The transformation of spectacular forms in mass culture. The problem of genesis of the language of cinema (in terms of the USA of XIX-XX centuries)

Pre-cinema inventions. Descriptions of some visual devices which anticipated the appearance of motion-picture camera. The development of cinematography. The problem of genesis of the language of cinema. The ways of organizing theatrical performances.

Рубрика Культура и искусство
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Язык английский
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Размещено на

The Russian Federation Government

The State Higher Education Establishment National Research University Higher School of Economics

Faculty of Philosophy

The School of Cultural Studies

The Transformation of Spectacular Forms in Mass Culture. The Problem of Genesis of the Language of Cinema (in terms of the USA of XIX-XX centuries)

Moscow 2014





1. Theatrical performances and pre-cinema inventions

2. The development of cinematography




This project contains research on the transformation of the first optical inventions and early performances into cinematography. The first part of the paper describes some visual devices which anticipated the appearance of motion-picture camera. It tells the ways of organizing theatrical performances with the help of these inventions as well. The second part analyzes the listed means of showing pictures and follows their influence on the early cinema. In other words, the paper has a brief history of the development of cinematography provided with the analysis of its connection to some other art forms. It also has potential for further, more detailed research.


In this paper some pre-cinema inventions are discussed. Each of them has its name and to make it more clear here are the definitions of them.

Panorama (the term of Robert Barker is created from Greek pan ("all") and horama ("view")) - a device that shows a picture on a cylindrical surface.

Eidophusikon - a theatre in the performances of which the pictures were highlighted by a special light. Thanks to mirrors and pulleys this effect made these pictures seem three-dimensional.

Diorama - an invention that was put in a special theatre. It was near to panorama, but in this case a spectator did not have to make full round vision. The pictures were highlighted and changed with the help of shutters which regulated the light flow.

Magic Lantern - a device that projected images. It consisted of wooden or metal body and had an opening in it. Inside the box there was a source of light. The pictures painted on the glass plates were projected through this optical system and an opening on the front part of the device.

cinema invention theatrical performance


By the end of the 19th century the mankind had already known such forms of popular culture as dime novels, popular songs, comics, the magic lantern, and the theatre. The magic lantern is supposed to become the ancestor of the cinematography, which marked the end of the 19th century. The invention was a real success as it amazed all the spectators. People were excited by motion picture films, which had very simple plot and took only several minutes comparing to our contemporary films. But it wasn't the first attraction in the 19th century that stirred up people.

It has been already said that there were some earlier spectacular forms of mass culture which influenced early cinema very much. Many features of the theatre may be found in the first films. For instance, many directors took the plots and ideas from the performances or from literature. At that time the theatre was an established art form that was very old while the cinematography even wasn't considered as an art form, it was just an entertainment and wasn't taken seriously. Many years would pass before it became a real art form. A lot of researchers notice the links between the cinema and early spectacular forms of art. Nevertheless, at the same time the cinematography differs from them greatly, as it presents a new form of expression and perception. We can understand the processes in the modern cinematography better if we analyze early cinema and realize in what way the aspects of modern cinema are linked to the first attractions.

This paper presents the research on the connection of the first movie pictures with the earlier art forms. It can be divided into two parts. The first part of the work is devoted mainly to the analysis of the theatrical performances. The second one overviews the way the cinematography borrows and represents some features of the preceding forms of art. So the purpose of this project is to follow the transformation of early spectacular forms, their influence on the inceptive cinematography and the points of contact with it.

1. Theatrical performances and pre-cinema inventions

The first theatre performances based on the use of light appeared in the Ancient Greece. Thanks to philosophical dialogues by Plato we learn about the moving shadows of people which were cast on the walls of a cave by the light of fire. Some film historians consider that description of the cave as the first mentioning of moving figures.

The puppeteers from Asian countries organized their performances using the light and shade in order to project the silhouettes of the puppets on the translucent screen. Such performances had a great popularity even in the XVIIIth century in Europe. In the 1780s a Scotsman Robert Barker contrived a new optical attraction which was called “Panorama”. Artificial highlight made it possible to animate big linens with the images of city streets or war battles. At the same time Philip James de Loutherbourg invented “Eidophusikon”, in other words “the theatre of effects”, in which special highlighter made pictures seem three-dimensional. Another significant invention belongs to Louis Daguerre and Charles Bouton. It is “Diorama” that helped them to create Diorama Theatres. The people there were amazed by kaleidoscopic interchange of images. Though all these inventions are essential on the way to inventing cinematography, the most important one (and the most popular at the same time) in “pre-cinema” history was the “Magic Lantern”. So we see that people were always interested in moving colourful pictures and they used different means and techniques before the cinematography was invented.

Sometime later the inventors of moving pictures resorted to the help of photographs. They made a lot of experiments trying to create the illusion of motion. They made it up when they assayed multiple shooting. That conjecture gave them a chance of making a series of images and then putting them into the right order that while riffling there appeared an illusion of their moving. But the really great invention, the first camera, was made by Thomas Edison and his assistant William Dixon. Everything that has already been said refers to the first inventions that preceded the appearance of a movie camera and cinematography as well. Now it is necessary to pass on to substantial part of the described performances which were converted to the first films. It would be rather useful to look at the condition of the theatrical art in the USA in order to find out in what ways it served as a source of ideas and experience for the early cinema.

Speaking about the USA, by the beginning of the XXth century there was neither national theatre, nor national dramatic art that could be compared to the European ones. Owing to this fact a playwright becomes a stage manager and in the end takes the functions of director.

The history of the American dramatic art begins with David Belasco. He followed the example of Dion Boucicault who at the end of the XIXth century arrived in America from England and was the first to enlarge the powers of a stage manager. He not only gave instructions to the actors but also wrote the scenes and that allowed him to edit the works of other dramatists. But the fact is that the American theatre remained behind the European one for several decades. That gap was reduced only in the 1910s.

As for David Belasco, it should be said that he came to New York in 1882 and became famous very fast. He began his career at the theatre when the stage was designed by badly painted backdrops with trite landscapes. All the decorations were made of cardboard in rough-and-ready fashion. He was the first who thought about the decorations on the stage and tried to make them true to life. Approximately the same situation would happen with the early cinema. The first films were primitive and often contained unreal and even absurd scenes. Many years would pass before the cinematography became more realistic and describe people's everyday incidents and problems.

2. The development of cinematography

Due to Edison's invention, the motion picture camera, the cinematography appeared in the USA. The potential of that camera was rather limited as it showed only short-length films and the plots usually were very primitive. People could not enjoy such films for a long time, they were demanding for new ways of attraction, more interesting and complicated films. Once they were excited by the arriving train they could not be stricken by it many more times again. The cinematography was dumb in its first years, it is a well-known fact, and several years would be necessary to make it speaking. But then the directors had to introduce something new in their films so they turned to the previous art forms to find there some ideas.

The first simple and elementary way was making into a movie some theatrical performances and variety shows. It also allowed to increase the number of genres and themes of the films. Moreover, they had to work on the quality of these films.

Due to the filming of some theatrical performances there appeared the genre of musical. As the spectators waited for entertainment their demands were unpretentious. In this case talented directors felt they could not incarnate themselves as their works would be hardly sold and showed on the screens of the cinema. On the contrary, the directors which were not talented just tried to please the requirements of the public. They were ready to shoot two or three (or sometimes even more) films a week in order to make more money.

Here I would like to provide an example of such a famous American director as Mack Sennett. He took into consideration the expectations of the public and was guided by the experience of music-halls and burlesque. In his works he used the features of comedy genre and circus clownery and in this way he invented a genre which was named by him “Keystone comedies” (by the name of the studio of the “independent” which was organized in 1912 and where Sennett began his career).

The comedies made by Sennett were short-length and rarely consisted of two parts. In fact they were a mixture of unbelievable situations united by a primitive plot. Sennett worked without a script and invented ridiculous scenes right on the film set. He shot several episodes, looked them through after the shooting, and then cut them in the necessary order. He released about two or three films a week and they were showed in the cinemas many times until the public was tired of them. For instance, the first popular comedies were placed in the bakery or confectionery where the characters threw into each other's faces cakes with cream at the end of the film. When their faces were wholly covered with cream and when they were already slipping on the floor they came out into the street where they were pursuing each other while falling and surmounting difficulties. It was a really absurd spectacle but the public liked it so the directors satisfied their requirements continued creating such movies.

After the comedies about bakeries there appeared comedies about car drivers, then about policemen, then about swimmers and so on. All the times the film-makers were looking for the new ideas, for new plots, for new heroes. The may have found them anywhere but mostly they took them from daily life and first art forms such as theatre and circus. That borrowing also depended on the genre.

The directors felt the lack of material for making more and more films. Besides theatre performances they used the history of America. The theme of American Indian migration and cowboys was a real pet subject. There was a lot to tell and of course to shoot. People did not know what was there in the Wild West so the film-makers were happy to make the movies that were well-watched. That situation gave birth to the genre of western which is still very popular nowadays.

It should be noticed that there were so many different subjects of the films that soon there appeared the system of genres. Each genre implied special techniques and methods used by movie makers. It also influenced the development of cinema language. On the one hand, it allowed the directors to understand the nature of cinema better and to work more professionally. On the other hand, some film-makers learned these methods and used them in a very standard way not creating but rubber-stamping films one by one. Such films may be regarded as “one day movie” and they did not go down in history. They just satisfied people's requirements and the directors got their money.

The similar situation may be noticed in our modern world. The system of genres remains quite the same. There appeared several sub-genres but in fact the main genres did not change, like western or musical. Moreover, some modern films are real masterpieces of the world cinematography while there are also films which we have already named as “one day movies”. The most widespread genre now is comedy where the plot is very simple, the scenes are predictable and all the action ends with happy ending. The happy ending is the invention of American cinematography as a logical conclusion of the American dream. It became an integral part of most American films in forming national self- consciousness. Furthermore, it is proved that people like films with happy endings so the directors are ready to provide their films with them.


Thus, in the work various pre-cinema inventions and techniques are analyzed that allowed to follow their influence on the cinematography on the whole. The XIX-th century was marked with a great number of scientific inventions in the whole area of life. Speaking about cinematography, motion-picture camera was a final link in the series of inventions connected with the use of light and shadows. It gave a multitude of opportunities to the mankind and changed the course of history. Starting as a simple form of entertaining it turned to a new form of mass culture with its own language, own methods and own laws. Its structure was becoming more and more complicated and even now it is being modernized so today we can enjoy three-dimensional films or go to 4D cinemas. But the way that was made by cinematography until it came to the form that we have today, was very long and full of other masterpieces which perhaps cannot be appreciated at its true value.

Unfortunately, in the context of that project we cannot consider all aspects of the subject. Though it can be explored further as there are a lot of unexplored features especially in connection to other art forms. The result of such an analysis may be very useful for the understanding of cinematography nature.


1. Crary, J. (1980). Suspensions of perception: attention, spectacle and modern culture. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

2. Crary, J. (1990). Techniques of the observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

3. Gunning, T. (1989). “Primitive” cinema - a frame-up? Or the trick's on us. Cinema Journal, 28(2), 3 - 12.

4. Musser Ch. (1990). The emergence of cinema: the American screen to 1907. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

5. Parkinson D. (1995). History of film. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

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