Cinema, once a rarity, is ubiquitous. From insect wings (see Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight) to the Earth itself, nothing has been left un-captured. The sheer frequency at which we are bombarded by images lies beyond our awareness––we are so accustomed to this visual culture, so habituated to the medium that we do not question our consumption. Author Don DeLillo writes: “In our world we sleep and eat the image and pray to it and wear it too.” A world without images is unimaginable: “they have, by their sheer number and ease of replication, become less magical and less shocking…(Rosen).” We don’t consider the novelty of the image’s visual immediacy––we see and we understand, but we are numb to their particularities. Exploring spectatorship––the relation between the filmic apparatus and the viewing subject––explains the erosion of the moving image’s novelty and reveals the particularities of the medium.
John Berger writes: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak (7).” Of the five basic senses, it is sight with which we inform ourselves of our world. Though we explain what we see with words, these words can’t be directly mapped onto our experience of sight. In a rather romantic sentiment, Berger states: “When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate (8).” There is then, something unique to sight. Though we might regard it as something fundamental––unbiased even (“seeing is believing”)––to see is also a choice. We do not see all indiscriminately, we choose what to look at. To look is to articulate the relationship between something and ourselves; in seeing, we are aware of our own visibility––that we too are subjects to be seen by others. This instinctive relational mode of sight explains the shock of early cinema.
The Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, premiered in 1895 and was one of the earliest films to be shot and screened for an audience. The film runs for a total of 46 seconds––a length that now would be extraordinarily brief even for short films. For less than a minute we watch workers exiting a building. Through modern eyes, the short feels rather mundane. There is none of the cinema magic that we are now accustomed to: no camera movement, no cuts, no plot. All we see is people moving. These shorts are now called “actualités”––directly translating to ‘current affairs’––a name which signals our understanding of these images as real but unspectacular. But when the film was first shown to an audience of ten, the projected images alarmed. To see the world reproduced in such illusory realism was an entirely new experience.
Tom Gunning coined the term “cinema of attractions,” which refers to cinema that displays most explicitly the unique power of the moving image. He writes: “It is precisely this harnessing of visibility, this act of showing and exhibition, which I feel cinema before 1906 displays most intensely (381).” Workers Leaving the Lumière Factoryembodies an ethos of visual pleasure entirely separate from contemporary cinema. Without a reliance on narrative absorption, the spectator is aware of their own engagement with the images they are watching; and the images incite curiosity unique to their visuality. Rey Chow writes in Film and Cultural Identity: “Film, precisely because it signifies the thorough permeation of reality by the mechanical apparatus and thus the production of a seamless resemblance to reality itself, displaces once and for all the sovereignty of the so-called original, which is now often an imperfect and less permanent copy of itself… (89).” What made the images of the world in motion so fascinating was then partly this aggressive realism––and what Chow describes as a “destruction of the aura,” the ‘aura’ being the “irreplaceable sense of presence that was unique to traditional works of art when such works of art were rooted in specific times and places.” In this sense, the very act of filmic reproduction fundamentally alters the actuality being depicted. Though the originality of images is destroyed––separating film from reality and allocating it as fabrication––filmic reproduction simultaneously remains an illusion of truth.
Our relationship with images is marked by a “change in terms of the agency of seeing: the realist accuracy of the image announces that a mechanical eye, the eye of the camera, has replaced the human eye altogether in mechanism, filmic images carry with them an inhuman quality even as they are filled with human contents (89).” Herein lies the paradox of filmic images: we perceive them as constructed, fake, spectacle but we are never immune to their illusory realism. We are fascinated by seeing ourselves in a form that is ever so real––akin to the shock of seeing one’s appearance in the first mirrors. The illusion that what the camera captures is real––or, as per Dziga Vertov’s We: Variant of a Manifesto, that the camera captures what would otherwise be impossible for the weak human-eye––endlessly seduces us.
The end of Gunning’s cinema of attractions around 1907 marked the narrativization of cinema. The excitement of film was no longer conditional on the primacy of visuality, but rather on the creation of a “self-sufficient narrative world upon the screen (383).” Hollywood entered its “Golden Age” in the mid 1910s, and soon developed its style, whose defining characteristics revolved entirely around the audience’s narrative absorption. As filmic technology progressed, techniques like montage, slow-motion, jump cuts and so on became vectors of dramatic expression. The shock of visuality of early Lumière films became invisible; classic Hollywood cinema used visual shock only to explain plot. Films’ new aesthetic convention circulated around clarity, cause and effect, and closure.
The studio-system rose to prominence in the 20s, transforming Hollywood into an economic powerhouse and cultural phenomenon. Hollywood’s hegemony defined visual aesthetics and film consumption globally. Since the early days of cinema, spectatorship evolved along with filmic technologies. With a new focus on narrative, audiences could still project themselves onto filmic images but in a way that allowed them a heightened escapism––a reception conditional on deception. It is no surprise that film has been so successful; identification with the reproduced human image is “now profoundly enmeshed with technological intervention, which ensures that even (or especially) when the camera seems the least intrusive, the permeation of the film spectacle by the apparatus is complete and unquestionable (Chow, 86).”
In the contemporary, the “exhibitionist confrontation” of the early cinema of attractions is found in avant-garde and experimental cinema. The aforementioned Stan Brakhage film Mothlight (1963) is an example, or Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964): neither have narratives and their spectacle resides in their visuality. But with the advent of newer technologies and our so-called image-culture, contemporary audiences’ ways of seeing are essentially different from the spectators of the Lumières’ first films. It is no longer possible to see a forty-second film of people leaving work and feel enthralled by the images; one could be enthralled by the possibility that others once were alarmed by the same images, but there is no retrieving this experience of sight. Diegetic absorption is expected––even understood as necessary. Trained to film’s illusionary properties, when the moving image breaks this illusion, discomfort overwhelms us: we like and want to be deceived by images.
With a new generation that has never existed without smartphones––without an immediate and endless possibility of image reproduction––what will the future of cinema look like? How will new modes of seeing and showing develop? Film has always required “a mode of interaction that is public and collective,” largely contingent on the experience of theaters (Chow, 86). With news that Warner Brothers will release upcoming features simultaneously in theaters and via streaming service HBO Max, it seems the long predicted demise of the movie theater is nearer. In a streaming-service dominated industry, the experience of film becomes private. Will this change our way of seeing? Will seeing still be believing?
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin, 2008.
Choq, Rey. “Film and Cultural Identity.” The Rey Chow Reader, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 84-91.
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant Garde.” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, Amsterdam University Press, 2006, pp. 381-388. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n09s.27?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
Lattanzio, Ryan. “On This Day in 1895, the Lumière Brothers Debuted Their First Film and Changed the World.” IndieWire, 22 March 2020, https://www.indiewire.com/2020/03/lumiere-brothers-workers-leaving-factory-anniversary-1202219698/. Accessed 5 December 2020.
Rosen, Christine. “The Image Culture.” The New Atlantis, 2005, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-image-culture. Accessed 5 December 2020.
Sun, Vincent Li. “Cinema of Attractions.” Film Theory, 2010, http://justselina.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2010/04/27/cinema-of-attractions/. Accessed 5 December 2020.
Vertov, Dziga. “We: Variant of A Manifesto.” Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, University of California Press, 2014, pp. 23-26, https://monoskop.org/images/6/66/Vertov_Dziga_1922_1984_We_Variant_of_a_Manifesto.pdf.