‘A matter of making images seen.’ This is what Fernand Léger was writing in 1902 about the new art, trying to describe the possible changes in cinema, by emphasizing the fact that imitating the movements of nature is not necessarily the best way of defining cinema’s essence. This is only one of the writings concerning this topic which influenced Tom Gunning in characterizing the cinematic period before 1906 as that of the ‘cinema of attractions’.
In this essay I am going to talk about the cinema of attractions and its main characteristics with examples from several early films, with an emphasis on ‘Un homme de têtes’ (Georges Méliès, 1898) and L'arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (Auguste and Louis Lumière,1895).
History of the cinema of attractions
The term of ‘cinema of attractions’ was introduced into the study of film by Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault in 1985, describing a filmmaking technique used for early films, until 1906, in which the main interest is in the spectacle and the audience’s visual experience rather than in the narrative side. The cinema of attractions employed delights like colors, costumes, commentary, sometimes even grotesque features, like freaks or indigenous people. In the simplest terms, it was a cinema based on entertainment, shock and sensations, the ability of showing something. The main difference between this style and the cinema in later years is the focus: the cinema of attractions is trying to take the spectators on an unique trip to an extraordinary place, by inviting them to look, get involved and be amazed by these perfect illusions, rather than telling a story, while the narrative cinema focuses on human psychology, continuity of the plot and characters. The term ‘attract’ is defined by the english dictionary as ‘to draw by appealing to the emotions or senses, by stimulating interest, or by exciting admiration; allure; invite’. In cinema, Eisenstein was one of the first people to use ‘attraction’ as a way of describing his techniques, which had either a physical or psychological unexpected impact on the audience, due to its direct address towards it, sometimes causing an emotional shock, through aggressivity and due to the unpredictability of the moment.
Attractions of the early cinema.
The first film that I am going to analyze is directed by the Lumière brothers, which interpret cinema as the transcription of real unstaged life, opposing to Méliès who saw cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy. Around this 50 seconds film there are different myths, some of which say that in the first showing of the movie, a lot of the spectators screamed, thinking that the train is going to hit them, and some of them even left the room, because of the illusion of the train moving towards them. This myth is why nowadays people tend to think of the early audience as naive, but at the same time, they forget to take in consideration other aspects, like the transformation which is occurring in front of their eyes, the idea of change and also the historical and social background.
The primary object of most early films seems to be the personal space, which is invaded on a certain level. By triggering stress or fear, or choosing real-life danger objects like trains and other vehicles, the personal space is invaded and bodily reactions are being triggered, which is the main purpose of the cinema of attractions, by engaging the viewer in the exhibition. In 1986, Maxim Gorky writes a review of the Lumiére programme, and he uses words like ‘straight at you’, ‘shield’, ‘will reach you’, which, once again, shows the physical reaction that people had. Nevertheless, one must not confuse this with a complete illusion. People did not actually believe that the train will physically hurt them, but they were allowing themselves to enjoy the thrill of the cinematic magic.
If we were to take a clear example of the details which change this perspective of a...