READING 7.2

IN THEORY

THE LOOK AT THE CAMERA

See the moving picture

Tunnel

          Edwin S. Porter, What Happened

              in the Tunnel, Edison, 1903

In What Happened in the Tunnel, made by Edwin S. Porter for Edison in 1903 (Figure R7.4), a traveling salesman finds himself seated in a railroad car behind a pretty young woman and her black maid. After a little preliminary flirtation, he makes advances, reaching to embrace the young woman just as the train enters a tunnel. When the train re-emerges from the darkness, he’s kissing the black maid. The women laugh heartily, and the maid glances mischievously at the camera. The joke whereby the tables are turned on a self-confident schemer is a staple of variety-stage comedy, but the maid’s look at the camera—a gesture that’s more accessible on the screen than on the stage—adds resonance and even a rationale to the “narrative”: it suggests that the women have taken an active role—and perhaps even a certain sadistic pleasure—in playing the joke, and the spectator’s sense that he’s been invited to collude with the onscreen pranksters is therefore strengthened.

Voyeurism as Theatrical Jesting

  Both as an overt theme and as a medium of theatrical jesting, voyeurism seems to be largely a contribution of the cinema to the basic entertainment formula. Consider, for instance, a 1903 Biograph short entitled From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen (Figure R7.5), in which a young woman enters a dressing room and removes everything but a sleeveless undergarment; then, slipping a strap off of one shoulder, she retreats behind a screen, over which she finally tosses the chemise. What’s particularly interesting is the fact that, throughout the act, she insists on smiling flirtatiously at the camera, and it’s the proximity of the camera which, in registering the look that she gives it, foregrounds the exhibitionist act, displaying it as exhibition.[1]

See the moving picture

Street

      George S. Fleming / Edwin S. Porter,

What Happened on Twenty-Third Street,

            New York City, Edison, 1901

In What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (Edison, 1901—Figure R7.6), a woman in a light ankle-length dress passes over a subway grate during a stroll down the city sidewalk; predictably, a burst of air blows her skirt up around her knees. This little film is unusual because it starts out as a bit of actuality footage: it’s shot on location, where passing pedestrians glance occasionally at the camera. Oddly, when her bit is finished, the young woman—an actress—also casts an ambiguous look at the camera. According to the Edison catalogue, the spectacle of her predicament occurs “greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks, and passersby,” but her glance at the camera not only imposes a certain distance between the actress and her character but suggests some level of collusion between her and the audience.[2]

“The Spectator as a Sort of ‘Third Party’”

  French critic Marc Vernet observes that the convention of “the ‘look at the camera’” which punctuates the various films described above derives “from the explicit emergence within the fiction film of a convention borrowed from . . . the music hall and the stage show, where actors traditionally charm by their capacity to construct characters with whom they are never fully confused.” In burlesque comedy, for instance, a form of the “look at the camera”

involves the turning of the public, by means of the actor’s look and words, into a witness for an ironic commentary on the actions and attitudes of other characters. Here the address to the spectator is a forming of the spectator as witness. What is important in such a case is not simply that the spectator is addressed by the character, but that there is a reference to the spectator as a sort of “Third Party”. . . .[3]

One thinks of Groucho Marx, who is constantly asking the movie audience to double as the auditor of jokes delivered in cursory asides. In Duck Soup, for example, Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly, newly appointed leader of Freedonia, expresses mock indignation when the widow of his predecessor admonishes him to “follow in the footsteps of my husband”:

Firefly (to camera): How do you like that? I haven’t been on the job five minutes and she’s already making advances to me [see Figure R7.7].

As Vernet points out, such an aside doesn’t fundamentally alter the performer’s stance toward his audience: the spectator is regarded as a member of a communal public—the joke is presumed to be equally accessible to everyone and everyone equally receptive to the joke—rather than as “an invisible, private consumer” whose responses may be psychologically and morally discrete from those of fellow audience members.

An Indiscriminate Appeal to Spectatorship

  It’s not surprising that this concept of spectatorial relationships should influence the early cinema’s sense of its own spectatorial relationships. The “cinema of attraction,” or “display,” as in the tableau tradition and the generic hybrid, is an almost indiscriminate demonstration of intrinsic medial properties. It’s not predicated on the possibility of appealing to what historian Miriam Hansen calls “a unified spectatorial vantage point”—that is, one that can be elicited by means of a coherent narrative.[4]

See the moving picture

Burlesque

              From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen,

         American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., 1903

The presumptions underlying such films as From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen, What Happened in the Tunnel, and What Happened on Twenty-Third Street (as well as Uncle Josh at the Motion Picture Show [1902—Figure 7.5 and Figure R7.2] and Love in a Hammock [1901—Figure 7.7]) are important not because they typify the motion-picture product in the first years of its commercial life, but rather because they disclose a basic attitude toward spectatorship that’s destined to undergo radical change with the gradual development of a “classical cinema”—one which, according to Hansen, “offered its viewer an ideal vantage point from which to witness a scene, unseen by anyone belonging to the fictional world of the film.”[5] Conversely, of course, understanding the conditions of the spectatorial relationship prior to the evolution of the “classical” relationship is essential to understanding the methods of the “pre-classical” cinema.


[1] See Tom Gunning, “An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), p. 359.

[2] See Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 38-39. For a discussion of What Happened on Twenty-Third Street in terms of contemporary painting, especially images of New York City, see Nancy Mowll Mathews, “The City in Motion,” in Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910, ed. Mathews with Charles Musser (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2005), pp. 117-29. For a discussion of the “‘What Happened’ film subgenre,” including What Happened in the Tunnel and What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, see Jane M. Gaines, “What Happened to the Philosophy of Film History?” Film History 25:1-2 (2013), pp. 70-80, at http://arts.columbia.edu (accessed July 2, 2016).

[3] “The Look at the Camera,” trans. Dana Polan, Cinema Journal 28:2 (1989), pp. 48-63.

[4] Babel and Babylon, p. 34.

[5] Babel and Babylon, p. 23. For a discussion of early voyeuristic spectacles staged in urban environments, including From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen, Trapeze Disrobing Act, and What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, see Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998), Ch. 1.

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