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The Cinema of Attraction

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on September 18, 2009 at 1:25:18 am

The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde

By: Tom Gunning



WHAT is “cinema of attraction?”


Quoting Gunning, the term “cinema of attraction” can be defined as: "a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator."  This meaning that cinema could be created, not necessarily as an entertainment function but more along the lines that a film would attract its spectators by presenting something exclusive, something unique.  Gunning also states, “According to Eisenstein, theater should consist of a montage of such attractions, creating a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory imitativeness.’  I pick up this term partly to underscore the relation to the spectator that this later avant-garde practice shares with early cinema: of exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption.”



WHEN and WHY did “cinema of attraction” come about?


During 1907 to around 1913 of cinematic history, cinema was one makeover after another.  Filmmakers of that era were attempting to create unique images of extreme potential, images that went far beyond the act of reproducing everyday life.  This exact curiosity of early filmmakers brought about Tom Gunning’s concept of “cinema of attraction.”


As Gunning says, early modernist’s writing about cinema often flowed in similar ways: they were curiously fascinated by the possibilities of cinema but overly frustrated with the direction it began to flow.  As time went on, cinema began to take on the custom blueprints of other art forms, such as literature.


Gunning also explains that early filmmakers such as Méliès, Smith and Porter have been studied as contributors of film history because of their storytelling.  He says, “Although such approaches are not totally misguided, they are one sided, and potentially distort both the work of these filmmakers and the actual forces shaping cinema before 1906.”  He explains that there has always been hullabaloo between non-narrative and narrative films, however, Gunning compares both Lumière’s and Méliès’ films, along with other filmmakers of 1906, by stating that they all have “a common basis,” which he describes as “cinema of attraction.”  Gunning declares, “one can unite them in a conception that sees cinema less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power (whether the realistic illusion of motion offered to the first audiences by Lumière, or the magical illusion concocted by Méliès), and exoticism.”  With this said, the act of “cinema of attraction” does not disappear with a narrative domination, rather, it takes on an undercover approach.



the implications of ATTRACTION

Cinema after 1906, according to Gunning, pushed towards the structure of linear narrative, and away from the immediacy of the "spectacular image".  He states, "Film [after 1906] clearly took the legitimate theater as its model" (68).  This adoption of narrative remade film as a medium of tradition and emulation, placing movies alongside the stage in the artistic establishment.  To the avant-garde artistic circles of the time, cinema was exciting because of its radical "newness"- its ability to produce spectacle with immediacy and impact. When Gunning notes that, "It was precisely the exhibitionist quality of turn-of-the-century popular art that made it attractive to the avante-garde," he links early cinema's refusal of narrative to a refusal of the previous foundations of artistic communication.  To the progressive artists of the early 20th century, film had the ability to produce "exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorbtion" (66), and as such, had the ability to affect audiences with power, radical images in motion.  Linear narrative structure was numbingly familiar to the audiences of the day, meaning that narrative film was intrinsically familiar and comfortable.  Gunning's observation that film was potentially robbed of its immediate effectiveness due to the emphasis of narrative over spectacle implies that audiences would be less affected by narrative cinema, and thus more accepting of the events taking place within the structure of traditional narrative.  Politically, the implications of the insulating narrative extend to the exploitation of familiar linearity to promote quiet acceptance, rather than the inevitable questioning and recontextualization provoked by the "cinema of attraction". 





Films Gunning Relates “cinema of attraction” to:

How We Got Into Pictures (1979)

The Bride Retires (France, 1902)

Voyage dans la lune (1902)

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

Hooligan in Jail (1903)

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Photographing a Female Crook (1904)

Personal (1904)

Ben Hur (1924)

Un Chien andalou (1928)




Read The Cinema of Attraction by Tom Gunning

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