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The Ghost Opera

History of the American Cinema, Vol. 1: The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907

by Charles Harpole general editor, by Charles Musser
Scribner’s, 613 pp., $60.00

History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2: The Transformation of Cinema: 1907–1915

by Charles Harpole general editor, by Eileen Bowser
Scribner’s, 337 pp., $60.00

History of the American Cinema, Vol. 3: An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928

by Charles Harpole general editor, by Richard Koszarski
Scribner’s, 395 pp., $60.00

Life to Those Shadows

by Noël Burch, translated and edited by Ben Brewster
University of California Press, 317 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures

by Christopher Rawlence
Atheneum, 384 pp., $19.95

Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film

by Miriam Hansen
Harvard University Press, 377 pp., $37.50

The centenary of movies as a public spectacle is nearly upon us. Only specialists will care whether the benchmark date ought to be May 9, 1893, when members of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences lined up to peep into Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope and watch a twenty-second film of three men hammering on an anvil and sharing a bottle of beer; or December 28, 1895, when at the Grand Café in Paris the Lumière brothers inaugurated a program featuring The Arrival of a Train at the La Ciotat Station and other movies made with their camera-projector-printer the cinematographe; or any of the other candidates. What matters is that about a hundred years ago a new species of language began to alter human life irrevocably.

A toy, a peepshow, a scientific novelty: astonishingly small-scale points of origin for such a phenomenon. Neither Edison nor the Lumière brothers nor most of the other hard-headed capitalists and dogged tinkerers who got movies off the ground could have fully imagined the depths of the fascination their machinery would provoke, or that a century later a whole planet would remain transfixed by its simulation of vital movement. The medium has evolved, becoming a multitude of different media in the process; but like one-celled organisms, Blacksmith Scene or Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory already contains the essential. What followed was just a matter of accretion and technological fine-tuning.

The story is never done being told, because the process isn’t finished yet. Every new plot development leads back to the beginning, forcing a revision of all earlier accounts. If an earlier model of film history went from the twenty-second one-shot movie to Intolerance, the latest goes from Cleopatra to the music video and the twenty-second TV commercial. The story of movies has been, at various times and places, a story of technological progress; of a sensation in the vaudeville business; of society overrun by seductive images of vice; of art and science collaborating harmoniously to produce a universal medium; of solitary film geniuses purifying a language of gesture and visual rhythm; of radical visionaries seizing the means of production in order to deprogram the brainwashed masses; of multinational corporations conspiring to reassert control over all forms of electronic communication.

From today’s perspective it could be a story of unforeseeable virus-like proliferation: how a small gadget capable of showing a single flickering scene became the global environment. The metaphor is not too far-fetched, in light of the close similarities that contemporary information theorists find between patterns of viral infection and the way information diffuses and mutates. Told this way, the story leads into science fiction, into a decentered hyperspace swarming with random and infinitely reproducible images.

In 1905 people stepped into nickelodeons to encounter the novel excitement of a disordered, constantly shifting world of pratfalls, state funerals, heroic firemen, and scenic tours. The “nickel madness” of that time was the first great wave of enthusiasm for the new medium. Since then we have moved ever closer toward perceiving the world as an immense nickelodeon, an enclosed area delimited by walls of screens—movie screens, television screens, computer screens—on which the action never stops. Indeed, with the promise (or threat) of untold interactive modes and virtual realities, we may be on the verge of taking the next step beyond spectatorship and entering the screen itself, like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Junior.

These books, then—only the latest in an unending succession—can like their predecessors at best retrieve fragments from the ceaseless flow of images. More than many of their predecessors they attempt to marshal their data in a systematic, even scientific fashion, while racing to collect an immense and scattered body of evidence before it disappears altogether. As Kevin Brownlow notes of the film stock on which most pre-1950 movies were printed, “1990 inaugurates the last decade of nitrate…. It is not expected to last into the new century.”

Film historians and critics confront more fundamental problems, however, than the profusion and frequent inaccessibility of materials. Even after a century, written language is not yet at ease with the language of film. The most basic terminology remains an occasion for acrimonious contention. In order to talk about it at all, language has to radically transform what happens on the screen: slow it down, simplify it, break it up into abstract units. The written texts seem to exist quite apart from the films they discuss, in a separate world where words are still sovereign.

The tack taken in the first volumes (three out of a projected ten) of History of the American Cinema, under Charles Harpole’s general editorship, is often to avoid the problem by studying primarily not what is on the screen, but what is around, in front, or in back of it. This approach reflects a current scholarly preoccupation with questions of production, exhibition, and spectatorship, with the context rather than the contents of the spectacle; and in the expert hands of Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser, and Richard Koszarski it yields immensely valuable information. Margins and backgrounds become momentarily central as the authors survey the role of illustrated slide lectures with their “beautiful dissolving views,” an extravagant range of early machines (choreutoscope, phasmatrope, eidolscope, cineograph), the evolution of fan mail and movie magazines, the vagaries of musical accompaniment. In addition the series functions as a small-scale archive, with its splendid miscellany of production stills, frame enlargements, ads, memos, and cartoons: a magic lantern version of The Raven, scenes from Kicking Willie’s Hat, What Demoralized the Barbershop, and The Gay Shoe Clerk, an array of rooftop studios and store-front theaters, and hundreds of other items.1

Such spreading out of materials is what film history does best, in keeping with the fundamental randomness with which film captures some but not other pieces of the world, leaving us a collection of “living photographs” (as they called them in the 1890s) which could just as easily all be different. These are simply the movies that happened to get made and that happened to survive; only retroactively do they acquire an air of inevitability. Chance and improvisation punctuate film making and provide many of its most enduring pleasures.

Where current film writing seems most at odds with its subject is in its attempt to impose a systematic determinism. The essays in Thomas Elsaesser’s anthology Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative and Noël Burch’s Life to Those Shadows embody some of the best-informed scholarship going, but one needs a pair of tweezers to extract the useful observations from the relentless and fruitless mongering of abstractions, the frequently circular methods of argumentation, and (in Burch’s case especially) the almost caricatural political simplifications. (Burch likes to insert, into his otherwise intensely theoretical and sometimes brilliant discussions of “diegesis” and “syntagma,” side comments such as: “Informing has traditionally been encouraged in Britain in the name of social consensus.”) Little of the enthusiasm felt by either spectators or film makers finds its way into these writings: if film viewing actually resembled the tortuous processes formulated here, the movies could hardly have become the most well-loved of modern entertainment forms.

Of the prose itself the less said the better, although a few examples may indicate the stylistic tenor. Raymond Bellour, discussing the structure of Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator, speaks of

micro-condensation of the textual system, which integrates into one of its units components of several earlier units, and thus constructs itself, by means of displaced similarities which constitute its repeated difference,

while Noël Burch lingers over

the “morphological moment” at which this originary fissiparity arose, i.e., at which a distinction began to be made between two meanings attributable to the transition between two biunivocally concatenated shots.

Certain tics of vocabulary recur often enough to serve as signatures: situations are never revealed or clarified, they are articulated; events are not caused, they are determined. It is peculiar that while there are writers who find it possible to discuss cosmology or quantum mechanics in quite lucid terms, so many film critics must deploy an arsenal of neologisms and technical arcana to describe, for instance, a scene of a dog stealing a sausage in a one-shot movie.2

Most of these writers represent a reaction to the “auteur theory” which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. That misnamed, much-maligned tendency is easy enough to criticize, especially along its fringes, yet it does have the virtue of acknowledging that movies are actually made by people, although those people obviously include many others aside from the directors whom the auteur-minded critics concentrated on. What the auteurists at their best conveyed was their relish of filmic pleasures, an emotional engagement and capacity for joyful discovery seemingly rare in film studies today.

The theoretical and political approaches that became institutionalized in the universities in the 1970s—summarized by Burch as “structuralism, dialectical and historical materialism…and left-wing feminism”—have shifted attention from the concrete process of movie making as a collaboration among individuals toward a more generalized analysis of how basic film practices embody (or “inscribe”) dominant social and political motives. Film as commodity, narrative as the end-product of ideological and economic determinants, the spectator as “constructed subjectivity”: these rather mechanical conceptions tend to create the impression of an almost Augustinian absence of personal initiative. It’s as if films were generated automatically by a gigantic impersonal industrial-ideological apparatus, something like the machinery of Metropolis. Hence the abstraction, the reductiveness, the relentless sorting of filmic elements into “progressive” and “bourgeois,” the denial of any role to the creative imagination or to the sense of play which is imagination’s conduit.

It isn’t a question of denying the reality of political and economic pressures and controls in the film business—or in life. What has to be questioned is the theorists’ patent lack of interest in the directors, artists, writers, and others who somehow functioned and sometimes fluorished within those pressures and controls. To deny the specificity of temperaments and talents is to deny precisely what makes movies more interesting than the manufacture of socks. (Some theorists would undoubtedly reply that they are not more interesting.) Deterministic film theory ends up burying the individual in an analogous fashion to the industrial juggernaut it decries, and implying that particular films—the presumable object of study—are of interest only as embodiments of ideological and economic tendencies.

More often than not, an ostensible concern with social contexts and struggles leads us away from the flavor of actual situations and eras. The bourgeois ideologues whose heavy hand is read into every permutation of film form or content are a rather faceless crew. Social history without empathy or imagination becomes a parade of empty abstractions such as “the site at which product and spectator interact with and construct each other.” The great pleasure of Kevin Brownlow’s decidedly untheoretical Behind the Mask of Innocence—a survey of the social problem films which flourished before the studio system took full control in the 1920s—is to get back to specifics such as corrupt political bosses, exploited prostitutes, the drug trade. By concentrating on individual anomalies rather than hypothetical collectivities—Mary MacLane, Margaret Sanger, Carry Nation, Jack London, Texas Guinan, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Thaw, Governor William Sulzer of New York, the elusive Russian monk Iliodor—Brownlow imparts a much more tangible sense of a period when accused murderers, judicial reformers, and impeached politicians might be recruited to reenact their deeds for the camera, when movies were weapons in debates over prohibition, birth control, child labor, and “social hygiene,” when events like the Triangle Fire of 1911 and the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 were rushed to the screen in fictionalized form. (The text’s magnificent photographic accompaniment certainly helps; it is rare and exciting to encounter so many completely unfamiliar images in a single book.)

  1. 1

    An even more detailed adjunct to these volumes—to be published this fall—is Charles Musser’s exhaustive Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (University of California Press, 1991).

  2. 2

    For sheer syntactic staying power, Thomas Elsaesser is clearly the champion: “Film narrative and classical continuity cinema emerge, in this model, as the ‘solution’ to the problem of how spatial representation can be inflected with a certain linearity (itself a compromise between a temporality and a causal chain), while serving as the optimal textual form of creating a commodity amenable to industrial production and capitalist exploitation.”

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