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):

  • Execution of Czolgosz, a re-enactment of the electrocution of President William McKinley’s assassin. The film opens with the camera panning across outside the prison on the day of Czolgosz’s execution before cutting to the re-enactment. According to Doane, the sweeping camera movement often signaled actuality footage, while the static camera during the execution sequence would indicate to viewers that the action was staged. The film also expresses a fascination with electricity as a means of execution, something that interested Edison.
  • Arrival of McKinley’s Funeral Train, which also documents events surrounding McKinley’s assassination. Not much to add there because I just happened to come across it by accident.
  • What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, one of many Edison “What Happened” films. It involves a static camera that captures a series of movements on a New York sidewalk–the camera seems to capture whatever happens, but when a young woman walks across a grate, a gust of air blows up her skirt, which aligns the camera with a voyeuristic gaze, but it also invokes images of modernity as an undifferentiated mass of detail, out of which the significant event emerges.
  • What Happened in the Tunnel, another film that plays with sexual desire and temporality. In this film a white woman and her black maid are seated on a train in front of a young man. The man flirts with the woman, trying to seduce her. In the middle of teh seduction the film fades to black for about ten seconds, signifying that the train is going through a tunnel. During this time, the two women switch seats so that the man finds himself hugging and kissing the black woman, thus introducing fears of miscegination into anxieties about representing sexual imagery.
  • Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show: The “Uncle Josh” films were an early “genre” where a country rube is fooled by new-fangled technologies such as the motion picture. In this one, the poor guy is first fooled by a film of dancer (again highlighting cinema’s voyeuristic tendencies), and then he is frightened by a film of a train rushing toward the camera. Fed up, “Uncle Josh” finally rips down the movie screen, still unable to comprehend cinema’s illusory representations.

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.


  1. mike Said,

    July 30, 2003 @ 7:56 am

    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.

  2. dave Said,

    July 30, 2003 @ 11:51 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.

  3. chuck Said,

    July 31, 2003 @ 11:46 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.

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