The Haunted Gallery

The Haunted Gallery

What fabulous book cover this is. I’d buy the book purely on the strength of the picture – in fact I just have. The image is a 1901 poster for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, taken from the copyright collection of The National Archives. Biograph’s 70mm films were a special feature of the Palace Theatre in London (still active today, currently showing Spamalot), and Biograph programmes generally featured news items – hence the full slogan on the screen (which is obscured on the book cover), ‘The Biograph Reproduces the Latest Events from All Parts of the World’.

But the book within is no less of a treasure. The subject of The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c.1900 is how the moving picture changed visual culture at the end of nineteenth century. Lynda Nead is an art and cultural historian, whose first foray into film history this is. Although the subtitle implies equal coverage of painting and photography, the motion picture takes centre stage, but is set into new and exciting contexts by demonstrating its effects alongside the whole range of contemporary visual media, including painting, photography, stage magic, the magic lantern, posters and even astronomy.

The result is a giddyingly rich brew of evidence and analysis, all expounding a shift in visual culture from stasis to motion, which in turn altered modes of perception and ushered in our modern world. The book’s title comes from a characteristic Nead use of the visual as metaphor: an illustration of the Haunted Gallery at Hampton Gallery, which she describes thus:

A space for pictures and for ghosts, the gallery is also for endless pacing watched by portraits of generations of the dead. It is a place of presences but not life, of likenesses which seem real but which are merely representations or figments of the imagination. The picture gallery is also a place of alternating light and darkness; it is a narrow apartment illuminated by shifts of light cast by unseen objects obliterating the light … How apt that the shadows cast on the ceiling by the windows and tapestried walls look like a strip of film, with intermittent, spaced-out picture frames, separated by short intervals of blank darkness. Set this sequence in motion and the enchantment begins; the pictures come to life and the ghosts haunt the gallery.

Nead finds in the haunted gallery a powerful metaphor for the ‘uncanny magic’ of early film. Typically she finds multiple analogues for this concept, from Edison and Biograph advertising films of ancestors climbing down from portraits on the wall to drink Dewar’s Whisky, to similar Scottish ancestors doing much the same in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Ruddigore, to Georges Méliès’ films The Living Playing Cards and The Mysterious Portrait, to tableaux vivant, to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (the statue that came to life). It all interconnects.

It certainly helps if you can see the pictures, and the book is richly illustrated throughout, sometimes enthralling so. Themes covered include the wheel and movement, representation of the everyday and the detective camera, the vision of mobility generated by the new-fangled motor car, the strip (the film strip, the cartoon strip and the striptease), and the astronomical imagination. This latter section looks at visions of the heavens (by way of serpentine dances, G.F. Watts, electricity and the Paris 1900 Exhibition), including some startling examples of astronomical photography spilling over into the imaginative world, represented in particular by Camille Flammarion, the French astronomer, author and astronomical filmmaker, whose 1872 novel Lumen describes all-seeing beings who view the passing of a time as a ray of light, in a constant relay of images. Metaphors, metaphors everywhere.

The best image comes last – a map of the procession through London taken to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on 22 June 1897 (filmed by many cameramen), marked with bright yellow explosion symbols to mark where Martian explosions occur as recorded in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in the same year. However, it’s not all image and metaphor, and there’s a good deal of practical understanding of the production of images (still and moving) underpinning the theoretical stuff. The moving images make sense on a practical level as well as an imaginative one.

As with Jonathan Auerbach’s Body Shots, covered in a recent post, here is someone from outside the usual early film studies coterie, looking on the subject with fresh eyes and leading it into a broader cultural world, demonstrating bold analogies and connections, inviting in those from other disciplines to see how film was integral to a change in consciousness in the late-Victorian/early-Edwardian era. Both publications have enriched our field. I feel that the Bioscope may have to expand, to become just that little bit more metaphorical, if it is properly to represent its subject in its contexts. We’ll see.

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.

The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded


The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded is new publication from Amsterdam University Press, edited by Wanda Strauven. Here’s some blurb:

Twenty years ago, Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault introduced the concept of attraction to define the quintessence of the earliest films made between 1895 and 1906. As ‘cinema of attractions’ this concept has become widely adopted, even outside the field of early cinema. Ranging from the films of the Lumière brothers to The Matrix by Andy and Larry Wachowski, from trains rushing into the audience to bullet time effects, the ‘cinema of attractions’ is a cinema that shocks, astonishes and directly addresses the film spectator.

This anthology traces the history of the ‘cinema of attractions,’ reconstructs its conception and questions its significance for early cinema, avant-garde cinema, (New) Hollywood cinema, up to recent media applications such as virtual reality and computer games. With contributions by Christa Blümlinger, Warren Buckland, Scott Bukatman, Donald Crafton, Nicolas Dulac, Thomas Elsaesser, André Gaudreault, Laurent Guido, Tom Gunning, Malte Hagener, Pierre-Emmanuel Jaques, Charlie Keil, Frank Kessler, Germain Lacasse, Alison McMahan, Charles Musser, Viva Paci, Eivind Røssaak, Vivian Sobchack, Wanda Strauven, Dick Tomasovic.