Early Cinema and the "National"
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How nations learned to visualize themselves through moving images


While many studies have been written on national cinemas, Early Cinema and the "National" is the first anthology to focus on the concept of national film culture from a wide methodological spectrum of interests, including not only visual and narrative forms, but also international geopolitics, exhibition and marketing practices, and pressing linkages to national imageries. The essays in this richly illustrated, landmark anthology are devoted to reconsidering the nation as a framing category for writing cinema history. Many of the 34 contributors show that concepts of a national identity played a role in establishing the parameters of cinema's early development, from technological change to discourses of stardom, from emerging genres to intertitling practices. Yet, as others attest, national meanings could often become knotty in other contexts, when concepts of nationhood were contested in relation to colonial/imperial histories and regional configurations. Early Cinema and the "National" takes stock of a formative moment in cinema history, tracing the beginnings of the process whereby nations learned to imagine themselves through moving images.


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Date de parution 17 décembre 2008
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EAN13 9780861969159
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Early Cinema and the “National”
Cover image: From Judge , vol.23, no.583 (17 December 1892): 436–437.
Early Cinema and the “National”

Edited by
Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini and Rob King
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Early Cinema and the “National”
A catalogue entry for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN: 9780 86196 689 9 (Paperback)






Ebook edition ISBN: 9780-86196-915-9
Ebook edition published by John Libbey Publishing Ltd, 3 Leicester Road, New Barnet, Herts EN5 5EW, United Kingdom e-mail: john.libbey@orange.fr ; web site: www.johnlibbey.com
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© 2016 Copyright John Libbey Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. Unauthorised duplication contravenes applicable laws.
Contents

Introduction
Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini and Rob King
PART I          Interrogating the “National”
Chapter 1         Tom Gunning , Early cinema as global cinema: the encyclopedic ambition
Chapter 2         Jonathan Auerbach , Nationalizing attractions
Chapter 3         Frank Kessler , Images of the “National” in early non-fiction films
Chapter 4         Giorgio Bertellini , National and racial landscapes and the photographic form
Chapter 5         Charles O’Brien , Sound-on-disc cinema and electrification in pre-WWI Britain, France, Germany and the United States
Chapter 6         Torey Liepa , Mind-reading/mind-speaking: dialogue in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the emergence of speech in American silent cinema
Chapter 7         Marta Braun and Charlie Keil , Living Canada : selling the nation through images
Chapter 8         Sheila Skaff , Early cinema and “the Polish question”
PART II        Colonialism/Imperialism
Chapter 9         Frank Gray , Our Navy and patriotic entertainment in Brighton at the start of the Boer War
Chapter 10       Ian Christi e, “An England of our Dreams”?: early patriotic entertainments with film in Britain during the Anglo-Boer War
Chapter 11       Nico de Klerk , “The transport of audiences”: making cinema “National”
Chapter 12       Panivong Norindr , Enlisting early cinema in the service of “la plus grande France”
Chapter 13       Marina Dahlquist , Teaching citizenship via celluloid
Chapter 14       David Mayer , Fights of Nations and national fights
Chapter 15       Gregory A. Waller , Japan on American screens, 1908–1915
PART III       Locating/Relocating the “National” in Film Exhibition
Chapter 16       Paul S. Moore , Nationalist film-going without Canadian-made films?
Chapter 17       John Welle , The cinema arrives in Italy: city, region and nation in early film discourse
Chapter 18       Canan Balan , Wondrous pictures in Istanbul: from cosmopolitanism to nationalism
Chapter 19       Joseph Garncarz , The emergence of nationally specific film cultures in Europe, 1911–1914
Chapter 20       Gunnar Iverse n, The Norwegian municipal cinema system and the development of a national cinema
Chapter 21       Daniel Sánchaz Salas , Spanish lecturers and their relations with the national
Chapter 22       Germain Lacasse, Joseph Dumais and the language of French-Canadian silent cinema
Chapter 23       Rudmer Canjels , Localizing serials: translating daily life in Les Mystères de New-York (1915)
PART IV       Genre and the ‘National’
Chapter 24       Amanda Keeler , Seeing the world while staying at home: slapstick, modernity and American-ness
Chapter 25       Rob King , “A purely American product”: tramp comedy and white working-class formation in the 1910s
Chapter 26       Matthew Solomon , The “Chinese” conjurer: orientalist magic in variety theater and the trick film
Chapter 27       Oliver Gaycken , A note on the national character of early popular science films
Chapter 28       Dominique Nasta and Muriel Andrin , European melodramas and World War I: narrated time and historical time as reflections of national identity
Chapter 29       W.D. Phillip s, “Cow-punchers, bull-whackers and tin horn gamblers”: generic formulae, sensational literature, and early American cinema
Chapter 30       Wolfgang Fuhrmann , Early ethnographic film and the museum
PART V         Gender and the ‘National’
Chapter 31       Mark Hain , Black hair, black eyes, black heart: Theda Bara and race suicide panic
Chapter 32       Andrea Haller , Who is the “right” star to adore?: nationality, masculinity and the female cinema audience in Germany during World War I
PART VI       Memory, Imagination, and the ‘National’
Chapter 33       Joshua Yumibe , From Switzerland to Italy and all around the world: the Joseph Joye and Davide Turconi collections
Chapter 34       Jennifer M. Bean , The imagination of early Hollywood: movie-land and the magic cities, 1914–1916
Editors and contributors
Introduction
Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini and Rob King

A nation presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. Ernest Renan, “What is a nation? [1882],” trans. Martin Thom, in Homi Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990).
All what I see wit’ me own eyes I knows an’ unnerstan’s When I see movin’ pitchers of de far off, furrin’ lans Where de Hunks an Ginnies come from – yer can betcher life I knows Dat of all de lans’ an’ countries, ‘taint no matter where yer goes Dis here country’s got ‘em beaten – take my oat dat ain’t no kid – ‘Cause we learned it from de movin’ pitchers, me an’ Maggie did. “The Newsie’s Point of View”, Moving Picture World (5 March 1910).
T he nation and the national have long circulated as useful, supposedly definitive categories in cinema history. One can find them in early film manufacturer catalogues such as the 1896 Lumière sales catalogue of films shot in distant parts of the globe and organized according to country of origin. Or in early trade press attempts “to classify the film product of the world”, such as New York Dramatic Mirror ’s 1908 compilation of the “distinguishing characteristics” or “infallible ear marks” of films produced by different countries. 1 Or in early histories of the cinema’s aesthetic development, such as Léon Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma (1925), which singles out the American, French, German, and Swedish cinemas for special treatment. 2 Or in early museum film programs, such as those of the Museum of Modern Art (New York), in the 1930s, that were influential in producing a canon of American, French, German, Swedish, and Russian/Soviet films. 3 And one can still find them in the curricular offerings – even required courses – of most university and college film programs, at least in the USA.
Relatively recent theoretical work, moreover, has given the nation and the national substantial analytical force, especially for historical studies of late 19th- and early 20th-century mass culture. Benedict Anderson’s argument that national consciousness depended historically on the development of print-as-commodity as well as a “horizontal secular time” brought about by mass-market publishing is especially provoca- tive. 4 If one draws a homology with the situation at the turn of the last century, cinema then took the vernacularizing thrust of mass culture a step further, becoming a new venue for “imagining the nation” as an “imagined community”. Nearly as influential has been Homi Bhabha’s concept of the nation “as a system of cultural signification ... [or] representation of social life” whose ideological parameters increasingly were defined in terms of the foreign “other” (see that Newsie’s doggerel epigraph). 5 One could argue, for instance, that when “systems of signification” began to coalesce within early cinema, they emerged as articulations of “the nation”, perhaps most clearly in the development of visual and narrative forms charged with national and racial connota- tions. In cinema studies today, in the early 21st century, however, we have to ask whether current film historiography and criticism have fully explored the heuristics of the problematized and revitalized notions of nation and national . That question has particular pertinence for the theory and history of early cinema, as the ninth International Domitor Conference, held at the University of Michigan (30 May – 2 June 2006), attests. 6
The essays in this volume, all derived from that conference, stake out a variety of positions for rethinking nation and national as productive concepts in writing the history of early cinema and for envisioning them as dynamic rather than static categories. Those positions depend in part on which of several more specific questions writers have chosen to address. Can we assume that moving pictures were an international or global phenomenon from at least the time when the Lumières’ cinématographe was being exhibited around the world? Even if so, when, where, how, and to what degree did moving pictures become national or nationalized? What conceptions of the national (other than Renan’s, for instance) in circulation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries became bound up with early cinema – e.g. how was the national aligned with or against European colonialism, American imperialism, and the oceanic migration of peoples? What other visual media were co-opted in early cinema’s representation and embodiment of national difference? To what degree could specific practices – from production and distribution to exhibition and marketing or promotion – be characterized as national rather than something else? How did racial, ethnic, class, gender, and/or religious differences complicate national conceptions of early cinema? And what were the ideological or commercial implications of those complicating differences? Were certain emerging genres (e.g. westerns, historical films, comic series) and/or early movie stars considered national phenomena, and what were the consequences when either circulated beyond national borders? 7
The following essays are organized more or less according to the interests they share. The first cluster addresses questions of terminology that proved crucial during the conference and offers a range of positions with regard to whether early cinema is best considered a national or an international phenomenon. Arguably this is an ambiguity that touches on the question of medium specificity: unlike the print media that provided a new venue for the emergence of national consciousness as early as the 16th century, according to Anderson, the circulation of visual images was never as limited by national/linguistic competencies. Thus, to whatever extent moving pictures were involved in imagining nations, they could do so only against the background of a de facto cosmopolitanism of the image. 8 The “imagined communities” to which early cinema lent its images can then be approached as both inter- and intra-national phenomena. Tom Gunning, for instance, makes a compelling argument for the former, demonstrating the transnational character of early moving pictures, both in “the global pathways opened up by worldwide capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism” and in the representation of a “new consciousness of the global ... a system of knowledge” that inventoried an “accumulation of data” according to a Western hierarchy of value. Offering a counterargument to Gunning and the current paradigm defining early cinema, which tends to “ignore national differences under the broader rubric of modernity”, Jonathan Auerbach instead follows Noël Burch’s lead and chooses British filmmaking as a test case to demonstrate that “both form and content [of early films] can be distinguished along national lines”. 9
Indeed, it is in terms of the transnational , regional , or local dimensions of early cinema that a number of contributors complicate the notion of nation as a framing historio- graphic concept. Frank Kessler usefully unpacks the term national into distinctive, if overlapping components – as a sign of (1) geographical origin, (2) an imagined sense of belonging that becomes nationalistic, and (3) a cultural cliché or constructed image – and then illustrates their complex layering in single films: e.g. disentangling French-ness, German-ness, and Tyrolese-ness in Lumières’ Danse Tyrolienne (1896). Giorgio Bertellini complements Auerbach and Kessler by arguing that pre-cinematic traditions of visual representation informed and inextricably conflated racial, regional, and national differences in early cinema, as in the transmedial and transnational circulation of stereotypical images of picturesque Southern Italian landscapes representing the “South of Europe”. Charles O’Brien demonstrates how regional variations in the technology of electrification – in London, Berlin, Paris, New York, and Chicago – determined the uneven global development of sound-on-disc technology prior to World War I; while Torey Liepa focuses on dialogue intertitles in 1910s American films, specifically D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), and their function “as sites of cultural negotiation, upon which national, class, racial and other tensions were played out”. Finally, an essay by Marta Braun and Charlie Keil and another by Sheila Skaff offer contrasting analyses of how, on the one hand, the Living Canada series of motion pictures could successfully construct “a distinct notion of a Canadian identity, one indebted to a British heritage”, for the purposes of spurring immigration and tourism, yet, on the other, how local filmmaking in the tripartite Polish territories could not aid in any construction of Polish identity because of fragmentation in the region’s nation- alist movements.
A second cluster of essays focuses on specific instances in which colonialism or imperialism serve as crucially significant factors in the visual imagining of the national in early cinema. Frank Gray and Ian Christie, for instance, analyse popular patriotic entertainments that included moving pictures in Great Britain. Gray argues that the “quick magic” of A.J. West’s Our Navy , a multi-media extravaganza that toured the country for fifteen years, “was part of an imperial culture that uncritically promoted Britain and its vision and practices up until World War I”; by contrast, Christie demonstrates that Robert Paul’s films of the Anglo-Boer War, shown in music halls and fairgrounds, “reflected many of the ambiguities and dilemmas [...] exposed by the war itself: the price demanded by as well as the pride involved in war with Boer nationalists”. Nico de Klerk and Panivong Norindr explore the ideological implications of motion pictures produced and/or circulated within specific colonial contexts. de Klerk offers a wide-ranging study of the nonfiction films produced, distributed, and exhibited in the early 1910s by the Dutch Colonial Institute, with the aim of stimulating emigration to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia); Norindr focuses on how cinema was imagined and put into practice in the French colonies – notably in a 1916 Pathé-Frères document – and suggests that motion pictures at the periphery had an unexpected impact in shaping national film policy in France. Other contributors within this section examine the different roles that motion pictures played in debates over immigration in the USA, the controversial influx of different peoples within a single country. Marina Dahlquist contrasts the “better citizenship” work of organizations such as the Civic Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island – using fiction and nonfiction films to help assimilate and “Americanize” recent immigrants – with early 1910s Swedish films made specifically for the home market as “explicit propaganda against emigration”. Contextualizing the short variety sketches that comprise AM&B’s Fights of Nations (1907) – one comes from Macbeth – David Mayer argues that the film’s chiefly comic “racial and ethnic battles ... were, concurrently, also being played out for real and with far greater heat and seriousness” for the American public. Gregory Waller situates a large body of “Japan films” (1908–1915) within a “widespread and surprisingly diverse network of mass-produced images of Japan that [...] circulated in the United States” and teases out their “knotted strands of desire, fear, admiration, curiosity, and appreciation – of Japanophilia tempered by Japanophobia” – all bound up with efforts to cope with a newly powerful “other”.
A third cluster of essays, as do several of those previously mentioned, presents one of the more striking discoveries of the conference: that recent research methods focusing on local film practices, especially in exhibition, force us to rethink the national in terms of marketing and publicity, programming and lecturing, and appropriation (e.g. through translation and/or regulation). On the one hand, Paul Moore uses the case study of Toronto, Ontario, to argue that “nationalism is most easily and perhaps necessarily first instituted through [local] exhibition practices supported by state regulation and censorship, always already in response to the global, mass character of mainstream cinema”. On the other, John Welle shows that, in the case of Italy before 1905, “the underlying currents of Italian identity, favoring the city and the region rather than the nation”, determined locally specific forms of moving pictures’ cultural reception. In the case of cosmopolitan Istanbul, Canan Balan counters the binaries framing prior histories of early Turkish cinema to argue that a multi-ethnic, multi-religious spectatorship culture determined the “wondrous” reception of moving pictures from abroad, a reception finally transformed by nationalization after World War I and by the increasingly contested presence of women in public life. Redefining a “national cinema culture” based on the films “most favorably received” in a country rather than on those produced there, Joseph Garncarz cites statistics on pre-war German audiences who favored multiple-reel German and Danish films even though together they accounted for only 20 per cent of those in circulation. The unique system of municipal cinema ownership in Norway, by contrast, seems not to have created a “national cinema culture”, for it took the successful import of Swedish films in the late 1910s, Gunnar Iverson suggests, to inspire a “national style” of indigenous film production. Finally, three essays focus on the “naturalization” or appropriation of foreign imports through the language of lecturers, translated intertitles, and/or novelized tie-ins. Daniel Sanchéz Salas examines the ingenious ways that film lecturers in Spain negotiated between local audiences and Spanish popular culture by, on the one hand, “adapting places and characters to settings familiar to the viewer” and, on the other, invoking a sense of national identity by “making marginal comments on current events”. In a case study of exhibition in Montréal, Québec, Germain Lacasse points to the important role of language in constructing French Canadian national identity, exemplified by Joseph Dumais’ vain attempt to override American film intertitles translated into the vernacular or joual through his lectures delivered in academic French. In an even more specific case in France, Rudmer Canjels argues that Les Mystères de New-York , in both Pathé’s imported film version and Pierre Decourcelle’ serial novelization, added anti-German and pro-American views that ensured its successful integration into French daily public experience during the wartime period of 1915–1916. 10
A fourth cluster of essays address the question of whether the concept of genre has particular salience for an understanding of national imaginaries, not only because of historical specificity (the early western and the USA, the early epic and Italy, etc.) but also perhaps because the legacy of Lévi-Strauss within cinema studies makes genre a prime topic for issues of the nation or national. To return to Bhabha: if nations are “narrative strategies”, then the existence of recurrent narrative formulae – in genres – is a necessary (if not sufficient) symptom of national consciousness. The problem, however, lies in the balance between the national and global character of early cinema: given the transnational circulation of generic templates (e.g. the trick film, slapstick, etc.), how might we trace the accents of national particularity? What is it, for instance, about Pathé’s French-produced imitation westerns that makes them “French”, and for whom? Or, to what extent can Keystone-style slapstick films be read as “American”, when Mack Sennett freely acknowledged the influence of French filmmakers?
One fruitful area concerns the traditional issues of generic iconography and thematic structure (what Rick Altman terms the “semantic” and “syntactic” dimensions of genre). 11 Two essays in this section, both on American slapstick, uncover the national precisely in relation to these twinned dimensions – Amanda Keeler, by focusing on syntactic contrasts between America’s rural past and technological modernity in Key-stone’s 1915 Mabel and Fatty series; Rob King, by exploring the nativist meanings of the comic tramp as an iconographic element of 1910s comedy. Iconography also frames Matthew Solomon’s compelling account of Ching Ling Foo imitators in turn-of-the- century stage magic and trick films, where Orientalist impersonations allowed Euro-American magicians and audiences to inhabit a “shared whiteness imagined behind the mask” of Asian stereotypes. Two other essays locate the national in the semantic distinctions that film texts construct between representations and what they consider knowledge or ultimate realities. For Oliver Gaycken, popular science films are inflected by national/nationalistic discourses in their reliance upon nationally specific knowledge (e.g. French science films about the snail industry) as well as nationalizing tropes through which scientific knowledge is represented (“The ants are the Japanese of the insect world”, as one such film declares). Dominique Nasta and Muriel Andrin, meanwhile, draw upon Paul Ricoeur’s distinction between “narrated” and “historical” time to explore how several European fiction films encode real historical events (specifically, World War I) within the affective mode of film melodrama. Finally, a pair of essays shifts the locus of genre consciousness to national institutions and industries. Charting productive homologies between the dime novel and transition-era fiction cinema, Wyatt Phillips traces the origins of American film genres to the standardization and rationalization of American mass culture industries. Wolfgang Fuhrmann sustains the materialist caste of Phillips’s argument by delving into the contrasting institutional climate of ethnographic museums in early-20th-century Germany and then arguing that ethnographic filmmaking’s early development should be explained less as a national phenomenon than as a specific result of local competition between museums.
Concluding this collection are two clusters of paired essays. The first pair takes up issues of gender, already broached in the Balan, Keeler, and King essays. Theda Bara’s star image as an “independent, non-procreative ‘modern’ woman and ... beguiling but racially inferior female exotic” (the predatory vamp), Mark Hain argues, could be read by American audiences as either a “cautionary device” allaying nativist anxiety, according to “the logic of Social Darwinsim and eugenics”, or else a potential means of feinting or counterfeint, “refiguring anxiety into a field of play”. Andrea Haller, by contrast, uses a German fan magazine’s debate over women’s unusual attraction to Gunnar Tolnaes, a Norwegian actor who “played characters as ‘foreign’ as an Indian maharaja” (rather than to General Paul von Hindenburg), in order to explore “the tensions that marked not only the longings and desires of female moviegoers but also the national identity of German society as a whole during World War I”. The last pair of essays offers different takes on our “historical imagination” of early cinema, the one through the “national character of [archive] collections”, the other through that of the idealized discursive world of “movie land”. Skillfully teasing out “the interweavings of the national and the transnational contexts that the [Joseph] Joye and [Davide] Turconi Collections moved through” (from Switzerland to Italy, England, and the USA), Joshua Yumibe reflects on what the migration of “different local collections ... mean for the project of cinema historiography”. Focusing on the immateriality of “movie land” as a magical utopic space, Jennifer Bean argues that “the American film industry’s privileged position in the dream world of modernity” derived from its transformation of “the rationalizing imperatives of capitalism ... and the numbing effects of assembly line labor” into a “phenomenological realm of endlessly variegated metamorphosis and play”.
Just as the Ninth International Domitor Conference represented an invaluable venue for initiating a discussion of these issues, the editors hope that the essays collected here will provoke further efforts in research, writing, and dialogue to rethink the nation and national as productive concepts for writing the history of early cinema. Such rethinking is also profoundly relevant in our current era of newly globalized capitalism, mass migrations of peoples across borders, and deceptive imperialist adventures.
The editors would like to thank the Office for the Vice-President of Research and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan for granting a crucial subvention for the publication of this volume. Thanks also to John Libbey for so quickly agreeing to support this volume, to Don Crafton for helping to organize the essays, and to Ilka Rasch for doing some initial copyediting.
Notes
1. “Earmarks of the Makers”, New York Dramatic Mirror (14 November 1908): 10.
2. Léon Moussinac, Naissance du cinéma (Paris: Povolovsky, 1925).
3. See, for instance, Heidi Wasson, Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 152–157, 196–198.
4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism , rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991 [1983]). See also Eric Hobsbawn’s trenchant discussion of the late 19th-century nation-state in The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987), 34–83.
5. Homi Bhabha, “Introduction: Narrating the Nation”, Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), 1–7.
6. The organizing committee for the Ninth International Domitor Conference included Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini, Rob King, Don Crafton (Notre Dame), Mary Lou Chlipala, and three Screen Arts & Cultures Graduate Certificate students (Ken Garner, Amy Rodgers, Susanne Unger). Contributing outstanding facilities, technical, and translation support were Mary Jo Grand, Bill Aydelotte, Jim Pyke, and Mireille Belloni, respectively. Generous funding for the conference came from the Avern Cohn Endowment of the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures, Office of the Vice-President for Research, Office of the Provost, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Rackham School of Graduate Studies, Institute for the Humanities, International Institute, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Department of German Studies, and Program in American Culture.
7. In conjunction with the conference, the Michigan Theater (a restored 1928 palace cinema) screened four evenings of rare films, with generous assistance from Russ Collins (director), Tara McComb (program coordinator), J. Scott Clarke and Walt Bishop (projectionists) and with marvelous organ and piano accompaniment by Stephen Warner. The first evening featured a rare multi-media event, “Our Empire”, based in part on the popular “Our Navy” show that toured Great Britain from 1900 to 1914. “Our Empire” included glass slides projected on a three-turret magic lantern (operated by David Francis, former head of the Motion Picture Division, US Library of Congress), early British patriotic films, popular tunes sung by Celia L. (Rose) Randall-Bengry, and a lecture performed with gusto by Frank Gray. The second evening screening was equally special: a dozen French nonfiction films from the British Film Institute’s Joseph Joye collection (all shown in restored color prints), introduced by Bryony Dixon, and a half dozen nonfiction Colonial Institute films from the Nederlands Filmmuseum, introduced by Nico de Klerk. The third evening saw a change of pace: a selection of French, Italian, and American comic films from the early 1910s, with stars like Max Linder, Rigadin, John Bunny, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand. The last evening was devoted to national “epics” and sensational melodramas, including Itala’s spectacular Fall of Troy (also shown in a restored color print), Bison-101’s stunning The Indian Massacre , and Gaumont’s action-packed Their Lives for Gold .
8. On cosmopolitanism in relation to contemporary global society, see Ulrich Beck, Cosmopolitan Vision (Cambridge: Polity, 2006). Beck glosses the concept in an earlier essay: “We all are living by birth in two worlds, two communities – in the cosmos (that is nature ) and in the polis (that is, the city/state). To be more precise: individuals are rooted in one cosmos but in different cities, territories, ethnicities, hierarchies, nations, religions – all at the same time.” Beck, “Cosmopolitan Europe: A Confederation of States, a Federal State or Something Altogether New?” in S. Stern and E. Seligmann, eds., Desperately Seeking Europe (London: Archetype Publications, 2003), 6. The term, we suggest, may be applicable to an earlier moment in global capitalism’s development.
9. Noel Burch’s 1980 lectures on early French, American, British filmmaking were collected and translated in Life to those Shadows (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 43–142.
10. For another example of appropriation, see the promotion of Quo Vadis? in the USA, where newspaper ads uniformly attributed the film to George Kleine, its US distributor, and erased nearly all references to its Italian production
11. See Rick Altman’s oft-reprinted essay, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre”, Cinema Journal 23.3 (Spring 1984): 6–18.
PART I
Interrogating the “National”
1

Early cinema as global cinema: the encyclopedic ambition
Tom Gunning

“E arly cinema is a global cinema.” “National cinema only appears later in film history.” I would endorse both these statements as important historical principles, and might restate them, borrowing a phrase from my colleague Michael Raine, one of the finest historians of Japanese cinema, as “cinema was international before it was national”. However, immediately a flurry of problems intervene, mainly dealing with terminology. What do we mean by: “global”, “international” or even “national”? I am reminded of a story I heard from my former colleague Homi Bahbha (my apologies to him if my memory is not exact). Interviewing an executive of Coca-Cola, Bahbha referred to Coca-Cola as an “international corporation”. The executive corrected him, saying that Coca-Cola considered themselves a “global corporation” Bhabha asked him to explain the difference. The executive paused, rang for his secretary, who eventually entered with an official statement about the global identity of Coca-Cola. I confess I have forgotten what this definition was (and perhaps Bhabha did not recall when he told the story). But my point lies less in promoting any single definition, than in the relation among these terms, what they articulate and conceal, their power as markers of the power to define and articulate meanings.
Thus, I am not claiming that early cinema represents an era beyond and above nationalist squabbles or power plays, a utopian period that ignored borders from idealistic motives. If cinema crossed borders easily in its first decades, it followed global pathways opened up by worldwide capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. In its first decade cinema production remained concentrated in the industrial and technologically developed countries of the northern and western hemispheres. Although film exhibition moved quickly across the globe (and indeed filmmaking as well, although primarily controlled by production companies located in the USA or Europe, in the form of filmmakers sent out on global voyages as “hunters of images”), it initially appears almost exclusively in the metropolitan centers of imperialistic commerce. Certainly the national economies and politics of these dominant nations determine many aspects of early cinema. If Auguste Lumière in 1896 announced to an inquirer from Grenoble that the Lumière firm intended to exhibit the Cinématographe in the “capitals of Europe” before touring the cities of France, the motivation certainly lay in potential financial return and publicity, not an internationalist sentiment. 1 Rather than proclaiming a prelapsarian status for early cinema, I would claim that in its first decades (prior, say, to World War I) a primary way that film understood itself was as a medium that could express a new sense of a global identity. The frequently stated ability of cinema to place the “world within your reach”, while neither its only impulse, nor restricted to this period, provides one of the most powerful images of what cinema was called to do when it first appeared.
One must place cinema’s global and international impulse at the turn of the century within a broader cultural context. While the expansion of exploration and trade through the eighteenth century certainly influenced the Enlightenment’s concepts of universal human rights, the enormous industrial and technological expansion that took place during the nineteenth century converted this ideal into capitalist systems of co-operation and exploitation across the globe. The exploitation of colonial spheres of influence as sources of raw material and then as markets for manufactured goods received tangible, as well as ideological, form in the World Expositions, which demonstrated and celebrated, as Prince Albert proclaimed of the Crystal Place Exhibition, the pathway from material to commodity as the power that made the new world turn round. At a previous Domitor conference I examined the way early cinema dovetailed into the ideology and patterns of display of the Universal Expositions at the turn of the century. 2 An experience of this newly accessible globe could become a commodity in numerous and novel forms, such as worldwide tourism, packaged by the Cooks Travel Agency, or the widely popular travel writings and lectures, revolutionized by photography, and the possibility of magic lantern projections, and eventually motion pictures. A variety of new media supplied a global consciousness for capitalist consumers. The rise of mass circulation newspapers and journals promoted the systematization of foreign correspondents and the gathering of news from all areas. Entertainment, especially the vaudeville and music hall stage, crossed borders and oceans, with international tours undertaken by singers, magicians, acrobats, clowns and dancers (this often exotic potpourri of performers was promoted by early cinema as well, as Charles Musser’s analysis of Edison’s first kinetoscope films shows 3 ). Even overtly nationalistic forms of entertainment took on international aspects. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the quintessential entertainment form of the myth of American expansionism, not only found the spectacle of the “winning of the West” a profitable commodity for export through its highly successful international tours, but began to incorporate a global perspective in its presentation of aggressive Americanism, including restaging of recent imperialist adventures into the Philippines, Cuba and Peking, as well as offering an “international congress of rough riders of the world”. 4
The global as a form of entertainment and commodity at the turn of the century shadowed more official institutional markers of the single world that imperialism and capitalism had fashioned. The establishment of Standard Time and the Prime Meridian in 1885, regulating clocks across the hemispheres, was paralleled by the formation of scientific and scholarly organizations with international scope, often inaugurated or given impetus through congresses held in conjunction with the World Fairs. 5 The Olympics held the first international games in Athens in 1896 (with the second games occurring in Paris in 1900, somewhat overshadowed by the Universal Exposition). The Second Socialist Internationale met in 1886, and established May Day as the official Worker’s Holiday across the globe. The disciplines of cultural geography and anthropology, which took the full scope of global human culture as their topic, became academically recognized in this period, as programs of exploration and survey brought the whole world into a systematic process of measurement and mapping. The “global” as I am using the concept represents a system of knowledge, not simply an infinite expanse of space: a broad and varied accumulation of data certainly, but one subject to inventory, hierarchy, and use. Achieving such global knowledge dominated the scientific and scholarly agendas of the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.
Cinema played an essential role in conveying this new consciousness of the global, not only in popular entertainment, but also in scholarly endeavors. Defenses of cinema (and this continues into the 1930s, at least) against the onslaught of critics of the new sensational mass entertainments frequently quoted scholars who claimed that films of travel offered the best means of bringing an awareness of the global dimension home to average citizens. Film shows constituted the poor man’s or average citizen’s geography lessons, performing a basic pedagogical function. Certain reformers attempted to create an alternative to the commercial film program by presenting model film programs that conveyed a systematic view of the world to gawking slum dwellers, restless children, or complacent bourgeois. 6 Beyond the pedagogic mission of reformed film exhibition, Alison Griffith’s masterful Wondrous Difference reveals that the new sciences of global observation, such as anthropology, outfitted themselves with a variety of recording technologies, including, as a rule, still photography, sound recordings and motion picture cameras. 7
In the discourse of film reformers, this global cinema, primarily made up of non-fiction, stood as cinema’s one excuse, a possible exhibition strategy that could contrast with and ultimately combat the apparent addiction to sensational story films of violent crimes and sexual titillation that, it was claimed, would rot the minds of the proletariats that flocked to them. Thus an interlocking logic of both production and exhibition arose whose purpose was either pedagogical or scientific (either gathering and recording data or disseminating it) or both, and for whom the concept of the global becomes the ultimate frame of reference. Global cinema, therefore, represents more than a worldwide pattern of distribution and exhibition; it reveals an essential gestalt of cinema’s ambition during its era of novelty and innovation. Early films may appear brief and limited in scope compared to later feature films. But while short films constitute the basic component parts of early cinema, rather than the individual film canonized by later film history, the unit of cinema for this early period may more properly be understood as the program, the exhibitor’s assembly of a number of films in a single presentation. Although the modes and purposes for assembling a film program were varied, early cinema, like the newspaper or the vaudeville bill, could, and frequently did, draw on the global as a readily understood means of uniting a variety of interrelated attractions.
The film program provides an example of the way early cinema built complex and extensive structures out of fairly self-sufficient films (recalling Brooks McNamara’s definition of the variety format as one in which there is no transfer of information between elements), 8 forming a whole whose sum is greater than its parts without creating a coherent narrative. Likewise, the film catalogue issued by production companies functions as more, I would claim, than simply an inventory of available merchandise. The commercial catalogue of the turn of the century (and this would be true of the great merchandizing publications of Sears and Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward, as well as film catalogues) performed the function of a systematic gathering and presentation of information that could best be compared to the first great global projects of the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert. In commodity form, the mail catalogue placed the world within the reach of its customers, much as the Internet does today. The film catalogues of the early film companies, but most obviously those of Pathé-Frères and Lumière, offered the world in the form of consumable images. 9 Although such catalogues offered varieties of films in many genres (a range of fictional and non-fictional forms: travel images, news events, gag and trick films, comedies and eventually melodramas, piquant erotic scenes and re-enactments of historical events), the global sensibility provided the all-encompassing metaphor. 10
I propose the encyclopedia as an organizing concept for early cinema, the textual form of the global consciousness I have been describing. This term establishes a mode of filmic practice that avoids simply contrasting its forms with the standards of later cinema (as “short films” is opposed, anachronistically and rather denigratingly, to the later longer feature films). From a formal perspective, the concept of the encyclopedia, like the variety format, stresses that the individual film in this era was primarily conceived as part of a larger whole, not only of the exhibitor’s program, but also of the production logic of early production companies. Conceptually, an encyclopedia aspires to an all-encompassing delivery of knowledge, but in the modern era the form also acknowledges knowledge itself as ever-expanding, never final. Therefore, unlike most forms of documentary or fiction, the encyclopedia does not claim a final completeness of form. Made up of component parts or fragments (in the case of cinema, individual films) the encyclopedia can be constantly expanded and added to, the very self-contained nature of its individual components allowing this process of addition. I would claim that, as early film companies and at least certain viewers, thought of cinema as a global form, they also conceived of cinema as encyclopedic, an ever renewable catalogue made up of new editions through the addition of new films.
Film programs and catalogues represent two basic aspects of the industry, exhibition and distribution, both of which saw their roles as the bringing together of various attractions into a loosely structured but potentially global context. Film production, the third leg of the film industry’s tripod, perhaps most directly presented itself in global terms, especially in cinema’s earliest era. Thus the Lumière’s decision not simply to market domestic films of children, streets of Lyon and Paris, or local sights, but to equip companies of operators who would give exhibitions and gather new films globally indicates how quickly the inventors recognized a global potential for their new product. The Lumière catalogue of films demonstrates the global role that cinema took on, and the film views gathered by the cameramen Promio, Veyne, Mesquich and Doublier, as well as their globetrotting pattern of exhibitions, often given by the same cameramen as they toured the metropolitan centers of the world, delivered to the first film audiences a vivid visual demonstration of a new global consciousness. As the Lumière company moved out of the production of films, this global legacy was taken up by Pathé-Frères, whose non-fiction film views shot around the world presented even more systematically a living catalogue of the world and its people, and eventually by the Gaumont company (who even offered a Gaumont “Encyclopedia” as one of their film catalogues), as well as other companies who in a somewhat less systematic and extensive way offered views of travel. 11
But perhaps the most ambitious and consistently worked-out global concept of cinema came with its least commercial project, the Archive of the Planet of French financier and philanthropist Albert Kahn. I draw here on the superb dissertation and research of my student Paula Amad on this archive. 12 Kahn’s project, emerging between 1909 and 1912, comes towards the end of the period we define as early cinema and marks the survival and systematization of its encyclopedic ambition. As I intend to be a bit provocative by referring to the early film program as encyclopedic, merging entertainment with models of knowledge, to class Kahn’s project as encyclopedic, while hardly counter-intuitive, should not blind us to the difference between an archive and an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are designed for the dissemination of knowledge, archives for its storage and retrieval. The encyclopedia recalls the archive in its range of topics and the modular nature of its entries, but it offers an actualized assembly, while the archive works in potentia , the source of many possible encyclopedias. The archive, therefore, remains the domain of the scholars who consult it, while the encyclopedia aims at a wider public.
Kahn’s Archive of the Planet remained very much an archive, although scholars may yet fashion an encyclopedia from it. Rarely, if ever, viewed by the broad public, it aspired to be a source for contemporary and future scholars to understand the global nature of twentieth-century human culture and everyday life. Emerging from Kahn’s own global travel and his belief that scholars must travel to understand the world, the Archive consisted of photographic records (principally motion pictures and autochromes, still photographs using the Lumière company’s color photography process) that Kahn commissioned from professional cameramen who traveled around the world and filmed aspects of everyday life. These were carefully catalogued in a system of fiches and were shown to visiting scholars – these included, Amad informs us, writers such as Rabinath Tagore, Bernard Shaw and Colette as well as Kahn’s mentor, philosopher Henri Bergson. Indeed Bergson’s interest in everyday life, and the cultural geography of his disciple Bruhnes shaped the project which was unfortunately curtailed by the loss of Kahn’s fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.
Amad does a masterful job of relating this project to the modern idea of an archive (or indeed, given its emphasis on the everyday, what she calls a “counter-archive”) and the pre-war French culture that fostered it. These films, whether of men passing into a sidewalk urinal in Paris, an Algerian prostitute interacting with her costumers, or an Indo-Chinese woman disrobing for the camera, ostensibly to show the layers of her native costume (with the cameraman “discreetly” throwing the lens out of focus as she appears nude) fascinate for their blend of the everyday and the exotic. The lack of a single specific interpretive context, rather than rendering them simply opaque, actually makes them rich in implications. Not that these films are free of ideology: the observing camera, its voyeuristic appetite for recording the details of behavior, express precisely the modern Western demand for a world consumed as pictures and information that marks what I am calling global consciousness. And yet in their contingency, their immediacy of gesture and movement, we sense a fascination in the fragments of reality that these cameras tore away. It would be the ambition of later filmmakers to either place such fragments into a whole (e.g. the montage theorists and practioners of the 1920s, such Vertov or Shub) or, even later, to let the fragment stand as a part of an implied whole (as in Bazin’s promotion of the realism of ellipsis in the work of Rossellini and the Italian neo-realists). But here in these brief films found within the Kahn archives not only does ambiguity but ambivalence reigns, a wondering sense that these images both add up to something we could never grasp and constitute in themselves a world we could never plumb. To paraphrase Amad, they are parts of both an encyclopedia and an “anti-encyclopedia”.
Two temptations surround the investigation of early cinema, and while neither of them can be easily dismissed, the limitations of each should be kept in mind. The first is to view this era (as Noel Burch once put it) as a “lost paradise”, a period of purity before commercialization and institutionalization. Although the commerce was different from that of later cinema and the institutions were primarily pre-existent ones, they certainly determined the nature of early cinema. But the other temptation is to see the early period simply as the origin of later practices, the fount of all later conceptions even if embryonic in form. The differences of early cinema, while they should not be romanticized, should not be eclipsed either in a search for paternity. The global nature of early cinema relates to global practices that persist to this day. But just as importantly, early cinema provided an image of the global as a new gestalt. As a highly technological form, able to circulate from place to place and thereby to annihilate the separation inherent in space and time, films collapsed these distances into the new proximity of an image culture. The exchange of images derived partly from their fragmentary and modular nature, their relative independence allowing modes of assembly that recalled the universality envisioned by the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. The rise of nationalist discourse through and around cinema, while not absolutely absent from early cinema, seems rather to depend on narrative forms and the use of documentary to create ideological arguments that appear in the 1910s using complex editing based structures of contrast and suspense. Cinema’s relation to both global and national discourses arose in the first decades of the twentieth century. It is our job as film historians to investigate the forms and practices that enabled their emergence rather than assume that either discourse is somehow inherent in cinema or simple readymade material that cinema can adopt naturally.
Notes
1. See the letter to Paul de Montal of 27 January 1896 in Auguste and Louis Lumière, Correspondances 1890–1953 , ed. Jacques Rittaud-Hutinet (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1994), 126.
2. Tom Gunning, “The World as Object Lesson: Cinema Audiences, Visual Culture and the St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904”, Film History 6.4 (Winter 1995): 422–444.
3. Charles Musser, “Before the Rapid Firing Kinetograph: Edison Film Production, Representation and Exploitation in the 1890’s”, Edison Motion Pictures 1890–1900, An Annotated Filmography (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 43–45.
4. See the particularly fine discussion of Buffalo Bill in Kristin Whissel, “Placing the Spectator on the Scene of History: the battle re-enactment at the turn of the century, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to the Early Cinema”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 22/23 (2002): 225–243.
5. See among other treatments, Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 11–16; and Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 99–143.
6. See, for instance, Scott Curtis’ discussion of reformist film programs in Germany in the early 1910s in “The taste of a nation: Training the senses and sensibility of cinema audiences in imperial Germany”, Film History 6.4 (1994): 445–469.
7. Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema Anthropology and turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
8. Brooks McNamara, “Popular Scenography” The Drama Review 61 (March 1974): 119.
9. Many film catalogues from this era, including those of Lumière and Gaumont are available in film archives. A readily accessible source of American catalogues is Charles Musser, A Guide to motion picture catalogs by American producers and distributors, 1894–1908: a microfilm edition (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1985). The French catalogues of Pathé-Frères have been republished in Henri Bousquet, ed., Catalogue Pathé [1896–1914], 4 vols. (Bassac: Editions Henri Bousquet, 1993–1996).
10. I discus the categories of early film genres found in these catalogues in “‘Those that are Drawn with a Fine Camel Haired Brush’: The Origins of Film Genres”, iris 20 (Autumn 1995).
11. Beginning in 1904, Pathé extended its global reach by spawning distribution systems across the world and, beginning in 1908, spinning off regional production companies throughout Europe and the USA.
12. Paula Tatla Amad, “Archiving the everyday: a topos in French film history, 1895–1931” (PhD Thesis, University of Chicago, 2002).
2

Nationalizing attractions
Jonathan Auerbach

L ike most of us, I manage to wear more than one academic hat, having been trained in literary analysis, which I continue to pursue, along with my research in early cinema for the past decade or so, with American studies serving as something like a bridge between these two very different modes of representation, the verbal and the visual. Given the pressure to be “interdisciplinary” (whatever that means, exactly), I tried at first to combine these two interests, but have since learned the hard way that it is sometimes best to keep your hats separate. Attempting to import key operational concepts from one field into another without sufficient pause or historical reflection threatens to produce more confusion than fusion. In other words, however permeable or changing, disciplines have borders and boundaries, just as countries do.
I have self-consciously introduced this metaphor of borders in relation to disciplinary difference because it seems to me “nation” and “the national” as crucial concepts for both literary and cinema scholarship in fact function in markedly dissimilar ways. In the first half of this essay I propose to discuss some of these differences, focusing on how concepts of nation and nationalism have recently fared in American literary history and American studies. In the second half, I will then quickly shift gears, jumping across the Atlantic to discuss a group of turn-of-the-century British filmmakers, using their work as a kind of test case to probe certain very suggestive but somewhat loose claims first made by Noël Burch over twenty years ago, propositions that bear directly on this question of the nationalizing of early cinema attractions.
When I mentioned the theme of this Domitor conference to colleagues in my English department, I was greeted with surprise. To put it baldly: nationalism is currently something of a dirty word these days in literature departments, at least here in the United States. How it got that way is worth briefly tracing. As has been amply documented, the academic study of languages and literature in the late nineteenth-century emerged from a century-old tradition of European romanticism that regarded texts as a kind of secular scripture, defining the particular “geist” or spirit of individual nations. In this model of reading, Shakespeare, for instance, becomes a touchstone to understand English culture and character. 1 Partly because Great Britain and the United States shared a common language, American authors from the early nineteenth-century often felt burdened by a massive inferiority complex, the apprehension that their writing was mere imitation.
As a result, during this period we find all kinds of rhetorical gestures seemingly intended to liberate American authors from this yoke of cultural servitude, gestures that twentieth-century critics tended to accept and amplify in their analysis of these writers. So in 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous Phi Betta Kappa address at Harvard, “The American Scholar”, which later in the century became known as our “intellectual declaration of independence”, a characterization that continued to be reiterated in virtually every textbook until very recently. 2 In terms of form, theme, and/or language, this search to locate the special otherness of American literature became the central concern of a generation of scholars during the 1950s and 60s. To cite just two examples, Richard Chase, drawing on Hawthorne’s prefaces, proposed “romance” as a characteristically American symbolic genre in opposition to the “novel”, which in its realistic rendering of social life was a European mode, while R.W.B. Lewis around the same time coined the phrase “American Adam” to designate a set of preoccupations with innocence at the heart of the American experience. 3 With the growth of the academic field of American studies during the cold war, scholars tended to offer an even sharper evaluation or celebration of US culture not simply as different from the rest of the world (especially the Soviet Union), but exceptional, outside of history as it were, at once unique but also paradoxically a model of democracy for other countries to follow.
Well, those days of American exceptionalism are pretty much over, at least in the academy. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism, and the social agitation of blacks and other minorities, the very idea of the nation as a unified totality, historically forged by consensus and compromise, began to crumble. Responding to the collapse of this master narrative, Americanists began to write a more inclusive literary history that would pay attention to contributions of formerly marginalized authors (mostly women and African-Americans). While the first impulse of such revision was primarily to open up the canon, around 1990 scholars more fundamentally began to challenge the underlying assumption that the nation itself should be “the basic unit of, and frame for, analysis”. To think outside such narrow confines, Carolyn Porter continued, the United States must be understood hemispherically, a perspective that would attend to “cultural, political, and economic relations between and within the Americas”. 4 This wasn’t simply a comparative model, but a more radical reconstitution that imagined the United States as a network of overlapping regional and global forces, a “web of contact zones”. 5 Paul Gilroy similarly described “the Black Atlantic” as a mixed space – neither African, American, British or Caribbean. 6 This was one of the first of many studies to replace the geopolitics of the nation-state and its imperial ambitions with an emphasis on diaspora, hybridity, and borderlands. By the late 1990s this skepticism about US exceptionalism had so accelerated that the head of the American Studies Association would deliver a presidential address seriously questioning not only the name of the organization, but its very mission and subject matter. 7 And as we might have expected, founding literary father Emerson has lately undergone some revision, from being regarded as the parochial voice of an idealized nationalism to a more cosmopolitan champion of world literature, including Asian religion and culture. 8
Just as this transnational turn was gaining ascendancy in American studies (to attain a certain sort of orthodoxy today), I became interested in early cinema. As I look back, what first attracted and excited me about the field was the ease with which it took for granted its transnational status. Apart from a few patriotically-inclined historians who once worried about which inventors and filmmakers deserved which “firsts”, scholars by and large understood that early cinema from the start was a market-driven phenomenon of global modernity, with films being distributed and mimicked across the world map without any clear unilateral direction of influence. Even though our own discourse might be nationally and linguistically bound, the images we studied largely were not. I do think it is indisputable that images can cross borders more easily than words, to evoke the theme of a previous Domitor conference held in 1992. 9 And so this shifting attention in early cinema studies from the transnational to the national some fourteen years later would seem to move in exactly the opposite direction from the shift in American studies, which has turned away from the national to embrace the transnational. Clearly the two concepts are mutually constituting – you can’t have one without the other – but I do think it is instructive to consider this dramatic difference in emphasis between the two disciplines, with current American studies concerns seeming a bit belated to us, while this year’s Domitor theme sounding a little to me like a 1950’s American studies conference dedicated to uncovering the distinct national properties of US literature as it developed shortly after the American Revolution.
Given this disciplinary difference, how have scholars recently construed nationalism in early cinema? In terms of theme, Charles Musser has shown how from the start Edison introduced patriotic films like Monroe Doctrine (1896) to appeal to the jingoism of American audiences, while Richard Abel has provided an extremely rich historical analysis of the emergence of the Western as the key genre intended to combat the threatened supremacy of Pathé in the US. 10 When we turn from content to form, however, the case is less clear, primarily because the prevailing paradigm for explaining early filmmaking’s mode of representation, the “cinema of attractions”, has tended for twenty years to collapse or ignore national differences under the broader rubric of modernity. While Tom Gunning has offered a very interesting set of contrasts between Lumière and Edison actualities, emphasizing the Lyon company’s firm grounding in amateur photography, this is less an argument rooted in national traditions than a more local distinction between two kinds of visual practice. 11 And so I think we need to return to a trio of essays by Noël Burch delivered as talks in 1980, and then published in Life to those Shadows a decade later that ambitiously seek to discriminate between French, American, and British early cinema, at the level of aesthetics as well as exhibition and audience. 12 Although Burch makes some intriguing generalizations about early French and American cinema, I will focus on his examination of British filmmaking, which seems to me the strongest and most compelling of his cases.
Now clearly Burch is sometimes not a very accurate historian, and his work in this regard has been dramatically superseded by the research of Abel, Musser, and Gunning, among many others. But despite the shakiness of his scholarship, it is a bit surprising that so few people have engaged his suggestive insights in these three chapters, especially his fundamental premise that early films by both form and content can be distinguished along national lines. And here I would ask you to consider, hypothetically, if an unknown early film suddenly surfaced without any indication of origin, would we be able to identity the nationality of the filmmaker based solely on looking at its formal features? Burch’s analysis of British filmmaking around the turn of the century is based on three overlapping claims, which I will discuss one by one: first, that these films display a visual flair and precocity unseen in French or American movies from the same period; second, that this formal innovation stems from a tradition of magic lantern practice, which was in turn part of a larger culture of “rational recreation”, enabling the middle class to socially control the working class; 13 and third, that these mass pastimes such as filmmaking were national in scope.
First: the modes of representation of early British films made by Hepworth, Smith, Paul, Williamson, and others. Here Burch seems to me to be on very solid ground, offering plenty of examples indicating how these movies exemplify a “certain ubiquity of the camera” including mixed shot-scales, varying angles, and a staged in depth hyper-kineticism that taken as a whole suggest a kind of sophisticated aspiration to render the visual world in as many different ways and perspectives as possible. 14 The direct assault on the viewer of Hepworth’s How it Feels To be Run Over (1900), the furious action taking place below the frame in Paul’s A Chess Dispute (1903), the foregrounding of the act of vision itself by way of inserts in Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) and As Seen Through a Telescope (1900), the sudden ostensible shift to the backside of an object in Bamforth’s Ladies’ Skirts Nailed to a Fence (1900), and perhaps most extravagantly the attempt to consume the movie apparatus itself in Williamson’s The Big Swallow (1901), a complex one-minute allegorical contest between vocalization and visualization, as I argue at length elsewhere: 15 all these films testify en masse to a culture of new media experimentation that on the one hand, transcends any single filmmaker or film technique, and, on the other, seems typical if not unique to this English group as opposed to Méliès or Edison. When I see a film like Hagger’s frenetic Desperate Poaching Affray (1903), or Alf Collins’s The Runaway Match (1903), with its stunning point of view tracking shots of one car pursuing another, as well as its extreme zoom in on a wedding ring until it surreally fills the entire screen, I know that I am watching an English movie.
Discussing these “experimental gag films” as Burch calls them, Barry Salt invokes “the extra-filmic tradition of British nonsense”, which doesn’t seem to be a very useful explanation, since presumably the French and Americans have their own brands of nonsense as well. 16 I think Burch’s explanation of the magic lantern is far more helpful, since it specifically pinpoints a precursor screen medium to account for this optical exuberance. Noting that many of these early British filmmakers began their careers as magic lanternists, and often mixed slide shows with animated pictures in their entertainments, Burch pursues this line of reasoning along two related fronts – first, a social class analysis of magic lantern exhibition, both the showmen and their audiences, whom he presumes is mainly working-class, and second, a discussion of the formal relation between magic lantern effects and early films. Burch’s historical treatment is rather flimsy, I must confess, primarily based on a series of Marxist-inflected conjectures largely unsupported by empirical evidence of reception. More detailed work clearly needs to be done to verify Burch’s problematic claims. His formal argument is stronger, but also a bit suspect, relying at times on loose metaphors, such as “extrapolation” to tie lantern-slide practice to the insert close-ups in Smith’s films, for example. 17 But this formal linkage between the two media strikes me as very promising, and can be substantiated by looking more closely at discussions of aesthetic matters in magic lantern trade journals and manuals, such as an 1894 article in The Optical Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger analysing “scales of representation”, or the advice about how to make common objects look strange given by T.C. Hepworth (Cecil’s father) in his well-known 1888 lantern guidebook. 18 While 90 per cent of this material focuses on the hardware of the apparatus, which lenses to use, various types of illumination, and so on, there’s enough in that remaining 10 per cent to help us appreciate the intimate connection between slide projection and moving pictures.
These references to magic lantern print culture bring me to the third and for our purposes the most important aspect of Burch’s argument, which he mainly leaves implicit: namely, that this amusement practice spans the British nation. Magic lanterns were very popular throughout Europe and America, after all, so why did this medium have such an impact on this particular group of English practitioners, and not film-makers in other countries? Or we can pose this question another way, shifting from the supra-national to the sub-national, to ask if these affiliated lanternist-filmmakers chiefly represented a region, Brighton (for Williamson and Smith most clearly), rather than a country. In both cases, I think it is the nation as a unit of analysis which makes more sense, given the circulation of magic lantern print culture and “the imagined community” of readers it created, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s influential theory of nationalism. 19 Beyond their current documentary value, in other words, these print publications actually helped forge a nation of showmen and audiences. Now there were certainly trade journals in other countries devoted to the magic lantern. But the sheer size and frequency of journals such as The Optical Lantern Journal and The British Journal of Photography (which published a monthly supplement The Lantern Record between 1892 and 1901), the wealth of detail these publications supplied, along with institutions such as the Royal Polytechnic, which was famous for its frequent lantern demonstrations, point to a far deeper and richer culture of magic lantern practice than in France or the United States. 20 To nationalize attractions we therefore need to institutionalize and particularize early cinema beyond sweeping claims about modernity, as Cecil Hepworth suggested when he was asked late in his life about the origins of the movies: “in stable parlance the cinematograph might be described as ‘by Magic Lantern out of Camera’ and the old Poly would certainly have been its birthplace”. 21 Not a bad genesis account, if not for the world over, then for Great Britain at least.
Notes
1. See, for instance, Raymond Williams, “Literature”, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976)
2. See Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 263.
3. Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), and R.W.B. Lewis, American Adam: innocence, tragedy and tradition in the nineteenth century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).
4. Carolyn Porter, “What We Know That We Don’t Know: Remapping American Literary Studies”, American Literary History 6.3 (1994): 470, 510.
5. See Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies”, American Quarterly 57. 1 (2005): 21.
6. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993).
7. Janice Radway, “What’s in a Name?” American Quarterly 51. 1 (1999): 1–32.
8. See Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
9. See Roland Cosandey and Francois Albera, eds. Cinéma sans frontiers 1896–1918/Images Across Borders (Payot/Lausanne: Lausanne, 1995).
10. Charles Musser, “Nationalism and the Beginnings of Cinema: the Lumière cinematographe in the US, 1896–1897”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19. 2 (1999): 149–176; and Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
11. Tom Gunning, “New thresholds of vision: instantaneous photography and the early cinema of Lumière”, in Terry Smith (ed.) Impossible Presence: surface and screen in the photographic era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 71–100.
12. Noël Burch, Life to those Shadows (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 43–142.
13. Ibid., 83.
14. Ibid., 87.
15. Jonathan Auerbach, Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 78–81.
16. Burch, Life to those Shadows , 95; Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology (2nd edn) (London: Starword, 1993), 47.
17. Burch, Life to those Shadows , 89.
18. Duncan Moore, “Size or Realism”, The Optical Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger 5. 58 (1 March, 1894), 55–57, and T.C. Hepworth, The Book of the Lantern (London: Wyman & Sons, 1889), 245.
19. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
20. For the Royal Polytechnic Institution, see Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow , trans. Richard Crangle (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000), 264–268.
21. Quoted in Joost Hunningher, “Premiere on Regent Street”, in Christopher Williams, ed., Cinema: the Beginnings and the Future (London: University of Westminster Press, 1996), 46.
3

Images of the “National” in early non-fiction films
Frank Kessler

O n 21 September 1896 a young Frenchman, sent abroad by the Lyon-based firm Lumière, records a Tyrolese dance, a Schuhplattler , with a Cinématographe camera. 1 The young man’s name is Constant Girel, 2 twenty-three years old, and the scene he films is set in Cologne, possibly somewhere in a public park, far from the Alps where Tyrolese dancers are part of the local folklore. Obviously, the dancing couple are performers who are part of a Tyrolese show and otherwise present on a stage somewhere in Cologne a spectacle that – apparently – is exotic enough for audiences in the Rhineland (similar shows can be found at that time in many other parts of Germany). In that respect, the Danse Tyrolienne is not any different from the Sioux Ghost Dance or the Buffalo Dance that were “kinetographed” almost exactly two years earlier (on 24 September 1894) in Edison’s Black Maria studio. 3 In both cases, a folkloristic performance is executed in front of a moving picture camera; they are not, however, genuine folklore executed in situ as part of a local tradition, but performances by professionals who are part of a touring show (in Cologne, this is probably the Tiroler-Gesellschaft “Ploner”, 4 and in the case of Edison, of course, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show). 5
With regard to the question of the “national”, such examples provide the historian with rather curious constellations, especially in the case of the Lumière film: a French cameraman, working for a French company, shoots one of the earliest cinematographic views made in Germany in Cologne, a city located in the Western part of the country, filming a traditional dance from the alpine regions of Southern Germany and Austria. The national, in other words, appears here in a complexly layered fashion, each of the different levels referring to another aspect of this category. Encountering similar constellations in the field of early Westerns (American branches of French firms shooting films about the Far West on the East Coast of the United States), Nanna Verhoeff has proposed a distinction between different semantic layers that come together in a category of the “nation” when employed for a cultural product circulating internationally, such as film: The “national” referring to an origin; The “nationalist” referring to a sense of cultural belonging ownership; The “nation-ness” referring to a recognizable, visualized image of “nation”. 6
In the case of the Lumière film, the national-as-origin is French with regard to the cameraman and the firm for which he works; German with regard to the location where it is filmed; and Tyrolese with regard to the object that is filmed. The national-as-be-longing would be again French (in terms of legal ownership), but also German insofar as the film is undoubtedly also part of German film history. But furthermore, such a question of cultural ownership can become a crucial – and sometimes even painful – issue with regard to the history of formerly colonized nations: in how far are images filmed by the colonizers part of the cinematic heritage of the colonized? Who “owns” the images of aboriginals? To which national history do they belong and in what way? Questions that become even more complex, when images were taken in the context of Fairs and on other sites of exhibitions, where the people filmed were “performing” their nationality (the aforementioned Edison films are also a case in point). 7 Finally, the national-as-image in Danse Tyrolienne is Tyrolese, albeit in a rather broad and unspecific way. The “nation-ness” in Verhoeff’s study, translated into Roland Barthes’ terminology, would be a connotation seme ( sème de connotation ), in this case Tyroleseness, produced by a series of recognizable (and often more or less stereotyped) signs at the level of, for instance, clothing and the type of performance. 8 Nation-ness, in this sense, obviously is a common feature whenever nationality has to be signified in fiction films, but such representational strategies are used in non-fiction films, too, whether explicitly turned into a performance, as in Danse Tyrolienne , or more subtly displayed in the disguise of an “authentic recording” of everyday life activities.
Travelogues constitute a genre that, almost by definition, is concerned with the representation of the national as nation-ness (and, often enough, nation-ness as otherness). Landscapes and landmarks, customs and costumes become typical attributes that represent the national, in both senses of this phrase: “being representative of” or “standing for” (by means of a synecdoche), and “producing an image of” the national. The Tyrolese couple dancing a Schuhplattler thus represent pars pro toto the Alpine regions and, by the same token, turn into or reaffirm a cultural cliché, a representation of a region where men wear Lederhosen and women a Dirndlkleid . For a French audience, for instance, these images may furthermore connote German-ness in a more general sense, whereas for German viewers they refer to a relatively specific geographic region. The obvious fact that the Tyrolese dance is a performance which takes place far away from the Alps is hardly of any importance in this context.
Rather unsurprisingly, catalogue descriptions of travelogues and related subjects tend to highlight such instances of nation-ness in terms of the “typical” and “characteristic”, the “native” and the “authentic”, the “quaint” and the “picturesque”. Moving to a later period and choosing as a more or less random example the August 1906 sales list of the Charles Urban Trading Co., one finds numerous instances of this strategy:
Fan Dance by Geishas (cat. no. 1762)
A couple of very dainty Japanese maidens dance a charming fan dance to music provided on quaint native instruments by their two companions who are seated on a mat just behind the dancers in the typical Japanese manner. 9
English Pheasant Shooting (cat. no. 1768)
[...] The truly typical English scenery as the film takes us from place to place with the shooters makes up a fine picture. 10
Scenes in Gwalior, India (cat. no. 1773)
Beginning with a general panoramic view, succeeded by replicas of many famous buildings and temples, and then presenting many aspects of truly Indian life in the streets and squares, with the natives promenading in their leisurely and characteristic Oriental fashion. 11
“Quaint Holland” (cat. no. 1855)
A grand series of views of the most picturesque scenery and quaint people – their dress, customs and vocations. 12
Venice and the Grand Canal (cat. no. 3068)
The beauties of Venice are well depicted on this film, in a fine series of pictures taken from gondolas which traversed the Grand Canal past the imposing and famous buildings, which are shown from the best points of view. 13
Nation-ness, in these and many other films, is thus both constructed and referred to by means of cultural clichés offering a tourist point of view. The relations with forms of modern tourism are indeed quite obvious. The images are presented as both typical and true – typical, because they are true; and true, because they are typical. This is exactly the form of circular reasoning on which the logic of tourism is built. And this also constitutes the paradox of tourism, as the authentic has to correspond to the cliché, and thus the cliché determines what can appear as authentic. In tourism, as in travelogues, the “truly typical” and the “authentic cliché” of nation-ness become a commodity that can be offered as an experience and a visual spectacle. Cameramen are looking for the typical and authentic, but do so building upon mediated cultural knowledge concerning sights, buildings, traditions, costumes, and ways of life.
Hence the possibility to perform nation-ness, as the Tyrolese dancers do in front of Constant Girel’s Cinématographe , or the Japanese fan dancers do for the benefit of Charles Urban’s cameraman. But also in less obviously staged pictures, the national-as-image can be the result of a performance. Pathé-Frères’ Comment se fait le Fromage de Hollande (1909), which belongs to the company’s series, “ scènes arts et industries ”, represents the production process of Dutch cheese, from milking the cows to trading on the Alkmaar cheese market, finishing with a scene where the cheeses are colored in red for exportation. 14 Even though this film appears to be a typical “process film”, rather than a “place film”, 15 it actually is both, presenting a picturesque view of “Dutch-ness” alongside the production process of cheese.
After two introductory titles explaining that one third of the Netherlands consists of pastures and that Dutch cheese has a spherical form, a young girl in a traditional dress appears in a medium close shot, presenting a cheese directly to the camera. In the background there is a “typical” Dutch landscape with a windmill. Then cows are milked by a man and a woman. The milk is transported in a cart pulled by a dog, followed by a little boy. All the people we see wear traditional dresses and wooden shoes – clothes, which do look like they were worn at special occasions rather than for everyday work. Furthermore, the production process, as it is represented here, step by step, appears to be entirely manual, using simple and traditional wooden tools and machines. Comment se fait le Fromage de Hollande , in other words, portrays the Netherlands as a pre-industrial, folkloristic environment with “picturesque scenery and quaint people”, as the Charles Urban Trading Co. writes in its 1906 catalogue about the film “ Quaint Holland ”.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, nation-ness, in terms of the “typical” and the “authentic”, quite often refers to pre-modern ways of life, to manual work and craft rather than industry, to the rural rather than to the urban, to tradition rather than to modernity. Accordingly the individuals featured in the “types-and-physiognomies” section of many travelogues, often represent the “characteristic” or “authentic” by wearing traditional clothes, attires, hairdos etc., or by doing things the “age-old way”.
Nation-ness, that is nation-as-image, thus is a construction, which may or may not be linked to nation-as-belonging and nation-as-origin. Indeed, the way Dutch-ness appears in, for instance, Holland in IJS (Willy Mullens, 1917) is hardly any different from the earlier film made for Pathé Frères. Again, it is a rural, traditional, folkloric Holland and her customs and costumes which dominate the image. A sense of nation-as-origin or nation-as-belonging, then, would have to be produced by means of a paratextual discourse, presenting the film explicitly as a Dutch film on Holland (or, otherwise, through textual markers in intertitles, referring to a collective national “we” and characterizing buildings, landscapes, people, etc. as “our”). Generally, however, nation-as-origin seems to have been not much of an issue with regard to non-fiction film (prior to the First World War, at least), whereas the argument of the national origin of fiction films did play an important role commercially and culturally, as Richard Abel’s study on the “Americanization” of cinema in the USA shows in an exemplary way. 16
There is one aspect, however, where nation-as-belonging (either in combination with nation-as-origin or not) does play an important role: the representation of national symbols such as the flag, the army, or heads of state. In this context, the filming of the German Kaiser by foreign, especially French firms, presents a rather interesting case. Wilhelm II and his family, apostrophized by Martin Loiperdinger as “the first German film stars”, were indeed extensively filmed, not only by German firms such as Oskar Messter’s company or the Deutsche Mutoskop- und Biograph-Gesellschaft (a firm with Anglo-American roots, in fact), 17 but also foreign ones, among them Pathé Frères. The inventory of films offered on the German market between 1895 and 1911, established by Herbert Birett, lists, for example, the following Pathé titles: Eine zu Ehren des deutschen Kaisers in Tanger veranstaltete Feier (1905), Der Kaiser in Österreich (1906) and Die Kaisermanöver in Gross-Mesertisch (1909). 18 A surviving print of S.M. Kaiser Wilhelm II bei der Hirschjagd in Bückeburg (1913) opens with a title carrying the Pathé trademark and acknowledging gratefully the privilege granted by His Majesty, who authorized the company to take these pictures during the hunt. Interestingly, none of these titles appear in Henri Bousquet’s reconstruction of the Pathé catalogues between 1896 and 1914, at least according to the French titles and descriptions. 19 It looks as though the internationally operating French company, in the case of the German market, catered to the sentiment of nationalism – both in the common use of the word and in the sense of Verhoeff’s “nation-as-belonging” – by highlighting the nation-as-origin dimension of the subject filmed, while downplaying this aspect with regard to the producer. For audiences in France, on the contrary, such images quite probably were considered unattractive or even unwanted.
At such a level nationalism, in both of the aforementioned meanings, also manifests itself with regard to early non-fiction cinema. Here the category of the “nation” in cinema can come into play in its most disturbing form, indeed. In his autobiographical Die Welt von gestern. Erinnerungen eines Europäers (1941), the writer Stefan Zweig recalls an evening he spent in a small cinema in the French town of Tours in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. The audience composed of workers, soldiers, shop girls, clerks, and children, was relatively noisy, people were smoking and seemed relatively indifferent to the newsreels that were screened. Then came an item on Kaiser Wilhelm II visiting the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph. When the German Kaiser appeared on the screen:
“[...] a spontaneous wild whistling and stamping of feet began in the dark hall. Everybody yelled and whistled, men, women, and children, as if they had been personally insulted. The good-natured people of Tours, who knew no more about the world and politics than what they had read in their newspapers, had gone mad for an instant. I was frightened. I was frightened to the depths of my heart. For I sensed how deeply the poison of the propaganda of hate must have been advanced through the years, when even here in a small provincial city the simple citizens and soldiers had been so greatly incited against the Kaiser and against Germany that a passing picture on the screen could produce such a commotion”. 20
Thus the pacifist Stefan Zweig was shocked not so much by the effect caused by the image itself, but rather by the reaction such an image could trigger as a consequence of the way people had been influenced to think about other people. A “fleeting image on the screen” could become an image of the national in a brutally simple way.
Notes
1. Danse Tyrolienne , Lumière catalogue #31. For comments on this film, see Martin Loiperdinger, Film & Schokolade. Stollwercks Geschäfte mit lebenden Bildern (Frankfurt am Main/Basel: Stroemfeld Verlag, 1999), 216.
2. On Constant Girel’s filming in Germany see Denise Böhm-Girel, “Constant Girel, Lumière-Operateur in Deutschland”, KINtop 5 (1996): 171–176.
3. See Charles Musser, Edison Motion Pictures, 1890–1900. An Annotated Filmography (Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1997), 125–126.
4. See Loiperdinger, Film & Schokolade , 216.
5. See Musser, Edison Motion Pictures, 1890–1900 , 125–129.
6. Nanna Verhoeff, The West in Early Cinema. After the Beginning (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 160. Verhoeff, in fact, adds a fourth layer referring to the relation between different national identities within the diegesis of Western films, between Native Americans and the European immigrants opposing each other as “Indians” and “cowboys”.
7. Such issues are raised also in the documentary Bontoc Eulogy by Marlon Fuentes (1995), recounting the history of the filmmaker’s grandfather who appeared in an exhibit at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. See also Nico de Klerk’s contribution in this volume.
8. See Roland Barthes, “Rhétorique de l’image”, Communications 4 (1964): 40–51.
9. Charles Urban Trading Co., List of New, High-class and Original Urban Film Subjects (London, August 1906), 46.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., 50.
12. Ibid., 120.
13. Ibid., 160–161.
14. For a detailed discussion of this film see my “Wie der Käse in Holland gemachtwird. Anmerkungen zum frühen nonfiction -Film”, in Malte Hagener, Johann N. Schmidt, and Michael Wedel, eds., Die Spur durch den Spiegel. Der Film in der Kultur der Moderne (Berlin: Bertz Verlag, 2004), 159–166.
15. I borrow these terms from Tom Gunning, “Before Documentary: Early nonfiction films and the ‘view’ aesthetic”, in Daan Hertogs and Nico de Klerk, eds., Uncharted territory. Essays on early nonfiction film (Amsterdam: Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1997), 9–24.
16. Richard Abel, Tbe Red Rooster Scare. Making Cinema American 1900–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
17. See Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise. The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1897–1915 (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1999).
18. Herbert Birett, Das Filmangebot in Deutschland 1895–1911 (München: Winterberg, 1991).
19. Henri Bousquet, Catalogue Pathé des années 1896–1914 (4 volumes), Henri Bousquet, 1993–1996.
20. Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday , trans. Harry Zohn (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 210–211. This passage receives comments from Anne Paech and Joachim Paech in Menschen im Kino. Film und Literatur erzählen (Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler, 2000), 88–89.
4

National and racial landscapes and the photographic form
Giorgio Bertellini

“Any viable history of photography has to be part of a history of picturemaking, and any viable history of picturemaking must include photography. “ Carl Chiarenza 1
“The idea of race was [at the turn of the 20th century] in many ways and for many people not very different from what we would call today national character […] race was a determinant of national cultural experience, it was at the same time an outgrowth of previous national and cultural tradition.” George W. Stocking , 2
for Antonia Lant
H ow do historians usually address the relationship between early cinema and national differences? There is a wealth of methodological approaches. They range from discussions of subject matter, social themes, historical circumstances (i.e. Spanish-American War, World War I), genre/intertextual form (i.e. the western film), institutional affiliation (i.e. the Albert Kahn Archive, the Dutch Colonial Institute), economy of production, marketing, and cultural reception (i.e. French cinema in the USA).
Less often is the notion of national difference articulated with racial difference and then included in discussions about cinema’s formal and technological relationship with other media of visual representations – particularly when scholars stress the cinematic medium’s allegedly unique capacity to photograph reality and movement. Surely, film theorists and critics have always hailed national/racial representations as a significant phenomenon. Yet early film scholars have generally approached such representations as some what contingent phenomena, rather than as constituent of the very form of cinematic representation. Indeed, national/racial representations, the argument implicitly goes, do not fundamentally contribute to the morphological alignment of early cinema with modernity. In this essay I question this methodological approach and offer a different, yet complementary perspective. Early moving pictures, I argue, entertained lasting formal relationships with pre-existing visual patterns and ideologies of national/racial differences, which the novelty of the photographic form, both still and moving, did not obliterate.
Viewfinders and blindspots
The established modernist emphasis on cinema’s formal and technological distinction from earlier forms of representation rests upon a long and influential tradition positing that photographic reproductions of still or moving images constituted a radical mimetic novelty because of their visual correspondence to their material referent. 3 The historical and critical investments in photographic images’ realist mimesis have had significant aesthetic and political consequences for racial representations. Still, when photography entered the scene, as is well known, the negative and positive reactions to its visual representations were widespread and intense. Arguably Baudelaire voiced the most famous responses to photography, which he described as an artificial, mechanized, and alienating process of image-reproduction. 4 By contrast, photographers like Nadar campaigned for the medium’s artistic merits and multiple uses. Likewise, scientists generally found photography “equally useful in all the sciences of observation, where visible forms are to be represented”. 5 Despite their difference in approach and judgment, these positions shared the claim that photography entertained a very close relationship with the material world it depicts – one of unprecedented resemblance. That no human hand played an apparent role in the process of image reproduction was interpreted as a sign of the image’s objective and thus accurate rendering of the exterior world. Even such “purist” movements as “straight” photography accepted the notion of photography’s iconic truthfulness in their effort to grant full artistic entitlement to the new medium. 6
Twentieth-century visual theorists have variously endorsed this fundamental claim by negatively and teleologically juxtaposing photography and films to earlier media of visual representations. 7 “As compared to paintings”, wrote Walter Benjamin in 1937, “filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis because of its incomparably more precise statements of the situation”. Seven years later, in a rhetorical turn of phrase, André Bazin even claimed that “the photographic image is the object itself”. In 1947, in what became the definitive version of an essay first appeared in 1934, Erwin Panofsky held a similar position: “the medium of the movies is physical reality as such”. 8 Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, both older and younger generations of film scholars never fundamentally challenged the core of the argument. In 1960, Siegfried Kracauer advanced a position already voiced in the 1920s by positing that film is “an extension of photography: and as such shares with this medium a marked affinity with the visible world around us”. In 1971, the founding father of film semiotics, Christian Metz, famously defined cinema as “the ‘phenomenological’ art par excellence ”. In the same period, Stanley Cavell insisted that “photography overcame subjectivity in a way undreamed of by painting … by automatism , by removing the human agent from the task of reproduction” with the result that photography is “ of the world” whereas painting “ is a world”. Similarly, in the first issue of Critical Inquiry (1974), Rudolph Arnheim repeated the arguments put forward in his 1932 classic Film as Art by attributing to photographs an “authenticity from which painting is barred by birth”. In his book-length essay Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes seemingly applied the Bazinian argument to photography by stressing its “evidential force”, and arguing that its “power of authentication exceeds [its] power of representation”. 9
The question is not one of methodological naïvete, but of balance. I concur with Miriam Hansen’s historical contextualization of Kracauer’s “photographic approach” to films, which, she argues, did not imply “a transparent, iconically motivated relation between sign and referent”. 10 What remains cogent however, to return to Barthes’ expression, is the “evidential force” that photographic reproductions have historically secured. Over time the “transparency fallacy” (or its however justified temptation) has prompted both a general acceptance of still/moving pictures’ realistic charge and, by reaction, the detection of their poetic constructedness. Both this realistic investment and the related emphasis on images’ non-transparent qualities have had a remarkable political influence on the ways racial ideologies have relied on photographs and cinematic representations, whether for aesthetic, scientific, or political purposes. They have also exerted a profound methodological influence on how early film historiography has dealt with race when addressing cinema’s technological inception, its relationship with other media, and the historical circumstances of its emergence. 11
On a more general level, the positions insisting on early cinema’s photographic referencing and its equation to ultimate expression of modernity show a common epistemological penchant: a repeated (and quite heuristic, admittedly) use of the tropes of time and history at the expense of space and geography. What links the re-presentational framework and temporal tropes is the implicit argument that photographic objectivity holds a “singular, existential import”, as Noël Carroll puts it, “because it is produced from something that existed which caused it to be”. “Photography” for Bazin “embalms time [and] viewed in this perspective, the cinema is objectivity in time”. 12 This critical approach has a long history, especially in German philosophical culture. Kracauer and Benjamin were particularly sensitive to the simultaneous emergence of photographic technology and historicist thinking. While engaged in a polemical dialogue with Dilthey, in 1927 Kracauer wrote: if “photography presents a spatial continuum; historicism seeks to provide the temporal continuum. […] Historicism is concerned with the photography of time”. 13 Later, in the posthumously published History: The Last Things Before Last (1969), the German critic envisioned a powerful equivalence between cinema and the writing of history by advancing for films a role ( telos ) modeled on a distinct historiographical method. Suspicious of large, synoptic overviews and of the conceptual tenability of a single notion of chronology, Kracauer spoke of a microhistorical approach that, like a series of penetrating close-ups (“time atoms”), could render the world in a painstaking and objective manner. 14
The sustained relationship between the photographic form, temporality, and modernity (itself a temporal/historical category) has veiled the “new” medium’s complicity with space and geography, with notions of geopolitical differences and their nationally- and racially-specific articulations. When generally addressing such issues as “cinematic form” and “spectator”, for instance, “modernist” theorizations on early cinema have tended to elide considerations of geographical distinctions between (and within) European and American contexts. Thus, they repeat a recurring feature of Weimar critical culture, which frequently allegorized “Amerika”, “Berlin”, and “Paris” as different moments of modernity – not as actual places with specific, sociohistorically defined visual cultures and audiences. 15
Such close linkage between photographic form, temporality, and modernity – I would contend – also pervades that convergence of recent inquiries on early cinema known as the “modernity thesis” (as its detractors have called it). Indebted to the theories and practices of Western artistic modernism, particularly the avant-garde, and the philosophical perspectives of the Frankfurt School, the modernity thesis rethinks, in one of its defenders’ words, “cinema’s emergence within the sensory environment of urban modernity, its relationship to late nineteenth-century technology of space and time, and its interactions with adjacent elements in the new visual culture of advanced capitalism”. 16 The scholars most explicitly aligned with the “thesis”, from Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, and Anne Friedberg to Ben Singer and Lynne Kirby, have theorized not only on film language and representation, but also on film spectatorship and cultural consumption. 17 Recurring in their work is the emphasis on the novelty of the cinematic medium in technological, semiotic, sensorial and experiential terms. Cinema’s novelty is regularly spelled out in conjunction with the productive and influential notion of the attraction , which then defines an earlier phase of filmmaking known as the cinema of attractions . Theorized since the mid-1980s by Tom Gunning (in partial collaboration with André Gaudreault), the attraction identifies a particular form of film practice and address , an act of pure and astonishing display, experienced “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 […] and exoticism”. 18 In his search for a historiographical space that accounted for cinema’s non-narrative dimension, Gunning drew the concept of the attraction from the writings of Sergei Eisenstein (and F. T Marinetti), where it referred not to moving pictures exclusively, but more in general to a striking spectacle, whether a circus number, a stage routine, or a cinematic show – or to their most outstanding moment. For Gunning, however, the attraction mainly identifies early cinema’s capacity to “ mak[e] images seen ,” a feature that is “best understood if a purpose other than storytelling is factored in”. 19
The emphasis on the illusion of early moving pictures, whether realistic or magical, whether linked to an exotic “view” aesthetic or a locally staged re-creation, hinges on the technological means of representation – that is, on photography. Gunning is explicit on this in a number of his essays. Many forms of entertainments could constitute and function as attractions – public ceremonies, staged scenes, and vaudeville or circus routines. Yet, “all such events were absorbed by a cinematic gesture of presentation, and it was this technological means of representation that constituted the initial fascination of cinema”. 20 In asserting the “extremely individualizing processes of photography”, 21 in the name of “photography’s unique bond with its referent […] its indexicality” 22 Gunning explicitly uses a Piercean language. He thus identifies photography’s indexical aspect (because of “its exposure to a preexisting entity, it directly bears the entity’s imprint”) and iconic aspect (“it produces a direct resemblance to its object which allows immediate recognition”). 23 To put it in Carroll’s words: “Once the relation between the image – the photograph or the cinematic shot – [and its referent] is thought of as some sort of identity relation, the ruling idea of representation becomes re -presentation, i.e. the image is thought to present again some object or event”. 24 No genre, in Gunning’s wide-ranging writings, is ultimately exempt. If actualités explicitly exhibits the capacity “to capture a view of something that maintains a large degree of independence from the act of filming”, Gunning writes, 25 Georges Méliès’ trick films are astonishing precisely because of the way they dislodge the “identity relation” between a referent and its images (“appearance, disappearance, transformation and reappearance”). 26
Because of early films’ distinct form of optical rendering and vibrant visual rhythm, the attraction enjoys a morphological affinity with the experiential regime and kinesthetic thrills of modern time. “As a major form of mass entertainment employing technological representation and narrative,“ Gunning recently reasserted, “[early cinema] always engaged the experience of modernity”. 27 “Not just one among a number of perceptual technologies”, Miriam Hansen earlier contended, cinema “was above all […] the single most expansive discursive horizon in which the effects of modernity were reflected, rejected or denied, transmuted or negotiated”. 28 Thus, a certain air of positivist and thus teleological euphoria for the medium suffuses the modernity thesis in its avowal of cinema’s semiotic and cultural exceptionalism . When viewed from the standpoint of racial and national representations, these positions appear problematic. To understand how films were experienced at the time of their first viewing is one thing; it is another is to understand how they operated, semiotically and ideologically. In other words, one may acknowledge the degree of realism that photographs held as “windows on the world” in an epoch of wide-ranging realist poetics, yet not grant them immunity, even implicitly, from semiotic and thus ideological constructedness.
The general problem with the “modernity argument” lies in two debatable premises. The first one is twofold. Because of their reproductive technology, films’ photographic representations a) fundamentally signify on the basis of an “identity relation” with their referent; b) such an “identity relation” is alleged as new. The second premise relies on a stark juxtaposition of form versus content and unsurprisingly privileges the former. It is a position clearly indebted to a modernist rhetoric that admittedly infuses Gunning’s prose and conceptualization. Form, it is implied, is what aesthetically defines a medium’s mode of signification and what enables the alleged isomorphism of cinema and modernity. If certain films foreground the modern technology of trains, telephones, and telegraphs, they simply showcase an isomorphism that is already always there and in no need of overdetermination. It follows that not being form, race (just as gender, class, and sexuality) is simply content or subject matter, and thus “secondary” to any analysis of early films’ cinematic signification. 29 This reasoning, of course, conceals the possibility that racial depictions resulted from a history of formal characterizations that preceded and informed photographic representations.
Returning to the first “realist” premise (supporting an “identify relation” between referent and representation, and hailing it as “new”), one could present two interrelated objections, semiotic and ontological. In 1975, Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen invalidated a range of arguments supporting photographic transparency by critiquing any equation of human perception with the photographic process of optical capturing and reproduction. As complex semiotic machines, they contended, photographs make use of determinants that can be easily manipulated and which are never “innocent:” framing, mise-en-scène, lighting, multiple exposures, and so forth. 30 From an ontological standpoint, as Kendall Walton and Richard Allen have more recently suggested, just because the process of image-making is mechanical and we are in the habit of “seeing reality through” photographs, that does not imply that the camera has access to an authentically existing world; it could very well reproduce an illusion. 31 Or, we may add, it could reproduce a reality that is already visually and thus ideologically coded – nationally and racially. Overall, the acknowledgment of the rhetorical charge of the realist attribution and its ideological underpinnings opens questions that are both aesthetic and political, related to the formal, material and social investments in film’s mass appeal.
Furthermore, if we fully acknowledge the “productive” (and not just imitative) dimension of the image-making process, we may also question the claim that early films relied on a novel form of representation. The method of this refutation has a recent name, intermediality, but it identifies an older historiographical practice. The relationships between early films and other media of visual reproduction and staging (i.e. paintings, magic lanterns, lithography, photography, theater, pyrodramas etc.) account for some of the richest traditions in early film history. Without denying cinema’s distinct social, economic, and cultural history, an intermedial approach would not identify a single aesthetic feature – the attraction or montage – as the fundamental trait of film’s semiotic expression. Instead, it would argue that not only did cinema from the beginning adopt visual and narrative formats from other media, but its current terminological singularity should also be opened up to identify an historical variety of filmmaking practices. The diversity and plurality of films’ genres (i.e. actualités as “visual newspapers;” travelogues as a vicarious form of tourism; film dramas as “photoplays”), further complicated by national film cultures, are the most obvious indicators of a range of production and reception practices that should alert us to the inherent multiplicity of cinema’s aesthetic constituents. 32
With regards to representations of national and racial differences, the notion of intermediality could also apply to photography’s multimedia referencing and would thus loosen its iconic and indexical relationship with the referent. “Photography”, as Peter Galassi has pointed out “was not a bastard left by science on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition”. 33 This reasoning challenges the second premise of the modernity thesis, the strict dichotomy of form versus content. For example, the one-shot films representing distant places and populations may reveal a formal reliance on the characterizing formats of similar painterly and lithographic representations, which were well known to films’ producers and consumers. 34 Likewise, the study of early film narratives may expose their reworking of nationally and racially “othered” character-types circulating in high- and low-brow literature, vernacular and legitimate theatre, and popular amusements, and featured in the rationalizing narratives of antiquarian history, eugenics and anthropology. 35 Cinema’s unprecedented popularity and its exceptional broadcasting of images of distant lands, eras, and populations hardly implies that their cinematic rendering was fundamentally new in terms of racial and ideological signification.
All these objections to film’s photographic mimesis can be productively combined. If cinema does not reproduce reality through a zero-degree mirroring, but rather represents a world through a porous adoption and original reworking of a number of past representational forms (painterly, optical, theatrical), then these older forms’ own ideological penchants and, more radically, the social and material conditions that informed them to begin with, continued to thrive at the turn of the 20th century.
Picturesque landscapes of modern ruins
One terrain to assess the pervasiveness of pre-cinematic and pre-photographic patterns in early film culture is the visual representation of landscapes. By drawing from my own work on how early Italian cinema acquired national/racial distinction, I wish to focus briefly on the cinematic representations of Italy’s natural and archeological landscapes as enduring, highly politicized spatializations of national and racial difference. To begin with, what is represented as “Italian” in early Italian cinema is not necessarily of Italian making, does not only pertain to Italy, and it is not limited to the turn of the 20th century. It concerns instead a larger aesthetic and geopolitical scene – the post-17th century Western culture – when some Northern European nations readily embraced industrial and technological progress, and embarked in campaigns of political and ideological nationalization, while others, like Italy, deferred. Two film genres, the historical epic and Southern Italian melodrama, emblematically embodied this alignment between aesthetics and geopolitics.
Even before the industrial revolution, Italy became known as the “South of Europe:” a living museum of unique historical, archeological and artistic remnants, a site of untamed natural sceneries, and the only place in Europe with significant telluric and volcanic activity. A favorite destination of the Grand Tour, the nation of Dante and Vesuvius was the subject of countless travel diaries and master setting of new painterly styles, from the architectural view painting to the paysage classique to the picturesque. Post-17th century Western visual culture celebrated Claude Lorrain’s brightly sunlit, pastoral views of the ruin-dotted Roman countryside for their classical associations with an Arcadia of learned literary references. Neapolitan Salvator Rosa’s darker and more atmospheric renderings of savage wilderness were admired for their “armed men” and wayward banditti.
In the second half of the 18th century, the spectacular night scenes of volcanic eruptions by Wright of Derby, Pierre Jacques Volaire and Claude Joseph Vernet flaunted high visual and thematic contrasts and impressive pictorial effects. The horrific, devilish and sublime effects of incandescent lava flows contrasted, like a split-screen effect, with an undersized human presence of moonlit aristocrats, fishermen, and peasants. The eruptions of Vesuvius in Naples and Mt. Etna in Sicily, systematically recorded since the 17th century, projected onto the Southern Italian landscape an aura of primeval and destructive nature. In this imaginative geography, the South of Italy contrasted starkly with the agricultural and industrial advancements of modern European nations – including the “European” North of Italy. Thus, the widely celebrated excavations of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) bestowed upon the South of Italy another recognizable cultural identity, that of Europe’s supreme archeological site and unique vestige of antique history and untamed nature. The “timeless” and antiquarian images of the Coliseum, Roman temples, Venetian squares, and the newly discovered ruins of Pompeii pervaded paintings, engravings, prints, magic lantern slides, photographs, and films – of Italian and international manufacturing ( Figs. 1 and 2 ). 36

Fig. 1. Pierre-Jacques Volaire , The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1771, Oil on canvas, 46 x 95 5/8 in. (116.8 x 242.9 cm), Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester Collection, 1978.426, The Art Institute of Chicago; Photography ©The Art Institute of Chicago .
For instance, the rendering of ancient volcanic firestorms became a visual currency for different media, whether literary, performative, or visual. More than mere subject matter, it implied a series of recurring visual forms that involved framing and composition, with the depiction of eruptions in the background and the appearance of a human presence in the foreground. Such currency was successfully narrated in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s topical melodrama The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Volcanic reenactments inspired stage reproductions and spectacular pyrodramas. Their representation pervaded ceramics, periodicals’ printed illustrations, painterly styles, magic lantern slides, and photographic reproductions of mass or artistic appeal, from tourist postcards to the work of Giorgio Sommer. 37 They also pervaded moving pictures, both travelogues and fiction films, on both sides of the Atlantic. Italian film companies knew very well the degree of international fascination for natural disasters and narratives of eruption set in the South of Italy. They readily employed this primal scene of landscape imagery for fiction films that quickly became early “blockbusters”, from The Last Days of Pompeii (Ambrosio, 1908, remade into a spectacular feature-length film in 1913) to Cabiria (Itala, 1914). Other examples of this enduring antiquarian imagery included the exact repetition of visual perspectives of the outside and the inside of the Roman Coliseum, featured in the widely circulating prints of Piranesi etchings, in national and international photographs, and in such Italian historical epics as Spartacus (Pasquali, 1913) and Quo Vadis? (Cines, 1913). These few examples should alert us to the complementary and interrelated dimensions of the new photographic reproduction of movement and pre-photographic visual legacies ( Figs. 3 and 4 ).

Fig. 2. William Charles Hughes , The Fire of Pompeii (London), wood framed and hand painted magic lantern slide, 17.5 x 11.3 cm; ca.1880 . [ Courtesy of Collezione Minici Zotti. Padua, Italy .]
This convergence of old and new visual forms also showcases the enduring imbrications of national and racial distinctions. Since the 18 th century, volcanic eruptions and archeological excavations had projected racializing connotations onto Southern Italians, centered on arrested development, primitive proximity to an untamed nature, and sudden violence. The argument was simple: excellence belonged to the past, while decadence, as Edward Gibbon had famously put it, dominated the present. Captured by the sight of old ruins merging with nature, Madame de Staël self-assuredly declared in her Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807) that “Italians are much more outstanding for what they have been and by what they might be than by what they are now”. 38 A few years later, the comparison of “Italy” with the “shadow of a nation” was J.W. v. Goethe’s memorable and analogous comment. 39 The ensuing racialized aestheticization reduced the South of Italy to a touristic destination worthy of picturesque delectation where one could easily be attacked, as several traveling accounts, drawings, and film narratives reported. 40

Fig. 3. Eruption of Vesuvius in The Last Days of Pompeii ( Ambrosio, 1913 ).

Fig. 4. Eruption of Mt. Etna in Cabiria ( Itala, 1914 ).

Fig. 5. Jules Gourdault, etching of Naples in L’Italie pittoresque ( 1886 ).

Fig. 6. Giovanni Grasso and Nina Balestrieri in Sperduti nel buio ( Morgana Film, 1914 ) [ Courtesy of Cineteca Nazionale, Rome, Italy .]
The geopolitics of the landscape affected the other major vector of signification of national/racial difference: the physical demeanor and the face of the characters inhabiting those landscapes. Once again, cinema’s photographic form actualized earlier visual and ideological crystallizations. Outside of the historical genre, two of the most celebrated Italian films of the time were love melodramas of jealousy and violent passions: the now lost Sperduti nel buio /Lost in Darkness (Morgana Film, 1914) and the extant Assunta Spina (Caesar Film, 1915). Both re-articulated the dialectical tension of background and foreground that defined picturesque paintings by highlighting the presence of localized protagonists against the backdrop of familiar landscapes. The former placed its spirited and histrionic characters right in the resilient visual currency of the picturesque Neapolitan scenery, even though they are played by celebrated Sicilian performers. The latter, through the use of dissolves and multiple exposures, introduced its title character, played by the Neapolitan stage and film star Francesca Bertini, as literally transpiring out of the same widely reproduced landscape ( Figs. 5 , 6 and 7 ). 41
This racializing alliance character/landscape was also a trope readily employed by American cinema: it was not unfamiliar to George Beban, for instance, the famous American impersonator of Italian racial types. In the immigrant melodrama The Italian (1915), Beban capitalized on the picturesque imagery of Venice and on the plebeian alleys of the Lower East Side, respectively, homeland of the protagonist, gondolier Beppo Donnetti, and his American destination. Not surprisingly, in a booklet on acting style written in the early 1920s, Beban described his screen characterizations as grounded in “ picturesqueness ” – an expression that film reviews had adopted for his films since the mid-1910s and that encapsulated the endurance of past visual and thematic morphologies. 42 When it comes to representation of national/racial distinction, the novelty of photographic indexicality cannot tell the whole story.
* * * *
The photographic reproduction of movement embodied in filmic attractions and the development of filmic editing techniques that generated ever more complex narratives were indeed innovative “linguistic” forms. The popular consumption of film images of distant lands, eras, and populations was unprecedented for turn-of-the-century Western audiences. Yet, the novelty of photographic rendering could not wholly replace previous forms of racial and national representation because it did not replace their well-established and much needed ideological function. Instead, it naturalized them as timeless and, as such, realistic. “Initial emphasis on the realism and truthfulness of photography”, as Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan argue, “effectively […] veiled the power of photography to mediate the human encounter with people and places”. 43 Photographic images’ rhetoric of iconic accuracy pervaded illustrated periodicals and tourist guidebooks, the ubiquitous picture postcard, newspaper reportages , catalogs of local folklore, criminal portraiture, and films. Within a positivist framework, “geographical imagination”, as David Harvey has shown, imposed itself “with the full force of objective facts, to which all individuals and institutions necessarily respond”. 44

Fig. 7. Francesca Bertini, against the Posillipo shoreline, in Assunta Spina ( Caesar Film, 1915 ) [ Courtesy of the Cineteca di Bologna, Italy .]
When Bazin writes that “photography embalms time” 45 and when Benjamin aligns cinema with the necessary acceleration of the new, what gets veiled is the “new” medium’s complicity with consolidated and widely-circulating notions of social and national space. In modernist terms, “Paris”, “Berlin”, “Amerika”, and “Naples” appear as temporal stages of larger historical and universal trajectories, within an idea of modernity based on universally-defined perceptual and phenomenological categories, and heavily indebted to the formalist artistic poetics of the early 20th-century avantgarde. 46
There has been much to gain, admittedly, in adopting the modernist framework, particularly in terms of the linkages between technology, film form, and the development of film narrative. Yet, there are also geopolitical blindspots that are quite evident with regards to certain “political” film genres, from the Italian historical epics and Southern melodramas to American cinema’s western films and tenement dramas. These films showcase the morphological continuity of representational traditions indebted to older phenomena that non-film historians regard as quintessentially modern: nationalism, imperialism, and the intercontinental commerce of people and goods – from slavery to migration. The discipline of film studies has been very fond of a formulation of modernity neatly positioned at the end of the 19th century and fittingly coinciding with the emergence of cinema. When it comes to national/racial discourses, however, a longer dureé of the category of the Modern, one for instance adopted by the discipline of history, may expand even further the interdisciplinary heuristics of early cinema history.
Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Richard Abel, Angela Dalle Vacche, Claudia Gianetto, Mark Kligerman, Jacqueline Reich, C. Paul Sellors, and the faculty members of the Department of Screen Arts and Culture at the University of Michigan for supremely useful discussions and suggestions.
Notes
1. C. Chiarenza, “Notes Toward an Integrated History of Picturemaking”, Afterimage 7.1–2 (Summer 1979): 37.
2. G.W. Stocking, “The Turn-of-the-Century Concept of Race”, Modernism/Modernity 1.1 (1994): 6 (emphasis in the original).
3. My aim here is not to discuss the ontology or phenomenological nature of the photographic still and moving picture in general. Noël Carroll has quite successfully attended to this task by deconstructing all the major arguments supporting film’s medium-specificity. See Carroll, Theorizing The Moving Image (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3–48.
4. “It is nonetheless obvious that this [photographic] industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mortal enemy, and that the confusion of their several functions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled.” Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859”, trans. Jonathan Mayne in Vicki Goldberg ed., Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 125. On this influential Baudelairean view, see Aaron Sharf, Art and Photography (London: Penguin, 1968), particularly 145. For a cogent rebuttal to the notion that photography meant a radical reframing in visual perception and artistic representation, see Kirk Varnedoe, “The Artifice of Candor: Impression and Photography Reconsidered”, Art in America , 68.1 (January 1980): 66–78.
5. Anonymous, The Edinburgh Review (January 1843) – in Goldberg, Photography in Print , 67.
6. The proponents of “straight photography” were in direct opposition to the exponents of pictorialism or “photo-painting” who instead identified photography with painterly arts and rejected the “transparency fallacy” by emphasizing its controllable semiotic arrangements (i.e. framing, blurring, and multiple exposures).
7. Supporters of cinematic realism such as André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer located the essence of the cinematic medium in its photographic representation and, on this ground, defended cinema’s artistic – realist, that is – possibilities. Another cluster of theorists, beginning with the formalist exponents of the Soviet montage, claimed instead that it was editing what defined cinema’s essence and true artistic vocation. Here I focus on the earlier, more resilient stance.
8. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, trans. Harry Zohn, in Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt) (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 236; André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image [1945]”, in What is Cinema? ed. and trans. Hugh Grey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 14; Erwin Panofsky, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures”, in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 263.
9. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), ix; and “Photography [1927]”, trans. Thomas Y. Levin, Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring 1993): 421–436; Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 23 and The World Viewed (rev. edn) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 24 [all italics in the original]; Rudolph Arnheim, “On the Nature of Photography”, Critical Inquiry 1:1 (September 1974): 155; Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema , trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974 [1971]), 43; and Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida , trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981 [1980]), 88–89.
10. Miriam Hansen, “”With Skin and Hair:” Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseille 1940”, Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring 1993): 446.
11. Analytical film theory has been the most actively engaged in discussing transparency theories, starting with Kendall L. Walton’s ‘seeing through’ thesis and its challenges by Nigel Warburton, Gregory Currie and Jerrold Levinson. For a cogent discussion of these positions, see C. Paul Sellors, Representing Fictions in Film (Ph.D Dissertation, New York University, 2002), particularly chapter 3 .
12. Carroll, Theorizing , 37–38 [italics mine]; and Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, 14. Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have variously and notoriously written about the value of photography’s memorializing effect.
13. Kracauer, “Photography”, 425. Whereas Kracauer had privileged a historiographical reading of history as historia rerum gestarum in “Photography”, he drew a parallelism between “historical reality” and “camera reality” in History. The Last Things Before the Last (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995 [1969]): 3. On this point, see Carlo Ginzburg, “Particolari, primi piani, microanalisi: in margine a un libro di Siegfried Kracauer”, Paragone , 54.48/50 (August-December 2003): 20–37. For a more general contextualization, see Miriam Hansen, “With Skin and Hair”.
14. Kracauer, History , 60–163.
15. Not fully immune from this methodological penchant, Hansen however recognizes its unique critical intensity in Benjamin, whose “concept of the masses as the subject of cinema passes over the actual and unprecedented mixture of classes –and genders and generations – [and] remains a philosophical, if not aesthetic, abstraction”. M. Hansen, “America, Paris, the Alps: Kracauer (and Benjamin) on Cinema and Modernity”, in Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz (eds), Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 381–382. A recent, book-length example of the modernist (and thus time-oriented) approach to early cinema is Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), which symptomatically opens with a quote from Kracauer’s 1927 essay on photography.
16. Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Context (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
17. For an in-depth discussion on the “thesis”, see the essays by Tom Gunning, Ben Singer, and Charlie Keil in Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp (eds), American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
18. Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde [1986]”, in Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 56–57. Gunning developed the notion of the attraction in collaboration with André Gaudreault, with whom he also authored a 1986 essay, “Le cinema des premiers temps: un défi à l’histoire du cinema?”, now included in an excellent anthology edited by Wanda Strauven, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 365–380. Charles Musser has forcefully argued that, “while cinema of attractions provides a way to conceptualize cinema’s links to modernity via novelty, one can also be struck by the ways in which cinema also resisted this”. What defined cinema instead was “the reworking of the familiar – not only a reworking of old subjects in a new register but of established methods of seeing and reception”. Charles Musser, “A Cinema of Contemplation, A Cinema of Discernment: Spectatorship, Intertextuality and Attractions in the 1890s”, in Strauven, 172, 176.
19. Tom Gunning, “‘Now You See It, Now you Don’t:’ The Temporality of the Cinema of Attraction [1993]”, in Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (eds), The Silent Cinema Reader (London: Routledge, 2004), 42. Gunning borrows the expression from Fernand Léger.
20. Ibid., 42–43.
21. Tom Gunning, “In Your Face: Physiognomy, Photography, and the Gnostic Mission of Early Film”, Modernism/Modernity , 4.1 (1997): 5.
22. Tom Gunning, “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography, Detectives, and Early cinema”, in Charney and Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life , 20.
23. Ibid.
24. Carroll, Theorizing , 37 [italics in the original].
25. Tom Gunning, “Before Documentary: Early NonFiction Films and the ‘View’ Aesthetic”, in Daan Hertogs and Nico De Klerk (eds), Uncharted Territory: Essays on Early Nonfiction Film (Amsterdam: Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1997), 14
26. Tom Gunning, “Attractions, truquages et photogénie: l’explosion du présent dans les films à truc français produits entre 1896 et 1907”, in Jean A. Gili et al . (eds), Les Vingt premières années du cinéma français (Paris: Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1995), 185.
27. Tom Gunning, “Systematizing the Electric Message: Narrative Form, Gender, and Modernity in The Lonedale Operator ”, in Keil and Stamp, American Cinema’s Transitional Era , 44.
28. Hansen, “America, Paris, the Alps”, 365.
29. Kracauer admitted films’ photographic indexicality, even while challenging it: “My book […] rests upon the assumption that film is essentially an extension of photography and therefore shares with this medium a marked affinity for the visible world around us”. “Preface”, Theory of Film , xlix.
30. Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen, “Photography, Vision, and Representation”, Critical Inquiry 2.1 (Autumn 1975): 149.
31. Kendall L. Walton, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism”, Critical Inquiry 11.2 (1984): especially 252; and Richard Allen, Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 87ff.
32. André Gaudreault, “From ‘Primitive Cinema’ to ‘Kine-Attractography”, in Strauven, 86–87.
33. Peter Galassi, Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981), 13.
34. For a recent, impressive example, see Nancy Mowll Mathews (ed.), Moving Pictures; American Art and Early Film, 1880–1910 (Manchester: Hudson Hills Press, 2005).
35. I have explored the link between eugenics and “film typage” in “Black Hands and White Hearts. Italian Immigrants as Urban Racial Types in Early 20th Century American Cinema”, Urban History 31.3 (2004): 374–398.
36. The internationally celebrated Florentine photographic firm, Alinari Brothers, specialized in views of Italy’s urban architectures and in reproductions of art works.
37. James C. Simmons, “Bulwer and Vesuvius: The Topicality of The Last Days of Pompeii ”, Nineteenth-Century Fiction , 24.1 (June 1969): 103–105.
38. Madame de Staël, Corinne, or Italy , trans. Sylvia Raphael (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 19.
39. J.W. v. Goethe, Italian Journey [ 1786–1788 ], trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 60.
40. In the Edison travelogue, European Rest Cure (1904), a group of picturesquely dressed locals rob an American tourist during his visit to Pompeii.
41. On Southern Italian cinema, see Adriano Aprà (ed.), Napoletana: Images of a City (New York: Museum of Modern Art/Bompiani, 1993); and Nino Genovese and Sebastiano Gesù, E venne il cinematografo. Le origini del cinema in Sicilia (Catania: Maimone, 1995).
42. George Beban, Photoplay Characterization; One of a Series of Lectures Especially Prepared for Student-Members of The Palmer Plan (Los Angeles: Palmer Photoplay, 1921), 19. On picturesque representations of Italians in American photography and literature, see Joseph P. Cosco, Imagining Italians: The Clash of Romance and Race in American Perceptions, 1880–1910 (New York: SUNY Press, 2003).
43. Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan, “Photography and the Geographical Imagination”, in Schwartz-Ryan (eds), Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 3.
44. David Harvey, “Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers , 80.3 (September 1990): 418.
45. Carroll, Theorizing , 37–38 [italics mine]; and Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, 14.
46. Consider Benjamin’s 1926 essay on Naples, Mediterranean “decadence”, and historical transiency, included in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings I , edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 414–421.
5

Sound-on-disc cinema and electrification in pre-WWI Britain, France, Germany and the United States
Charles O’Brien

I n the following essay I examine sound-on-disc cinema prior to World War I through a framework of national and urban comparisons. The objective is to explore sound-on-disc’s international diffusion as an example of how the cinema’s uneven global development, its geographical diversity, was conditioned by regional variations in electric power. The focus on sound-on-disc thus involves an argument that bears implications for cinema history as a whole. One aspect of the argument concerns difficulties posed to the established nation-state film historiography by electrification, a sub- or transnational phenomenon more than a national one.
The essay is organized in three parts. First, I outline sound-on-disc cinema’s dependence on electric motors, and hence on patterns of electrification, that varied from one city, nation, or region to the next. Second, drawing on film-trade periodicals and daily newspapers, I survey how electrification in London, Berlin, New York, Paris, and Chicago affected – or may have affected – sound-on-disc’s commercialization in these cities. Finally, in my conclusion, I draw out from the sound-on-disc situation implications for early cinema study generally.
Sound-on-disc cinema and electric motors
Numerous synch-sound devices were marketed prior to World War I in Europe and North America, and especially during the late aughts. Regarding the United States, Rick Altman, in his recent book on silent film sound, identifies 1907 through 1909 as sound-on-disc’s zenith in the United States. 1 With respect to Germany, scholars such as Corinna Müller and Martin Loiperdinger also identify 1907–1909 as sound-on-disc’s boom years. 2 By Loiperdinger’s count, German companies made 519 sound films or tonbilder during 1907–1910 – a figure comprising one-third of the total number of such films estimated to have been produced in Germany prior to World War I. 3
Of the pre-war sound-on-disc systems, those employing electric motors to drive the gramophone player were regarded as technically superior. The reason had to do with the illusion that the voice came from the singer appearing in the image, the main criterion for evaluating synch-sound films. 4 The challenge was formidable, insofar as “[t]he slightest deviation from perfect synchronism is so strongly and immediately manifest to the observer that what little illusion his imagination might allow is dispelled forthwith”. 5 The impression that the voice emitted from the actor appearing in the moving image required placing the gramophone player, and its reproducing horn, close to the movie screen, and hence distant from the projector, located in a booth at the opposite end of the room. Under these conditions, the linkage of two machines required an electrical rather than mechanical connection. 6 The electrical link between projector and disc player did not necessarily require an electric motor. Sound-disc-systems such as the Cameraphone used a hand-cranked projector together with a spring-wound disc player, tripped by the projectionist via a battery-powered electro-magnetic switch. 7
The motor-free Cinephone used motion pictures stamped with the image of a rotating dial; the operator, one eye on the projected image’s dial and the other on a comparable dial on the gramophone player, would crank the projector so as to match the former dial with the latter, to thereby (in principle) maintain synchronization. 8 But systems of this sort entailed certain problems. The speed and volume of a spring-wound disc player could vary as the disc played, according to the record groove’s resistance against the weight of the sound box and tone arm, whereas motor-driven players functioned more uniformly. 9 But the main difficulty of the motor-free systems was their intolerably high margin for human error, stemming from their reliance on “the skill of the operator in turning the crank handle of the cinematograph more or less quickly while following the sounds emitted by the phonograph”. 10 The use of electric motors opened the possibility for a mechanized and, in principle, error-proof approach to voice-image synchronization. Thus the best-regarded sound-on-disc systems used electric players, as did Gaumont’s Chronophone and Messter’s Biophon. In fact, these systems employed two motors, one for the disc player and another for the projector, both powered by the same current. The motors were coordinated by an electrical distributor, which allowed the operator to compensate for synchronization problems by adjusting the projector’s speed to match the disc player’s. 11
National differences in electrification
The combination of electric disc player, projector, and distributor made the Messter and Gaumont systems technically superior, but it also introduced a significant barrier to commercialization in creating special electric-power needs. To drive a motorized sound-on-disc system required a powerful electrical supply. A portable battery wasn’t enough, so exhibitors using these systems had to connect with a public-power supply, and pay higher electric bills. Further problems came from the wide variety of types of electric power in use during the period, or put otherwise, the absence of standardization. Initially public power in major cities like New York, London, and Berlin employed direct current exclusively. In the 1890s, however, the direct-current systems were supplemented with new alternating-current stations, which distributed power far more widely, in a fifty-mile radius from the plant, rather than the one-mile maximum of direct current. 12 By the time of the sound-on-disc boom of the mid-aughts, American and European cities typically had mixes of both systems, as well as a mix of voltages. Partial exceptions were Berlin and Chicago, where new technologies such as steam turbines and rotary converters were used to standardize the power supply across an urban region. In most cases, however, one neighborhood’s or town’s power supply differed in its technical fundamentals from another’s.
The diversity of public-power systems carried powerful implications for the movie industry. For one, “[a]rc lamps and motors built for use with a direct current are unsuitable for use with an alternating current supply”, as one trade-press commentator noted in 1910. 13 Projectionists in Britain and the United States preferred direct current, which had been designed for illumination, and thus offered a “steadier, clearer, and whiter light”. 14 Alternating current was said to produce “a humming noise and a scattered [and yellowish] light” that required exhibitors using alternating current to use a rotary converter to change the current and, in some cases, a transformer to cut or boost the voltage. 15 In addition, alternating current came not only in different voltages but in a great diversity of frequencies. These ranged from 133 and 1/3 cycles per second to 125, 83 and 1/3, 66 and 2/3, 60, 50, 40, 30, and 25 – to name the common types. 16 “The proprietor or manager of a picture theatre, as a consumer of electric current, generally has no choice as to the kind of current. It is supplied to him a certain definite voltage, either direct or alternating, and he must make the most of it.” 17 As a consequence, a motor-propelled sound-on-disc system that worked in one locale might not work in an adjacent one – unless the exhibitor took on the hassle and expense of altering the current through a rheostat, generator, rotary converter, transformer, or some combination of the above.
Sound-on-disc and electric power in the U.S.
Electrification in the U.S. during 1907–1910 was less regionally uniform than in Germany. In the U.S. the power supply was most varied in the northeast, the region with the highest concentration of movie houses. Here sound-on-disc, whatever the publicity draw of “talking pictures”, encountered formidable commercial barriers. New York City provides a case in point. The Moving Picture World reported in 1909 that a year had passed since the Cameraphone “startled the world […] in New York City [yet] there is [now] only one public exhibition [there] of singing and talking pictures. A somewhat peculiar state of affairs when you consider there are over 400 theatres in the city.” 18 Gaumont, in a 1909 trade-press interview, reported that “business conditions” in New York were making it impossible to market the Chronophone there, although the device was catching on in the west and midwest. 19
Scattered references to Chronophone shows in daily newspapers help fill out Gaumont’s assessment, showing the Chronophone doing well in some theatres. In Los Angeles, for instance, the Fischer Chronophone Theater opened in May 1908 to draw “capacity houses at each afternoon and night performance”. 20 Still, results in the United States for the Chronophone fell far short of expectations, as noted in The Moving Picture World in May 1910: “We heard and favorably commented on this beautiful piece of apparatus [i.e. the Chronophone] about a year ago. Yet curious to tell, it does not seem to have made its way into the moving picture theatre of New York City, and we do not hear so much of it in the country as we should like to.” 21
One explanation for sound-on-disc’s brief and incomplete commercial exploitation in the United States lies in the country’s insufficiently standardized municipal power networks, which required exhibitors aiming to use motor-driven systems like the Chronophone to make costly and complicated electrical modifications. 22 Circumstances were perhaps more propitious in the Chicago area, whose standardized power supply during the late aughts rivaled that in Germany. The Chicago-area power network owed much to the vision of Samuel Insull, who invites comparison to Emil Rathenau, the founder of Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft (1887), Germany’s second largest power company. 23 Insull, like Rathenau, wanted a unified supply system whose distribution would encompass all power needs for the entire population, twenty-four hours-a-day, across a fifty-mile radius from the main plant. Insull’s effort to unify the Chicago-area power supply reached fruition between 1906 and 1909, precisely when sound-on-disc enjoyed its vogue in the United States. 24 In the Chicago area during those four years the power output jumped by over 400 percent, and rates for small businesses fell by 20 percent. Chicago’s electricity conditions may help explain why in 1910 Chicago had more movie theatres, and seats, than New York, relative to population size. 25
Still, reports on electrification published in the Chicago-based Nickelodeon enumerate a variety of power-related problems faced by exhibitors: in locales where electric power was used mainly for illumination, power was available only during night time; in locales where power stations supplied street cars, motion-picture screenings were disrupted by random drops and hikes in voltage; in certain locales, movie-house owners paid exorbitantly high electricity bills, at rates up to five time higher than those charged for “an auto garage, saloon or butcher shop a few doors away”. 26 Such conditions posed intractable barriers to the commercialization of the electricity-dependent Chronophone.
Cinema and electricity in Britain
Sound-on-disc met overwhelming obstacles in Britain, where different cities and even neighborhoods used different current, voltages, and frequencies. Variation in London was extreme. Whereas Berlin and Chicago were served by a few large power stations, driven by turbo-generators of unprecedented power, London’s electrical supply came from numerous small stations. In 1911, Berlin and Chicago each had six power stations, whereas London had 64. 27 Moreover, London’s power stations typically differed greatly from one another in their technical fundamentals. Technology historian Thomas Hughes reports that in London during the early 1910s “at least ten different frequencies and a bewildering assortment of voltages were in use”. 28
London’s public electricity was characterized in the film press as “more or less unsuitable” for film projection, “being either of alternating current or else of [direct] current at a high voltage”. 29 One 1910 film-press report estimated the average power voltage for England as 200 volts. 30 But to run a film projector’s arc lamp required only 60 volts. To avoid overloading the lamps and wasting valuable electricity, movie exhibitors used motor generators and other devices to reduce and alter the current. 31 Detailed discussion of these gadgets and their associated methods can be found in The Bioscope , the London-based film-trade weekly, which routinely counseled exhibitors on how to cope with their electricity needs. The basic advice was to opt out of the public system altogether: “With a variety of small gas and oil engines on the market it is not difficult, in conjunction with efficient dynamos, for showmen to generate their own electricity, in many cases at a cheaper rate than that charged by supply corporations”. 32 One 1910 report identified coal-burning steam engines as a common method in England for generating electricity in movie theatres. 33 Steam engines were said to produce power at half the price of public electricity, even when the engine’s depreciation was factored into the costs; a further plus was that the steam exhaust could be ventilated into the theatre interior during cold weather! 34 Another article in The Bioscope explained how the generation of movie-house electricity via water wheel was viable “if you are lucky enough to have a stream of water running to waste through the ground adjacent to your hall”. 35
In any case, many exhibitors in England, one way or another, bypassed the public system to generate their own current using “steam, gas, oil or petrol-driven engines”. 36 In this context, only non-electric synch-sound systems were commercially feasible – except in the case of large theatres, such as London’s Hippodrome, which showcased the Gaumont Chronophone beginning in December 1906. 37 Not surprisingly, the ingenious Cinephone, the most successful of the non-electric sound-on-disc systems of the time, was marketed initially in Britain, where it was reportedly used in some 1,000 theatres. 38
The Tonbilder in Germany
The electricity situation in Germany, where sound-on-disc cinema flourished to a degree well beyond that of any other country, offers an instructive contrast to that in Britain and the United States. Film scholar Herbert Birett, based on a study of ads in the German film press, estimated that some 850 sound films were made in Germany between 1903 and 1911. 39 Germany’s high output of sound films is noteworthy because much of what has been written in English on sound-on-disc cinema prior to WWI refers only to Edison and Gaumont as the main players in the field. In the United States and Britain, Messter’s Biophon, the most popular German system, seems to have been largely unknown. The American author John Rathbun, in his 1914 book Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting , devotes a chapter to Gaumont and Edison as the makers of “the most successful of all talking picture devices”, without mentioning Messter. 40 The Briton Frederick Talbot does the same in Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked , a motion-picture manual published in London in 1912. 41
The exclusion of Messter from the English-language film historiography has skewed the latter’s assessment of sound-on-disc technology’s importance for film history. Edison failed to commercialize the Kinetophone, as is well known. 42 Gaumont, using compressed-air amplification, succeeded in marketing his Chronophone in large venues in Paris and London, but was much less successful in the U.S., as noted above. Thus, the project of synching motion pictures with gramophone or phonograph is characterized as a commercial failure. But the situation appears quite differently when the focus shifts to circumstances in Germany, where, during the late aughts, Messter and other inventor/manufacturers successfully marketed systems for synching movies with recorded songs. Indeed, Germany was the main sound-film-producing nation, as a trade-press journalist observed in 1908, the country where “die Tonbildindustrie hat ihren Sitz haupsächlich”. 43
Enabling sound-on-disc’s success in Germany was Berlin’s large, super-efficient electric-power system, which served as a model for electric power in other cities and regions in Germany. By 1900 electrical power extended throughout the country, with most cities adopting Berlin’s standard of 220 volts and fifty cycles. 44 Moreover, Berlin’s power technologies and standards operated not only elsewhere in Germany but in other countries throughout northern and central Europe, thus enabling the export of German sound-on-disc systems and Tonbilder . Messter, in his 1936 memoirs, claimed that his Tonbilder had been distributed in Austria, Hungary, Russia, Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands. 45 Also serving as an export market for the Tonbilder were the Polish territories, where, as Malgozata Hendrykowska states, “[i]n 1908, Polish spectators had the chance to see many sound films, especially the German works of Oskar Messter”. 46 Further evidence for the export market’s relevance can be found in Messter’s practice of producing song discs for certain Tonbilder in three languages. 47
The distribution situation for sound-on-disc systems differed in France, where electrification was limited mainly to central districts in Paris. Located in these districts were the large music halls and other entertainment palaces where the Chronophone enjoyed its greatest success, venues such as the Moulin-Rouge, the Olympia, the Hippodrome, the Parisiana, the Antoine and others. 48 Among the Parisian theatres where Gaumont’s Chronophone was featured was the Phonocinéma Gaumont, “situated in the busiest part of the Boulevard Monmartre”, and seating up to 800 people. The Phonocinéma Gaumont provided what one British reporter called “one of the best picture shows” in Paris – and one of the most prominent: with an amplified gramophone playing “selections of music to the crowd outside […] there was no chance of passing along the Boulevard without being aware of [the theatre’s] existence”. 49
The big-city, big-hall market may help explain why Gaumont felt it necessary to invest in the Elgéphone, an amplification technology: whereas Germany’s homogenized public power allowed Messter to distribute the Biophon to a large number of small- and mid-sized halls, Gaumont worked at outfitting a small number of large halls. 50 In any case, Gaumont – Messter’s main rival in the sound-on-disc domain – appears to have produced under 300 sound films during the aughts, whereas Messter, a much smaller manufacturer, made over 500. 51 Messter claimed that he and Gaumont had agreed to divide the European market geographically so as not to waste resources competing with each other. 52 The agreement reduced the cost of manufacture and marketing by allowing Gaumont and Messter to make their motor-driven systems only for a single region’s power supply. Thus, Gaumont’s Chronophone used direct-current motors compatible with the Edison-designed 110 volt direct-current power supply available in central Paris, whereas Messter, based in Berlin, used motors made for Germany’s 220 volt alternating-current supply.
Income from the Biophon apparatus and films allowed Messter to build up the most powerful film company in Germany during the aughts. By mid-decade, as the German film industry became centered on the Tonbilder , Messter’s sound-on-disc success inspired competitors. 53 1907 marked a boom in applications in Germany for sound-film patents, and numerous firms began offering sound-film systems.
The turning point occurred in 1909, when sound-on-disc’s centrality to German cinema eroded as the film industry in Europe shifted away from the single-reel short and toward the feature-length movie. The Tonbilder were short split-reel films, limited to the three- to four-minute duration of the 78 rpm gramophone disc. In the emergent feature-film context, such films served only as a special attraction, an adjunct to the main show. In 1909 Messter, after years of increasing success, lost money for the first time, and quickly curtailed the production of Tonbilder . Signaling the shift in France were the bi-annual editions of the Catalogue Gaumont pour projections parlants , which beginning in 1909, “accorderont de moins en moins d’égard aux phono-scènes”, as Edouard Arnoldy observes. 54 During the next few years the downward trend accelerated, including in Germany, where the sound-on-disc market had been so strong just a few years before. Michael Wedel points out that “after 1911, only a few production companies [in Germany] still provided the market with sound pictures”, and that “in the 1913–1914 season the production of sound pictures in Germany had come to a virtual standstill”. 55 At that point, sound-on-disc endured only on the film industry’s margins. When Edison marketed his improved Kinetophone in 1913, he sold licenses to the Keith-Orpheum chain of vaudeville houses rather than to movie theatres – a debacle alleged to have created a half-million dollar loss for Keith-Orpheum. 56
The case of sound-on-disc prior to World War I suggests two points regarding electrification’s relevance to film history, which I will try briefly to spell out in these concluding comments. The first point concerns the scope of this relevance, which goes beyond the question of how regional differences in electrification skewed the fate of synch-sound cinema in the U.S., Britain, and Europe. During 1907–1910, electrification also affected other aspects of cinema, such as projection – as captured in the common belief that movie projection required direct current rather than alternating. In addition, electrification transformed film production and cinematography, as film studios increasingly used electric illumination for shooting; and it had overwhelming consequences for exhibition and advertising. Electrification’s significance for the motion-picture business is demonstrated in the period’s film-trade press, packed with detailed discussion of electricity-related questions.
The second point concerns electrification’s implications for film historiography’s established practice of dividing cinema history in terms of nation-state boundaries. Electrification prior to World War I – like cinema itself – evolved geographically according to patterns rarely coinciding with the territorial limits of the nation state. Electricity developments initiated in city centers may only gradually have radiated outward to other districts, as well as to broader regions. Regarding Germany, electrification’s scope, like that of the Tonbild industry, can perhaps be said to have been transnational, inasmuch as other countries adopted German electrical technologies and norms, thereby enabling the export of German systems and films across parts of central and northern Europe. Given the unique electricity resources of the large cities, the movie-going experience in a capital city likely had less in common with that in the nation’s hinterlands than in a different nation’s capital. In any case, electric power’s importance for virtually all aspects of cinema justifies further inquiry into how electricity’s geographical diversity conditioned the cinema’s evolution.
Notes
1. Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 157–178.
2. See Corinna Müller, Frühe deutsche kinematographie: Formale, wirtschaftliche und kulturelle Entwick-lungen (Stuttgart and Weimar: J.B. Metzler, 1994), 79–83.
3. Loiperdinger’s figure of 519 Tonbilder was presented in an unpublished conference paper, and is reported in Jens Ulff-Moller, “Biophon Sound Films in Danish Cinemas, 1904–1914: the ‘Talking and Singing Movies’ in Constantin Philipsen’s Kosmorama Cinemas”, Film History 11 (1999): 456–463. The claim that some 1,500 sound-on-disc negatives were produced in Germany between 1903 and 1913 can be found in Albert Narath, Oskar Messter, der Begründer der deutschen Kino- und Filmindustrie (Berlin: Deutsche Kinemathek, 1966), 31.
4. Regarding the imperative of synchronization, see, for example, John B. Rathbun, Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting (Chicago: Charles Thompson, 1914), 231; and “Singing and Talking Pictures”, Moving Picture World (6 March 1909): 1.
5. In “Edison’s Talking Pictures”, Nickelodeon (September 1910): 119.
6. See Robert L. Hastings, “Combining the Motion Picture and the Phonograph”, Moving Picture World (31 July 1909): 158. The same point is made in F. P., “Singing Picture Synchronisers”, The Bioscope (7 October 1909): 73. “As it is essential that the gramophone should be placed facing the audience, and in the general case the bioscope projects from the back, any mechanical contrivance is useless, and the aid of electricity must be employed.” A counter-example can be found in a negative review of a Chronophone show at New York’s Unique Theatre: “Owing probably to the fact that the talking machine must be located at the side of the stage in this house, instead of back of the curtain, the picture curtain being fixed to a solid wall, the illusion of talking pictures is wholly destroyed”. In “Gaumont Talking Pictures”, New York Dramatic Mirror (31 October 1908): 8. A related problem concerned the need during shooting to keep the recording horn close to the singer yet out of camera range. See “Difficulties of Talking Pictures”, New York Dramatic Mirror (26 December 1908), 8.
7. See “Cameraphone, the Latest Wonder”, Moving Picture World (25 April 1908): 370. “The two [i.e. projector and graphophone] are operated by one man, who controls them by electricity. The moving picture film and machine is generated by a spring motor, as is the graphophone. The operator remains at the moving picture machine and by pressing a button starts the graphophone …”
8. See “Singing Pictures: The ‘Cinephone’ Synchroniser”, Moving Picture World (6 March 1909): 277.
9. See Henry Seymour, “Hints on Gramophones and How to obtain the Best Results”, The Bioscope (27 October 1910): 37. When Cinephone was introduced into the U.S. market in 1909, the technicians tried to meliorate the mechanical gramophone player’s inconsistent speed by upgrading the player to a special model made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, which used a “quick starting talking machine with an unusually heavy double spring”. See “Singing Pictures: The ‘Cinephone’ Synchroniser”.
10. In “The Perfection of the Phono-Cinematograph”, The Moving Picture World (14 September 1907): 435.
11. On the Chr

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