Group B: Working with early cinema

As film historians, working with film history presents many challenges, especially when trying to critically analyse a piece of work. It also presents many surprises, as early cinema is so different to the contemporary cinema which we are more used to watching.
When watching films from very early cinema (such as the 1890s to the 1910s) one of the many challenges is the lack of sound, and therefore the lack of dialogue (although intertitles are sometimes used to insert small amounts of dialogue or exposition). This can often make plots and storylines much more difficult to understand, as all the information must be gained visually and so important plot points can easily be missed, . Films such as Aladdin and His Wonder Lamp (1906) have stories which can often be difficult to interpret or follow, and it is likely that if we had not been already been familiar with the story of Aladdin it would have seemed even more confusing. A lack of sound also means that acting styles are often more exaggerated than modern acting as performers must convey everything visually, and this can sometimes be distracting, particularly when large and over the top gestures are used. It can be difficult to know where our attention should be directed since in modern cinema we would normally be looking at whoever is talking, whereas in silent films other techniques such as blocking, framing and lighting are used to direct our attention instead, and although these techniques are still used it can feel very different to how we would normally experience a film.
Similar to the lack of sound and dialogue, another challenge early cinema presents is a lack of colour. While not all early films are totally devoid of colour, the vast majority are shot in black and white which is a significant contrast to films made in later periods. This can make it harder to discern between different locations, actors and actresses, and even whether it is day or night, as we cannot see the different hues to help us. However, many filmmakers of this period discovered inventive solutions to this, such as dying the film different colours to give the frame a coloured tint in Fantomas.
Another difficulty with studying early cinema is that the difference between early and contemporary cinema can mean that early cinema requires a lot of patience to watch and analyse. Early cinema often tends to have much less of a focus on narrative, and so storylines may feel either slow or non-existent. This is particularly prevalent in exhibitionist films of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s (described as a “cinema of attractions” by Tom Gunning), as short films such as Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) have very little narrative or plot development and have often been made just to present a new camera trick.
Analysing any kind of cinema can be difficult as each frame contains vast amounts of information, and everyone may interpret that information differently. Like any art form, film analysis is often very subjective and so two people may take away contradictory meanings from the same film without either of them being wrong. While this and many other aspects of early cinema can present many challenges when looking at early cinema as historians, it can also be very rewarding and interesting to gain an insight into an often overlooked but extremely important part of film history.

One thought on “Group B: Working with early cinema


    I was pleased to see that the original post was returned to and edited – this address some of the issues with grammar and structure, and altered the tone from a single-person entry to more of a group contribution (but do try to finalise the writing before it goes live up on the blog – this prevents the tutor from having to produce two sets of feedback!)
    The post picks up on a range of relevant issues that can present challenges for us as modern spectators (differences in narrative, sound etc.): it’s well written and clear and poses a range of productive ways of thinking through the difficulties that engaging with this kind of cinema can give rise to. The group offers some good examples, but I’d like to have seen a little more reflection on how we rise to these challenges as budding film historians. Early cinema can indeed feel wholly unfamiliar – so what kinds of critical tools do we need to employ to tackle this? E.g. can we understand these differences by contextualising early cinema through its relationship to other forms of entertainment at the time (vaudeville etc.?), or through its status as technological novelty? Where the post cites the lack of narrative, this might have been a moment to expand a little on Gunning’s ideas (usefully quoted here) – do we need to shift our focus away from trying to focus on narrative and instead consider how spectacles and attractions operate within these texts to reward their spectators in different ways?

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