I hate when people talk during movies. But this is a nuisance that has been going on since cinema’s infancy. Theater managers, studios, producers have no way of controlling this, let alone me.
During the Nickelodeon era (1905-1915), audiences conversed not only with each other, but also with the screen. Historians have accounts of moviegoers eating lunch, suckling babies, and viewers translating out loud subtitles for those who could not read, children cheering, and hawkers along the aisles (Fuller: 75). Although there is nothing deviant about these activities, the theater is not the ideal place for them. Essentially this description illustrates a social event similar to a concert or festival.
Indeed watching a film is not a passive activity. However, a degree of cordiality is necessary so that the film is internalized.
Studios and producers capitalized on this audience energy. Moviegoers attacked studios by sending scripts and photoplay scenarios in hoards. Studios retaliated with screenwriting contests in which the winner’s work was used in a movie.
The idea was to establish social control. Because the cinema was still a new phenomenon, a way of movie going needed to be instituted. Similarly, when the television set was introduced, people were unsure where to place this bulky apparatus in their homes. With the coming of nickelodeons, a set movie going etiquette did not exist. The relationship between theaters and moviegoers shifted with the coming of feature length narrative films that required more concentration. In addition, elegant theaters were erected to attract the higher classes (Fuller: 83). The industry, essentially dictated how films were viewed, but breaking the rules has and will always be fun.
It is 1905. You leave work and grab a newspaper on the way home. You skim through the headlines: an earthquake in Iowa, cigarettes barred in Wisconsin, Virginia University gets a gift from Rockefeller. And then on the left hand side of the page, reads an ad “Cook & Harris High Class Moving Picture Company. Thursday Evening, April 20th.” The ad illustrates this upcoming night; a ship appears on the big screen, the opera house is full of viewers. So you go home, mark the date on the calendar; surely nothing like this has come to small-town New York yet. Big cities have seen them and now, the moving pictures are finally coming to us.
Now jump to 2010, there are cinemas everywhere, we can go whenever we want, see billboards in the most unlikely places of upcoming movies, easily look up showtimes on the Internet and pay only a small fee of $10.50. The convenience has caused us to take for granted how readily we have access to the cinema.
During cinemas infancy, the pictures came to you. Traveling companies such as Cook and Harris went to small towns with a two-hour “performance” that featured twenty to twenty five brief film scenes. During intervals, Bert Cook would sing songs while his wife Fannie played the piano (Fuller: 10-12). The local fire department, high school seniors or even the Pentecostal church, making this traveling theatre a part of the community, endorsed these shows. These sponsors than took up to half the proceeds for their causes (14). Traveling shows were virtually put out of business for nickelodeons, a stable, ever present cinema, were established. Any vacant room could be turned into a five-cent, ever present theater (24). And this is how the cinema we see today was transformed.
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.