In Pursuit of the Cinematic: Film Theory in the Silent Era

Ella Diels
Early Film Theory: An IntroductionThe cinema was created in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was not the only technical novelty developed at the time, but belonged to a range of other late-industrial inventions, such as the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877) and the automobile (1880s and 1890s) (Bordwell; Thompson 2010: 3). It soon became part of the nineteenth-century entertainment industry. More specifically, it belonged to the late-Victorian visual culture, along with circuses, freak shows, music halls, vaudeville shows, world expositions and panoramas.

In Pursuit of the Cinematic: Film Theory in the Silent Era

Early Film Theory: An Introduction

The cinema was created in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was not the only technical novelty developed at the time, but belonged to a range of other late-industrial inventions, such as the telephone (1876), the phonograph (1877) and the automobile (1880s and 1890s) (Bordwell; Thompson 2010: 3). It soon became part of the nineteenth-century entertainment industry. More specifically, it belonged to the late-Victorian visual culture, along with circuses, freak shows, music halls, vaudeville shows, world expositions and panoramas. In this article, I will show that not only did a new medium emerge, but that film theory came simultaneously into existence.

After the early experiments of pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière and Georges Méliès, the French film industry expanded. Even though the statistics are not entirely reliable, about 90 percent of all films exhibited throughout the world before World War I were of French origin (Abel 1984: 6). The film critics writing in this pre-war period attempted ‘to clear space for something distinct but not yet autonomous’ (Abel 1993: xvi). As flâneurs, they created a new network of criticism by drawing on various discursive practices, such as scientific and industrial fields, educative and moral institutions, popular spectacles and established arts (Ibid.). This makes discussing this early phase somewhat complicated. Since these flâneurs had different backgrounds, they use different terminology to discuss the same phenomenon. Moreover, these first writings are not yet genuine film theories for the simple reason that ‘film as such’ did not exist yet.

In 1914, the French dominant position collapsed (Ibid.: 9). As a result, France was obliged to import American films, which proved to be very popular. This is, for instance, evident from the fact that the French filmmakers started to imitate American formulas, such as the serial. Also the adoration of American movie stars, like Pearl White, Charlie Chaplin – or ‘Charlot’, his French nickname – and Rio Jim, demonstrate the ease with which the French embraced the new movies from across the ocean (Bordwell 1974: 37). The surrealist poet Philippe Soupault has given a fine description of this French enthusiasm:

 

We walked the cold and deserted streets seeking an accidental, a sudden, meeting with life. To distract ourselves we found it necessary to yoke the imagination to sensational dreams. For a time we              found distraction in lurid periodicals – those papers which are more highly-colored than picture            postcards. We scoured the world for them, and by means of them we participated in marvelous and         bloody dramas which illuminated for an instant various parts of the earth.

Then one day we saw hanging on the walls great posters as long as serpents. At every street-corner a       man, his face covered with a red handkerchief, levelled a revolver at the peaceful passerby. We         imagined that we heard galloping hoofs, the roar of motors, explosions, and cries of death. We rushed   into the cinemas, and realized immediately that everything had changed. On the screen appeared the       smile of Pearl White – that almost ferocious smile which announced the revolution, the beginning of a     new world (1930: 13-14; cited by Abel 1984: 10).

 

After 1915, an important turning point according to Bordwell, cinema was for the first time accepted as a popular modern art and the importation of American films played a significant role in this acceptance (1974: 34). 

Not only the general public was enthusiastic; most French film critics accepted the American films with open arms as well. Theatre and film director André Antoine, for instance, celebrated the American cinema because it had successfully detached itself from the theatre and had so improved the medium in general:

 

America, to whom we presented the cinema once having invented it, has largely repaid us through an      exemplary development and initiative that is beginning to free the new art from the inarticulate               barbarism which has gripped it for far too long. The absence of cumbersome and pernicious theatrical    traditions has allowed our rivals to outdistance us (1919; cited by Abel 1993: 192).

 

Along the same lines, critic Elie Faure argued that American cinema was more relevant than its old-fashioned French equivalent: ‘The French film is only a bastard form of a degenerate theater and seems for that reason to be destined to poverty and death if it does not take a new turn. The American film, on the other hand, is a new art, full of immense perspectives, full of the promise of a great future’ (1922; cited by Abel 1993: 262-263). When Antoine and Faure made these comments, they were mainly objecting to commercial French filmmaking. Nevertheless, in the 1920s the independent film production was expanding as well. Even though these films mainly made losses from an economic point of view, they were very profitable for early film theories from an artistic one.

From 1913 to 1925, the general and artistic public accepted the cinema as a modern art (Bordwell 1974: 25). Before, the artistic world had always considered the new medium as an enemy of the book and so the rapidity with which this attitude changed is rather extraordinary. The avant-gardes in particular were, for several reasons, aroused by it. Firstly, the popular arts were in general re-evaluated by these movements, especially by Surrealism. Secondly, the fascination with physical movement — central to quite a few modern art movements, such as Futurism, Constructivism, Vorticism and Dadaism — was in no other art form as perfectly executed as in the cinema. Thirdly, the new art epitomised the arrival of the new century and modernity at large (Ibid.: 48-49).

 

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Bibliografie

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Universiteit of Hogeschool
Engelse Taal- en letterkunde
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2014
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