Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations

Jonathan Auerbach,
Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations.
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007.
ISBN: 978-0-520-25293-6
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

…To achieve any sort of conceptual unity…practices of cinema during its first decade came to rely most crucially on the dynamic language of body movement – gestures, comportments, and attitudes which taken together remain ‘the content of the form’… (Auerbach, 2)

The subject of Jonathan Auerbach’s Body Shots is the body in early cinema. In his introduction he sets out the nature of his study by asking a series of questions.

If not as explicit subject or theme, what is there to say about the moving body? What can the represented body itself say in moving images? How do we read a film made at the turn of the twentieth century…that has no clearly demarcated characters or actors, setting or plot? What is a body without a comprehensible story to give it some context? (1-2)

It is clear from these questions that Auerbach is not that interested in issues of identity or the way the body is culturally coded. He is much more interested in how the body occupies and activates space, and he argues that it is precisely early cinema’s open form, unencumbered by the dominance, distraction or the hindrance of narrative, that makes these early films ideal case studies of “dynamic corporeal process and spatial composition, tracing the primacy of acting, posturing, and gesturing.” (11)

Auerbach’s work follows in the tradition of such early cinema scholars as Tom Gunning, André Gaudreault, Charles Musser, Richard Abel and Miriam Hansen. Tom Gunning is especially important to Auerbach and he provides a useful overview of the way Gunning’s ‘attractions’ argument developed in his writing from 1985 onward, “from basically a means of presentation (or representation) that acted upon viewers in certain ways, to an aesthetic of spectatorship, to a crucial cultural shaper of modernity writ large..” (4) However, while Auerbach acknowledges the importance of Gunning’s work, particularly the way he redresses teleological readings of the first decade of cinema, he is also critical of Gunning’s focus on the visual at the expense of other elements. One point that is central to Auerbach’s own arguments is that Gunning “too quickly cuts off any extended discussion of the lived and living body, its changing emotions and emotional affects…” (5) It is not, however, Auerbach’s intention to simply dismiss or override Gunning’s ‘attractions’ and modernity arguments. Instead, what he wants to do is supplement them by focussing specifically on the body in these early films, and the many different ways in which the body becomes ‘the content of the form’.

This is also not a book that wants to argue a totalising or all-encompassing theory. It is much more exploratory than that and its exploratory nature is reflected in its very structure. The book is divided into two main parts, each of which examines different representations of the body in select films. Part One is titled ‘Body in Public’ and here Auerbach looks at public figures such as US president William McKinley and his assassin Leon Czolgosz as well as the more anonymous, lesser known figures who appear in early actualities and film shorts. Part Two is titled ‘Bodies in Space’ and here he looks at the way space and narrative is constructed and navigated by the running figures in early chase films as well as the firemen at work in The Life of an American Fireman (1902-03). But there are also two additional chapters that explore more divergent aspects of the corporeal body. One is called ‘Interlude’ and this looks at representations of vocalization, specifically the intersection between voice and image in silent cinema. The other chapter is titled ‘The Body Stilled’, and it is here that Auerbach asks what happens when the body stops moving.

The selection of films that form the basis of Auerbach’s study range from single-shot actualities made in the earliest years of cinema (1896 -1901) to multi-shot narratives made a little later (1902 -1904). Examples include McKinley at Home (1896), The Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901), a number of Lumiere actualities including La Partie d’Écarté and some Edison shorts: The Barber Shop (1893), What Happened on Twenty-Third Street (1901). There are also close studies of Edison’s Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894), The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss (1896), The Big Swallow (1901), The Escaped Lunatic(1903), Personal (1904), The Life of an American Fireman, and Daring Daylight Robbery (1903).

In a book that uses a diverse range of approaches, there are two particular chapters that I want to mention that illustrate something of this diversity. The first one is called ‘Looking In: McKinley at Home‘. In this chapter Auerbach’s focus is on a ‘singular body’ (15) and a very famous figure – president William McKinley, and a group of films featuring McKinley that were made between 1896 and 1901. One of the things Auerbach sets out to do here is to explore the relation between cinema and the public sphere and the film McKinley at Home(1896) provides an instructive case study. This is a film of great historical interest as McKinley was the first presidential candidate to conduct a campaign through, and on, film. The strategy of this ‘front porch campaign’ was to keep McKinley at home, and invite the media to visit him. Auerbach describes it in the following way:

…confining their candidate to his porch but also keeping him…in front of the press…tended to blur the traditional distinctions between private and public, between corporeal presence and media representation….Only by being absent from the campaign trail could McKinley be at once at home and before the nation.. (21)

Auerbach goes on to describe the way McKinley’s ‘absent presence’ is constructed in the film through the carefully controlled movements of his body – his walk, his gestures, the represented relationship to the distant fragile image of his wife on the porch, and his action of reading a telegram that links him to the events of the day. Auerbach interprets these gestures and actions as a negotiation of the space between home and country, and he suggests that this was further complicated by the way in which the film was received in vaudeville theatres around the country by large audiences.

However, the direction of this analysis becomes even more interesting in its second section where Auerbach follows his discussion of the documentary footage of the real figure of McKinley and the notion of ‘absent presence’ with a discussion of the film of the execution of McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz. He describes a time when filmmakers were exploring faked actualities, simulations and re-enactments of real events featuring actors playing parts, the film, The Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison, is a particularly interesting example of a documentary/fiction hybrid.

After taking two shots of the prison’s exterior, Porter and White returned to Edison’s recently completed studio in New York City. Closely following eyewitness accounts, they filmed two studio scenes that restaged the execution, using actors to play the parts of criminal, guards, doctors, state officials, and witnesses…the film was distributed in two parts to allow exhibitors to show exterior and interior scenes separately, but it is the four-shot whole, a striking hybrid of actuality footage and theatrical re-enactment, that most forcefully dramatizes cinema’s developing capacity to plot and sustain a powerful kind of excitement of its own. (37-38)

Auerbach notes that Charles Musser, following on from Walter Benjamin, Andre Bazin and Christian Metz “summarized cinema’s tendency toward disembodiment as ‘the absence of presence’ but suggests that a more appropriate phrase for these ‘uncanny incarnations’ might be ‘the presence of absence’.” (30) The importance of this film and the ideas that it provokes about the present body and the absent body are underlined by the fact that a cropped still from this film is on the cover of the book. It is a provocative choice as it is a reconstructed image of a man who is about to be executed surrounded by executioners who are peering at him.

In the second part of the book, Auerbach’s work moves towards more sustained close analysis in his long and detailed study of Life of an American Fireman. Auerbach frames his discussion of this film with a reminder that early cinema was a ‘new media’ and that we need to recognize this film’s experimental form and the wonder with which Edwin S. Porter tried to imagine and reimagine relationships of space in this film. The analysis explores these many formal experiments: the many ways the film “deploys bodies to try out differing productions and reproductions of space” (105), the way hoses and ladders and the fire run function as horizontal and vertical grids, and the way doors and windows suggest “… a third possibility…of three-dimensional interiority and exteriority.” (110) What Auerbach wants us to think about, by undertaking this detailed analysis of bodies in space and bodies stretching the possibilities of space, is that by focusing on spatial, rather than narrative, causality, we can conceive of a more open cinema, a cinema in which the mysterious, material and tangible corporeality of bodies are the very thing that is foregrounded.

This is an important book not only because of its intellectual rigour, its provocations and individual analyses, but also because it complicates the way we might think about the body in early cinema. It is essential reading and serve to remind us of the richness of this period of cinema production for film scholarship.

Anna Dzenis,
La Trobe University, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 23 November 2008

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →