Early Edison Shorts versus Youtube

Watching the screening on my own and not knowing which Edison shorts we were supposed to watch, I happened upon a series of shorts that reminded me of the apex of the Youtube craze of a year or two ago. These shorts did not seem to be as focused upon appealing to a credulous viewer as much as taking a knowledgeable viewer, one who had entered the theatre aware of film’s artifice, and transporting him or her to a location or spectacle that most viewers never would have seen before. Continuing with this idea that these audience members were well informed yet curious, a question to ask is how did these viewers react to these shorts? How were they engaged and to what degree? How does their engagement relate to modern-day’s use of homemade videos on Youtube? One aspect of their reaction might have been wonderment towards the subject matter. One of the films was of a body-builder flexing, standing in a medium-long shot.  Even if the viewer had seen a body-builder before, having him positioned larger than life and centered so close probably would have been a new experience. It is even possible that viewers forgot that they were seated in a viewing room and momentarily filled in the visual and auditory gaps not supplied by the film, creating the colorful setting of a fair and all its noises and on-goings, but such immersion is almost too inherent in cinema.  It is common to hear a modern-day filmgoer complain when he or she is incapable of suspending disbelief. But even though I say it is possible that these viewers had these reactions, I suspect that it is more likely that they were engaged with the material more objectively. Knowing that they were going to see an interesting and surprising variety of subject matter, they might have reacted as a Youtube viewers would: by being amused and delighted by the rarities presented on screen. Instead of being shocked and awed, scared back to their primal instincts, they probably saw the films and wondered how the filmmakers were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. How did they happen upon a car chase? Wasn’t it dangerous to go to San Francisco and capture the aftereffects of the great earthquake? What made them think of putting boxing gloves on a pair of cats and having them fight? The last example makes me think of the infamous piano cat, forced into a blue smock and made to play those beautiful tunes. Is it not this same creativity that is exemplified in these early shorts? And is it unrealistic to suspect that early filmgoers reacted comparably to modern-day Youtube surfers, calling family members to gather round and watch this amazing clip they just found? I suppose what I’m arguing is that early viewers and early filmmakers are comparable to modern day ones because they too were looking for visual gems to share with the world, and that they too had an understanding of the medium.  They knew they were not sharing an actual occurrence, but a replication of the original.