CHAPTER 9 / Part 1


Table of Contents

Table of Contents





   Holdup of the Rocky Mountain Express,

                    Biograph, USA, 1906

See the moving picture

One of dozens of imitations of edison’s The Great Train Robbery (1903—see Chapter 5.2), Biograph’s Holdup of the Rocky Mountain Express (1906) begins with a spectacle effect common in the popular travelogues of the day: picturesque scenery passes by the windows of a moving railroad car. The film then switches to the interior of the car for a bawdy comic interlude before getting down to the dramatic business promised by the title: as in The Great Train Robbery, the Western theme of the train robbery is combined with the violent-crime story inspired by such British imports as Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray (see Chapter 5.2). Films such as Holdup of the Rocky Mountain Express, remarks Miriam Hansen, are “composite narratives” that move back and forth “among formally distinct types of film”; they appeal to “a diversity of viewer interests” rather than try to capture the spectator’s attention with the power of a cogently told story.[1]

According to Hansen, this method of constructing films, which allowed producers both to expand short films and to capitalize on the commercial demand for variety, reflects the habit among early filmmakers of finding “subject matter and representational strategies [in] a vast repertoire of commercial amusements that flourished around the turn of the century.”[2] In the American cinema, this habit remained strong even after movies had freed themselves from such traditional variety venues as vaudeville and had found a home in the nickelodeon (see Chapter 7.2); indeed, it continued into the 1910s, when the emergence of the feature film—generally speaking, any multireel film—radically changed both consumer behavior and exhibition practices.

The Competing Interests of Spectacle and Narrative

In France, too, this method of constructing films persisted until around 1911, even after major producers, notably Pathé-Frères, had abandoned such venues as the fairground and focused their distribution strategies on permanent cinemas, mostly in larger urban centers. As of 1903-1907, French filmmakers, like their American counterparts, often resorted to “composite narratives,” particularly those that combined actualité footage with fictional scenes. Producers at Pathé, however, were already becoming dissatisfied with such simple “hybrid formats” and, according to Richard Abel, “essentially cobbled together different genre elements and conventions, as if in an attempt to condense the variety of ‘acts’ on a music-hall or cinema program into a single marketable form.”[3]


          Un Tour de monde d’un policier,

               Pathé-Frères, France, 1906

See the moving picture

Around the World in 28 Shots: Un Tour de monde d’un policier (I)
  A good example is Un Tour de monde d’un policier (A Detective’s Tour of the WorldCharles-Lucien Lépine, 1906), in which a detective is dispatched to track down an embezzler.[4] Disguised as Sherlock Holmes, the criminal leads the hero on a round-the-world chase that originates (according to an intertitle) at the Suez Canal (Figure 9.1/Shot 1). Combined with a comic interlude in which the detective gets arrested, this section features alternating studio shots of the embezzler, who is looking through binoculars, and actualité footage of exotic scenery (Figure 9.1/2-3). We are treated to similar “point-of-view” combinations of studio and actualité footage as we follow the criminal to India, China, and Japan (Figure 9.1/4-5), where the cop-and-robber story resumes with the sudden reappearance of the detective.

During a stopover at an opium den (Figure 9.1/6), multiple-exposure trick shots contrast the different desires of the two antagonists, who eventually proceed to America and a melodramatic episode in which the crook rescues the detective from a passel of wild Indians (Figure 9.1/7). We then cut to a studio shot of a Parisian bank, where we discover that our two travelers have not only returned home but have formed a financial partnership (Figure 9.1/8).

The film climaxes with an “apotheosis” finale like those which typically concluded Pathé’s biblical, historical, and féerie spectacles, such as Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs and Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse (see Chapter 6.2): under a huge symbolic globe, the two newly minted capitalists play host to a procession of extras in native costumes from around the world (Figure 9.1/9). (If this tableau, like the typical Pathé apotheosis finale, is supposed to be an allegorical summary of the film, it underscores a theme that has remained largely beneath the surface—namely, the celebration of both France and Pathé-Frères as international powers in their respective arenas.)

The Method of Bricolage
  This method of “structuring” movies by combining the content and presentational modes associated with diverse forms of entertainment is often called bricolage. In the French cinema during the first decade of the century, writes one film historian,

forms and content areas from other media were systematically borrowed and adapted. Those that proved both marketable and capable of mass production at a predictable rate of expense would survive, if sometimes only briefy. Some would flourish beyond their creators’ wildest dreams and provide the bases for the worldwide industry that was beginning to stir. Later, others would guide it beyond the reach of the French pioneers who assisted at its birth.[5]

It shouldn’t be surprising that producers at Pathé resorted so often to the practice of bricologe filmmaking. By 1900, the firm’s film-production unit was already committed to the strategy of offering the widest possible product line, and by 1902, Pathé was advertising films in twelve different genres, or what it called “series,” many of which were not only structured according to both spectacle and narrative elements but also borrowed generic elements from one another:[6]

As of 1908, when the shift from the fairground to the urban theater was nearly complete, the typical cinema program was still assembled from a variety of such “series” and lasted for perhaps two hours.

The strategy of combining elements from diverse “series” was originally a response to increasing audience demand for story films. But a film such as Un Tour de monde d’un policier isn’t necessarily a “story” film: clearly, although the basic idea may be a story (a detective chases an embezzler around the world), the narrative—the process of selecting and organizing the basic elements of the story—often seems to be little more than an excuse for displaying the impressive diversity of cinematic genres, ranging from actualité to trick and comic subjects to dramatic, historical, and adventure films, at which Pathé filmmakers were adept.

As a solution to the problem of telling cinematic stories, the bricolage model displayed in Un Tour de monde d’un policier was ultimately less than satisfactory, primarily because it often encouraged a careless balance between elements from the cinema of attractions (such as the trick-film sequences in the opium den) and the narrative cinema (the creation—albeit “primitive”—of pro-filmic space by alternating shots of the embezzler with his binoculars and rudimentary, or proto-, “point-of-view” shots of the objects that he sees).

Bricolage filmmaking is not merely a quaint phenomenon from yesteryear. For an example of a modern variant—and an account of some theoretical enthusiasm for the principle—see Reading 9.1, “Jump Cut: Bricolage Filmmaking: The Serial and the Surreal.”

Temporal Logic: Viewing Time and Dramatic Time
  For this reason, according to Abel, the bricolage method served merely as a “model of transformation”—a tentative response to a critical problem in fashioning commercially viable movies: namely, the problem of adapting “the competing interests of spectacle attractions and those of . . . narrative continuity.”[12] In particular, the bricolage model posed an insurmountable problem in adapting the cinema of “spectacle attractions” to a cinema that tells stories: it resisted the need to organize narrative elements in an effort to express action over a course of time. Narrative, the French historian-theorist André Gaudreault reminds us, strives “to reproduce subject matter within a pattern consistent with the logic of the world it records.”[13]

The logic of the world, of course, includes temporal logic—our sense that the events of our experience have sequence and duration—and in order to involve us in its story, a movie typically manipulates sequence and duration in the construction of its fictional world. By and large, we agree to participate in this fictional world as long as there is no unreasonable disjunction between what American critic Alexander Sesonske calls our viewing time (our experience of ordinary real-world time) and our sense of dramatic time (our experience of sequence and duration as controlled by the filmmaker).[14] For one thing, we expect dramatic time to be manipulated in the interest of more effective storytelling: we do not, for example, mind witnessing several years of dramatic time as long as it’s sensibly condensed into about two hours of viewing time.

But the cinema of attractions, as Tom Gunning has pointed out (see Chapter 5.1), is not interested in generating the illusion of a fictional world: rather, it promotes the ability of the cinema “to show something. . . . The story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of cinema.” The cinema of attractions capitalizes on the entertainment value inherent in the capacity of the shot to display images in motion, and in order to attract the viewer’s attention to something visually spectacular, it is “willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world.”[15]

When “Spatial Anchorage” Prevails Over “Temporal Logic”
  A cinema which is concerned with the effect of the shot—with the image contained in a discrete piece of filmstrip—rather than with the controlled interplay among shots sacrifices the ability to manipulate more than a discrete unit of time. If the duration of both a shot and an action are exactly the same, then our viewing time and our dramatic time are the same, and we probably won’t experience the pleasurable sense that we’re being told a story by a competent and committed storyteller; we’ll not feel that the visual imagery on the screen is being shaped as fully as possible in the interest of our pleasure as spectators. In a film such as Un Tour de monde d’un policier, dramatic time is created out of the sequence and duration inherent in diverse elements chosen for their capacity to show us something “exotic,” not in an effort to engage us in the story that emerges when they’re combined.

Admittedly, even when we’re dissatisfied with a filmmaker’s narrative skills, most of us recognize a “story” when we see one, and in watching a film such as Un Tour de monde d’un policier, we can appreciate the use of the bricolage model as a more or less adequate effort to capitalize on certain story-oriented properties of the cinema, particularly the ability to make instantaneous transitions from one image to another. Gaudreault reminds us that prior to about 1910, filmmakers were still searching for the right tools with which to construct cinematic stories. The problem, he argues, lay in adapting the dominant concept of the shot to more flexible ways of showing action: the simplicity of many early films

comes from the camera’s isolating . . . a singular, continuous moment for its privileged audience. Inventors of the motion-picture camera created first the shot . . . and instituted the era of the one-shot film. . . . As one prepared for shooting, the minimal action-segments were scheduled to appear in a continuous visual field . . . and in a continuous sequence. . . . All that was known was the mobility of the objects depicted in the frame, a mobility made possible by the new invention, which could . . . reproduce movements of beings and things. . . .

[E]arly filmmakers were more or less consciously considering each shot as an autonomous, self-reliant unit; the shot’s objective [was] to present not a small temporal segment of the action, but rather the totality of an action unfolding in heterogeneous space. . . . Before releasing the camera to a subsequent space, everything occurring in the first location [was] necessarily shown. Spatial anchorage prevail[ed] over temporal logic.[16]


          Un Tour de monde d’un policier:

  The criminal looks through his binoculars

Around the World in 28 Shots: Un Tour de monde d’un policier (II)
  But what about those elements of Un Tour de monde d’un policier which, like the images excerpted in Figure 9.7,[17] tell parts of the story by means of multiple shots—namely, those sequences that alternate shots of a character as he looks through binoculars with “point-of-view” shots of what he sees? In the construction of these sequences, spatial anchorage does not necessarily prevail over temporal logic. Granted, the cinema presents the instant of looking at an obect and the instant in which we register its appearance to us in linear fashion—one after the other; we tend, however, to accept the premise that these respective instants are simultaneous. Likewise, although the cinema presents the space occupied by a spectator and the space occupied by the object of his gaze as disjoined in time—shown one after the other—we tend to accept the premise that the two spaces exist simultaneously.


    Un Tour de monde d’un policier: What

  the criminal sees through his binoculars

Because we’re looking at pairs of shots that were taken in unrelated locations, the camera has obviously been “unanchored”; in effect, the filmmaker has overcome what Gaudreault describes as the impulse to keep the camera in one location until an entire action has been completed. Following this primitive rule, the filmmaker would show the person looking and the object seen in the same shot, which would last as long as the character remained interested in the object. Of course, the components of each “point-of-view” action in Un Tour de monde d’un policier—the criminal looking and the object being shown—appear on screen in linear fashion because a film is constructed by linking separate shots in linear sequence. As a narrative device, however, the strategy of alternating shots—of cutting between simultaneous components of an action in different locations—“works” even though it “stretches” viewing time. Why? Essentially because it doesn’t violate our sense of dramatic time, which accepts the expansion as well as the contraction of onscreen events. (As always, of course, neither can the logic of the juxtaposition, both spatial and temporal, violate our normal experience.)

To an extent, then, such sequences reflect an elementary effort to narrate parts of the story by cinematic means. Remember, however, that the two images in each sequence—the studio shot of the character who’s looking through the binoculars and the actualité footage of the scenery at which he’s looking—have been combined by means of bricolage: the purpose of each alternating sequence is to combine diverse forms of entertainment and thereby draw our attention to the special properties of the cinema. In reality, then, each of these sequences is a simple exercise in “point of view” as an attraction, not an effort to articulate a story by narrative means. Moreover, because the images in each sequence were shot independently (and perhaps for entirely unrelated purposes), continuity—the principle of condensing time and space unobtrusively—would have played a relatively minor role in the effort to construct pro-filmic space (fictionally created space that stands in for real space).

Thus as we saw in our discussion, in Chapter 5.1, of G.A. Smith’s use of circular masks to signify point-of-view objects (see Figure 5.6 and Figure 5.7), these sequences in Un Tour de monde d’un policier do not present true point-of-view shots.

Concepts of Space and Time in Transition
  In Un Tour de monde d’un policier, therefore, “point-of-view” shots are still spectacle attractions. But as Richard Abel suggests, such “attractions”—pans and cut-ins as well as point-of-view shots—are by 1904 already in the process of being repurposed: when early filmmakers recognized them as potential responses to the problem of managing temporal logic and dramatic time, these same attactions would be adapted to the demands of narrative filmmaking. Thus two of the critical problems facing fillmakers in the transitional era between 1904 and 1907—the need to reconcile spectacle and narrative and the need to manage time as well as space—are closely related. “[T]his period of transition,” argues Abel,

can best be described as a gradual process of narrativization in which film’s initial predisposition toward showing was channeled . . . toward storytelling. This involved, first, a change in the concept of spatial coherence as the autonomous tableau gave way to synthetic space . . . constructed out of interrelated, discrete shots. . . . Correlating with this was a change in the conception of temporality . . ., with greater attention now being given to issues of succession, simultaneity, and internally generated causality.[18]

In the task of narrating a cinematic story, the problem of managing both space and time is a matter of making events seem continuous or fluid even though the shots by which they’re represented must be reorganized and thus—given the physical nature of the medium—rendered discontinuous.

Space: Managing Contiguity
  The concept of space involves the question of contiguity. When I construct a film, my ability to cut on an action that crosses one fictional location to another does not mean, of course, that the real locations—the respective places in which I take my two shots—are in actual proximity to one another. They are proximate only in pro-filmic space, which we defined in Chapter 5.1 as fictionally articulated space that stands in for and denotes spatial reality. By the same token, however, I must maintain the integrity of pro-filmic space by indicating and maintaining a more or less precise spatial relationship between the two locations. If, for example, I depict action passing between two rooms, I must make it cinematically plausible that they share a boundary in a single building.


    Figure 5.12: Schematic for a Three-Shot Scene

Thus, unless I follow my character by tracking or panning my camera from one room to another, maintaining continuity while getting him from one room to a second room that’s supposed to be adjacent to the first isn’t as simple as it may seem. For one thing, because the placement of the camera changes from the first shot to the second, so, too, does the camera’s perspective—and, along with it, the spectator’s sense of where to locate the boundary between the first location and the second. Recall also our discussion in Chapter 5.1 of Figure 5.12, which illustrates some of the issues in continuity that arise when a filmmaker requires three camera setups—that is, three separate shots taken from three different perspectives—to specify the spatial relationship between two characters in the same room: in order to maintain the logic of his pro-filmic space—that is, in order for the spectator to locate not only the two characters in the room but also the room’s architectural features and the objects in it—the filmmaker must design his sequence of perspectives on the room to ensure that the spectator perceives pro-filmic space as an acceptable representation of spatial reality.

Obviously, the possibility of spectator confusion in such situations should not be underestimated. At this point in the development of cinematic technique, observes Gaudreault, “the camera did not know how to ‘go through’ walls,” and filmmakers resorted to strategies which, today, strike us as especially odd, such as overlapping action—the repetition of the same action in two spaces: if a character puts on his hat while leaving one room, he may very well put it on again while moving from the first room to a second (see Chapter 8.1). According to Gaudreault, what’s missing from such awkward sequences is a narrator—a storyteller in the person of a competent craftsman who can manage fluent changes in the spectator’s point of view by managing the changes in perspective taken up by his camera. “The degree of narrative fluidity,” adds Gaureault, “is an essential factor.”[19]

Time: Managing Sequentiality
  The concept of time involves the question of sequentiality. As we’ve seen, because a film is a sequence of shots following one another, it’s an inherently linear construction. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that one action (or line of action) which immediately follows another is supposed to occur immediately after it. The filmmaker may, for example, intend for it to be occurring at the same time. If so, he must, as narrator, find a way of saying “meanwhile.” Gaudreault suggests the use of crosscutting—artfully intercutting between the two lines of action (see Chapter 5.1). In so doing, of course, the filmmaker will render dramatic time discontinuous: the time during which an action takes place will no longer reflect the linear sequence that he would produce by arranging all of the components of a given line of action one after the other in a self-contained sequence. If he’s successful, however, viewers will accept his narrative manipulation of time because he has appealed to what Sesonske calls their “felt duration”—their willingness to adjust their viewing time to the filmmaker’s dramatic time.

Models of Transformation

Experiments in solving these problems, says Abel, eventually led to “a new interrelated form of contiguity and sequentiality in which the significance of a shot became increasingly dependent on those that proceeded or followed it.” These experiments also yielded new models of film construction that made it possible to expand short films into the “larger patterns of organization” which made fluid, logical storytelling possible.[20] In turn, these “models of transformation” showed the way toward the methods of constructing marketable single-reel films that French filmmakers developed between 1907 and 1911.

From Redundancy to Representational Strategies: Developing Comic Models
  From one of these models, which Abel calls the redundancy model, developed “the serial structure of the chase film,” especially in its comic form. Using this model, explains Abel, the filmmaker

constructed a synthetic space through a series of loosely linked shots in which one character was pursued by another (or else a whole bunch of others), each of whom repeatedly moved into and out of one frame after another in a continuous line of action.[21]


;              Dix Femmes pour un mari,

       Georges Hatot, Pathé-Frères, 1905

In Pathé’s Dix Femmes pour un mari (Ten Women for One Husband, 1905), for example, a man places a personal ad for a wife and sets up a meeting place for interested women. When he arrives to find ten eager candidates, he flees in panic, pursued by his prospective brides, who persist in the chase despite physical obstacles in a series of contiguous locations. Though constructed according to a series of loosely linked shots, the film can also be regarded as a series of attractions: Gunning argues that in subjecting the women to a series of slapstick indignities (such as tumbling over a fence), each gag serves as a sort of “mini-spectacle.” In this form, says Gunning, the comic chase film is really “a synthesis of attractions and narrative.”[22]

Serial Gags, Extended Situations, and “Structuring Strategies”
  By 1907-1908, many French comedies, while still adhering to the redundancy model, replaced the premise of the chase with situations that permitted the filmmaker to stage a repeated gag in a more elaborate series of contiguous locations. Abel calls these movies “serial gag” films. In Pathé’s La Planche (The Plank, 1907), for instance, a carpenter’s helper wreaks havoc with a long board, battering pedestrians and destroying commercial property on city sidewalks. A similar strategy involved the extension of a situation to accommodate a greater variety of gags.


                  Un Achat embarrassant,

                          Gaumont, 1908

See the moving picture

Gaumont’s Un Achat embarrassant (Buying a Cow, 1908), for example, operating on the comic premise that certain urban dwellers might want to keep a cow in an apartment, follows a couple from town to country, where they buy a cow, and (in a ten-shot sequence) return to the city. Comic business occurs in the various locations on the return trip, as they try to hitch the cow to a bus, get into the subway, stop for a drink at a sidewalk café, and argue with the superintendent of their apartment building.[23]

Alternating Lines of Action: Le Cheval emballé
  More importantly, many French comic films enhanced the patterns of their gags by introducing such narrative strategies as the sustained alternation of lines of action. Pathé’s Le Cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse, 1908), which was directed by Louis J. Gasnier (1875-1963) in 1908, reworks a popular comic premise in two nicely balanced parts (Figure 9.8).[24] In the first, a delivery man parks his horse-drawn cart in front of a feed store while he goes into an apartment building to drop off a load of laundry. In a series of alternating shots, two simultaneous lines of action unfold: while the horse consumes a whole bag of unattended oats (we know that time is passing because the bag gets progressively emptier), the delivery man climbs the stairs to his customers’ apartment, where he’s invited to share a glass of wine, and then comes down, pausing again to share some tobacco with the landlady.


                     Le Cheval emballé,

      Louis J. Gasnier, Pathé-Frères, 1908

See the moving picture

After an intertitle (“What he [the horse] can do after eating a peck of oats”), the second half of the film uses 13 shots to show what happens when the newly nourished, overly energetic horse goes on a rampage, crashing his cart into a carriage, some scaffolding (twice), a pottery display, and a couple of market stalls (among other things), all the while pursued by a growing, increasingly angry (and very clumsy) mob.

Every shot is a long shot (with some slight variation in camera angle), and the film’s continuity is imperfect: not all of the 13 shots depicting the chase are equally successful in conveying the logical direction of the action between contiguous locations. But as Abel argues, Le Cheval emballé depends on the sort of “structuring strategies” with which French filmmakers were beginning to tell more complex stories by means of more elaborate and more effective techniques. Particularly interesting in this respect is the next-to-last sequence of three shots in which the horse is shown returning to his stable (Figure 9.9): (1) he moves right to left through a gate, (2) enters the opening to the stall right to left, and (3) backs left to right into the interior of the stall. The two matching cuts create a nearly perfect sense of continuous action; in particular, the reverse angle in the third shot reproduces fairly unobtrusive movement between two contiguous spaces separated by a wall.

Reframing Action: Un Match enragé
  Even more sophisticated in its use of narrative structuring strategies is Pathé’s Un Match enragé (A Game of Chess, 1909).[25] The film begins with a full shot—a shot that frames a body or bodies in full—as two men sit down to a game of chess in a middle-class drawing room. A medium shot is cut in to show how absorbed they are in their game, and they pay no attention when, in another full shot, servants bring in food. A dog enters and begins lapping up the food, but a second cut-in medium shot reminds us that the players are oblivious to the world around them.

In the next part of the film, a thief breaks in, and the sequence alternates full shots of the thief in action—he lifts the players’ wallets and watches, lights a cigar, and starts a fire with the discarded match—with medium-shot cut-ins of the chess players, whose attention is still riveted on their chessboard. This pattern of alternation continues as the thief escapes, a servant discovers the smoke-filled room and calls the fire department, and firemen arrive to rescue the two players, who protect their chessboard as they’re being carried out of the burning building. The third part of the film climaxes at a lake where, seen in a high-angle medium shot, the players finish their game while standing up to their shoulders in water.

Un Match enragé makes extensive use of a structuring principle that will become increasingly important in the refinement of narrative technique: by alternating full and medium shots, the filmmaker has introduced changes in framing—changes in the size and angle of the scene delineated by the screen. Like Le Cheval emballé, Un Match enragé also alternates lines of action by breaking down some of the linear shot-by-shot sequences in which actions were captured on film.

The Gag as Narrative Structure
  An equally important feature of both Le Cheval emballé and Un Match enragé is overall structure. Both are composed of multiple parts, and in both, the part clearly functions as the parameter of the gag: in each case, the structuring principle of the part allows the filmmaker to present the gag in the kind of detail needed to get optimum comic effect.

Recall, for example, the three parts of Le Cheval emballé:

  1. Gag: the deliveryman goes inside while his horse fortifies himself with a bag of oats. Structuring principle: alternating two lines of action.
  2. Gag: the horse runs amok. Structuring principle: a continuous sequence of shots taken from several different locations.
  3. Gag: only the horse escapes unscathed from all the havoc that it’s caused. Structuring principle: match-cutting on shots of the horse as it enters its stall.

Note, too, the inherently narrative relationships of the parts: (1) While a delivery man goes inside, his horse eats a whole bag of oats, (2) resulting in a surge of energy that sends the horse on a rampage through the town (3) before, ironically, it ends up safely in its own stall. The story is a narrative because it satisfies the connections entailed by the italicized words in the preceding description: while dictates simultaneous lines of action; resulting in denotes a cause-and-effect relationship between one event and another; before, ironically suggests not only an impending climax but an incongruity between what we expect (or would expect if we weren’t watching a comic film) and what actually happens. Moreover, the concluding irony reminds us that the whole film is supposed to be an extended gag (as does the final part of Un Match enragé, in which the chess players behave the same way in the middle of a lake as they do in the middle of a drawing room). Much as the filmmaker has expanded the film’s gags by presenting them in greater detail, he’s expanded the whole film by developing the sequence and logic of the larger three-part gag. The result is narrative structure.


                   Un Drame dans les airs,

                        Pathé-Frères, 1904

See the moving picture

From Morality to Irony: Developing Realist Models
  Naturally, comedies weren’t the only films to reveal evolving principles of narrative technique and structure. In the period 1904-1907, the French cinema also produced a great number of what Abel calls “dramatic and realist films,” including those which, in Chapter 6.3, we labeled “melodramas.”[26] In this genre, too, early films were often constructed by the bricolage method. Pathé’s Un Drame dans les airs (Drama in the Air, 1904), for example, opens with actualité footage of a balloon launch and then shifts to studio shots of two men in the airborne gondola, where they take turns looking through a telescope; the objects that they see in alternating shots are again borrowed from actualité footage, with the images enclosed in circular masks.[27] Despite its quasi-narrative elements, this film, like Un Tour de monde d’un policier, is a spectacle attraction, climaxing with some sustained narrative suspense when the balloon is caught in a storm, bursts into flames, and plummets into the sea; using a miniature model, painted background scenery, and a large pool, the filmmakers shot the whole sequence in the Pathé studio (Figure 9.10).

The Compound Model: Au bagne
  According to Abel, the French “realist” film, like the comic film, went through a period of transition in which filmmakers began to transform such “spectacle effects” as bricolage “point-of-view” shots into strategies for telling stories. He calls the model of transformation that emerged in this genre the compound model and argues that its most important feature is the manipulation of frame changes to articulate action both within and between shots. In Au bagne (Life of a Convict/Scenes of Convict Life), for instance, which was directed for Pathé by Ferdinand Zecca in 1905-06, a convict escapes from a prison.[28] We first see him inside his cell as he jumps out of the window (after having filed through the bars). A cut to a 180-degree reverse-angle shot takes us outside the prison wall, where, in a low-angle long shot, we see the convict (in the back of the frame) just as he emerges from the window.

Here, then, we have a change in the distance and angle of the scene—a change that occurs between shots/frames. The reverse-angle shot matches the action in one location (the interior of the cell) with that in another (the exterior of the prison wall): we know, of course, that the sequence was filmed discontinuously—from the interior prison-cell set, the camera was “unanchored” and moved to a position from which to view the exterior prison-wall set—but the competent handling of the cut gives the illusion of continuous action across contiguous spaces.

Once the cut to the reverse-angle shot has been made, the camera follows the convict from the window to the ground—not by cutting but by tilting downward. When it does so, it also discovers a prison guard in the foreground of the frame, and we know that the convict can continue his escape only by subduing the guard. Now the camera tilts upward, back to the window from which the convict had jumped, where another guard is sounding the alarm. The upward or downward movement of the camera along an imaginary vertical line running through the camera head is called a tilt shot (see Figure 9.11), and its effect here is to connect three consecutive events—or, more accurately, three intimately connected components of the same event—manipulating the action of the scene by moving the borders of the frame and thus making strategic changes within it. The purpose of reframing in this scene is to strengthen the film’s presentation of “reality”—to enhance the illusion that the location in which the film takes place has the same spatial integrity as the location in which the spectator’s life takes place: the effect, in other words, is a visual reminder that our principal character is entrapped from both above and below.

Family Values: Developing the Domestic Melodrama
  Taken together, concludes Abel, “camera movement, cut-ins, reverse-angle cutting, and other forms of alternation gradually became integrated into a relatively flexible system of continuity editing.” Narrative strategies would be used not only to construct more complex pro-filmic spaces in which action could take place, “but also to elicit, suspend, and fulfill narrative expectations.”[29] This ability to manipulate “narrative expectations” was immediately valuable to producers of the domestic melodrama, which, both before and after 1907, was the dominant genre in the French “dramatic and realist” film.

Melodrama, according to one particularly useful definition, is “essentially . . . a simplification and idealization of human experience dramatically presented.”[30] As a rule, the drama begins when an original state of harmony—whether in the family, in some larger social institution, or in both—is disrupted. As the action proceeds, the audience is invited to experience a certain anxiety about the threats posed to sympathetic characters who have become vulnerable. Events typically revolve around a clearly defined battle between good and evil and inevitably climax with the triumph of good in the form of harmony restored. In the end, the threat to moral, social and domestic order is overcome and stability restored.

The conventions of the French melodrama were adapted from the theater and centered around threats to the conventional bastions of harmony and stability, especially the family. Among the locations situated in the pro-filmic space of the cinematic melodrama, the “private space” of the home was sacred, and the stability of the home depended on a conventional order of things that was decidedly patriarchal. In the French melodrama, the threat was typically to a literal or figurative family, and triumph over that threat usually entailed the restoration of the patriarchal family. (We will have occasion to expand this understanding of melodrama in Chapter 10.)

Representing “Private Space”: Le Détective
  The pattern is closely followed in Pathé’s Le Détective (The Detective, 1906), which begins with the kidnapping of a little girl by gangsters. After a three-shot sequence (including a closeup insert of the ransom note) details the crime, the family immediately hires a detective, who, as fate would have it, shortly ends up with the little girl in the kidnappers’ clutches. The eventual escape of the child and the detective is presented in two sequences that make skillful use of alternating shots to provide interior and exterior views of the kidnappers’ cabin and a nearby barn, and events are presented in a continuous flow of action from space to space. The same strategy also increases suspense by cutting between the actions of the escapees and those of their pursuers. The final shot of the film is an emblematic picture with an implied moral: in medium shot, the little girl is situated between her beaming parents, safe in the bosom of the restored family.


  Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol

The Grand Guignol Variant
  The French melodramatic tradition also reflected a taste for crime stories inspired by faits divers—news items. Producers and audiences favored episodes featuring violent deeds and narratives that could be embellished with grizzly details, whether factual or fictional. The genre was influenced by the productions of the Théâtre du Grand Guignol (literally, “Theater of the Big Puppet”) which, since 1897, had titillated Parisian audiences with realistic plays on such themes as insanity, vengeance, infanticide, and the suffering of innocents; using butcher-shop leftovers as props, performances featured mutilations, beheadings, gougings, and other forms of visceral mayhem.[31]

The tradition goes back to such independent theater companies as the Théâtre Libre, which was founded by the producer-director André Antoine in 1887. In particular, the influential Théâtre Libre was associated with the so-called comédie rosse: realistic plays peopled by seemingly well-adjusted characters whose veils of respectability are dramatically stripped away to reveal the effects of a dengerating social structure on fragile psyches. The intent was to shock audiences with stories in which violent crimes, motivated by passion and greed, disrupted the complacency of the prevailing social order.[32]


         Nuit de Noël, Pathé-Frères, 1908

See the moving picture

The Irony of Crimes of Passion: Nuit de Noël
  Take, for example, Pathé’s Nuit de Noël (Christmas Eve Tragedy, 1908).[33] In a rose-colored medium long shot of a harbor, a fisherman puts out to sea in a tiny sailboat. The figure of his wife enters the foreground, waves, and then exits in tears. We then follow her through a landscape of tombstones and blasted trees that echoes her emotional desolation. The film clearly takes the woman’s state of mind as its central theme, and when she returns home, she looks at herself in the mirror, her reflection returning to her an image of her loneliness and longing. At a Christmas Eve dance, she locates the local miller (whose advances she has thus far resisted), and they return, in the miller’s horse cart, to the woman’s house. A crosscut to the harbor shows the return of the husband, who arrives home to find the miller’s cart. As he breaks through the door, a quick cut shows the miller dropping from a second-story window and into his cart. He flees but is pursued by the fisherman, who catches him on a rocky seaside cliff and beats him unconscious. The crazed husband then pushes cart, horse, and helpless rival into the chafing waves below (Figure 9.12). Unfortunately, the intended irony strikes a rather blunt blow: what appears at first to be a story about despair and desire on the feminine and personal level erupts into a story about wrath and vengeance on the masculine and social level.

The Irony of Psychological Brutality: Pour un collier!
  Another good example of the melodrama in this vein is Pathé’s Pour un collier! (All for a Necklace, 1907).[34] Driven by his wife’s obsession with a pearl necklace that he can’t afford, a man sneaks into another woman’s bedroom to steal her necklace; when she bursts in on him, he strangles her. Distraught and bedraggled over the course of several transitional shots, he returns home to offer the stolen necklace to his wife. Her image, however, transforms in his disturbed mind into that of the dead woman and, shocked, the husband backs through a window; a well-matched reverse-angle shot shows him hitting the ground below. Badly injured, he’s brought back to the family living room and, in deep anguish, reaches out again to his wife. She, however, places the stolen pearls around her neck and turns to admire herself in the mirror. The film concludes with a medium shot of the wife, who smiles into the camera. Much like those in Pathé’s domestic melodramas, the concluding tableau in Pour un collier! is an emblematic picture with a moral. Here, however, the moral is bitterly ironic, capping a caustic joke on the conventional concept of marital devotion.

The Emergence of Narrative Voice
  Melodramas in the grand guignol or comedie rosse vein showed the way toward what Abel calls “an ironic voice of narration,” by means of which the filmmaker could create a “discrepancy between what a principal character is allowed to know and what a spectator is allowed to understand.”[35] The pattern is obvious in Pour un collier!, in which the viewer sees through the neurotic self-obsession of the wife much more clearly than her husband does.

But it also applies to Nuit de Noël, in which the viewer, though perhaps tempted to sympathize with the wife’s suppressed emotions, is undoubtedly less surprised by the intensity with which, in the person of the husband, they lead to the eruption of violent actions on the social level. At the end of each film, while the figurative distance between the characters reaches its greatest degree, the distance between the narrator (who knows the truth about personal and social relations) and the viewer (to whom the truth is being revealed) is almost completely erased. The effect is irony, and the emergence of an ironic voice, suggests Abel, “may constitute a major difference between the French cinema and its American counterpart during this period.”[36]


bricolage  Method of “structuring” a movie by combining the content and/or presentational modes of diverse forms of entertainment

full shot  Shot that frames an entire body or bodies in full along with little else

irony  Discrepancy between what a viewer expects of a situation and what actually occurs, or between what the viewer takes to be the case in an event or with a character and what’s actually intended

melodrama  Dramatic mode in which an initial state of harmony is disrupted and sympathetic characters rendered vulnerable, with good triumphing over evil in a clearly defined struggle

narrative  The telling of a story rather than the story itself—the process of selecting and organizing the basic elements of the story

tilt shot  Upward or down ward movement of the camera along an imaginary vertical line running through the camera head


[1] Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 47-48. On Holdup of the Rocky Mountain Express, see Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement, Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 88-90, at (accessed July 12, 2016); Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 429.

[2] Babel and Babylon, p. 29, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

[3] The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), p. 105, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

[4] See esp. Philip Rosen, “Disjunction and Ideology in a Preclassical Film: A Policeman’s Tour of the World,” Wide Angle 12:3 (1990), pp. 20-36; rpt. in Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis and London: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2001), Ch. 5. See also Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 107-08, at (accessed July 12, 2016); Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso, 2002), pp. 75-76, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

[5] Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press), p. 47.

On the bricolage model of French filmmaking, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 105-09, at See also Williams, Republic of Images, p. 46-47, at For a discussion of bricolage as a structuring principle in the development of the early Western, see Nanna Verhoeff, The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 183-85, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

The highly influential concept of bricolage was introduced into cultural studies by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in La Pensée sauvage (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1962). Trans. as The Savage Mind (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966). See Reading 9.1.

[6] Jacques Deslandes and Jacques Richard, Histoire comparée du cinéma. II (Tournai, Belgium: Casterman, 1968), pp. 313-14; cited by Williams, Republic of Images, p. 45, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

[7] For Figure 9.2 on Médor au téléphone, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 139.

[8] For Figure 9.3 on Les Invisibles, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 170.

[9] For Figure 9.4 on Pauvre mère, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 135, and “French Film Melodrama before and after the Great War,” in Intimations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama, ed. Marcia Landy (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 544-45, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

[10] For Figure 9.5 on Cendrillon, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 176-78.

[11] For Figure 9.6 on Vie et la passion de N.S.J.C., see Dwight H. Friesen, “La Vie et la Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (Pathé-Frères, 1907): The Preservation and Transformation of Zecca’s Passion,” in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927), ed. David J. Shepherd (New York and London: Routledge, 2016), Ch. 4, at (accessed July 12, 2016); Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 164-66.

[12] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 104, at

[13] “Temporality and Narrativity in Early Cinema,” trans. John Fell, in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 312-13.

[14] “Space, Time, and Motion in Film,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Fall 1974), pp. 32-37; excerpted in Aesthetics: A Reader in the Philosophy of the Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 136-42.

[15] “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Wide Angle 8:3/4 (1986), pp, 64, 65, 64. Rpt./rev. in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: British Film Institute, 1990), pp. 56-62; rpt. in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 381-88.

[16] “Temporality and Narrativity in Early Cinema,” in Film before Griffith, pp. 314, 322.

[17] See Rosen, “Disjunction and Ideology in a Preclassical Film,” esp. pp. 29-36.

[18] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 103, at

[19] “Temporality and Narrativity in Early Cinema,” in Film before Griffith, pp. 316, 313.

[20] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 103, at

[21] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 110.

[22] “The Cinema of Attraction,” p. 68. On Dix Femmes pour un mari, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 110, at Anthony Balducci, in The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012), pp. 212-13, at (accessed July 13, 2016), calls the gag around which Dix Femmes is structured “bridezillas” and traces it from contemporary remakes through adaptations made in the 1910s. Gaudreault, in “1904-1905: Movies and Chasing the Missing Link(s),” in American Cinema 1890-1909: Themes and Variations, ed. Gaudreault (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 148-49, focuses on Edwin S. Porter’s version of Dix Femmes, How a French Nobleman Got a Wife through the New York “Herald” Personal Column, in order to discuss “the exact remake” as “a new form of piracy” (see Figure 6.24).

[23] The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 219-20.

[24] The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 221-22. Charles Musser, in Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: Univ. of California Press, 1991), pp. 403-05, (accessed July 13, 2016), discusses Le Cheval emballé as an important instance of how “new representational strategies”—in particular, parallel editing—were being brought to bear on efforts to deal with “the rigorous linear temporality” entailed by the physical nature of the medium. On Louis J. Gasnier, see Danielle E. Williams, “Gasnier, Louis J.,” in France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, ed. Bill Marshall (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005, pp. 504-05, at (accessed July 13, 2016).

[25] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 226-27.

[26] See Abel, “French Film Melodrama before and after the Great War.”

[27] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 106, at See also Jan Holmberg, “Closing In: Telescopes, Early Cinema, and the Technological Conditions of De-distancing,” in Moving Images: From Edison to the Webcam, ed. John Fullerton and Astrid Söderbergh Widdig (New Barnet, UK: John Libbey, 2016), p. 86, at (accessed July 12, 2016).

[28] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 127.

[29] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 121.

[30] The definition comes from Michael Booth, Hiss the Villain: Six English and American Melodramas (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1964); quoted by Stephen Watt and Gary A. Richardson, American Drama: Colonial to Contemporary (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1995), p. 147.

[31] On the history and aesthetic of Grand Guignol, see Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, Grand Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter, UK: Univ. of Exter Press, 2002); Agnes Pierron, “House of Horrors,” trans. Deborah Treisman, Grand Street 57:1 (Summer 1996), pp. 87-100; rpt. in (2006), at (accessed July 13, 2016); Tanja Jurkovic, “Grand Guignol (1897-1962): Introduction to Grand Guignol, French Theatre of Horror,” The Gothic Imagination (January 29, 2013), at (accessed July 13, 2016).

[32] On the influence of André Antoine on French cinema, see Jean Chotia, “Antoine and the Cinema,” in André Antoine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), Ch. 9; Georges Sadoul, “Antoine, André,” in Dictionary of Film Makers, ed. and trans. Peter Morris (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1972), pp. 7-8, at (accessed July 13, 2016); Ian Aitken, European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 70-71, at (accessed July 13, 2016).

[33] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 202. On Nuit de Noël, see also: Abel, “The ‘Culture War’ of Sensational Melodrama, 1910-1914,” in Action and Adventure Cinema, ed. Yvonne Tasker (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), esp. p. 33, at (accessed July 13, 2016); and Abel, “Guarding the Borders in Early Cinema: The Shifting Ground of French-American Relations,” in Celebrating 1895: The Centenary of Cinema, ed. John Fullerton (Sydney, Australia: John Libbey, 1998), esp. pp. 47-48, at (accessed July 13, 2016). In both of these articles, Abel discusses the fact that Grand Guignol-influenced French melodrama was often regarded as “inappropriately sensational” by American standards.

[34] See Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 151.

[35] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 213.

[36] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 211.

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