Cinema of Attractions, Then and Now

One myth film students will always hear, or should always hear, is that of the alarm early audiences shared when first seeing the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station. The reactions range from viewers leaning back, screaming, and even getting up and leaving the exhibition site. This after all, is a myth. Indeed there was a reaction, but this tale assumes that early audiences believed in the moving image the same way a child believes in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Their reactions would be more similar to what one feels when first watching HD television. The attention shifts to the clearer physical movements, the hairs on an actor’s arms, and even the imperfect skin that has now become strikingly visible. The reaction, therefore, is more towards the innovative technology. First, the camera was able to bring images to life, now it has been fine-tuned to make these moving images capture smaller aspects of reality. Here is where one can find this notion of intellectual disavowal—“I know, but yet I see.” Knowing that a moving image is not reality, but yet it takes on so many of reality’s characteristics (Gunning 117).

So how far have we really moved from the early cinema, a cinema of attractions? These initial years were rooted in vaudeville, in illusions, in tricks that sought to entice the audience. Indeed, for Melies the narrative took a back seat for the spectacles years ago, but we still can find examples of when the narrative literally pauses for an explosion or a car flipping over in slow motion just so the filmmakers can give the audience a moment of awe. We still maintain this cinema of instants (123).

Once the method of attraction, of advertising early films was the simple command “See!” This direct order sought to tap into an attraction’s primal powers (234). Today, audiences are still allured with the promise of “the thrill ride of the century.” With the coming of motion pictures, the headliners were Cinematographe, the Biograph or Vitascope—the machinery presenting these images—today 3d and IMAX attract audiences.

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