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The 'Cinema of Attractions' in Relation to Early Film / Tom Gunning

As early cinema began, its fascination with the image itself is what Tom Gunning describes as the lead attribute towards his idea of the Cinema of Attractions. Many early filmmakers were still discovering the capabilities of film, aiding them in focusing on what they could show instead of what they could tell. The image itself represented more than the story behind it. This reasoning led Gunning to believe that film before 1906 had a different relationship with the audience, and to describe this early film with a term he coins as ‘the Cinema of Attraction.’

First, to define what Gunning refers to when he uses the term cinema of attractions. In his article ‘The Cinema Of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,’ Gunning states, "it is a cinema that bases itself on the quality that Léger celebrated: its ability to show something," (230). It directly interacts the viewers with the images they see, stimulating on a level that is purely exhibitionist. While narrative film aims to give the sense of being a voyeur to the unsuspecting characters, the cinema of attractions is aware of the audience, and in reply is creating images specifically for them to see.

Gunning further discusses the eye contact made by the camera and the actors, breaking down the ‘realistic illusion’ of the cinema (230). This eye contact with the camera gives the viewer the sense that they in turn are being watched by what they are watching, making them self aware as an audience. As for the ‘realistic illusion’, it is destroyed by the presentation of a character being conscious of the fact that there is an unseen viewer who is aware of their actions.

As Gunning so eloquently articulates, “this is a cinema that displaces its visibility, willing to rupture a self enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator,”(230). More simply put, it is the idea of having a moving image that interacts with a viewer in order to keep their focus on nothing other than the image they are being show.

This is not to say that narrative films are entirely separate to the world of the cinema of attraction. On the contrary, narratives will often incorporate this form of cinema into their development. However, since this method of cinema does tend to disrupt the realistic illusion created by the audience’s lack of self-awareness, incorporating it usually has a result of slowing down the progression of the narrative. For example, Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (US, 1903), incorporated a segment that portrayed a life size (or larger than life, depending on the size of the screen) image of an outlaw shooting a gun at the audience.

Gunning relates this shot to the stimulus one gets from being on a carnival ride (234). This ‘life-size’ bandit stares directly out at the audience, points his pistol at the screen, and shoots it to release a billow of tinted smoke from barrel of the gun. The segment was either shown before or after the narrative portion of the film, to prevent it from interrupting the advancement of the film’s plot. In this film it can be used in two different ways. When placed in the beginning, it entices the audience keeping them guessing in terms of what will happen next in the narrative, since according to the introduction, anything can happen.

When placed at the end, it surprises the audience and catches them off guard. If this segment was to be placed anywhere between the scenes of the narrative, it would shock or leave the unsuspecting audience in disarray, curious as to what that scene meant or why it was placed there. They would no longer be interested in the progression of the film, but rather as to why they were being shot at.

Gunning implies it creates a sense “of exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption,”(232) which is vital reasoning as to why it was not presented between the narrative. The viewer’s interest in the narrative is linked to the progressing idea that they are being told what will happen next. If this idea is disrupted by the shock or awe created through the cinema of attractions, the viewer becomes less focused on the tale and more focused on why they are being confronted.

Film directors may also use shots that involve aspects from the cinema of attractions between scenes, but use certain techniques that will avoid abruptly halting the narrative to instead simply slow it down for point emphasis. Gunning explains, “[I]n fact the cinema of attractions does not disappear with the dominance of narrative, but rather goes underground, both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (e.g. the musical) than in others,”(230). For example, looking at Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (US, 1939), one can see the incorporation of the cinema through music. As the narrative progresses, the characters frequently turn to song for further emphasis of the mood they are attempting to create.

When Dorothy dreams of place she could be to keep out of trouble, she sings about it being located over the rainbow as an allusion to Oz, but also to stress that this place technically does not exist, and to travel there would require means that are logically impossible. This break into song, which happens quite often in this film, disrupts the illusion of realism in the narrative, or otherwise suggests that in reality people suddenly commence with choreographed dance and song numbers without any previous practice or consultation with their fellow actors. Generally, most of the film viewers do realize that such a thing is absurd, but will understand that this technique is used to show them what the character is experiencing in a more dramatic than natural way. Also, the characters’ reaction to the musical numbers is one of unawareness, as though in their reality it is considered something completely of the norm. This technique, being mainly exhibitionist, attempts to conform and make sense within the narrative.

Yet rather than aid in the narrative’s progression, it functions on a level of emotional reaction or understanding that follows attributes of the cinema of attractions. Songs are placed in the film as productions specifically for the audience, recognizing them as the viewers, and geared towards helping them understand the mood. In this case, the cinema is used to highlight a point that may not be clear through the narrative, and pauses between it to explain in further detail. The narrative then continues as though this sudden reflection of the mood was nothing unnatural to the situation, but rather just acted as an interruption in the unaware story. While attractions in the past were created to shock or leave the crowd in awe, film further progresses to incorporate attractions focused on emphasizing a point or creating a mood.

Although Gunning mainly relates the cinema of attractions to film before 1906 and avant-garde film, these attributes still can be related to many of today’s Hollywood productions. Through discussion of the cinema of attractions, one can find its relation to exhibitionism, and the idea of putting on a show for the viewer. This form of cinema has been used as stimuli to shock and surprise audiences, but can also be subtly incorporated for accenting an idea or mood. Many consider these forms of cinema to be purely unsophisticated and taboo, while others can see the pure intelligence it takes to understand concepts of the cinema of attraction.

Works Cited

Fleming, Victor, dir. The Wizard of Oz. US. 1939.

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Film and Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Robert Stam & Toby Miller. Blackwell, 2000. 229-235.

Porter, Edwin S, dir. The Great Train Robbery. US. 1903.

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