This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Arbor: Ardis, 1977), 25.
30 Alexander Dlok, Zapisnye knizhki (Notebooks) (Moscow, 1965), 127.
31 Andrei Bely. "Teatr i sovremennaya drama" (Theater and the modern drama), Kniga
o novom Uatre (A book on the new theater) (Moscow, 1908), 274.
32 There are no wall-crashing sequences in The "?"Motorist, only shots of a car crashing
through a ceiling. The wall-crashing trick was introduced by Melies for Voyage a
travers /'impossible (1904).
33 Andrei Bely, "Gorod" (The city), Nash ponedel'nik (Our Monday paper) 1 (9 Novem-
ber 1907): 2.
34 Bcly, "Go rod," 2.
3 5 Isaiah 24:18-20.
36 Bely, "Go rod," 2.
37 That Fatal Sneeze is now available on videotape in the collection, The Movies Begin,
released by the British Film Institute in 1990 and Kino Video in 1994.
3 8 Andrei Bely, Petersburg (Moscow, 1978), 259-6<>. For other English versions of this
passage see Andrey Beily, St. Petersburg, introduced by George Reavey and trans.
John (New York: Grove, 1959), 250-51; and Andrei Bcly, Prtrrsb11rx, trans.,
annotated and introduced by Robert A. Maguire and John Malrnstad (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1978), 226-27.
39 Tom Gunning has kindly drawn my attention to the precinematic series of comic
strips, Little Sammy Sneeze, as a possible source and an evident parallel to the film
-as well as to other comic cartoons dealing with exploding characters. Sneezing
(found in a number of similar films) was just one motif of those clustering around
the figure of exploding man in early cinema. A Giant Hiccup (Riesenschlucker, 1909?),
while it does not actually throw the character into the air, is a grotesque "scare-it-
away" film in which a cannon is finally brought into the poor man's room. In more
serious, realistic films the themes nearest to this were those of anarchists and bombs.
As for Bely, apart from the cinematic source already mentioned, the exploding hero
also alluded to the fable in which the frog wanted to become bigger than the bull,
and to Dostoyevsky's idea that revolutionary thought is a mental disease that turns
the fanatic's brain into ever-expanding matter. Roman Timenchik has suggested to
me that a possible source for Bely's Petersburg was G. K. Chesterton's novel, The
Man W1ro Was Thursday, which contains an image of a terrorist as a person whose
skull is filled with dynamite.
40 Bcly, Petersburg, 259·
\am.""The. W'na\e.lowns Go..wKi03: Eo..r\j Cne.Mo.. a.rd. +he..
\Ji s.uo..\ Cx?e, ... 'idJrl:S"ou:(f'o..\ G-i-\iG\.SM /. 'l.
(ro.l\ l<\qJ..t'): \1lq- 'Z_o\.
188 TIIF. YALF. JOURNAL OF CRITICISM
The Whole Town's Gawking: Early Cinema
and the Visual Experience of Modernity
From my perspective, the essential gesture of the recent reexamination
of the history of early film lies in a rejection oflinear models. Rejecting
biological schema of infancy and maturity that were abandoned long
ago in the histories of other art forms, researchers viewing
cinema's first decades as embryonic forms oflater practkes or stuttering
attempts at later achievements. Instead of a linear and organic model of
development, a jagged rhythm of competing practices emerged, prac-
tices whose modes and models were not necessarily sketches or approx-
imations of later cinema. Instead of continuity we discover difference,
and rather than organic development, a series of contrasting concep-
tualizations of cinema's social role, mode of exhibition, and method of
While reviewing all this may seem like beating a dead horse or self-
congratulation for victories easily won over naive and nontheorized
assumptions, I want to emphasize the key role narrative played in the
earlier linear conception of cinema's history. Its assumptions were per-
suasive partly because they offered a simple narrative of a cryptobiolog-
ical teleology. But the telos to be achieved-the climax of the story-
lay precisely in cinema's mastery of narrative form, the ability of cin-
ematic devices to convey narrative information and perform narrative
functions. A surprisingly candid laying out of this assumption (and a
consequent devaluing of the work of early filmmakers) can be found in
Rachel Low and Roger Manvell's first volume of The History of the
Britislz Film, J896-1go6:
In the history of the film one has a unique opportunity to trace the steps
by which the elementary technique of a new force$ itself upon its
unprepared exponents. The film mnnufacturers, as they stumbled inevitably
on the devices proper to the telling of a story or an idea. by means of a
celluloid film, almost all misunderstood and misused their discoveries, and
exploited as tricks and theatrical effects what should in fact have been
integral elements of a new medium.
ofCriticism, volume 7, number 2, © 1994 by Yale University.
Published by Blackwell Publishers, 23R Main Stre-et, Cambridge. MA 02142, and
roS Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 rJF. UK.
TOM CUNNING 189
Low and Manvell not only assume an "inevitable" teleology to the
"proper" development of the cinema, they claim most early filmmakers
somehow deviated from the proper growth chart of the young art form.
The careful attention given to early cinema in this pioneering volume
actually complicates its linear assumptions and transforms an inevitable
progress into an erring pathway. Aware of the actual variety of early
film practices, Low and Manvell find moments in early cinema that
throw obstacles in the course of its proper maturation. Since these don't
fit into the linear narrative, they are described as inappropriate errors.
It was precisely these "errors" that fascinated me as I began to study
early cinema and that led me not only to diverge from the model of
linear progression but also to question the hegemony of storytelling as
the guiding telos of film history. This is the context for my (along with
Andre Gaudreault's) characterization of early cinema as a "cinema of
attractions. "3 Attractions could be opposed to narrative construction in
a number of ways. First, attractions address the viewer directly, solic-
iting attention and curiosity through acts of display. As moments of
spectacle, their purpose lies in the attention they draw to themselves, ·
rather than in developing the basic donnees of narrative: characterization
(motives and psychology); causality (or the causal concatenation of
actions, which Roland Barthes calls the proairetic); narrative suspense
(spectator involvement with the outcome of events, which Barthes calls
the chain of enigmas); or the creation of a consistent fictional world
(the diegesis of classical film semiotics).
As Low and Manvell observe rather perceptively, early filmmakers
employ cinematic devices "improperly" from a narrative point of view,
as "tricks and theatrical effects" -attractions-rather than devices inte-
gral to storytelling. Attractions are temporally punctual as opposed to
the extended uses of time required for narrative. And rather than cre-
ating the imaginary constructs needed for a diegetic presentation of
action, attractions openly acknowledge their own process of display
and the viewer's role as an "outside observer." The viewer of attractions
is positioned less as a spectator-in-the-text, absorbed into a fictional
world, than as a gawker who stands alongside, held for the moment
by curiosity or amazement.
To cite a famous example, whereas the close-up appears within linear
film history as the narrative device par excellence (used to accent an
important narrative detail or reveal a character's reaction through facial
expression), in early cinema the close-up more often functions as a
moment of visual display, a way of attracting attention to a trick or a
grotesque (rather than characterizing) facial expression. The 1906 Hep-
worth catalogue description of the film Comic Grimacer (ca. 1901) clearly
1!/0 TilE YALE JOURNAL OF CRITICISM
describes the close-up as an attraction: "A human face shown the full
size of the screen is always a comic and interesting Advertising
the attraction of this film, the film company emphasizes things a nar-
rative film would strive to conceal-the distortion of the enlargement
and the actual medium of display (the screen)-in order to arouse and
satisfy a viewer's acknowledged curiosity and amusement. Rather than
a story, a diegesis, or a characte!, the film manufacturer offers "a comic
and interesting sight," an attraction boldly offered to viewers. We are
clearly in a different world from that of the enraptured absorption
produced by a close-up of Lillian Gish as the anguished Anna Moore
of Way Down East.
As with any historical schema, the idea of a cinema .of attractions can
oversimplify and obscure as much as it illuminatt·s if uscd without
careful textual analysis. While I define attractions in opposition to nar-
rative structure, in acrual practice these two different modes of spectator
address often interact within a single film. Although theoretically dif-
ferentiated, in the processes of actual texts they struggle with each other
and this interplay frequently creates the most interesting aspects of early
films. Theoretically I conceive of every text as a process in which
different schema of organization jostle each other. Following the
dynamic understanding of texts proposed by the Russian Formalists, I
see attractions serving as a domi11a11t in most early films (before approx-
imately 1907), rather than as the only aspect operating within early
There arc some early films (such as the facial close-ups) that are
basically pure attractions. And there are others, such as the Passion play
films, in which narrative plays a key (although possibly not a dominant)
role. In addition, attractions form a fundamental mode of visual address
and appear in periods other than early cinema. Certain genres, such as
pornography, musical comedies, or newsreels, remain closely tied to
the methods of the cinema of attractions throughout cinema history.
Likewise, the concept of attractions allows us to look at even classical
Hollywood cinema as a dynamic process. While narrative serves as the
dominant which integrates the various elements of the classical Holly-
wood film, attractions persist in the interaction between spectacle and
n:nrativc so frequently observed in Hollywood genres. Perhaps even
the close-up of Lillian Gish in Way Dow11 East retains something of an
attraction beneath its clear narrative function.
For my continued writing and research in early cinema, however, the
attraction serves not only as a cornerstone of formal analysis but as a
window that opens up the study of the origins of cinema to broader
cultural dimensions. The concept of the attraction is fruitful largely
TOM GUNNING 191
because it directs attention away from early films as archival fragments
and focuses on the way these films imply a spectator and a mode of
reception. While formal analysis may only reveal an implied spectator
(the receiver of the many nods, glances, and gestures directed at the
camera in early cinema), further research gives that implied spectator
an historical place. Catalogue descriptions and trade journals (such as
the Hepworth catalogue quoted above) at least give a sense of intended
reception. Research into the actual modes of exhibition, particularly the
pioneering work of Charles Musser, fleshes out the actual encounters
between viewers and films. These sources show the mode of attractions
at work in the reception of early cinema. Catalogues hawk numerous
films as offering attractions rather than providing narrative absorption.
And the modes of early film exhibition, while covering an enormous
range of methods, contrast with later methods precisely by emphasizing
the actual gesture of display. The presence of a showman and often a
lecturer presenting the spectacle to the audience continues the tradition
of highly conscious exhibition found in fairgrounds and expositions, as
opposed to the seamless creation of a fictional world delivered by the
realist novel or naturalist theater. While these lecture presentations may
often aspire (as Musser's research has shown) to an involving narrative,
the consistent role of lecturer as mediator between audience and images,
as the presenter of the films, does not allow the viewers to forget their
presence as addressees positioned before a series of images on display;
they are not the invisible, bodiless voyeurs of classical narrative cinema.
While the concept of attractions inevitably leads us to the modes of
reception and exhibition of early cinema, it has even wider applications.
Investigating the cinema of attractions illuminates the changes in envi-
ronment brought about by the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries and its consequent technological transfor-
mations of daily life. It seems to me that attractions provide a key
concept for exploring what a primarily German tradition describes as
While the changes produced by modernity have been
analyzed by scholars reaching from Weber and Durkheim to Jiirgen
Habermas, the lineage outlined by David Frisby of George Simmel,
Siegfried Kracauer, and Walter Benjamin converges with startling clarity
on the emergence of cinema-and not simply because Kracauer and
Benjamin produced major works dealing with film. The investigation
of early cinema in relation to this tradition has already been approached,
not only by some of my essays but also with great insight by the work
of such scholars as Miriam Hansen, Jonathan Crary, Giuliana Bruno,
Ben Singer, and, .most recently, Ann Friedberg in her book Window
IS/2 TilE YALE JOURNAL OF CRITICISM
For these authors (as well as others), Baudelaire's essay, "The Painter
of Modern Life." remains not on) y a source for the concept of modernity
but one of its definitive statements. The motifs of modernity that
Baudelaire sets out-"thc ephemeral, the fugitive, the
evoke the discontinuous and punctual temporality of the attraction:
something that appears, attracts attention, and then disappears without
either developing a narrative trajectory or a coherent diegetic world.
Attractions work by interruption. and constant change rather.than steady
development. Baudelaire describes the essential figure of modernity, the
urban man of the crowd, as "a passionate spectator. "
not only captures the essentially visual nature of all that attracts the
modern urban spectator's curiosity, but it uses metaphors that seem to
anticipate the apparatus of tht· cinema itsdf:
Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a
kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its move-
ments and reproducing the multiplicity· of life aJ)d the flickering grace of
all the elements of life. He is an "!" with an insatiable appetite for the "non-
!", at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than
life itself ·which is always unstable and fugitive.
Not only docs Baudelaire imagine a picture-taking capability able to
match the fugitive and accelerated tempo of modern life, he also antic-
ipates one of the first attractions of early cinema, the crowd scene or
"effet des foules," which Louis Lumicrc cited as perhaps the finest
spectacle the cincmatographc could manage.
If the experience of modernity finds its lows classiws in big city streets
and their crowds, the unique stimulus offered by this new environment
discovers its aesthetic form in attractions. The very term indicates the
need to attract attention in an atmosphere in which the contemplative
absorption associated with traditional artworks has become anachronis-
tic. The attraction appears against a background of distraction, a force
field of multiple and fast-paced sensations. Attractions express the fugi-
tive nature of modem life, with their brief form and lack of narrative
development, as well as their aggressivity. Benjamin, extending Bau-
delaire's notion of urban modernity, t•mphasized the experience
of shock, the sudden eruption of the unpredictable as one navigated the
Attractions both mime and compete with the succession
of shocks and distractions of modernity through an equally aggressive
purchase on the spectator. Sergei Eisenstein, who first poached the term
"attractions" from both the realm of science and the fairground, defined
it in aesthetic terms as any aggressive element that "subjects the spec-
tator to a sensual or psychological impact. "
.\ But the punctual tcmpor-
TOM GUNNING I 93
ality and shocklike nature of the attraction provide only one link
between the aesthetic of attractions and modernity.
Attractions do more than reflect modernity; they provide one of its
methods. The need to draw a gawker's attention-to make one stop
and stare-reflects not only the ebb and flow of the distracted urban
crowd but also a new culture of consumption which arouses desire
through an aggressive visuality. In this sense, the prehistory of the
cinema of attractions need not be restricted to the apparatuses that led
to the kinetoscope or cinematographe. Instead, cinema appears within
a modern channeling of visuality towards the production of desire
essential for the creation of a consumer culture.
We recognize here at
least some of the central topoi of modernity outlined by Walter Benjamin
as he approached his grand explication of modernity, the PassaRrii-
Werk.1s Uesides the arcades themselves, attractions appear in the other
devices of display thrown up by a developing consumer culture. World
fairs, the department store (and its shop windows), the billboard, and
the amusement park all exploited visual attractions, creating the context
in which early cinema shaped itsel(
As Friedberg points out (extending Benjamin), the gaze directed at
the desire-provoking commodity produces the ultimate example of
Marx's commodity fetish, in which attractiveness overruns use value.
The cinema of attractions develops out of a visual culture obsessed with
creating and circulating a series of visual experiences to stimulate con-
sumption. These attractions, however, do not simply arouse desire for
commodities, but paradoxically begin to serve as ends in themselves,
doses of scopic pleasure tailored to the nervous pace of modem urban
reality. Attractions trace out the visual topology of modernity: a visual
environment which is fragmented and atomized; a gaze which, rather
than resting on a landscape in contemplation, seems to be pushed and
pulled in conflicting orientations, hurried and intensified, and therefore
less coherent or anchored.
The variety of factors that converge to create an emerging culture of
consumption affect the appearance of attractions as both a form of
entertainment and a means of promoting consumption. Both mass
production and a mass of consumers call for strategies for arousing a
mass desire for commodities. In the United States the figure of Phineas
T. Uarnum looms as an important point of origin, not only for the
perfection of ballyhoo as a way to attract the attention of the crowd,
but for creating a mixture of skepticism and credulity that defines a
particularly modern reception for the exotic fragments his museum (and
later his circus) displayed.
If the attraction also announces the growth
of modern advertising (and here I feel as much attention should be paid
194 THE YALE JOURNAL OF CRITICISM
to the phenomenon of the billboard as to the magazine copy and illus-
tration that have dominated most histories of advertising), Barnum also
shows the thin line that exists between attractions as a means to an end
(the purchase of a commodity) and attractions as an end in themselves
While we can trace this interplay within show business itself through
the variety of attraction-based forms of amusement-circus, fair-
ground, amusement park, and "vaudeville-it can also be found in
businesses whose products were mass produced. The department store
and the world's fair introduce a form of consumption via attractions
that Friedberg appropriately calls "window shopping." Rosalind Wil-
liams, in her book Dream Worlds, describes department stores as "places
where consumers arc an audil·nn· to bc l'lllcrtaincd by rommoditics,
where selling is mingled with amusement, where arousal of free-floating
desire is as important as immediate purchase of particular items. "18
Commercial displays as attractions created a. visual fascination that
enwrapped the consumer in the spell of the commodity, through its
novelty and attractiveness. Georg Simmel observed that the world
expositions displayed the latest technology and commodities with a
"wealth and colorfulness of overhastened impressions,·· separate from
any opportunity of purchase. ~ In department stores and expositions,
items were presented in a manner that constructed a gawking consumer,
as the commodity in massed variety became a form of entertainment.
Such an extension of the concept of attractions could imperil the
specificity (and hence the usefulness) of the term, however. Attractions
should not simply evaporate into a synonym for modern society's
obsession with the visual or the rise of a culture of desire motivated by
the growth of mass consumption. Rather, as in the study of early
cinema, the term will prove useful as a tool of analysis for the investi-
gation of these topoi of modernity. As in textual analysis, we are dealing
here not only with equivalences and interpretations, but with actual
intersections among the diverse manifestations of modernity.
Early cinema, for instance, plays an important role in the four topoi I
mentioned: the billboard, the world's fair, the department store, and
the amusement park. Soon after the premiere of animatl•d photography
as a form of scientific entertainment, nwtion pictures were projected
onto billboards in key urban locations to hawk commodities in a striking
and novel way, based on earlier uses of magic lantems.
fairs from the nineties onward displayed cinematic and protocinematic
devices, both as examples of new technology and as attractions for
visitors, with fairs premiering a variety of novel uses of the new medium
(from the kinetoscopc scheduled to appear at the Chicago Exposition
TOM GUNNING 195
in 1893, to the Cineorama at the Paris Exposition in 1900, to the Hale's
Tours at the St. Louis Fair in 1904).
Cinema intersects with the depart-
ment store in a number of ways, one of the most curious being the
establishment, early in the century, of film theaters within the great
Parisian department store Dufayel at which women shoppers could park
their children while they shopped.
And not only were film shows a
continuous attraction at Coney Island and other amusement parks at
the turn of century, providing one of the first stable venues for film
exhibition, but the parks themselves served as subjects for actualities
and settings for the emerging story films.
I cite these encounters between cinema and other attraction-based
systems of display not merely as a list of historical facts, but as complex
areas for investigation. Such intersections (and there are many others
-for instance, the wax museum, the city street, the tourist lecture, the
illustrated press, theatrical sensation dramas, and spectacles based on
magical illusions, as well as the theatrical use and display of a host
"sister technologies" such as the telephone and the X-ray) provide the
researcher not only with examples but with systems of meaning that
must be read and investigated as carefully as any other text. Here again,
Benjamin, Simmel, and Kracauer not only point out areas for scholar-
ship but provide a method. These scholars manque (none of whom
ever really achieved a long-lasting academic position) challenge us to
investigate the phenomena of modem life in their complex and fugitive
aspects, tracing patterns that acknowledge their ephemerality and
contingency-in short, their modernity.
But ifl propose attractions as a tool for the investigation of modernity,
one based on a model of a dynamic textual analysis, attractions must
not be conceived simply as formal elements whose basic contours can
be traced across a number of other cultural artifacts. The attraction in
film consists of a specific relation between viewer and film that reveals
aspects of the experience of modernity. While this experience of visual
attraction plays a fundamental role in the phantasmagoria of commod-
ities, its exploration may also allow us to uncover a realm of modem
experience otherwise elusive. The shock and discontinuous time that
attractions share with the experience of modernity as analyzed by Ben-
jamin deserve to be unfolded as realms of experience that do more than
simply support the process of commodity consumption.
The cinema of attractions, as is most immediately evident in the genre
of the trick or magic films, provides a rich realm of fantasy beyond its
miming of the drama of the fascination and mystification of commod-
ities that magic film's endless series of substitutions seems to reflect.
We need to investigate these scenarios of attraction not only as reflec-
191i Tl!E YAl.F. JOURNAL OF CRITICISM
tions of what we already know about the culture of consumption, but
for what they can reveal about the experience of modernity that has not
yet come to the surface. If an era of purported post modernity provides
a new vantage point from which to observe the origins of the modern
environment, we must not limit ourselves to the self-righteous pleasures
of unmasking historical deceptions. Attractions also reveal those aspects
of modernity-utopian, uncanny, or fantastic-that tend to remain
repressed or were curtailed, and that constitute the forgotten future of
our recent past.
Historical investigations of experiences contained in complex texts
should not be limited by condescending assumptions about encounters
between the emerging conditions of modernity and. its original wit-
nesses. Janet Staiger, in her rt•rcnt book on film ren·ption, lJUite properly
questions whether a 1905 viewer of a film like Biograph's Interior N.Y.
Subway, 14th Street to 4211d Street might be able to experience the shifting
depth cues, the play with two and· three dimensions that this trip
through the Manhattan subway tunnels provides, in the same ways as
would a contemporary viewer famili_arized with modernist art and rep-
While it is important to raise such questions rather than
base interpretations on current horizons of reception and viewing habits,
it is equally important not to discount the complt·x experience that
attractions-based films offered to their original audiences. There is a
great deal of evidence that early train films similar to the Biograph
subway film did, in tact, provide complex visual experiences for tum-
of-the-century spectators. The evidence for this is particularly strong
for films shot from trains going through tunnels. which provided a
rapid transformation of space and vision.
I will explore two examples. First, a quote I cited a decade ago (but
which merits being raised again and unpacked further), from the New
York Mail arrd Express's September 25, I 897 review of the Biograph
program that featured a film made from the front of a locomotive
traveling through the Haverstraw tunnel:
The \vay in which the unseen energy swallows up space and flings itself
into the distance is as mysterious and impressive as an allegory. A sensation
is produced akin to that which Poe in his "Fall of thc I louse- of Ushe-r."
relates was communicated to him by his doomed companion when he
sketched the shaft in the heart of the earth, with an unearthly radiance
thrilling through it. One holds his breath instinctively as he is swept along
in the rush of phantom cars. His attention is held almost with the vise of
This instance of reception hardly views this film as a simple simulacrum
of everyday experience. Not only docs this journalist evoke a pro-
TOM GUNNING 197
foundly uncanny experience of the film's portrayal of movement and
space through a dialectic of the seen and the unseen, he describes a
magnetic channeling of his attention. Perhaps most complexly, he seeks
to understand his sensations through a literary reference, the painting
produced by Roderick Usher in Poe's tale.
This reference is worth lingering over. The reviewer explains his new
experience of the representation of movement and space by turning to
the writer that Baudelaire greeted with a shock of recognition, the writer
whose "Man of the Crowd" offered Benjamin insight into the visual
nature of the metropolis and whose Roderick Usher provided the pro-
totype of the sufferer from neurasthenia, the archetypal modern malady.
The painting described in Poe's text is a fascinating example of ekplzrasis,
the literary trope of describing in words a purely visual work of art.
And Poe's description takes this trope to the limits of visuality, invoking
a sort of abstraction that anticipates later modernist experiments in
A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular
vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white; and without interruption
or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the
idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the
earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no
torch, or other artificial source of light, was discernable; yet a Rood of
intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and
This image of splendid isolation, of a hermetic and nearly autonomous
work of art, sublimely expresses the psyche of Roderick Usher, whose
protosymbolist hypersensitivity houses itself within an illuminated
tomb rather than an ivory tower. Yet the image's uncanny sense of
titanic construction, its violating of the bowels of the earth with the
geometry of man, and its praeternatural illumination recalls for this
1897 reviewer less the myths of infernal reaches than the triumphs of
technology and the new experience of locomotion portrayed by the
latest novelty of motion pictures. While a complete explication of this
nearly hieroglyphic reception of an attraction is not possible here, I
believe it shows the complex associations the new experience of cinema
could provoke. A psychoanalytic dimension intersects with a new
dream world of technology and a new conception of space and time-
all within an experience of visual fascination, which holds attention like
the grip of fate. Whatever else it may express, this reception shows how
such novel visual experiences pushed viewers to new thresholds of
perception encountering the limits of representation.
My second example comes from the 1902 Edison Film Catalogue, which
198 THE YALE JOURNAL OF CRITICISM
offered new films for purchase to exhibitors. This example also
describes a film shot from a train as it enters a tunnel, Rrmnin.e
Gallitzer, Pemrsylvania RR. As a catalogue description, it indicated to
potential buyers something of the experience the film would provide
for audiences. Written five years after the New York Mail review, this
description lacks the astonishment at novelty found there, but still
conveys a complex experience outside the protocpls of narrative.
We overtake a freight train as we approach the tunnel. The track curves
and we see a cavern in the hillside. An eye-wink and we're in the tunnel.
As we become adjusted to the gloom, we see an EYE far ahead, a half
closed eye, growing larger and larger as we approach. It glistens on con-
verging rails; it grows larger; it grows brighter. We see a delicate picture
outlined in that tiny $pace: a picturc of a ion. of hriRht
shining mc.-adows, and Sll(hknly wc'rl' right in th(· midst of it all, the tree
clad slopes that make famous the scenery all along the Pennsylvania R. R. 27
Although this response does not employ the. cultural references found
in the 1897 review, it calls up almost surreal imagery· to evoke an
experience that challenges conventional representations of space, move-
ment, and framing. The relentless approach towards a half-opened eye,
which becomes the frame of a picture and finally the portal to a famous
landscape, presents a visual experience rich with surprise, transforma-
tion, and fantasy. An eye looks back at us, images a scene, and then
dissolves as we penetrate it. This description shuttles along a course of
metaphors, tracing a tum-of-the-century film experience alive to a vari-
ety of visual pleasures and spatial and representational ambiguities-
without having taken a course in high modernism or seen films by
Ernie Gehr or Luis 13uiiuel.
The complex experience of the cinema of attractions returns one to a
fresh encounter with a new visual reality, one whose imbrication with
(and exploitation by) an emerging consumer culture does not reduce its
fascinating and even liberating possibilities. If the concept of attractions
reveals a common seedbed for both the experience of modernity and
aspects of the aesthetic of modernism, this in itself should indicate its
potential value for our understanding of our own cultural history. An
aesthetic of attractions undermines the historical dichotomy and
popular art on which much of the canonical understanding of modern
art is based. One can see certain aspects of modern ·art reasserting the
prima<:y of contemplation over the dispersed attractions of the modem
environment. But more than complicating the genealogy of modem art
by capturing the way popular culture reflected modern experience,
investigating attractions also allows us to glimpse an experience that
was perhaps never fully realized in either a popular culture under the
TOM GUNNING I 99
domination of consumer capitalism or the aesthetic of a contemplative
modernism that tried to flee from its consequences and conditions.
1 Key overviews in the recent reshaping of the history of early film (avoiding for the
moment works centered on individual filmmakers) include: Eileen Bowser, Tht
Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 (New York: Scribners, 1990); Noel Burch, Lift
to T/Jose Slrodows (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Paolo Cherchi
Usai, Una Passione In.fiammabile: Gr1ida alTo studio del cinema muto (Torino: Utet
Libreria, 1991); Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent
Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991); Charles Musser, Tht Emergence
of Cinema: The American Scretn to 1907 (New York: Scribners, 1990); Emmanuelle
Toulet, Cinematographt invention du siecle (Paris: Gallimard, 1988). Anthologies of
recent work on eorly cinemo include: Thomos Els2esser, Cintma: Spau-
!'rtJmt-Norrative (London: British Film Institute:, 1991); ltoland CoS2ndey,
Gaudreault, and Tom Gunning, eds., Une lnrwllion du Viable? Cinema des premiers
temps et religion (Lausanne: Editions Payot, 1992); John Fell, ed., Film &fore Griffith
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Pierre Guibbert, ed., Lts premiers
ans du cinrma Fra11cais (Pcrpignon: Institute Jean Vigo, 1985); and Andre Gaudreault,
ed., Ce qr1e je vois dans mon cine? (Paris: Meridiens Klincksieck, 1988). Special issues
of film journals devoted to early cinema include Les Cahiers dt Ia Cinematheque (Winter
1979); Iris 2.1 (1984) and II (Summer 1990); Persistence of Vision 9 (1991); and L'Avant
scme Cinema (November 1984). The film journals 1895, Griffithiana, and Film History
regubrly publish articles on early film history.
2 Rachel Low and Roger Manvell, The History of Britislr Film, 1896-1906 (London:
Allen and Unwin, 1948), 43·
Gaudreault and I first introduced the term "cinema of attractions" at the 1985 Col-
loquium on Film History at Cerisy. This intervention has been published as "Le
cinema des premier temps: un defi a histoire du film?" in Histoirt du Cinema: Nor1vtllts
Approches, ed. Jacques Aumont, Andre Gaudreault, and Michel Marie (Paris: Publi-
cations de Ia Sorbonne, 1989). I have tried to define the term in the essay "The
Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde" included in
the Elsaesser anthology cited above, and more recently in "Now You See It, Now
You Don't: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions," Tht Velvet Light Trap
4 Hepworth catalogue quoted in Low and 'Man veil, History, 76.
5 The concept of the dominant comes from the Russian Formalists. For good sum-
maries see Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1981), 212-233; and Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism: A Mttapottics
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 76-77, 104-106. Kristin Thompson has used
the concept in a number of fruitful ways in film arialysis in Breaking the Glass Armor:
Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 43-45, 89-
r, The concept of modernity has been widely discussed in a number of contexts. A
gooJ introJuction to the German traJition I refer to here: is David Frisby, Fragments
of Modemity: Theories of Modernity in tire Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Bf!'lljamin
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986).
7 For Hansen, see not only Babel and Babylon cited above, but her series of articles on
Benjamin, Kracauer and Adorno, including "Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: The
Blue Flower in the Land of Technology," New German Critiqr1e 40 (Winter 1987);
"Of Mice and Ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney," South Atlantic Quarurly
92. 1 (Winter 1993); and "Decentric Perspectives: Kracauer's Early Writings on Film
200 TIIF. YALF. JOURNAL ()f CRITICISM
and Mass Culture," Nro• Gmnan Critique 54 (Fall 1991); Guiliana Bruno, Strmu•alkin)/
<'II a Rr1inrd Map: Tire City Film.< (I_( ElPira Notari (Princeton: Princeton
Press, 1992); Anne Friedberg, B'ind<'w Cinrma atrd tire l'ostmodrm
Unh·ersity of California Press. 199J);Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Obsm•er: On
Vision and Mod!'Tnity in rlre Ninetrrntlr Crrrwry (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990); Uen
Singer, "Modernity, Hyper-Stimulus and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism," in the
very relevant anthology Cinmra and tire lrwention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Chamcy
and Vanessa Schwartz (Berkeley: Uni,•ersity of California Press, forthcoming), which
will include a number of other important essays by the above authors and others.
8 Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of·Modem Life," in Tire Painter of Modern Life and
Otl1er Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1963), 13.
9 Baudelaire, "Painter of Modem Life," 9.
10 Baudelaire, "Painter of Modem Life," 9-10. See also Baudelaire's prose poem "The
Crowd" in Paris Spleen, trans. Louise Vart-se (New York: New Directions, 1947).
11 Louis Lumihe quoted in Jacques Andre and Marie Andre, Une Saison Lr1mirrr a
Montpelleir (Perpignon: Institute Jean Vigo. 19R7), 64.
12 Wahcr ll<'njamin, "Smn<' Mol if• in ll>n<I<'J.ir<'," in C:/r,rr/r• /1,,,,/rf,rirr: II l.)'rir l'••rt
in rlu lira ••f 1/(clr C<Jpitalism, I ram. Harry Zohn (LonJon: New Left Uooks, 1973),
13 Sergei Eisenstein, "The Montage of Attractions," trans. Daniel Gerould, The Drama
Rt••ieu• 18.1 (March 1974): 78.
14 Consumer culture is an aspect of film history that a variety of scholars have recently
in\·estigated. The social historian William Leach has provided an important account
of consumer culture in Land of Desire: llfi'Tclrant.<, Poll'er and the Rise (I_( a Nru• American
Cl1/turc (New York: Pantheon, 1993), especially 39-70.
15 Benjamin, "Paris. Capital of the Nineteenth Century." in Charlrs n.wdrlairr, I 57-
16 Friedberg, Window 53-59.
17 The method of Barnum is brillantly laid out by Neil Harris in H11mb11g: The Art (I_(
P. T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).
18 Rosalind H. Williams, Dream Worlds: ,\foss Comrtmption in Late Ninrtrrntlr-Crntrlry
Frarrce (Berkeley: University of California Prcss, 19R2), 67.
19 Simmcl quoted in Frisby, Fragnrrrrts (I_( Modernity, 94.
20 On billboard movies see Musser, Tire EmerJ!rnce ofCirrema, 169-170.
21 The most thorough treatment of cinema at a world exposition is Emmanuel Toulet's
"Le Cinema a !'Exposition Uoiversclle de 1900," Rn•r1e d'Histoirr modemr et contrm-
poraine 33 (April-June 1986), translated in Persistence of Vision 9 (1991).
22 Dufayel's role in the exhibition of films is described in Jacques Deslandes and Jacques
Richard, Histoirt comparee du cinema, vol. 2, Dr1 cincmatographr ar1 cirrcma, 1896-1906
(Paris: Casterman, 1968), 16-17, 28.
23 The cinema in relation to the amusement park is described in Musser, The Emergmce
ofCirrema, 128, 133, 166, 199, 374, 429-30; and in Lauren Rabinovitz, "The Temp-
tations of Pleasure: Nickelodeons, Amusement Parks, and the Sights of Female
Sexuality," Camera 23 (May 1990).
24 Janet Staiger, Films: Studirs in tlrr Hi.<toricnl Reception of i\mericnn Cinema
(Princeton: Princeton University 1992). 122.
25 This review is reprinted in 1'. Niv<'r, l!ulfrtill.<, (Ln• AnR<'-
Ies: Locare Research Group, 1971), 2H-29.
26 Edgar Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," in arrd Tales (New York: Library
of America, 1984), 325.
27 1902 Edisorr Film Catalogue, 109, in Charles Musser, et al., Motiorr Pict11re CattJlogs by
Am<'Tican Prodl4rers and DistributM5, 1894-1908, A Microfomr Editiorr (Frederick, Md.:
University Publications of America, 1985).
TOM GUNNING 201
Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies,
Nottingham Trent University
Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, University of Northumbria
Director of the Institute of Film Studies, University of Nottingham
A member of the Hodder Headline Group
Co-published in the United States of An:erica by
Oxford University Press Inc., New York
ToO\.\' ffitro.c..4-io'('l;; ·. +;frn, its srec..i-ct\-oc-OJ'"Id tk.
?ress> L...o<::lo: 161- "5.
24 The cinema of attractions: early film, its spectator and
Writing in 1922, flushed with the excitement of seeing Abel Gance's La Roue,
Femand Leger tried to define something of the radical possibilities of the cinema.
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 exhibition, which I feel cinema before 1906 displays most intensely. Its inspira-
tion for the avant-garde of the early decades of this century needs to be re-explored.
Writings by the early modernists (Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists) on the
cinema follow a pattern similar to Leger: enthusiasm for this new medium and its
possibilities, and disappointment at the way it has already developed, its enslave-
ment to traditional art forms, particularly theatre and literature. This fascination
with the potential of a medium (and the accompanying fantasy of rescuing the
cinema from its enslavement to alien and passe forms) can be understood from a
number of viewpoints. I want to use it to illuminate a topic I have also approached
before, the strangely heterogeneous relation that film before 1906 (or so) bears to
the films that follow, and the way a taking account of this heterogeneity signals a
new conception of film history and film form. My work in this area has been pursued
in collaboration with Andre Gaudreault.
The history of early cinema, like the history of cinema generally, has been written
and theorized under the hegemony of narrative films. Early film-makers like Smith,
Melies and Porter have been studied primarily from the viewpoint of their contribu-
tion to film as a storytelling medium, particularly the evolution of narrative editing.
Although such approaches are not totally misguided, they are one-sided and poten-
tially distort both the work of these film-makers and the actual forces shaping
cinema before 1906. A few observations will indicate the way that early cinema was
not dominated by the narrative impulse that later asserted its sway over the medium.
First there is the extremely important role that actuality film plays in early film
production. Investigation of the films copyrighted in the US shows that actuality
films outnumbered fictional films untill906.
The Lumiere tradition of 'placing the
world within one's reach' through travel films and topicals did not disappear with
the exit of the Cinematographe from film production. But even within non-actuality
filming- what has sometimes been referred to as the 'Melies tradition'- the role
narrative plays is quite different from in traditional narrative film. himself
declared in discussing his working method:
As for the scenario, the 'fable,' or 'tale,' I only consider it at the end. I can state that the
scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for
the 'stage effects,' the 'tricks,' or for a nicely arranged tableau.
Whatever differences one might find between Lumiere and Melies, they should not
represent the opposition between narrative and non-narrative film-making, at least
162 Tom Gunning
as it is understood today. Rather, one can unite them in a conception that sees cinelllii
less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audi.
ence, fascinating because of their illusory power (whether the realistic illusion J
motion offered to the first audiences by Lumiere, or the magical illusion concocted by
Melies), and exoticism. In other words, I believe that the relation to the spectator set up
by the films of both Lumiere and Melies (and many other film-makers before 1906)
had a common basis, and one that differs from the primary spectator relations set up by
narrative film after 1906. I will call this earlier conception of cinema, 'the cinema o
attractions'. I believe that this conception dominates cinema until about 1906-7·
Although different from the fascination in storytelling exploited by the cinema frolit
the time of Griffith, it is not necessarily opposed to it. In fact the cinema of attractionS
does not disappear with the dominance of narrative, but rather goes underground, both
into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evidert
in some genres (e.g. the musical) than in others.
What precisely is the cinema of attractions? First, it is a cinema that bases itself ori
the quality that Leger celebratecl: its ability to show something. Contrasted to the
voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema analysed by Christian Metz,
this is an exhi:
bitionist cinema. An aspect of early cinema which I have written about in other artil'
des is emblematic of this different relationship the cinema of attractions construca
with its spectator: the recurring look at the camera by actors. This action, which if
later perceived as spoiling the realistic illusions of the cinema, is here undertaketi·
with brio, establishing contact with the audience. From comedians smirking at
camera, to the constant bowing and gesturing of the conjurors in magic films, this
a cinema that its willing to rupture a fictional world: __
for a chance to sohc1t the attentiOn of the spectator. . >
Exhibitionism becomes literal in the series of erotic films which play an .:
tant role in early film production (the same Pathe catalogue would advertise the ,
Passion Play along with 'scenes grivoises d' un caractere piquant', erotic films ofteri 1
including full nudity), also driven underground in later years. As No"il Burch has 't
shown in his film Correction Please: How We Got into Pictures ( 1979), a film
The Bride Retires (France, 1902) reveals a fundamental conflict between this exhi-
bitionistic tendency of early film and the creation of a fictional diegcsis. A woman
undresses for bed while her new husband peers at her from behind a screen.
However, it is to the camera and the audience that the bride addresses her erotic
striptease, winking at us as she faces smiling in erotic display. [ ... ] ·1
Modes of exhibition in early cinema also reflect this lack of concern with creating
a self-sufficient narrative world upon the screen. As Charles Musser has shown,
early showmen exhibitors exerted a great deal of control over the shows they
presented, actually re-editing the films they had purchased and supplying a series of
offscreen supplements, such as sound effects and spoken commentary. Perhaps
most extreme is the Hale's Tours, the largest chain of theatres exclusively showing
films before 1906. Not only did the films consist of non-narrative sequence's taken ,!_
from moving vehicles (usually trains), but the theatre itself was arranged as a train
car with a conductor who took tickets, and sound effects simulating the click-clack
of wheels and hiss of air brakes.
Such viewing experiences relate more to the attrac-
tions of the fairground than to the traditions of the legitimate theatre. The relation
between films and the emergence of the great amusement parks, such as Coney
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