Reflexivity in Spectatorship

The Didactic Nature of Early Silent Films

by Isabelle Morissette Volume 6, Issue 7 / July 2002 12 minutes (2817 words)

In an attempt to better understand how motion pictures were first perceived or received, by audiences, it is close to impossible for contemporary audiences to watch and understand those moving images as early spectators did. In effect, we can only, at this point, ascertain the direction that the filmmakers were taking in order to demonstrate the limits of a newly created art. I would like to delineate the historical evolution of a very specific type of reflexive film by pointing out the already existing narrative in this type of film. In fact, among the thousands of films produced during the first 30 years of cinema, there are a great number which relate to the various aspects of the notion of reflexivity, from the filming, directing, producing and distributing processes, to the actual reception of the movies and therefore, the spectatorship. Within the most commonly known self-reflexive films, it is interesting to note that examples of films referring to – or even including – film spectators as part of the narrative, such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) or Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) are much more numerous in the Silent Era, and particularly until the middle of the 1910s.

Exploring films within films at the dawn of cinema means to think particularly about a new type of audience previously unfamiliar with the new medium of film. This audience had only experienced, or heard of, theater-staged spectacles such as musical, theatrical or magic performances. The public for film started to be interested in this new motion picture art, which was radically different from any other previous visual artistic form they had experienced. This included photography and even the magic lantern spectacles, or all the sophisticated optical toys such as the Praxinoscope (1876) and the Theatre Optique (1891) that preceded the new medium.

In fact, the emergence of a new type of audience appeared hand in hand in a relationship with the beginning of cinema and this is probably the main reason why cinema started to mirror its first viewers and, increasingly, itself. We easily understand references to this reflexive aspect of cinema in today’s film and television industry simply because we are used to these media and surrounded by them constantly. But it was certainly not the case when cinema initially emerged a century ago. However, by 1896, there are already examples of films showing new spectators essentially how to act in front of the medium itself as well as cinema posters and ads explaining (visually or textually) how it should be received and possibly how to react to films screened. How to act, would imply how to comport oneself in a theater, that is to say, to sit quietly and not disturb other viewers, not to wear big hats that block other viewers’ field of vision, not to read the titles and later intertitles out loud, etc. How to react to films would imply the ability to cheer the heroes, to laugh out loud at jokes and pratfalls, to show appreciation by applauding, etc. Historically, the idea of showing the audience on screen had been used as early as 1896 by the Lumiere traveling operators by coming to a small town and shooting people (or even pretending to shoot people) in the streets so that they would all attend the projection of the film that evening. A contemporary and more spontaneous example of this type of audience reaction is found when watching a television morning show like “The Today Show” on NBC where audiences stand outside the studios waiting to be filmed by the cameras and to see themselves on the monitors as they are being filmed. Many of these people probably have the show videotaped so that they can come home and watch themselves watching monitors in perpetuity. Contemporary attitudes toward screen media such as television and the Internet often involve a type of audience participation that becomes the finished product. These attitudes parallel not only how early spectators saw themselves but more importantly the way in which early filmmaking pioneers showed them images of themselves. Thus, I’d like to discuss two types of doubling found at two relevant points during the first decade of film history.

The Countryman and the Cinematograph (R.W. Paul, 1901) as well as Uncle Josh at the Moving Pictures Show (E. S. Porter, 1902), are two very similar films as the second literally plagiarizes the first and features the character of a country bumpkin seeing a film projected for the first time. It represents the notion of spectatorship in what we can consider today as one of the earliest examples of a spectator watching, reacting to, and interacting with a moving picture. It was made in 1901 by British filmmaker Robert William Paul. This film was also known as The Countryman’s First Sight at the Moving Picture Show and this alternative title helps us understand what could be the spectator’s point of view at the time. The spectator here is a country bumpkin and, in this case, someone that more sophisticated city people would laugh at for his display of naiveté. It functions on two levels even for contemporary audiences. Initially, the countryman seems to play the role of an entertainer, providing emphasis to the action happening on the screen, by imitating the woman dancing on the movie screen that the bumpkin sees. But the countryman’s happy moment is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a train, a very popular cinematic theme at the end of the 19th century, made famous by the fact that the historically significant Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumière Brothers) had a surprise effect on its audience similar to the reaction of the countryman’s experiences.

The notion of first sight mentioned in the second title of Paul’s film is in fact relevant as he reacts to the train in the same way as audiences reacted during their first encounter with moving images appearing to come off the screen to hit them in 1895. The countryman hesitates but quickly runs off the image, believing that the train would hit him. His reaction shows not only a mirroring of early audiences but also a confirmation that his gut reaction was part of the learning process. Yet he comes back after he sees another countryman (who also bears a striking physical resemblance to him) trying to seduce a country girl and faces the audience in the theatre as well as, now by association, the viewer watching the film.

It was not unusual for remakes of successful films to be made shortly after they came out, and so when Thomas Edison produced a remake of that film (directed by Edwin S. Porter) a few months later in 1902, he also used the character of a countryman but one already known by the audience. In this remake Uncle Josh, who was the main character of an earlier Edison series, also experiences a moving picture for the first time. However, with the evolution of the remake produced several months after the original, the addition of film titles provides the audience with more information about what they will see Uncle Josh do. In fact, Edison’s version starts clearly by advertising his name and invention, the Edison Kinetoscope, on the screen next to Uncle Josh who jumps from his seat in a loge onto the stage and tries to imitate the movements of the Parisian Dancer in the film being projected. The second film he sees is entitled “The Black Diamond Express,” an actual earlier Edison production that Edison decided to insert into his newer film. Uncle Josh reacts the same way as the countryman did in Paul’s film, and runs away from the image of the train arriving. When the third film starts, Uncle Josh comes back and laughs as another countryman falls and is then helped by his wife. But when they start dancing together, Uncle Josh takes off his coat and suddenly, as in the Paul film, looks very similar to the countryman in the film he is watching.

He wants to fight to stop the action but instead stops the moving picture as he falls into the screen and in reality fights with the Kinetoscope operator hidden behind the screen.

A comparison with contemporary film would suggest that the self-promotion of using an earlier film within a newer one would spark interest in audiences to remember them as emanating from a single source, Edison films, and a brand to remember. Likewise, the problematic issue of film characters who look alike in narratives, continues to plague audiences over a hundred years later and in these early films, it could be understood to reflect typical audience frustration of the period.

Nevertheless, by fighting and finally destroying the screen at the end of Uncle Josh at the Moving Pictures Show, the character of Uncle Josh, the incarnation of the film spectator, deconstructs and destroys the mirror through which he was able to enjoy the feelings of happiness, surprise and jealousy while watching, just like the REAL spectators of the time, who were then following and anticipating Uncle Josh’s gestures and reactions through acting. Spectators were learning by these comic examples what the real limit of the silver screen was. Numerous similar comedies were later made during the 1910s, at which point they began to parody these earlier reflexive examples by including scenes showing entire audiences in front of the screen at the moment of the emergence and fast expansion of movie theaters, a new concept in the collective cinematic experience. Spectatorship takes on a new form of reflexivity at the moment when motion pictures become part of an industry and dedicate, initially in part and then eventually, complete spaces or palaces to the film spectacle engendered by the major studios and star system. The faithful spectators become the driving force behind an industry based on myth.

In 1909, D.W. Griffith used spectatorship as the theme of his film Those Awful Hats, in which the camera is positioned to show a part of the audience watching a film but this time the interaction happens between the spectators in front of a movie, rather than between spectators and screen. And for the real audience, the action this time is much more important in the theater represented on the screen where some women in the audience have their hats removed by a sort of strange apparatus coming down from the ceiling of the theater.

In the end, the woman who refused to remove her hat, thus preventing others in the audience from seeing the screen, ends up being removed while attached to her hat. This time the process of learning is shown between the spectators who are learning just like the directors of reflexive/didactic films did at the same time. In fact, filmmakers like Mack Sennett frequently had their start by working for such companies as Biograph, where D. W. Griffith held court, and had ample opportunity to observe the ins and outs of what was considered successful film production. It is particularly interesting to recognize that Mack Sennett went on to fully utilize every aspect of parody as the basis of slapstick in a vast number of his future films, but it is also important to appreciate that no one else at the time would parody the film industry as much as Sennett did in numerous comedies in the 1920’s. And, coincidently, it is entirely possible that Mack Sennett might have seen Griffith’s reflexive film Those Awful Hats in 1909 because that was when he was hired at the Biograph Company as an actor and where he met Mabel Normand. He later quit the Biograph Company and created Keystone in July 1912. In 1913, Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett were featured in Mabel’s Dramatic Career, a Keystone slapstick comedy directed by Mack Sennett in which a spectator, once again, is trying to interact with what’s happening on the screen and shoots the villain in the movie he’s watching.

These last two examples demonstrate the audience trying to learn how to act or rather, how not to act in a movie theater. From the earliest times, women’s hats were a terrible problem in screening spaces, which had not yet been transformed into classic movie palaces. At that point there was no stadium seating and hats of all kinds kept obscuring vision for decades to come. Being made aware of the nuisance hats caused took the experience of being part of an audience and transposed it to being part of a film narrative (those ‘awful hats’ are one of the theatre annoyances comically dealt with in the 1944 short Movie Pests directed by Will Jason for the series “Pete Smith’s Specialties”). On the other hand, fantasy interaction with the screen is still a contemporary concern as various areas of experimentation with interactive movies/video continue. The fantasy release of interacting with the screen by taking cinematic vigilante action and shooting the villain, while energizing for the audience, was still represented as a case of what cannot be done in a theatre, a policy that remained in effect until the 1970s and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Among the various forms of film within film that have played a major role in the first twenty years of the history of cinema, the category of films showing how cinema was received by one or many spectators is not only, in my opinion, the first category of reflexive film being made but also of crucial importance, especially from today’s perspective. Unquestionably, these films are the mirror of an era of learning and experimentation, and one of the main reasons why cinema had evolved so quickly. Examples of films such as R.W. Paul’s The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901) and Edison’s remake of that same story Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) are precious early documents which led the newly formed film industry to other forms of film within film which were no longer didactically necessary but became a new form of entertainment by using film as its own subject. Examples like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) or Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat in Film Flam Film (1926) contextualize the sheer pleasure of watching film within film rather than learning from it.

However, it should be remembered that examples of films related to the notion of spectatorship were just among dozens of other productions, which had cinema as their main topic, and they did not occur accidentally in this period of cinema. With today’s perspective at the heart of information technology proposing uncertain paths to take, it seems interesting to look at a new technology from an earlier century and examine some of the strategies taken for it to become successful. Its bottom line philosophy making sure all the bases were covered for investments into research and development allowed it to progress into a veritable goldmine, but not without some initial reservations about its longevity. Between 1907 and 1910, particularly, many newspaper editorials and trade publications questioned whether films would last and whether they were worth their cost. The costly investment in building specialized movie theatres meant an investment in the newly-formed film spectators and this, in my opinion, is the integral aspect of the decision making process of the film industry at that time. This film industry that began by showing its spectators how to react to the new film medium and then feel the pulse of their audience, very quickly went on to show them the steps involved in the creation, production and distribution of those films they both saw themselves in and consumed. The public not only found itself in film plots but was ready to laugh at itself, as in such Mack Sennett comedies as A Small Town Idol (1921), The Hollywood Kid (1924), A Hollywood Hero (1926), Crazy to Act (1927) or A Hollywood Star (1929). These films from the 1920s can be thought of as already being parodies of earlier referential films reflecting the sometimes strange acting of the spectators in front of the new medium. Therefore, we can say without a doubt that the moment cinema started, was also the moment it started to mirror itself.

This essay was first presented at the University of California – Riverside’s 8th Annual Humanities Conference in April 2001.

Selected Videography:

Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901) can be found on the compilation “The Movies Begin, volume 2 – The European Pioneers”. Distr. Kino International, 1994 (VHS.)

Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) is part of the series “Origins of Cinema, volume 1 –The Films of Thomas Edison”. Distr.: Video Yesteryear, 1995 (VHS).

Those Awful Hats (1909) can be found on “Corner in Wheat & Selected Biograph Shorts 1909-1913: The Masterworks of D.W. Griffith, volume 1”. Distr.: Kino International, 1993 (VHS).

Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) is part of the series “Slapstick Encyclopedia, volume 1 – In the Beginning: Comedy Pioneers”. Distr.: Kino International, 1998 (VHS).

Kino Video

Volume 6, Issue 7 / July 2002 Essays   charlie chaplin   film theory   silent cinema