photography is also a great leveler, a democratizer, a “mere symbol,” a fiction sanctioned by the so-called universal consent of Mankind. Both are magical forms that establish a new set of abstract relations between individuals and things and impose those relations as the real” (Crary, p.13).
All forms of photographic practice, this privileged medium embodying a hierarchless way of seeing the world, parallels the rise of democracy, and the dissolution of the boundary between sacred and profane. This is reminiscent of what Walter Benjamin wrote about in terms of the loss of cult value in images, making way for exhibition or exchange value that reduces all subject to the status of commodities:
Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception (p.223).
As documentary films, founded on their photographic truth content, the Lumieres’ “enactments” of the bourgeoisie at leisure, lower class leaving work, or foreigner in his ageless environment, are presented as naturalized occurrences, as objective snippets of history, by their attachment to the ‘real.’ In film as in photography, images were circulated en masse, contaminating one another, as exchangeable signs on a similar level, yet all referring to their place within the social myth system, as with all commodities. The worker, detached from the product of his/her labour, or the “other” detached from any sense of agency, became a way of leveling the subject to being no more that an object of voyeuristic analysis, or of pure spectacle, within photography and film. These exchangeable images are represented reflexively, as part of a new valuation of visual experience: the visual, through such devices as film, is given an unprecedented mobility and exchangeability through being abstracted from any founding site or referent, as an object pried from its shell. They are literally circulated around the world outside the constraints of real time and real space. Ahistorical. The recording of the body in photography or film becomes a free-floating sign on a similar level to the circulating commodity and how it is displayed for consumption. What the circulating images mask however, in the very ubiquity and standardized depiction of the same recurring images, is the underlying ideological framing that renders all of these images naturalized and interchangeable. Against the self-satisfied gaze of the bourgeoisie who visibly possess the power to manipulate these images and the power to exploit, the image of the happy and passive worker and foreign ‘other’ mask the inherent inequalities and anxieties that lie beneath the surface. “Ideologies naturalize representations”( T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.8).
Industrial production and new forms of technology were devised with the economic efficiency of labour and investment practices in mind. Money, resources, and manufactured goods circulated rapidly thanks to trains and steamships. But once machine labour freed up time for leisure activity these same inventions and methods of scientific research were used indirectly to manipulate the masses by creating administrated cultural spaces where they could spent their leisure time. In other words, film could be understood as the apparatus around which a new institution of knowledge would be developed under the guise of leisure activity. If one considers how Foucault conceives of the subject as managed through institutions that regulate actions through surveillance, through deterrence and the accumulation of knowledge of the body, and through the spatial organization of these bodies, one can detect to what extent the body, especially in the very beginning of film, is analyzed and rendered the site of conscious exhibition before the cinematic camera and indirectly before the future audience who is witness to the power of the camera’s exact recording of bodily movement within urban or foreign spaces. Film becomes part and parcel of the scientific methods as dispersed mechanisms of power that coincided with new modes of subjectivity in the observer. The body is the site of that which sees but also, as is evident from the self-conscious stare of the filmed subject in Lumiere films, of that which is seen, that which is under continuous scrutiny and manipulation. The very fact that a disciple of Frederick W. Taylor, Frank Gilbreth, applied the motion studies of humans as derived from Muybridge’s chronophotography, in his scientific management of labour practices (by photographing the movements of the most efficient workers and systematically breaking down the processes into timed component elements), proves to what extent the subject was being controlled by the new visual recording technologies and by its ideological and economic administration. As Etienne Jules Marey was to discern back in 1874: “Living beings have been frequently and in every age compared to machines, but it is only in the present day that the bearing and the justice of the comparison are fully comprehensible” (Burch, p.12). Perhaps it is not that the body is directly comparable to a machine, but rather that the body is subordinate to and controlled by the economic and ideological apparatus. The logic of optical machines, being based on the body’s own limitations in what and how it sees, makes vision the most manipulative faculty by which to control and normalize the behaviour of the subject:
The relocation of perception into the thickness of the body was a precondition for the instrumentalizing of human vision into merely a component of new mechanic arrangements. This disintegration of an indisputable distinction between interior and exterior became a condition for the emergence of spectacular modernizing culture (Crary, “Unbinding vision”, p.47).
As one can see, it is not enough to merely analyze the content of film, i.e. the place occupied by the bourgeoisie, the worker and the “other” in these films. It is also necessary to reveal how cinema was always already grounded in previous scientific studies on the nature of vision and its reconnection to the body in the beginning of the nineteenth century. At this moment in time there was a sweeping transformation in the way an observer was figured in a wide range of social practices and domains of knowledge. One must trace a certain genealogy of vision as it is related to a new conception of the disciplined subject as Foucault was to define it in Power/Knowledge:
One has to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself, that’s to say, to arrive at an analysis which can account for the constitution of the subject within a historical framework. And this is what I would call genealogy, that is, a form of history which can account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc., without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to a field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history (p.117).
From about 1820 a whole set of optical devices were invented that acted as sites of both knowledge and power that operated directly on the body of the individual. This was the result of an increased understanding of vision as being inextricably bound to the human subject and translated as physiological optical reactions (e.g. the phenomenon of the persistence of vision or afterimages). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, vision had been conceived as a phenomenon occurring outside of and autonomous from the presence of the human body. This had been based on the camera obscura as paradigmatic of the nature of optical phenomena. The visual had been understand as firmly rooted in the objective ground of empirical data. In the nineteenth century, the stereoscope, zootrope, and diorama, followed by Muybridge’s and Marley’s investigations of human and animal motion through methods of serial photography, were all a result of a change in the conception of vision and its relation to the human body. Vision was uprooted and made mobile by being placed within the site of the human body; the repercussions of such a shift in the epistemological nature of vision could only have resulted in the invention of new devices used to study the subjective basis of vision. What is interesting is how these scientific instruments became amusements in themselves, easily marketable because of the increased demand for optical simulations of reality. Jonathan Crary defines the production of a new subject as the result of a historical shift in how vision is seen and used to consolidate new power structures: “Vision and its effects are always inseparable from the possibilities of an observing subject who is both the historical product and the site of certain practices, techniques, institutions, and procedures of subjectification”(p.7). These new inventions based on analysis of the nature of human perception and of bodily movement in turn paved the way for the invention of cinema and its attendant dependence on a particular type of observer, one that was not yet a passive spectator but who was nonetheless more and more shaped by and adapted to a fragmented, transient vision of the surrounding world, especially as a chaotic urban experience.
“The same knowledge that allowed the increasing rationalization and control of the human subject in terms of new institutional and economic requirements was also a condition for new experiments in visual representation” (Crary, p.9). In other words, “visual art” or visual representations and science were not separate but were part of a single interlocking field of knowledge and practice. The scientific theories of vision and of the observer worked in tandem with the increased circulation of people and capital across the globe resulting from the industrial revolution and such inventions as the train and the telegraph. These inventions increased the fascination in the viewer with all representations of the “real”, or rather of the simulation of the “real”, as well as reinforced a growing taste for the “new”, especially in the form of commodities and entertainment as a result of industrial modes of production, more leisure time, increased trade and a growing interest in foreign places (as colonies and competing countries). The desire for the “new” was perpetuated by the continued efforts by inventors and entrepreneurs. The continued experimentation was to result in the breakthrough of moving pictures. Cinema, then, could be envisioned not only as the result of disciplining of the human body but also as a means of disciplining the human subject in the practice of increased consumption of all things “new” (in the form of commodities and entertainment), and of all simulations of the “real”. These cinematic sites were architectural forms of containment and subject construction (through processes of imagines projection and subjection) particularly targeting the working and lower middle class body outside the work space.
What I find interesting in these films is that, although they are the first instances of a continuous motion recording of ‘real’ everyday life within a Western context, the filmmakers still managed to convey the false “innocence” of a dominant set of bourgeois values and one is able to discern implicit anxieties related to the dizzying changes resulting from modern life–the sense of increased competition with other countries, threats from the lower classes, and increased contact with the foreign “Other”. This destabilizing sense of one’s place and status in the world is a product of the fluidity and fragmentation of human and class relations brought about through industrialization. I feel that the threat of economic and social collapse is ever more present because of the instability of class boundaries and relations and because of the transient nature of city life. Perhaps the focus on the colonial “other” provided an outlet for the perpetual anxiety of the fluidity of class boundaries, a stabilizing anchor from which the middle and lower classes be moored so as to make them feel a certain security from being swept adrift into the unknown waters of precariously shifting economic and social structures. By portraying the foreign ‘other’ as uncivilized yet compliant, charming, and mysterious, that is by robbing them of any of their own subjectivity through a completely clinical and neutralizing/superior gaze, the spectator was allowed to feel unconsciously empowered within their subject position as a “superior” civilized observer.
Like the prison guard surveying the panoramic cells from on high, the cinematic spectator was provided a compromised view of the social categories of modern life provided to them by the Lumieres. Worker, bourgeois, and colonial other, each made up a structure of unified vision, that of the reigning bourgeois ideology of the time.
The beginnings of film with the Cinematographe in 1895 therefore seem to embody a moment of extreme fluidity, uncertainty, and of great contradiction. The first spectators were not quite the passive viewers we have come to know today. Although the medium was dependent on a subject’s position of passivity, the shock of these first films on the spectator gave them a sense of being witness, as a participating group, to the discovery and experience of a new invention and a more globalized vision of the everyday. The filming of documentary facts and actualities around the globe gave a scientific validity to this new form of entertainment. But being neither pure science nor pure spectacle, neither instituting pure passivity nor active engagement, neither totally real nor totally fictive, neither providing an outlet of tangible freedom nor serving as a form of mass-cultural mind control, neither prison nor adventure, early Lumiere films appear to our contemporary eyes as embodying the unlimited possibilities of a new medium, especially as a documentary genre. The medium’s capacity for ideological manipulation however, is already very apparent in the case of Lumiere’s films. These are the traces that allow us to connect the early cinema with the configuration it has today. Although such film theorists as Tom Gunning see primitive cinema as carrying the seeds of later avant-garde film practices that resist the standardization of later American film, we can also certainly trace the beginnings of a manipulative privileged point of view under the guise of documentary truth. In the postwar period cinema lost most of its political and documentary intent, instead turning to entertainment, handing the task over to television (and radio).
In 1900, when the sales of the Cinematographe and of their films had established the preeminence of their photographic firm, the Lumiere brothers sold their camera rights to Charles Pathe so as to follow more orthodox scientific ventures. Because of the obviously popular appeal of cinema as a form of diversion outside the educational context, the Lumieres had lost interest in the cinema’s future. They had always desired to be perceived first and foremost as scientists rather than as entrepreneurs or businessmen–a class that was perhaps becoming more prevalent in America. And so ends the beginning of a pivotal moment in film production and reception, as it crosses from its reign in the old world to establish itself in the new .
1 Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations , New York: Schocken Books, p.236.
2 Hansen, “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience”, p.181.
3 Hansen, p. 25.
4 Hansen, p. 184.
5 Benjamin, Illuminations , p. 192.
6 Benjamin, Illuminations , p. 188.
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