« Early "Time-Bending" Film | Main | Happy Endings and Afterimages »

July 29, 2003

Time, Death, and Sex in Early Cinema

I'm completely fasicinated with the early films stored in the American Memory Digital Library, especially after reading Mary Ann Doane's discussion of their treatment of time. Note: To view films, click the above link, click "search," and then type the name of the film. I've been having touble with establishing direct links to the films themselves.

A few of the films I checked out (most by Edison's studios):

I was struck by the use of film to convey the temporal irreversibility of death (there were other "execution films," including actual footage of an elephant being electrocuted, but most aren't available in the Digital Library). Of course, as I mentioned yesterday, early film used the potential reversibility of the cinematic image in some complicated ways, and it was common practice during the earliest days of "the cinema of attractions" to play films backwards, to show them several times in succession, to play with the multiple temporalities of cinema (the time of the narrative, the time of projection, the time of spectation) in complicated ways. I think there is a tendency in certain teleological histories of cinema to view these early films as "primitive," and while it certainly takes a while for the language of narrative cinema (or "classical cinema" to use the Bordwell-Thompson language) to develop, already by 1900-1901, complicated temporal schemas are already starting to appear. Very cool stuff.

Posted by chuck at July 29, 2003 11:37 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


FYI, Chuck. Jonathan Auerbach, my former dissertation director, has an article in _American Quarterly_ on the McKinley films by the Edison studio (51.4 (1999) 797-832). You may be able to see it online at Project Muse (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_quarterly/v051/51.4auerbach.html), if Tech has access.

Posted by: mike at July 30, 2003 7:56 AM

the american memory project's collection of those early films is so rich! thanks for taking us back. a few years ago, i was lucky to be in a seminar on 1890s america (led by the aforementioned jonathan auerbach) and we devoted a good bit of time to them. the way race gets codified is astonishing. see, for instance, "A Morning Bath" (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/papr:@field(SUBJ+@band(Afro-American+children+))), in which a black infant is washed... vigorously. there are other media in which that trope is popular during the era (esp. pear's soap print advertisements, in which the "virtues of cleanliness" are made part of an overt colonial project. r. ohmann's selling culture has lots of good images). but edison, et al certainly know the racial imaginary of the turn-of-the-century.

Posted by: dave at July 30, 2003 11:51 AM

Thanks for the suggestions, Mike and Dave. The Edison films are definitely caught up in (and reproducing) the racial imaginary of the early twentieth century.

The "presidential" films--of both McKinley and Roosevelt were interesting. I'm looking forward to doing more digging in the American Memory collections.

Posted by: chuck at July 31, 2003 11:46 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)