One of the ideas I was most attracted to here, outlined by Fuller in the preface of her book and then artfully fleshed out over the course of the first chapter, was the prominent culture clashes that occurred in cinema’s nascent stages. Where we now think of the blockbuster Hollywood industry films as fairly unifying (at least across urban/rural and economic demographic divides), this was certainly not the case when moving images were taking off at the very beginning of the century. Films certainly began as an urban phenomenon, and even when “itinerant exhibitors” (like Cook and Harris) began to bring moving images to smaller settlements, the content was initially still urban. The scenes portrayed were urban ones and the places where people gathered to watch them were often the types of places were city people would be more inclined to gather.
This urban/rural clash was equally strong in the contrast between nickelodeon viewing and the style of the traveling exhibitionist—a dichotomy that Fuller fleshes out near the end of the chapter. Nickelodeons first started appearing in tenement areas in urban centers populated by poor immigrant, but when these marquees started migrating to smaller and smaller towns, their affordability began to muscle out the business of Cook and Harris-type operations. The stories like these that Fuller offers present insights not only into the history of audiences, but also into the changing patterns of residence occurring at the same time. In fact, in her examples, we can see how the history of film exhibition offers many insights into, and is inextricably linked with, the rapid growth of urban centers during the 20th century.
A common theme already seems to be emerging in our readings (and I suppose this theme is one of the foundations of our class), and Kathryn Fuller sums it up perfectly near the end of her “Boundaries of Participation” article: “We may have come full circle.” We saw this concept appear in the essays from Gunning, and discussed it in class, with regards to the idea of “exhibitionism” or “shock and awe” returning in recent years to a cinema that had long been dominated by narrative. At the time that Fuller wrote this article, she saw a similar phenomenon occurring in the realm of our interaction with and participation in moviegoing at the theater.
But while both Gunning and Fuller initially point out that we may be “coming full circle” in certain aspects of our relationship with movies, what they really get around to saying is that those aspects which were suppressed as cinema swung towards narrative never really went away; they simply weren’t as prominent before. It’s a well known critical tendency to exaggerate the scope of certain changes in any given field and proclaim this or that definitively “dead”. And Fuller points out that many theorists posited that the days raucous and participatory movie audience ended completely as narrative took over and cinema was professionalized, the theaters darkened and the crowds “tamed”. But while cinema’s participatory culture was never as strong as in the early days of live sound in the theater and open invitations to send scripts to studios, nor did it completely die away. And according to her, that participatory culture is once again on the rise. I’m inclined to agree.
I’m fairly certain I’ve read these Tom Gunning articles before—or at least I’ve read so many articles about the period in cinema’s nascent stages known as the “cinema of attractions,” that they’re all starting to bleed together. For the most part, I found Gunning’s writing pretty dry and the ideas presented in these two articles somewhat familiar. He points out, in both articles, that these earliest of films were not driven by any sort of narrative impulse, and rather placed an emphasis on “shock and awe” rather than any relation of information or formation of story. Perhaps Gunning was the first to put forth these ideas, but they must have been repeated in every piece of criticism ever written on cinema’s first few years of existence.
Still, he proposes a couple ideas which I had not previously considered. Though it seems like a rather semantic point to make, he suggests that “the first spectators’ experience reveals not a childlike belief, but an undisguised awareness of (and delight in) film’s illusionistic qualities,” which fills in point in the development of our cognitive ability to “read” cinema. He also notes (in both articles, I might add) that the position of the audience in early cinema is more exhibitionist, as opposed to the role of an unacknowledged voyeur that the audience would take on as cinema made more of an effort to seem “realistic”.
I found Perkins’ blog post interesting, fun, and much more digestible than Gunning’s writing. Still, though his acknowledgement of the similarity between some early comedic films and early video games is astute, I felt unsure what to take away from his post. Is he saying that video games could benefit from looking back towards the vibrant visual simplicity of their early days? Perhaps the informality of the essay indicates that he simply saw the similarity between these two bodies of work and wanted to point it out, without the pretense of some grand statement behind it.