Theatrical Poster for May Irwin and

          John C. Rice in The Widow Jones, 1896

The competitive medium of the cinema of attractions is display, the natural product of which is an exhibitionist attitude which, in turn, finds its most congenial outlet in the voyeuristic appeal. According to this formula, a little film such as Edison’s The May Irwin Kiss (1896—see Figure 1.24 and Figure 7.6) offers an interesting lesson in the cinema’s discovery of its own exhibitionist properties. The film consists of a kiss exchanged by May Irwin and John C. Rice, who were re-enacting a scene from their popular Broadway comedy, The Widow Jones. William Heise made it in West Orange primarily to display the unique power of the motion-picture closeup (Figure R7.1), but it became Edison’s most popular subject, running for more than a year on the vaudeville circuit. The New York Sunday World of 26 April 1896 ran a full-page illustrated story, extolling the few seconds of middle-aged pecking as not only the first kiss on the screen but the first in a newspaper.[1]

“Actual or Implied Salaciousness”

  Meanwhile, however, another New York paper complained of the image that, “magnified to gargantuan proportions, it is absolutely disgusting.”[2] Later films, such as Be Good and The Girl at the Window (both 1903), would display kissing without benefit of context,[3] but the notoriety earned from the outset by The May Irwin Kiss was not a sign that, as William K. Everson puts it, “actual or implied salaciousness could be box-office.”[4] Rather, it derived largely from the effect of Heise’s framing. The close two-shot is inspired by the innocent intimacy of an important moment in the play, but of course that context is missing from the film. Consequently, the intimacy of the filmed act redounds upon the perspective from which, and the context in which, it’s being witnessed—namely, up close in a darkened theater. “The point of such a film,” argues Miriam Hansen, “is precisely the ‘impossible’ placement of the viewer: the thrill of witnessing an intimate act from a close proximity which in ‘real life’ would preclude that very intimacy, and which on stage would disrupt the illusion of reality.”[5]


                          Christian Metz

The Attributions of Innocence

  Note Hansen’s association of “real life” and the “stage” as equally problematic venues for the performance of the act. She means that in neither case could the act be performed innocently in the presence of a spectator: innocence would be shattered literally in real life and putatively on the stage. Ironically, it’s precisely because of this condition that we know the kiss was innocent when it was performed in The Widow Jones. For the French critic-theorist Christian Metz, there’s always a certain reciprocity in theatrical voyeurism.[6] Because “actor and spectator are in each other’s presence,” there exists “an active complicity which works both ways.” According to Metz, the perceptions offered the eye and the ear by theatrical spectacles

are inscribed in a true space . . ., the same one as that occupied by the public during the performance; everything the audience hear and see is actively produced in their presence, by human beings or props which are themselves present. . . . [W]hether or not the theatrical play mimes a fable, its action . . . is still managed by real persons evolving in real time and space, on the same stage or “scene” as the public.[7]

In effect, Metz explains here why, in “real life,” people don’t engage in acts that can rightly be called “exhibitionist.” The same phenomenon accounts for the fact that, on the “stage,” it’s not, properly speaking, “exhibitionism” through which intimacy is depicted. Both on the stage and in real life, we attribute innocence to the performance of the act. Why? Because we understand implicitly that “true exhibitionism . . . belongs to the discourse rather than the story”—to the self-conscious display rather than to the event being signified by it. “If there is an element of triumph in this [latter] kind of representation,” says Metz, “it is because what it exhibits is not exactly the exhibited object but, via the object, the exhibition itself. The scopic regime is . . . the absence of the object seen. . . .”[8]

The Exhibitionist Fiction

  The absence of the “exhibitionist” in the cinema requires some adjustments in the relationship that the spectator/voyeur establishes with the activities and actors on the screen. “Voyeurism,” claims Metz, “[always] rests on a kind of fiction, more or less justified in the order of the real, sometimes institutionalized as in the theatre or strip tease, a fiction that stipulates that the [exhibitionist] “agrees” . . . [and] is therefore an exhibitionist.”[9]

The “fiction” is successful, in other words, because it enables the spectator to conceive of the exhibitionist on the stage as performing his activity under the same conditions and with the same sanctions of innocence as he would perform it in real life. What could be wrong with performing on the stage acts that we perform in real life precisely because we know them to be innocent (by which we usually mean natural or permissible)? The conditions and sanctions, of course, are more analogous than consonant: there’s always some degree of victimization in the exhibitionist performance. It’s the function of the fiction, however, to make spectatorial pleasure possible by legitimizing the inference that they’re consonant—to ensure that the above question makes sense to the party who poses it.

“I Watch It, But It Doesn’t Watch Me Watching It”

  But what if the exhibition—activity and actor—are not present? What if they appear only in two dimensions on a screen rather than as flesh-and-blood figures on a stage in an auditorium where I am seated? “[W]hat is necessary in this fiction for the establishment of potency and desire,” observes Metz, “is presumed to be sufficiently guaranteed by the physical presence of the object,” but that presence is missing in the relationship that obtains in the cinema. In this sense, “the film is not exhibitionist. I watch it, but it doesn’t watch me watching it.”[10]

See the moving picture


        Edwin S. Porter, Uncle Josh at the

       Motion Picture Show, Edison, 1902

The spectator, therefore, can’t confirm, through fictional inference, the innocence of activity or actor. In such a situation, he often resorts to legitimizing innocence by proposing ignorance. He may attribute this upsurge of ignorance either to the actor’s ignorance of the spectator’s presence or to the actor’s ignorance of the transgressive nature of his activity (and thus of its offense to the spectator’s sensibility). Thus while the fiction of innocence virtually ensures spectatorial pleasure, the possible responses occasioned by the fiction of ignorance are more complex. The spectator might declare the activity “disgusting” or, like the titular hero of Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Josh at the Motion Picture Show (see Figure 7.5), even take steps to stop it. In this 1902 short, a rube at the movies jumps on to the stage and tries to shield the scantily clad dancer who appears in the first shot. When the film cuts suddenly to an onrushing train, he runs away in terror. Finally, he returns to the stage in order to put an end to the romantic activities of a cinematic couple (Figure R7.2). Does Uncle Josh take his first and third actions in defense of the spectator’s sensibility or in defense of apparent victims (the dancer and the female member of the romantic couple)? As far as we know, he acts from both motives, but we must remember that, between the two acts that have an apparent moral determinant, he performs an act motivated by an explicit combination of fear and his own ignorance: he flees the oncoming train, and the incongruously naïve nature of this middle response serves amply to discredit his other responses.

Morality and Incongruity; or, Does the Exhibitionist Like the Exhibition?

  The context of Uncle Josh, of course, is polemically skewed because the movie is essentially comic-strip satire. Elsewhere, Uncle Josh’s first and last actions could easily be regarded as morally motivated—the result of misperception but certainly not of bad faith. In context, however, they’re merely incongruous. They’re literally incongruous because they’re incompatible with the collective wisdom of the community of spectators from whom Uncle Josh is segregated at the outset. But they’re also incongruous in the sense that Uncle Josh doesn’t accept the fiction of analogous conditions and sanctions which makes exhibitionism innocent and which, in so doing, turns voyeurism into (more or less) valid spectatorial pleasure.

This reading of the protagonist’s behavior as “incongruous” may seem to pivot on a purely semantic point: namely, on the notion that Uncle Josh’s incongruous behavior is a result of his failure to internalize—that is, to misinterpret as consonant—a fictional analogy between certain activities performed in real life and the same activities displayed on a stage. I think, however, that it can also be seen simply as the restatement of a theme that’s clearly dramatized, both implicitly and overtly, by the tale itself: Uncle Josh is excluded from the ethos of the community of spectators. That ethos rests on a fiction, and what we’ve characterized as an inference that agrees to mistake analogy for consonance Metz characterizes as a conflation of the real and the mythical:

“Since it [the exhibitionist] is there, it must like it [the exhibition].” Such, hypocritical or no, deluded or no, is the retrenchment needed by the voyeur so long as sadistic infiltrations are insufficient to make the [exhibition’s] refusal and constraint necessary to him. Thus . . . [the physical presence of the exhibition] . . . and the active consent which is its real or mythical correlate . . . re-establish in the scopic space . . . the illusion . . . of a state of desire which is not just imaginary.[11]

Granting Innocence: The Ethos of the Community

  Whatever it is that makes the exhibition’s restraint necessary to Uncle Josh, it does not affect those spectators who don’t succumb to the protagonist’s misperceptions—spectators for whom, as Hansen argues,

there was still a perceptual continuity between the space of the screen and the social space of the theater, including projection and other elements of exhibition. . . . As long as the cinema depended for an exhibition outlet on established forms of theatrical entertainments, the screening of films in the context of a mixed program would not necessarily have diminished the audience’s awareness of itself as a public, as a collective body present to the spectacles being exhibited.[12]

Unlike Uncle Josh, the rest of the audience understands that they’ve been invited to participate in the make-believe. These spectators also know that, as Hansen puts it, “with their emphasis on display, early films are self-consciously exhibitionist.”[13] Thus they agree to make the psychological and moral adjustments necessary to safeguard the fiction which, in turn, is necessary to attribute ignorance to the exhibitionists being displayed for them. By remaining in their seats and pursuing their spectatorial pleasure, Uncle Josh’s fellow spectators protect the exhibition and the exhibitionists—that is, grant them a conjectural and functional innocence—and, in so doing, validate their own role as voyeurs.

See the moving picture


      George S. Fleming / Edwin S. Porter,

      Trapeze Disrobing Act, Edison, 1901

Voyeurism as Subject Matter

  With an audience of self-constituted voyeurs, the cinema proceeds, not surprisingly, to develop voyeurism itself as valid subject matter. This development is obvious in the proliferation of so called “Peeping Tom” films, of which G.A. Smith’s As Seen through a Telescope (1900—see Figure 5.7) and Edwin S. Porter’s The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903—see Figure 4.25) are well-known examples. Exploiting the capacity of the cinema to display things, whether directly or through the mediating perspective of a point-of-view character, such films practice more or less unmotivated female scopophilia and, as Hansen suggests, perpetuate or “reproduce the peep-show perspective of the kinetoscope or mutoscope parlors, with their overwhelmingly male clientele.”[14] Edison’s Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901—Figure R7.3), in which an aerialist strips down to her tights while swinging above a stage, is a tame, albeit undisguised, example. As was usually the case, the film promised more than it delivered, and as Charles Musser reports, burlesque houses—as opposed to vaudeville theaters—often billed their motion-picture programs as “tabascoscopes” of “cinnamatographs,” the better to suggest that they were “spicy.”[15]

[1] See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1999), pp. 118-19. On The May Irwin Kiss, see J.A. Sokalski, “Performed Affection: The Spectacle of Kissing on Stage and Screen,” in Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital, ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2004), esp. pp. 307-13; Daniel Eagan, America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Registry (New York: Continuum, 2010), pp. 4-5, at (accessed July 2, 2016); Dave Thompson, Black and White and Blue: Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR (Toronto: ECW Press, 2007), pp. 21-23.

[2] Quoted by Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus (1973; rpt. New York: Avon, 1974), p. 22.

[3] See Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (1975; New York: Vintage, 1976), p. 23.

[4] American Silent Film (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), p. 20.

[5] Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), p. 35.

[6] Babel and Babylon, p. 304n32.

[7] The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton et al. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 94, 43. See also Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (1993; Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), esp. Ch. 8; Stephen Prince, “Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Problem of the Missing Spectator,” in Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, ed. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996), pp. 71-86. For feminist perspectives on Metz, see: Elizabeth Cowie, Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 98-102; Constance Penley, The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 10-15, at (accessed July 2, 2016).

For a detailed discussion of Metz’ theories of semiology, cinematic language, signification, and discourse, see Reading 8.2.

[8] The Imaginary Signifier, p. 61.

[9] The Imaginary Signifier, p. 62.

[10] The Imaginary Signifier, pp. 62, 94.

[11] The Imaginary Signifier, pp. 62-63.

[12] Babel and Babylon, p. 36.

[13] Babel and Babylon, p. 36.

[14] Babel and Babylon, p. 40. On Uncle Josh, see also Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 321-22; Wanda Strauven, “Early Cinema’s Touch(able) Screens: From Uncle Josh to Ali Barbouyou,” Necsus, no. 2 (Autumn 2012), at (accessed July 2, 2016); Isabelle Morissette, “Reflexivity in Spectatorship: The Didactic Nature of Early Silent Films,” Offscreen 6:7 (2002), at (accessed July 2, 2016); Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 31-32, at (accessed July 2, 2016); Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Cinema, Experience, Modernity (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008), pp. 144-46.

[15] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 184. See also M. Alison Kibler, Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 245n4. On Trapeze Disrobing Act, see Janet Staiger, Bad Women: The Regulation of Female Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis and London: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1995), esp. pp. 57-59, at (accessed July 2, 2016); Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998), esp. pp. 30-32, at (accessed July 2, 2016); “Charmion: Disrobing Trapeze Artist/1900s,” Index of Vaudeville Acts, Bayles-Yeager Online Archives of the Performing Arts (n.d.), at (accessed July 2, 2016).

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