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Early Cinema and the "National"

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While many studies have been written on national cinemas, Early Cinema and the "National" is the first anthology to focus on the concept of national film culture from a wide methodological spectrum of interests, including not only visual and narrative forms, but also international geopolitics, exhibition and marketing practices, and pressing linkages to national imageries. The essays in this richly illustrated, landmark anthology are devoted to reconsidering the nation as a framing category for writing cinema history. Many of the 34 contributors show that concepts of a national identity played a role in establishing the parameters of cinema's early development, from technological change to discourses of stardom, from emerging genres to intertitling practices. Yet, as others attest, national meanings could often become knotty in other contexts, when concepts of nationhood were contested in relation to colonial/imperial histories and regional configurations. Early Cinema and the "National" takes stock of a formative moment in cinema history, tracing the beginnings of the process whereby nations learned to imagine themselves through moving images.

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Chapter 1 Tom Gunning, Early cinema as global cinema: the encyclopedic ambition

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“Early cinema is a global cinema.” “National cinema only appears later in film history.” I would endorse both these statements as important historical principles, and might restate them, borrowing a phrase from my colleague Michael Raine, one of the finest historians of Japanese cinema, as “cinema was international before it was national”. However, immediately a flurry of problems intervene, mainly dealing with terminology. What do we mean by: “global”, “international” or even “national”? I am reminded of a story I heard from my former colleague Homi Bahbha (my apologies to him if my memory is not exact). Interviewing an executive of Coca-Cola, Bahbha referred to Coca-Cola as an “international corporation”. The executive corrected him, saying that Coca-Cola considered themselves a “global corporation” Bhabha asked him to explain the difference. The executive paused, rang for his secretary, who eventually entered with an official statement about the global identity of Coca-Cola. I confess I have forgotten what this definition was (and perhaps Bhabha did not recall when he told the story). But my point lies less in promoting any single definition, than in the relation among these terms, what they articulate and conceal, their power as markers of the power to define and articulate meanings.

 

Chapter 2 Jonathan Auerbach, Nationalizing attractions

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Like most of us, I manage to wear more than one academic hat, having been trained in literary analysis, which I continue to pursue, along with my research in early cinema for the past decade or so, with American studies serving as something like a bridge between these two very different modes of representation, the verbal and the visual. Given the pressure to be “interdisciplinary” (whatever that means, exactly), I tried at first to combine these two interests, but have since learned the hard way that it is sometimes best to keep your hats separate. Attempting to import key operational concepts from one field into another without sufficient pause or historical reflection threatens to produce more confusion than fusion. In other words, however permeable or changing, disciplines have borders and boundaries, just as countries do.

I have self-consciously introduced this metaphor of borders in relation to disciplinary difference because it seems to me “nation” and “the national” as crucial concepts for both literary and cinema scholarship in fact function in markedly dissimilar ways. In the first half of this essay I propose to discuss some of these differences, focusing on how concepts of nation and nationalism have recently fared in American literary history and American studies. In the second half, I will then quickly shift gears, jumping across the Atlantic to discuss a group of turn-of-the-century British filmmakers, using their work as a kind of test case to probe certain very suggestive but somewhat loose claims first made by Noël Burch over twenty years ago, propositions that bear directly on this question of the nationalizing of early cinema attractions.

 

Chapter 3 Frank Kessler, Images of the “National” in early non-fiction films

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On 21 September 1896 a young Frenchman, sent abroad by the Lyon-based firm Lumière, records a Tyrolese dance, a Schuhplattler, with a Cinématographe camera.1 The young man’s name is Constant Girel,2 twenty-three years old, and the scene he films is set in Cologne, possibly somewhere in a public park, far from the Alps where Tyrolese dancers are part of the local folklore. Obviously, the dancing couple are performers who are part of a Tyrolese show and otherwise present on a stage somewhere in Cologne a spectacle that – apparently – is exotic enough for audiences in the Rhineland (similar shows can be found at that time in many other parts of Germany). In that respect, the Danse Tyrolienne is not any different from the Sioux Ghost Dance or the Buffalo Dance that were “kinetographed” almost exactly two years earlier (on 24 September 1894) in Edison’s Black Maria studio.3 In both cases, a folkloristic performance is executed in front of a moving picture camera; they are not, however, genuine folklore executed in situ as part of a local tradition, but performances by professionals who are part of a touring show (in Cologne, this is probably the Tiroler-Gesellschaft “Ploner”,4 and in the case of Edison, of course, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show).5

 

Chapter 4 Giorgio Bertellini, National and racial landscapes and the photographic form

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“Any viable history of photography has to be part of a history of picturemaking, and any viable history of picturemaking must include photography. “
Carl Chiarenza1

“The idea of race was [at the turn of the 20th century] in many ways and for many people not very different from what we would call today national character […] race was a determinant of national cultural experience, it was at the same time an outgrowth of previous national and cultural tradition.”
George W. Stocking,2

for Antonia Lant

How do historians usually address the relationship between early cinema and national differences? There is a wealth of methodological approaches. They range from discussions of subject matter, social themes, historical circumstances (i.e. Spanish-American War, World War I), genre/intertextual form (i.e. the western film), institutional affiliation (i.e. the Albert Kahn Archive, the Dutch Colonial Institute), economy of production, marketing, and cultural reception (i.e. French cinema in the USA).

 

Chapter 5 Charles O’Brien, Sound-on-disc cinema and electrification in pre-WWI Britain, France, Germany and the United States

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In the following essay I examine sound-on-disc cinema prior to World War I through a framework of national and urban comparisons. The objective is to explore sound-on-disc’s international diffusion as an example of how the cinema’s uneven global development, its geographical diversity, was conditioned by regional variations in electric power. The focus on sound-on-disc thus involves an argument that bears implications for cinema history as a whole. One aspect of the argument concerns difficulties posed to the established nation-state film historiography by electrification, a sub- or transnational phenomenon more than a national one.

The essay is organized in three parts. First, I outline sound-on-disc cinema’s dependence on electric motors, and hence on patterns of electrification, that varied from one city, nation, or region to the next. Second, drawing on film-trade periodicals and daily newspapers, I survey how electrification in London, Berlin, New York, Paris, and Chicago affected – or may have affected – sound-on-disc’s commercialization in these cities. Finally, in my conclusion, I draw out from the sound-on-disc situation implications for early cinema study generally.

 

Chapter 6 Torey Liepa, Mind-reading/mind-speaking: dialogue inThe Birth of a Nation (1915) and the emergence of speech in American silent cinema

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Despite the seemingly uncanny pithiness of Al Jolson’s famous lines, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, in 1927, speech was not new to the cinema. In fact, speech had played a substantial role in silent films for nearly two decades. Dialogue intertitles and character-written inserts allowed cinematic representations to extend beyond the pictorial exterior and into the linguistic consciousness of characters. Silent film dialogue, however, brought more than a symbolic image of individual consciousness to the cinema. Reflecting a broader social matrix of language and power, written dialogue gave voice to the cultural politics endemic to spoken language. As such, these devices would play a major role in mediating a public sphere that was undergoing a seismic shift in character. In 1910s American cinema, dialogue intertitles functioned as sites of cultural negotiation, upon which national, class, racial and other tensions were played out. The emergence of this mass-produced, -presented and -consumed visible language within a predominantly pictorial medium represents a unique moment in the cultural and aesthetic history of film (and mass media) – a moment that raises fundamental questions about established understandings of the relationship between a growing though chaotic culture industry and a society equally in flux.

 

Chapter 7 Marta Braun and Charlie Keil,Living Canada: selling the nation through images

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Distinctively in the Western world, Canada’s identity as a nation was forged at the same moment as technologies of mechanized reproduction became prevalent. Early cinema, indeed, assumed a privileged place in defining Canada to its inhabitants and to the larger world. No set of texts reinforces cinema’s role in the formative nation-building exercise more clearly than the changing program of film series known as Living Canada, first exhibited in 1903. Living Canada offers a revealing example of the ways in which film was employed to envision and give form to concepts of nation at that crucial time before World War I. More specifically, the series, filmed under the aegis of the Charles Urban Trading Company in 1902, indicates how closely intertwined the category of nation was with the notion of economic potential. The idea of Canada was predicated on the image of its seemingly infinite natural resources, the visual confirmation of which film was especially well suited to provide. Clichéd notions of Canada as a vast land of forests and mountains, lakes and rivers – notions so successful and persuasive that they retain their usefulness more than a century after Living Canada’s debut – were instrumental in promoting an unknown land as a desirable destination for both immigration and tourism. But while we might be tempted to see Living Canada as a straightforward effort in constructing the identity of a nation, our estimation of the series’ means and aims must take into account the variations introduced by exhibition context and programming strategies.

 

Chapter 8 Sheila Skaff, Early cinema and “the Polish question”

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The failure of the first local filmmakers to earn broad recognition for their achievements fulfilled the expectations of the inhabitants of the Polish nation – a stateless entity in parts of the Kingdom of Prussia, Russian Empire, and Austro-Hungarian Empire comprising ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse populations committed to the restoration of eighteenth century borders – perfectly. In no other aspect of Polish national culture was fatalism more widespread, more profound, or more advantageous for foreign entrepreneurs. In Warsaw, this fatalism was manifest in initial praise, and eventual dismissal, of the first short films to document the daily routines and weekend pleasures of the city’s inhabitants. Following an initial period of enthrallment with local actualities, Warsaw audiences expressed disappointment in them and shunned local filmmakers in favor of traveling exhibitors. The first local filmmaker’s declining prosperity should be attributed to apprehension concerning the continued non-resolution of “the Polish question” (what the West should do for the millions of stateless Poles), and the complex relationship of modernity, nationalism, and cinema in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century.

 

Chapter 9 Frank Gray,Our Navy and patriotic entertainment in Brighton at the start of the Boer War

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Britain, as an imperial power, dominated the world at the end of nineteenth century. Jan Morris described it succinctly as, “the largest empire in the history of the world, comprising nearly a quarter of the landmass of the earth, and a quarter of its population”.1 Its role as a global superpower was to assert its political and economic authority, especially in Africa and Asia. The so-called Pax Britannica (British peace) was a product of this status. It was expressed profoundly in 1900 by the fact that Britain and its global interests were defended by its navy – the largest navy in the world.

From 1899 to 1913, a film and magic lantern entertainment entitled Our Navy was performed throughout Britain and the British colonies. It celebrated the Royal Navy and the British imperial spirit. It was unashamedly patriotic and designed to celebrate the nation, its greatness and its naval traditions. This paper outlines the history of Our Navy and then positions it within a very precise exhibition context, Brighton at the start of the Boer War 1899–1900, in order to account for its early popularity.

 

Chapter 10 Ian Christie, “An England of our Dreams”?: early patriotic entertainments with film in Britain during the Anglo-Boer War

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The Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 has long been known as one of the first conflicts in which modern media played an important role, with photographic illustration, telegraphy and film all actively involved.1 But it would be more accurate to say that these “new media” were finding their place amid the established media of print and performance. Rather than stake a simple claim for the novelty of film, historians of the medium and its place in visual culture can offer the more complex insights that arise from tracing how film borrowed from and echoed the themes expressed in other media, and how in doing so it negotiated its place in the hierarchy of media consumption – and thus contributed to popular sentiment. Above all, by focusing on how and to whom film was shown, rather than merely on the surviving textual examples, it should be possible to contribute substantially to the continuing debates among historians about the implications of this arch-imperialist war.2 The significance of the turn of the century music hall as a locus of jingoistic patriotism has long been recognized, but the place of film in the music hall, one of its earliest venues, has hardly received the attention it merits.3 As film was conscripted into a wide variety of roles, it accurately reflected many of the ambiguities and dilemmas that were exposed by the war itself: the price demanded by as well as the pride involved in war with the Boer nationalists.

 

Chapter 11 Nico de Klerk, “The transport of audiences”: making cinema “National”

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The materials that are the subject of this essay, films and their accompanying printed texts, were produced in the early and mid-1910s by the Association Koloniaal Instituut, in Amsterdam. This association was founded in 1910 as a centre for the promotion of science, education, trade, and manufacture. Alerted by a lack of interest in the Dutch colonies, in particular the East Indies (now Indonesia), the association’s founders conceived of the Colonial Institute as a center for the collection and study of data and objects of, and the dissemination of knowledge about, Dutch overseas territories. Besides exhibitions, publications or lectures, they decided to use a modern aid in their campaign: photographic and cinematographic records of the Dutch East Indies.

In an early description, in 1911,1 the association described the film project in general terms as a means to give “a vivid impression of the social conditions and the everyday life of the people living in the East Indies”. Besides this idealistic motive, the correspondence and minutes of the association’s board meetings reveal another motive that shaped the initiative: the recruitment of “colonial manpower”. Self-interest was not foreign to this motive, as the association undoubtedly saw an opportunity to prove its value by contributing to relieve a perceived need for new, Dutch employees in the colony. Because the colony was rapidly modernizing around this time, lots of new jobs were created, not only in the traditional sectors of agriculture, industry, government, and the army, but also in health care, education, the legal and penal system, architecture, engineering, and construction, retail, public transport and communication, tourism, etc. The economic expansion at the beginning of the twentieth century could have absorbed members of the local, mostly Indo-European – and often Europeanized – work force. But representatives of colonial interests in patria sided with many local companies and government offices in their preference for newcomers from Holland and other western countries.2

 

Chapter 12 Panivong Norindr, Enlisting early cinema in the service of “la plus grande France”

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The use of the term “enlisting” in my title is not meant simply to marshal the image of a nation at war but to suggest the potential or promise of early cinema in reconfiguring the new boundaries of the French imperial nation-state,1 a sociopolitical system that linked a parliamentary republic, the Third Republic, to an administrative empire of colonies and protectorates. “L’idée coloniale”, to use Raoul Girardet’s term, entered popular French consciousness as “la plus Grande France”, so named after the French imperial doctrine2 conceived after the bloody aftermath of the Great War to challenge the hegemony of the British empire and counter its slogan of “Greater Britain”. The idea of “la plus Grande France” complicates the idea of the nation as elaborated in such a poetic and abstract fashion by Ernest Renan in his famous 1882 Sorbonne lecture, “What is a Nation?” According to Renan, the nation is not defined by geography, language, or religion: “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.”3 Renan also asserts that “l’oubli”4 [forgetfulness] and “historical error”, what in our postcolonial time we would call “historical amnesia”, also shape the modern nation: “Forgetting, I would even go as far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality.”5 Here Renan’s pointed observation should be taken seriously by the postcolonial film critic whose task may be precisely to shed light on these “acts of violence” and attempt to write a cultural film history that provincializes France, and by extension Europe, to use Dipesh Chakravarty’s felicitous phrase, a subaltern film historiography that foregrounds the colonies and the story of these elided subjects of history, tirailleurs and other nameless “native, colonial subjects”, conscripted en masse, when the French patrie was in danger, as it was the case during the Great War (and again during World War II).6

 

Chapter 13 Marina Dahlquist, Teaching citizenship via celluloid

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In the summer of 1910, Francis Oliver, the Chief of the Bureau of Licenses in New York City, conducted a study of moving picture theaters and concluded: “the motion picture theaters which were just now being condemned by a great many people, [are] a potent factor in the education of the foreign element and therefore an advantage to the city”.1 Challenging misgivings that moving pictures suggested “bad” ideas, he further claimed “that many foreigners who could neither read nor write were enabled through the proper kind of pictures to get a good working idea of the customs of this their adopted country”.2 A month earlier, Reverend W.H. Jackson had arrived at a similar assessment in a reflection on the universal nature of moving pictures: “The ear may comprehend but one language; descendants of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Teutonic races may sit side by side and together read in the universal language of the eye the selfsame subject”.3

This celebration of moving pictures as a universal language, as a form of “visual Esperanto”, was, as Miriam Hansen and others have argued, in vogue during the transitional period.4 The perennial example from the mid 1910s is, of course, Vachel Lindsay’s discussion about hieroglyphics and moving picture Esperanto.5 Moving pictures were overall considered to facilitate cross-cultural communication between people belonging to different nationalities and speaking different languages. The conviction that the new visual medium was superior to written language was prevalent. Prominent figures from Thomas Edison to D. W. Griffith predicted a glorious future for moving pictures as the successor to books in schools and libraries.6 This alleged universal nature of film incurred considerable pedagogical clout and prospects for social uplift. Moving pictures were not only valued as a form of universal language, but as Rev. Jackson declared: “It requires no education to look at a picture, but looking at the moving picture is educational”.7

 

Chapter 14 David Mayer,Fights of Nations and national fights

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My subject, a brief film shot for American Mutoscope & Biograph (AM&B) by Billy Bitzer, initially attracted me because four of the six episodes are cleverly choreographed variety stage acts – i.e. theatrical vaudeville sketches – restaged for the camera. Each sketch is undeniably abridged, but not otherwise altered: filmed straight-on in what appear to be single takes, the camera set-ups and lighting (or exposures) sometimes differ for different episodes. As a theater historian aware of how many scraps of the Victorian theater – narratives, genres, staging, effects – can be recovered from early film, I scour these films for evidential remnants, and Fights of Nations opens directly onto the American vaudeville stage at the turn of the last century. It reminds me, yet again, of how we, as theater and film scholars, have largely failed to note the impact on early narrative film of the vaudeville dramatic sketch, both comic and serious. It is a matter that we must address. It also prompts me to add that we have yet to assess the appeal of combats and fights as stage and film entertainments. And it further underscores the point that films – and I’m thinking immediately of Luke McKernan’s brilliant DVD compilation Silent Shakespeare – help us to understand how Shakespeare’s plays were known and seen by large swathes of Europeans and Americans who rarely, if ever, witnessed full-scale Shakespearean performances.

 

Chapter 15 Gregory A. Waller, Japan on American screens, 1908–1915

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Japan invaded the United States sometime in May 1910. Or at least that is what a Moving Picture World editorial claimed in its 28 May 1910 issue, as it contemplated a forthcoming release entitled, Love of Chrysanthemum. Moving Picture World readily identified this Vitagraph film as yet one more refashioning of Madame Butterfly, that is, a contemporary story in which an ill-fated, cross-cultural and inter-racial romance between a Japanese woman and an American man ends with her suicide. For this preeminent American trade magazine, the “Japanese Invasion” was not literally a matter of spies, immigrants, or imported goods, and not a case of Japanese performers or stage productions making their way into the American entertainment market. New releases from Edison, Kalem, and Vitagraph had put Japan on view for American motion picture audiences and prompted Moving Picture World to ask two related rhetorical questions: what accounts for America’s “peculiar interest” in Japan, and “what is the connection... between the United States and Japan?” The answer, according to Moving Picture World, was somewhat complicated:

 

Chapter 16 Paul S. Moore, Nationalist film-going without Canadian-made films?

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In urban, English Canada, the First World War was a significant marker of Canadian independence, maturing into a nation after British colonial adolescence. In defense of the British motherland, Canada found its national pride. This is especially applicable to Ontario, where stalwart Loyalist patriotism and a remarkable volunteerism signaled how Toronto would eventually eclipse Montreal culturally, industrially and economically as the national metropolis, having already done so in fact in the war effort.1 But a Toronto-centric Canadian nation would never have that metropolis as a sentimental focus, neither as the heartland of a folk or an avant-garde culture, nor even as a center for a national mass-produced culture. As is first evident in the shift from Montreal to Toronto during the First World War, whatever Canadian nationhood meant, it would be a distinctly modern amalgam tenuously linked by an imported mass culture, distributed out of Toronto but not created there. This is certainly the case with cinema, in which the city supplied an exemplary prototype of nationalist movie-going, of consumption and showmanship.

 

Chapter 17 John Welle, The cinema arrives in Italy: city, region and nation in early film discourse

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In Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception, Yuri Tsivian reconstructs the response to early cinema of an educated Russian public. In describing the methodology he adopts for analysing written traces of early cinema, he writes:

At the input we have a simple moving image, at the output we get a “reception text”... The task of those who take up the study of cultural reception is quite similar to that of the Rorschach psychologist: to summarize and interpret the recurrent associations and fixed ideas that each culture reads into the “moving smudges” of early cinema.1

Tom Gunning describes cultural reception in these terms:

“The writer on films filters his or her perception of the films through more than a subjective grid. As they participate in the passions and tacit assumptions of their age and nation (not to mention class and gender) they stain the image they present of the film with them.”2

As these scholars indicate, cultural reception entails tracing the recurring patterns, dominant motifs, and familiar metaphors contained in each culture’s written accounts of early cinema.

 

Chapter 18 Canan Balan, Wondrous pictures in Istanbul: from cosmopolitanism to nationalism

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This essay presents a panorama of the evolution of viewing conventions in Istanbul, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (from the 1890s to the 1930s). Within the Ottoman Empire, Westernist, Turkist and Islamist schools of thought were in keen competition when the cinématographe arrived in Istanbul, in 1896. Traces of the discursive space configured by these schools are quite visible in Turkish cultural history, specifically in the history of cinematic spectatorship. A set of binary oppositions – between East and West, between National and International, and, finally, between Islamist and Secular – dominated the framework for reactions to the cinématographe. Yet, examining this history of reception within the influences of such discourses, embroiled as they are with essentialism and reductionism, is no longer productive. Instead, we need to reconsider the theoretical assumptions of prevalent approaches to cinema history and move away from this essentialist perspective by historicizing the Istanbulite spectatorship. In other words, spectatorship in this context needs to be situated as part of a specific public space within a particular cultural period. In order to situate and analyse Istanbulite spectatorship, I will begin by discussing the cultural influences in writing Turkish Film History and continue by sketching precinematic viewing traditions in Istanbul. I will then explore the significance of cinema for the Istanbulites by analysing some journals, memoirs, questionnaires and trade reports.

 

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