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Concluding Remarks

cinema films motion film

B y the fall of 1907, American companies were beginning the rapid expansion of film production that would continue throughout the period covered by Eileen Bowser in volume 2 of this series. Yet to be successful, or even possible, this increase required a radical reorganization of film production based on hierarchy and specialization—something that Pathé and Vitagraph were just beginning to institute. These changes quickly annihilated existing methods of representation and transformed established ways of audience reception. As Bowser shows in The Transformation of Cinema, this process of reorganization was not simple. Only hints of such innovations can be seen at the very end of this period, in such films as Vitagraph’s T HE B OY, THE B UST, AND THE B ATH and Pathé’s T HE D OINGS OF A P OODLE (1907). Their linear organization of shots, once well established, would provide audiences with a new framework for understanding and appreciation at the same time as it created opportunities for new cinematic techniques such as parallel editing. The changes in quantity and quality of production thus brought to a close the period in film history that has been labeled “early cinema” and soon pushed many prominent pre-1907 filmmakers, such as Wallace McCutcheon and Georges Méliès, to the periphery of the industry. The next volume shows how the presentationalism and syncretism of early cinema were curtailed and dominated by new assumptions about the “well-made” film. In the process a new, proto-Hollywood system of representation emerged.

The early years of American cinema have often been treated as a romance in which a few people with keen insight saw the future of motion pictures, struggled for a time, and finally prospered. In an industry that enjoyed extraordinary growth, such a perception is not without basis. Nonetheless, the industry’s growth was erratic and unpredictable; many shared the same vision of cinema’s future, yet some of them failed. In this respect, Woodville Latham, William Paley, and a few others whose careers have been chronicled in these pages can stand for the many who were less talented, less well situated, or less lucky and as a result faced continual struggles simply to survive. Nor should it be forgotten that a whole class of people working in the industry, the motion-picture operators, experienced the debasing of their work and the daily grind of sweltering nickelodeon projection booths.

Yet the history of cinema should not be recounted as a tragedy either. As Miriam Hansen notes, a whole series of changes, dislocations, and contradictions within cinema created new opportunities to affirm or to challenge the dominant ideology and power relations within the nations social, political, and cultural realms. 1 Creative personnel who had been marginalized (and in some respects radicalized) by other cultural practices found new freedom in this quickly transforming domain. Those who entered the motion-picture industry often did so because they were stuck at the periphery of related fields or because they had failed outright in some other business. G. M. Anderson, an actor relegated to minor theatrical troupes touring the nation’s small-town opera houses, saw films as an alternative to life at the margins. Sigmund Lubin, a modestly successful optician and supplier of photographic goods who had suffered bankruptcy, was also ready to exploit an innovative product in his field. Edwin S. Porter, who had gone bankrupt in the early 1890s and so had abandoned the hope of owning his own small-town business, entered the navy and eventually moved to New York to find work in the field of electricity. For them, cinema represented a break from the status quo. And while this break did not occur systematically in all areas of their thought and action, neither was it an isolated phenomenon. A few, such as Lyman H. Howe, D. W. Robertson, Dwight Elmendorf, and Burton Holmes, projected relatively conservative public personas in their efforts to woo particular groups. But the vast majority of the motion-picture industry’s first generation looked elsewhere for patrons and eagerly contributed to the dynamism of America’s popular culture in all its contradictory convictions.

The motion-picture industry exemplified a general trend toward larger commercial units and a hierarchical structure. Yet such conservative trends were often contradicted or reversed, at least in the near term. Despite all his efforts in the courts and through commercial means, Thomas Edison was never able to completely rout the independents who sprang up around him. By the late 1910s, the Edison and Biograph companies would be out of the motion-picture business altogether. Ironically, the very dynamics of change that favored consolidation and rationalization frequently worked against those in a dominant position. Change was commonly introduced by those companies or individuals who were at a competitive disadvantage. Lubin was the first 35-mm producer to find a permanent outlet in vaudeville, while the Edison organization, via the Kinetograph Company, was the last. Vitagraph, with its reputation as an exhibitor, was the last to become a renter, while these older rental firms generally gave way to a new group of Young Turks. Opportunities to succeed or fail abounded: many individuals and firms did one, and then the other. The rapid reorganization of cinema’s methods of production was part of a profound transformation of American life in which the positive and negative aspects were inextricably intertwined.

Although the period surveyed here concludes just as motion pictures were becoming a new form of mass communication, it should be clear that screen practice even during this early era profoundly altered American life. Even though cinema continued a presentational framework evident in screen and related cultural practices, it also strengthened contradicting impulses that eventually found expression in the seamless realism of Griffith. Projected motion pictures redefined the horizon of expectations for realism and eventually for intimacy and spectacle. They had not only an immediate impact but a cumulative one that echoed throughout Western culture, affecting a wide range of forms and representational systems.

By 1897 the moving image was already transforming the world of sport, turning it into a big business. Yet instead of simply expanding and affirming male homosocial amusement, fight films sometimes (but not always) had the opposite effect, giving women access to many aspects of that world. Likewise, while many films assumed and overtly supported a male-privileged society, their intent was frequently subverted by unexpected conditions of production or reception. The influx of theatrical personnel toward the end of the period, as well as the new audience created by the nickelodeons, thus set the stage for a pro-suffrage cinema in the 1910s. The filmmakers may have intended to bolster the privileged world of white, middle-class males, but in seeking to secure their own place within that world, they actually changed it.

Early cinema in America displayed surprising ideological diversity, even though the worldviews it expressed were centered around clusters of middle-class belief. Actualities and documentary programs often offered an overtly conservative agenda, with Lyman Howe’s cinema of reassurance exemplary in this respect. During the Spanish-American War, cinema demonstrated its effectiveness as a vehicle for political and wartime propaganda. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the immediate results unambiguously championed the extension of American power overseas and emphasized the responsibility of Nordic Americans to protect and then rule those seen as less skilled in (and less suited for) self-government. Certainly the marginalization of these traditionally dominant forms of screen entertainment by 1904 was seen (and properly so) as a defeat for the efforts of traditional cultural arbiters to dictate cultural and ideological tastes. The ascendency of fiction films meant that ideological domination would have to be less direct and less predictable. The methods and consequences were more mysterious and often puzzling. Yet if this new cinema worked less directly, it also worked more pervasively with the arrival of cheap film theaters—and perhaps more deeply as well. Comedies, in particular, favored more relaxed attitudes toward sex and contributed to the breakdown of Victorian values. They might have appeared to be simple moral tales wherein transgressors received just punishment, yet images and actions could have quite different effects: the shoe clerk who steals a kiss under the eyes of the chaperone may suffer a beating in T HE G AY S HOE C LERK , but the pleasure of the kiss is not entirely eradicated. This 1903 film, set appropriately in a shoe store, looked toward a consumer society of mass-produced goods and greater leisure. Did it liberate the spectator from the constricting norms of the past or did it more firmly and more insidiously bring the spectator under industrial society’s domination? These contradictory movements occurred simultaneously and functioned in a way that even today remains familiar.

Early cinema embraced contradictory qualities. Its technological sophistication, its initial appearance as a novelty and early association with the newspaper and vaudeville, its frequent rejection of the genteel values of nineteenth-century America, its raucous commercial life, and its rapid development as an entertainment form all associated moving pictures with the new, the modern, and the dynamic. Yet the cinema also looked back longingly at a receding, idealized past. The bad-boy and fairy-tale genres nostalgically remembered a less-regimented world. The plethora of family-centered dramas that focused on separation and reunion, at a time when migration from country to city and from Europe to the United States split up many families, reveals a cinema compensating for loss. Films such as T HE M ILLER’S D AUGHTER romanticized rural life and condemned the alienation and impersonality of the city; others such as T HE 100 TO O NE S HOT did the reverse. Truly, American early cinema was, as Noël Burch has said about the work of Edwin S. Porter, a two-headed Janus looking backward toward the past and forward into the future. It is the intensity and the intimacy of these contradictory phenomena that are so striking. Every backward look seemed to be accompanied by slippages and dislocations that propelled cinema forward.

New forms of communication emerging in the 1890s, notably the phonograph and moving pictures, provided Americans with unexpected sources of pleasure. This tentative shift toward a consumer culture was greatly extended with the proliferation of storefront theaters, which only a year or two before had suffered a seemingly irreversible setback owing to the success of vaudeville. The unexpected success of nickelodeons posed new challenges and offered new possibilities. Filmmakers had tended to assume that their audiences matched their own backgrounds in terms of class and culture. Before the nickelodeon era, this assumption was not literally true, but it was not inappropriate either. From the filmmakers’ perspective the bad-boy films were a return to carefree days, and these comedies do seem to have been accepted on those terms. But with the nickelodeons these pictures were seen very differently—as schools of crime for American youth. Vestigial memories suddenly posed a powerful threat against the existing order when appropriated by those who had previously been all but excluded from theatrical-style entertainments.

Many American films of the early period, for instance C OHEN’S F IRE S ALE (Edison, 1907), often treated European ethnic groups in a demeaning fashion. Yet other films reflected the inter-ethnic nature of much film production. In 1904 the Edison motion-picture studio, operating under the WASP Edwin S. Porter, employed two Jews, a Lebanese Arab, and an Italian. This basis for production suggests a more sympathetic interpretation of some pictures than they have generally received. For example, in the short comedy C OHEN’S A DVERTISING S CHEME (Edison, 1904) a Jewish businessman combines charity with shrewd business in a way that need not be seen as anti-Semitic. The differences between such films, moreover, may be productively understood if we realize that Edison’s two Jewish employees had moved on to new opportunities in the intervening three years and had not been replaced. Anglo-Saxon exclusivity and nativism vied with Anglo-Saxon inclusivity and interracial collaboration for dominance. Although the polyglot nature of many motion-picture companies can sensitize us to the potential ambiguity and contradiction in their representations of diverse European ethnic groups, there can be no equivocation or excuse for the demeaning racial stereotyping of African Americans and others outside the European pale.

With the advent of the nickelodeons, moving pictures became a democratic art, at least by the standards of the day. Inside the new movie houses, particularly in the downtown areas, an Italian carpenter in need of a bath might sit in an orchestra seat next to a native-born white-collar salesman or a Jewish immigrant housewife—in short, next to anyone who shared with him a sometimes secret passion for what might flicker across the screen. The working class had unprecedented and frequent access to the pleasures of theatrical entertainment, often to the kinds of stories that had previously been available only to more well-to-do citizens. This access brought a new degree of equality, but it also brought screen narratives with middle-class and even elitest assumptions. And yet the fantasies of sex, violence, success, and death that found intensely graphic depiction on the screen seemed to take on new meaning, a different resonance, when watched by people subjected to long hours of exploitative labor, tedium, and even danger in the course of their workweek. What all this meant was just beginning to be debated, as it is debated today in more sophisticated but also sometimes more arcane form.

This study has explored the many continuities and affinities that allow us to consider pre-1907 cinema a unified period. Yet it has also emphasized the enormous changes that occurred within that time frame. Ironically, these changes were so fundamental that they have often gone unrecognized. They raise troubling issues that call for seeing motion-picture history not as the history of a product (the films) or of an industry (Hollywood and its precursors) but of a practice. Fitting the film product or the producers into this larger practice has required extensive research and a new approach. As a result, however, we can begin to understand how a simple one-shot film with no obvious narrative component can, by being placed next to another film and perhaps accompanied by narration, become part of a narrative. Something that appears to today’s viewer as one thing was often, but not necessarily, seen as its opposite in its original context. This explains why the history of early cinema cannot be a history of its films alone. For it is during this early period that the gap between the surviving product and the largely forgotten practice is greatest and the most fundamental transformations of screen practice occurred. By exploring the many distinctive qualities of early motion pictures, I have sought to lay the basis of a new historical perspective for looking at subsequent cinema and even today’s moving-image practices in film and video. We may even gain a greater freedom to imagine how we as filmmakers, exhibitors, teachers, students, archivists, producers, and spectators might make our cinema, our culture, and our society more open, and more constructive as we live our lives.

Condon, Bill - Director, screenwriter, and producer, Career, Sidelights [next] [back] Conant, Hannah O'Brien Chaplin (1809–1865) - Religious History

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