Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #28 - That Fatal Sneeze


Every Year In Film #28 - That Fatal Sneeze

Thoughts On: That Fatal Sneeze (1907)

In this post we will be exploring 1907 as the end of an era.

Today we will be talking about a term that has been consistently mentioned so far in the series: "The Cinema of Attraction". To talk about this, we will have to do a brief overview of the previous 27 posts. Before we start, however, I'll leave a link for you to read Tom Gunning's full text, The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectators and The Avant-Garde.

Cinema emerged from the depths of humanity's past; not only have we been fascinated by capturing imagery and form--the world--for millennia, but we have also been focused on the capturing and re-representation, or projection, of movement. So, whilst the ground work for cinema has been in place for an incalculable amount of time, it became more and more tangible across the 1800s with the development of photography, projection devices and various toys that could manifest moving imagery. In the late 1800s, the first cinematic devices emerged which saw moving picture technology evolve from chronography to peep shows to actual movie projection in little under 20 years. Thus, cinema is seen to have been officially born in 1895. It was from this point onwards that people would begin to make and spread films across the world and establish film industries in regions all over Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia (some films were being made in Africa, specifically Egypt, around the 1900s, but, for many reasons - one of the most prominent being colonialism - African cinema flourished quite a bit later than other continental cinemas). The first 10 or so years of cinema's development are predicated on trick films, comedies, actualities, miscellaneous spectacles and early narratives. This era has been coined, by Tom Gunning, as the period of the 'cinema of attraction'.

Boiled down to its most basic element, Gunning's concept stresses the strong focus on films as something that have to be seen. In referencing a 1922 essay written by Ferdinand Légar, Gunning defines his term through cinema's eagerness and "its ability to show something". As a result, Gunning describes this era as one focused on exhibitionism with a focus on the novelty and the spectacle of cinema itself, not necessarily films and their content. We have explored this consistently over the last 10 posts, looking at the development of camera movement, framing, editing, film length and the numerous figures that were apart of this exploration of the form. However, Gunning, judging from his essay, may find fault in the manner in which I portray all of these subjects. This is because there has been a clear contextualisation of all of our subjects around the creation and rise of narratives.

It was the narrativisation of cinema that ended the cinema of attractions period around 1906-07. In other words, narratives became the core focus of mainstream cinema, and such is the way in which film historians look back on - and define - the early silent era. You may then critique the manner in which I've presented this period as I usually define it by where it is going, rather than what it actually is. In an attempt to provide a rounded and, hopefully, as-true-as-can-be picture of early cinema, before we move away from this period, we're going to try and conclude an idea of what the cinema of attractions era was.

Whilst Gunning defines early cinema by its eager exhibitionism, he, in reference to Sergei Eisenstein, also implies that the films of this period have much in common with avant-garde cinema. Avant-garde, or experimental, or art, cinema questions the form and plays with its abilities to be, and project, 'art'. In such, the avant-garde is defined by consciousness; artist engaging cinema as cinema, not as an illusion of reality or fantasy as narrative and documentary filmmakers often will. It is upon these grounds that the films dated between 1895 and 1907 are similar to the avant-garde; early filmmakers engaged cinema as a tool and with few illusions of the potentials of cinema as an abstract, narrative concept. Gunning stresses this with a key quote from the most iconic figure of this era, Georges Méliès, taken from an article titled "Importance du Scénario".

"As for the scenario, the "fable," or "tale," I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the "stage effects," the "tricks," or for a nicely arranged tableau."

Méliès is on the heels of D.W Griffith and Edison in regards to being a heavily romanticised figure of early cinema. What Gunning is refuting with his use of this quote and his idea of the cinema of attraction is that, whilst Méliès, much like Porter, played a part in the development of narratives, he himself wasn't interested in them in the way we'd like to think, and nor did he conceptualise 'narrative' like we, in the modern day, do. As Méliès himself implies, longer narratives meant more tricks and special effects - this is all. This meant that Méliès didn't care for meaning making - otherwise known as semiosis. Semiosis is why I love cinema; I love cinema and moving images as a language that can produce meaning - and often through narrative. Cinema of attractions films rarely demonstrate cinematic language that leads to semiosis. With various adaptations of stories entrenched in semiosis, look for example to religious films or narratives that bring famous plays and books to screen, there is semiosis, but it is a virtue of a short film's source material, not necessarily the film and the filmmaker. As a result, whilst the cinema of attractions is linked to the avant-garde cinema because of the focus on cinema as an non-illusory entity, it is incredibly distant from the avant-garde as the consciousness of film form is singular; it has no relationship with content and semiosis as many avant-garde films do. In simple terms, this means that the cinema of attractions isn't self-aware, or developed, enough to be avant-garde in the way we, in the modern day, conceptualise it.

As we have explored, there are numerous examples of films that have some kind of meaning - that comment on society; many films of Zecca and Guy-Blaché are examples of this. Nonetheless, there is no, as far as I am aware, example of a filmmaker that we can point to and suggest that they were singularly interested in narrative cinema. Some spectators of film history attempt this with figures such as Méliès, Guy-Blaché and Porter, but their claims are all easily refuted with a look at their wider filmography. What we can then understand the cinema of attractions era to be made up of is films and filmmakers consciously working with cinema as a non-narrative novelty or spectacle whilst having no regard for semiosis or cinema's ability to be a true art (if we are to define art as a form of communication or language, then semiosis is key).

There is, I believe, more to the cinema of attractions than what Gunning suggests, however. There is no stress in Gunning's article of the commerciality (its capacity to be sold) of early silent cinema. The real conflict that we are tapping into when discussing, accurately or not, the state of early cinema concerns the internal tension between cinema as an 'art' and cinema as entertainment that can be sold for lots of money. To a large degree, the truth about the cinema of attractions is that it is cinema as commercial entertainment; it is not necessarily artful storytelling or experimentation like 'true' art and narrative cinema came to be because there is no real semiosis, consciousness or a consolidation of form. As a result, the attribution of the cinema of attractions to the avant-garde is, in some respects, more disingenuous than defining this era by its movement towards narrative. The avant-garde, experimental, or art cinema, has little to do with selling a film and making money - at least, not in the traditional sense. An avant-garde film may sell for a lot of money as a piece of art akin to a sculpture or painting. As a result, you may be able to sell an art film to a private buyer for a lot of money much like people sell their sculptures and paintings. However, though art cinema can be commercialised in such a respect, traditional cinema is democratically commercialised; thousands or millions of people must see a film for it to make money and be successful. This is not far from what films made between 1895 and 1907 were. These films marked the establishment of the traditional film industry as one that sold its films to mass audiences; industries would not have been fully vertically integrated, nor would a studio system function exactly like it does today with censors, film distributors, exhibitors, etc, but they would have functioned in a similar manner.

There is a clear relationship between the cinema of attraction and the establishment of film markets that sold cinema. This is a difficult claim to provide strong evidence for as records for film sales weren't properly regulated and based around a box office system in the early years. However, with the domination of national markets by specific studios and corporations, it is clear that money ran the early mainstream film industry as it does to this day. We can thus understand the first official decade of cinema to be defined by this relationship between cinema's ability to show something (as Gunning suggests) and cinema's ability to be sold. Its relationship with the avant-garde is a difficult subject that Gunning, in my view, doesn't do well in explaining or exploring. It is clear that the focus on form and the potentials of the new art would entice artists who were interested in further experimentation (which is part of his point), but to define the cinema of attractions in regards to this says little; it was an open and evolving form, but the avant-garde seemingly flourished, as narrative did, by virtue of the fact that cinema was new, not that it was an attraction (the attraction has heavier links to commercialisation via narrative cinema).

When we cast our thoughts back to all the films we've covered thus far in the series it is important to remember that all of those shorts represent themselves and their own era. Understanding their context will provide you the means to accurately watch them. Nevertheless, once we have the understanding of exactly what early cinema is (rather than what it is not or what it is going to become), we can confidently begin to look into the future with the cinema of attractions films being symbols of evolution. Furthermore, we can look at the whole era as an integral indicator of what exactly cinema is.

From 1895 to 1907, cinema was born as a spectacle that attracted audiences and money. As a result, we will forever see characteristics of the cinema of attraction in the cinema - and can even understand it to be one of cinema's most defining and highest virtues. After all, the fact that cinema is mass produced for mass audience consumption and enjoyment is the basis of cinema and one of its two faces (the other being much of cinema that we can attribute to art). In many respects, the cinema of attractions era represents an initial polarisation of cinema; it was born as just entertainment and spectacle - there were hints of science through figures such as Marey, Muybridge and the Lumières, but the scientific nature of their films (if we can call them that in regards to Marey and Muybridge) is debatable. The entertainment that cinema was born as has some ties to the later avant-garde and had hints of art and story, but these are separate forms of cinema that would have to develop independently. And that is to say that the coming of narratives and feature-length films doesn't mean that cinema was re-born. The development of narrative saw cinema find, in my opinion, its greatest strength and most natural purpose. Cinema's content was born with emphasis on documentation and spectacle with formal experimentation sometimes as support, sometimes a separate entity, and so when it found and focused on narrative, it had a new tool. These tools, however, were all separate beings. Cinema could not be unified as art and entertainment until semiosis was introduced through all of these tools; editing had to produce meaning, aesthetics had to provide meaning, plots had to provide meaning, framing and mise en scène ha to provide meaning, etc. Thus, true art cinema wasn't born until we approach the 1920s when filmmakers would begin experimenting with film form and using it to tell stories with semiosis (to varying degrees of significance and depth) that could be sold and projected to mass audiences.

Moving out of the cinema of attraction era, we can then be seen to move into a consolidation period. In such, with narratives as the new focus, filmmakers would be developing formal techniques and storytelling techniques whilst film industries and audiences flourished and were systematised. This era would explode in to the Silent Golden Age in the late 1910s and 20s - an epoch which symbolised the birth of a new art. In this era, cinema was not yet fully completed, however, as it still needed to incorporate sound whilst further work on peripheral forms of cinema - which, through film history, would emerge and evolve through 'movements'. Nonetheless, with the silent golden age, we see a transition that would be built up to from 1907 onwards.

Looking forward, we, again, cannot forget what the cinema of attractions represents. Whilst it is its own entity, this is where the fundamental tools of cinema were discovered, this is where cinema's abilities were initially tested, and this is where the commerciality--the show business--of cinema was established. Let us now then look at a selection of films that demonstrate more specific attributes of the era that would evolve alongside industry and technology.

Our subject of today, That Fatal Sneeze, is a British comedy from Lewin Fitzhamon that demonstrates the developed interaction between scenario and direction in 1907. The premise is simple and flaunted to the audience with the boy breaking the fourth wall by demonstrating the sneezing powder - which, as Gunning suggests, symbolises the disregard for the sanctity of illusion and the cinematic space in the cinema of attractions era that is paramount in traditional narrative storytelling. The spectacle in the scenario is emphasised and exploited with many poorly linked set-ups (whilst it is clear that the old man walks to places, there is no motivation or story to this) through the stage effects - things falling of walls - and then camera movement and a trick of editing.

That Fatal Sneeze is then a novel short that perfectly represents comedy in the cinema of attractions era and how, moving out of the era, this would be combined with formal tricks, but not consolidated very well with story or character (we have to wait for the likes of Chaplin and Keaton for this).

In Chomón's, The Red Spectre, we see formal tricks interacting with storytelling. This is what Segundo de Chomón (via Méliès) is known and revered for. Spectacle is born from Chomón's stop motion, his colour tinting, dissolves, pyrotechnics, stop edit tricks, choreography, mise en scène, props, costumes, close-ups, multiple-exposures and reverse-motion; he puts on a magic show that would only be possible with cinematic trickery. However, this interacts with his scenario, a story of a demonic figure being evil and having fun before being confronted by a good spirit. This provides context for the spectacle and thus heightens the multiple techniques put on display. But, this relationship between tricks and story is, admittedly, very weak.

The Red Spectre is then a brilliant showcase of the trick film, one that contains a plethora of specific examples of tricks, but also showcases the weakness of these films (story) that would have to be developed in a later consolidation era.

This is the earliest known (unauthorised) adaptation of the epic story of Ben Hur - which has been re-produced countless times. Whilst the core focus of this film is narrative, its storytelling is limited to the assumed contact that audiences would have had with the book. Unlike a film like A Trip To The Moon, this didn't try to tell its own story. (Let is be noted that A Trip To The Moon doesn't tell much of a story, rather, provides an exotic set of scenarios for various tricks and stage spectacles). When we look to this adaptation of Ben Hur, we are seeing an early form of narrative storytelling that was more akin to a presentation or visual aid for real storytelling - which was done in books, poems and plays. And this is very evident for the manner in which the inexpressive one-shot scenes are given meaning almost solely by the inter-titles. As a result, Ben Hur is, in fact, a particularly weak attempt at longer-form storytelling as previous films, such as The Life and Passion of Christ and The Kelly Gang are not only longer, but have far more sophisticated cinematic language and form.

What Ben Hur then represents are the early attempts at narrative which were really a visual facade for bringing audiences into shows for something that was popular off its own merits and so would merely be exploited by 'narrative cinema'.

Race For The Sausage is an excellent example of a chase film. These were the highest expressions of plot in early silent films and so took a precisely designed set of scenarios synthesising with articulate direction to create an action-comedy narrative. So, in bringing pure anarchy and chaos to the screen for 4 minutes, Guy-Blaché constructs one of the most potentially sophisticated kind of films from the cinema of attractions era. The chase films could have story, strong comedy acting, stunts, tricks, editing and cinematic language. The only other films that could be more sophisticated than these would be comedies or dramas with subtext and meaning attached to them (films such as Guy-Blaché's The Consequences Of Feminism for example). However, they were often only more sophisticated in areas that chase films weren't - namely, character and story - and so could be rivalled by the chase film because of the complex formal design that the subtextual comedies and dramas lacked.

Whilst Race For The Sausage is not the best chase film (Zecca would have made many impressive examples), it combines story, tricks and comedy better than most films, but is most expressive as a projector of plot. This meant that chase films symbolised the development of film structure - both on the technical and narrative level.

Lion Hunting, made by the Dane, Viggo Larsen, is a striking synthesis of the ethnograph, actuality and narrative film. In such, this documents a real event - a hunt - and observes actuality - animals who venture near the camera - with the support of a constructed story that utilises a selection of actors and extras. This is then an example of a form of early cinema that had had the longest time to develop: documentary. However, we should not consider street scenes by the Lumières to be documentaries as they are just observational records of life, and neither should we consider this much of a documentary either. This is because it is clearly very contrived and full of ethical issues that are inevitably going to arise when looking back to the early 1900s. In such, within this film we have the mistreatment of animals, the exploitation and exoticisation of foreign lands as well as the mistreatment and misrepresentation of natives (which has many connotations of early 20th century colonialism, racism and exploitation).

Looking past the problems of this film's content, what we can see Lion Hunting to represent is the actuality as a form of early cinema. This combined with the narrative film to a degree in this short, and so implies the development of documentaries - which are all concerned with the capturing of 'truth'.

What we are seeing with these examples of 1907 films are key elements or forms of the cinema of attractions; we have the trick film, the comedy, the chase film, the narrative adaptation and the actuality. These are combining with other forms and developing in 1907, which marks the coming of the consolidation era that was overshadowed by, and centred on, narrative. We can nonetheless see how these films plant the seeds of the modern sci-fi spectacle film, which has evolved from the trick film; the modern comedy which has evolved from these slapstick shorts; the narrative film, which evolved from early visual presentations or recreations; the modern thriller or crime film that comes from early, plot-heavy chase pictures; and the modern piece of news or documentary which evolved from the actuality. All of these genres of the cinema of attractions will morph and fit amongst various other forms of cinema (animation, experiential cinema and the films of a myriad of different movements for example). But, whilst these genres will melt into modern cinema and become something else, we cannot forget that they represent their own era and context before they represent the links that this era has to the modern day.

To conclude, there is much to say about what early films were and how they impact the future of film history and the present day cinema. To think about the cinema of attractions we must then be very conscious of the relationship that there is between the dormant past and evolution that occurs over time; film history has its basis in the first decades of cinema, and thus it is easily identified out of its context, but it nonetheless has its place in history that it cannot be torn out of.

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