See the moving picture


The Primitive Vantage Point

The May Irwin Kiss

William Heise, New York World, USA, 1896

The enduring popularity of this little film as a demonstration of “primitive” cinematic impulses isn’t hard to understand. In the first place, it establishes a point of view in which the spectator’s vantage point is the same as that of the invisible camera; although it serves no narrative function here, it certainly prefigures a key principle of “classical” narrative construction in the cinema. Secondly, it reflects the intention of Edison cameraman William Heise to publicize the ability of the kinetograph to capture visual detail inaccessible to the theatergoer. In this respect, it is in fact a precursor of the cinematic closeup, one of whose functions in early films would be to reveal details that could not be seen clearly in a fuller establishing shot. In performing the latter function, its appeal is mimetic—the camera strives to capture a physical process for the purpose of imitation. In performing the first function, however, the appeal is not necessarily voyeuristic: If the spectator is not being asked to use his vantage point for the purpose of making a judgment that he could not otherwise make, can we say that he is receiving any privilege from the joining of his vantage point with that of the camera? Contrast the spectator’s position in this film with the position that he’s permitted to take in such films as Uncle Josh at the Motion Picture Show (Figure 7.5) and Love in a Hammock (Figure 7.7).

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