Early film historian Tom Gunning’s now-canonical concept of “the cinema of attractions” at once locates an historical moment and a mode of address. The cinema of attractions inherits its rhythms from 19th-century amusements that rush toward their viewers, that grab and shake and make them feel.
Any and all early film thrills seemingly unite beneath the expansive reach of Gunning’s term. Against the “temporality of surprise, shock, and trauma,” Gunning opposes the reassuring rhythms of classical narrative film.[i] He compares the spectator of narrative to Little Hans, a figure who masters the traumatic departure of his mother through the predictable outcomes of his Fort/Da game. Early cinema, by contrast, is a spool out of control: “If the classical spectator enjoys apparent mastery of the narrative thread of film […] the viewers of the cinema of attractions plays a very different game of presence/absence, one strongly lacking predictability or a sense of mastery,” (5). Trauma, shock, surprise, the thrills of Coney Island, a single-shot vue, or one of Méliès’ carefully orchestrated screen shows: all equally “smack of the instant.” The cinema of attractions is a grab bag of visual (and bodily) stimulations as Gunning resists distinguishing between these radically different kinds of early film experiences.
Gunning likewise avoids the historical how or why of any one instant. Through a subtle sleight-of-hand, he traces this history through the turn-of-the-century filmgoer. Why did these shocks and thrills shape early cinema? Because the public wanted them, they played a different game than the controlling little Hanses to come. These spectators were not children, but willing (adult) participants whose desires were both directly acknowledged and reliably satisfied by early attractions. Indeed, one cannot disentangle the attraction from its audience. In his efforts to outline “inherently” attractive themes, Gunning proposes “dependently” attractive themes, grounded in the desires, interests, fascinations, and obsessions of their spectators:
The metapsychology of attractions is undoubtedly extremely complex, but its roots can be traced to what St. Augustine called curiositas and early Christianity condemned as the “lust of the eye.” We could list a number of inherently “attractive” themes in early cinema: a fascination with visual experiences which seem to fold back on the very pleasure of looking (colors, forms of motion—the very phenomenon of motion itself in cinema’s earliest projections); an interest in novelty (ranging from actual current events to physical freaks and oddities); an often sexualized fascination with socially taboo subject matter dealing with the body (female nudity or revealing clothing, decay or death); a peculiarly modern obsession with violent and aggressive sensations (such as speed or the threat of injury). All of these are topoi of an aesthetic of attractions, whether of the cinema, the sensational press, or the fairground. Attractions’ fundamental hold on spectators depends on arousing and satisfying visual curiosity through a direct and acknowledged act of display, rather than following a narrative enigma within a diegetic site into which the spectator peers invisibly. (5-6)
Gunning’s theory disputes the mythology of the naïve early filmgoer who flees theaters and trains. He redefines this figure as a fully aware and autonomous agent who takes pleasure in being tricked. But in so doing, Gunning muddles the dividing line between early and narrative film, contingency and control. The analogy of Little Hans begins to bleed across the attraction/narration divide. Within Gunning’s own logic, the consumers of both forms of film make decisions (to be out of control or under control) and both knowingly participate in games of visual pleasure. Further confusing the analogy: the rhythms of the child’s game more closely resemble the temporality that Gunning ascribes to early cinema—“now you see it, now you don’t”—and the early filmgoer’s ravenous appetite for shock recalls the symptomatic Little Hans, who soothes the traumatic wound of his mother’s departure with spool and string.
What Gunning gains by foregrounding the early film spectator and redefining this figure as self-aware and in search of shocks, he loses in the specificity and disruptive possibilities of the early film image. For Gunning, “cinematic attractions can be defined as formal devices,” but they “can only be thoroughly understood if these devices are conceived as addressing spectators in a specific manner,” (5). Gunning’s concept must equally be conceived as a mode of reception. The early filmgoer and its image, not unlike the classical spectator and its stories, appear like interlocking pieces, symbiotically suited the one to the other. Indeed, Gunning posits a tidy visual economy wherein spectators desire curiosities and early cinema supplies them in spades. Gunning’s lexicon of pleasure (lust, attraction, arousal, satisfaction) envelops the distinct “topoi” of cinematic curiosities—from color to death—and flattens the remarkable differences between them.
In framing early cinema as a circuit of consumption, wherein every and any early film curiosity satisfies spectatorial desire (for the unknown, unexpected, shocking), Gunning’s system inadvertently evicts the early film image that genuinely traumatizes or shocks, that simply cannot be named or known in advance, that cannot be recuperated by the regulating order of desire/satisfaction, Fort/Da. The cinema of attractions ultimately excludes the radical break, the message to no one, the image that refuses to please or play games, the unpleasurable or intolerable image.
[i] Tom Gunning, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions,” The Velvet Light Trap 32 (Fall 1993): 11.