See the moving picture

FIGURE 7.8

The Tableau as Attraction

Spirit of ’76

American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., USA, 1905

Also called “personifications,” “poses plastiques,” and “living statues,” tableaux vivantes came to America from Europe in the late 1830s as a parlor game in middle- and upper-class homes. Composed of human figures posed in imitation of well-known paintings or literary scenes, they remained popular until the 1920s, when parlor theatricals gave way to entertainments—including vaudeville and the movies—to be enjoyed outside the home. Biograph’s Spirit of ’76 (1905) was based on a widely known painting by Archibald Willard (ca. 1875—right), whose details it scrupulously reproduces, including the younger drummer’s period tricorn hat and the fife player’s unbuttoned shirt. The appeal of the tableau to the early motion picture is logical: both present an “action” from a single, stable, usually frontal point of view. The “action” in the tableau, of course, is frozen and thus limited in its ability to imply the complete story from which it’s been excerpted. A film shot also captures a single instant excerpted from a more complete narrative, and in that sense, the urge to marshal detail in order to evoke a richer impression is understandable. At the same time, however, the urge to arrange detail, like the urge to make the tableau erupt into movement, reflects the urge to display that’s characteristic of the cinema of attraction.

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