Motion pictures

Execution of Czolgosz

Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901)

This gentle, business-like image comes from one of the most discussed and notorious of early films, Edison’s Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901). Leon F. Czolgosz was the assassin of President William McKinley, and Edwin S. Porter and James White journeyed to Auburn Prison in upstate New York, reportedly with the hope of filming Czolgosz’s actual execution in the electric chair. Happily they were rebuffed, but they filmed the outside of the prison on the day of the execution, then back at the studio the Edison team dramatised the scene that had taken place inside, and cut the films together.

Should you wish to, you can see the film on the Library of Congress’ American Memory site, which supplies this original catalogue description:

A detailed reproduction of the execution of the assassin of President McKinley faithfully carried out from the description of an eye witness. The picture is in three scenes. First: Panoramic view of Auburn Prison taken the morning of the electrocution. The picture then dissolves into the corridor of murderer’s row. The keepers are seen taking Czolgosz from his cell to the death chamber, and shows State Electrician, Wardens and Doctors making final test of the chair. Czolgosz is then brought in by the guard and is quickly strapped into the chair. The current is turned on at a signal from the Warden, and the assassin heaves heavily as though the straps would break. He drops prone after the current is turned off. The doctors examine the body and report to the Warden that he is dead, and he in turn officially announces the death to the witness. Class B 200 ft. $24.00

So much that is complex, problematic, mysterious, engrossing and unique about the motion picture is bound up in this short film; in its production, reception and subsequent critical understanding. What exactly does it signify? What is the relationship between the actuality footage and the dramatised? How ‘real’ is it? How do we understand the figure of Czolgosz from what is presented to us? Why did audiences want to see the film, and what exactly did they see in it? It is these mysteries, and in particular the presence of the human body in motion, trailing all kinds of ‘anxieties and preoccupations’ with it, that forms the subject of a new book on early cinema, Jonathan Auerbach’s Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations, which places the Czolgosz film on its front cover.

Body Shots

It’s an inelegant title, but a compelling work – quite the best book on early film that I’ve read in ages. Its argument is not one you can summarise easily. Auerbach’s interest is in the earliest years of film before narrative took hold, when the signification of these figures in motion is not straightforward. He does not put forward an all-encompassing theory, but rather raises questions and demonstrates the complexity of an audience’s understanding of the figure in motion. In doing so, he rather lays into the dominant theory in this field, the ‘cinema of attractions’, promoted by Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault in the mid-1980s, and cited religiously by countless students and scholars of early cinema ever since. The theory (to use Auerbach’s words) “posits early films and filmmaking as a mode of showing that privileged immediate shock and sensation over narrative continuity and integration”. So, variety acts, exotic scenes, hand-painted colour, magic tricks – spectacle over story.

I doubt that Gunning himself would say that his should be a theory to explain all film before 1906, but it has become an orthodoxy, as Auerbach states, and he’ll have none of it. For him it is too cosy a solution, too tidy an explanation of what should be perplexing, uncertain territory. He finds the evidence provided by specific films, in their specific contexts, and it is close readings of just a handful of actuality (or pseudo-actuality) films that makes the book such an engrossing read.

Perhaps the book’s tour de force is the chapter on McKinley at Home – Canton, O (1896). This brief film shows the Republican candidate for the presidency, William McKinley, walking across his garden and receiving a telegram, before walking with a companion of out frame. Auerbach tell us the history of McKinley’s campaign (he made a virtue of staying at home), the film’s production (McKinley’s brother was on the board of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company which made the film), its promotion, interpretations of the film at the time (the message he was receiving could be interpreted how you wished), the participatory nature of its reception (audiences reacting vocally to what they saw on the screen), and the film’s enthusiastic reception by a press largely dedicated to the Republican cause. Four years later, he would be assassinated, and the chapter concludes with a more speculative reading of Execution of Czolgosz.

Auerbach demonstrates the range of strategies and meanings that can underlie such a simple seeming actuality as McKinley at Home. Of course, not all films of the 1890s may yield such a rich contextual history, but it is the potential for such contexts that matters – that, and the relationship between film and audience, each operating in their own particular sphere. None of the profusion of ideas that Auerbach brings to his interpretation of McKinley at Home, Execution of Czolgosz, early Edison and Lumière actualities, The May Irwin Kiss, The Big Swallow, Personal or The Life of an American Fireman seems forced or inappropriate. The themes he takes on include the visualisation of sound, the emergence of the chase movie as proto-narrative, and finally a Barthesian meditation on death and early film, when such bodies cease to move.

The great appeal of early cinema is its receptivity to ideas, its status as a period when no one can be certain of what is going on, just as Auerbach says about the early actualities themselves:

… volition and animation are often at odds rather than coterminous, a fact that gives these early moving images a peculiar kind of affect, suggesting neither filmmakers nor viewers nor bodies on-screen quite knew what to make of or do with themselves. Hence their interest for me.

It seems a new generation of theorists is coming to the field (Auerbach’s background is in literary studies) and dragging early cinema forward or back into the many worlds to which it belongs. Body Shots is not an easy read, but then neither is it a difficult one. It makes films that you may not have seen nevertheless visible, and makes you want to look again with sharper eyes at those you do know. I may not have explained it terribly well, but I do recommend it.

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