Spectatorship and Early Cinema

What approach is recommended in studying Early Cinema in relation to spectatorship?

The Specification is quite clear in identifying “consideration of how and why film form and spectatorship developed as they did” in the period 1895 – 1917. The approach should be open and enquiring – encouraging students to make discoveries about Early Cinema in relation to their own experience as spectators, as well as being informed by film history.

Study of spectatorship provides the opportunity to introduce quite complex ideas about an evolving ‘control’ of the spectator by the apparatus of cinema, by the internal features of the film text and by the shifting socio-cultural contexts for film exhibition inthe first twenty years of cinema. One specific study might be in relation to the opposition between naturalistic and fantastic uses of the medium (the Lumière / Meliès. opposition). Another might involve looking at how cinema developed as a voyeuristic medium in this early period, with the ‘male’ camera.

At a more straightforward level students may wish to consider not just when but how and why different kinds of shots and edits became established as part of a professional practice which, cumulatively, led to what Noel Burch called the “institutional mode of representation”. In this respect studies may focus on the trial-and-error development of narrative cinema and the needs of

the spectator. These needs are both practical (making sense of what is going on) and imaginative (becoming engaged in the world of the film).

The period of so-called ‘primitive cinema’ is well represented by the BFI Early Cinema compilation which is available on dvd. It provides a good basis for exploring how cinema evolved as an experience based on a particular conception of the film text as a narrative realist storytelling medium and a particular conception of the film spectator. It also allows for an exploration of the well known opposition between the kind of naturalistic cinema promoted by the Lumières Brothers and the fantasy cinema of Meliès. In practice it demonstrates that a lot of very early films functioned as ”attractions” combining realist and trick elements.

For the later period, there are an increasing number of options. You may wish to look at some episodes of Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1913). The first feature length film – most obviously DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or Intolerance –are available, as is Chaplin’s Mutual Films 1916 – 17 .


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.”

Voyage dans la lune (1902)


The Great Train Robbery (1903)



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