Theater of the Real
Literature of the period, such as Frank Norris’ naturalist novel McTeague (1899) explicitly discuss this nascent film form, as when ‘Mac’ takes Trina, her mother, and “little Owgooste” her younger brother to a variety show, where they enjoy multiple genres of entertainments: slapstick, musical numbers, ethnic humor, soliloquies, dances, blackface minstrelsy and actualities.
First was an overture by the orchestra, after which came “The Gleasons, in their mirth-moving musical farce, entitled ‘McMonnigal’s Courtship.’” This was to be followed by “The Lamont Sisters, Winnie and Violet, serio-comiques and skirt dancers.” And after this came a great array of other “artists” and “specialty performers,” musical wonders, acrobats, lightning artists, ventriloquists, and last of all, “The feature of the evening, the crowning scientific achievement of the nineteenth century, the kinetoscope.”
McTeague was excited, dazzled (97).
Norris’s description of the playbill, clearly acerbic, meshes seamlessly with Fred Haynes’s 1898 account of the entertainments offered at Chicago’s Grand Dime Museum where “the vagaries of a drunken man, the follies of an Irish servant girl, the exploits of a policeman, and other scenes from street and tenement-house life are always and everywhere hailed with loud applause” (179). Sold and refurbished, the Grand Dime became the New Grand Theater, featuring “a new drop curtain on which is painted a picture of the bridge over the pond in the Public Garden, with one of the familiar swan-boats in the foreground. An advertisement occupies a conspicuous place in the middle of the curtain” (181). Its line-up was revamped as well and “the form of the cinematography” was added, a novelty whose popularity waned somewhat after its initial appearance. The New Grand, soon to become the Grand Opera House, was particularly strong on “Irish comedy,” displaying the talents of “Andrew Mack in ‘Myles Aroon’, William Barry in ‘The Rising Generation,’ and Joseph Hart in ‘A Gay Old Boy’” (187). The persistent desire of working-class Chicago audiences for dramatic and comedic performances characterized by ”strong colors and broad effects” ultimately indicates to Haynes that “the people are at heart realists, whatever else they may be now and then” (180).
This gesture at the notion of realism as core dramaturgical value in mass, commercial amusements demonstrates that the turn of the century cinema of attractions lacks the compulsions of emplotment even as it promises a visual record of life truer and yet stranger in its rendering. In McTeague the “kinetoscope” takes the party’s “breath away” while Mac in particular is “awestruck” by the films, commenting repeatedly to his companions that the figures and objects shown on the screen look just like their everyday counterparts: “’Look at that horse move his head,’ he cried excitedly, quite carried away. ‘Look at that cable car coming– and the man going across the street. See, here comes a truck.’” (105). In his enthusiasm Mac intuits that even this rudimentary cinema of pedestrian objects and figures has opened the door to a domain of experience that exists somewhere between subjective consciousness and objective materiality. He has entered that space willingly, eager to be enfolded by it, struck by this marvelous product of an age of mechanical wonders. The horse looks like a horse! What can it mean? By what sleight of hand is it possible for these conjurations to exist?
As a mechanical apparatus, the camera seems to offer a scientific, ideologically neutral entry to the way things are. In this sense Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of the 1870s promised to secure the truth of the body– its final identity– in the gestures it made: his experiments “would reveal the essence of their object, as they equated kinetic movement with being” (57). One element within a larger array of entertainments, actualities served a double purpose, fusing the pleasure of recognition with the stimulation of difference. The novelty of these short films is that they represent the world as it seems to be, unmediated by cinematic technology. Horses and pedestrians assume a miraculous aspect because they are physically absent yet visually present, both unreal and real.
During the show, early cinema’s paradox of simultaneously recording and defamiliarizing events is felt the most sharply by Trina’s German immigrant mother, who can only mutter as she watches the shorts that they are a “’drick’”. Her confusion, which marks her as a peasant, a legacy of old Europe, invokes the uncertainties triggered by the experience of modernity’s larger processes. The diasporic rupture she has already undergone, the traumas and exhilarations of immigration, are further compounded by an encounter with an unreal real conjured by an apparatus whose mechanisms are inexplicable and thus can only be discounted as suspicious, as yet another illusion.
To the older rural immigrant the American city itself, Norris‘s San Francisco, might seem something like a phantom machine. Wired by telegraph and telephone lines intersecting above cable cars, haunted by the blast of fog horns coaxing coal-fired ships to harbor, the city is embodied by the uncanny collective motions of crowds, its cold architecture animated by the frenzied spirit of licit and illicit commerce transacted– all the characteristics of modern life that according to Georg Simmel, writing a few years after the publication of Norris’s novel, entailed “the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli,” a situation with profound effects on “the psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality” (quoted in Modernity: Critical Concepts 35).
McTeague’s pleasure in consuming this form of amusement necessarily raises the issue of the role of cinema in shaping popular perceptions and understandings of social change within capitalist modernity. The majority of actualities focused on scenes from urban life, confirming and enhancing its reality, offering evidence of its existence that was at once empirical and dramaturgical, responding to what Stanley Corkin has called the “desire for validation” of an already experienced real (57). Put another way, these filmic representations at the turn into the twentieth century operate within a cultural economy that establishes an ideological market where the abstraction of cash is tendered for the ephemeral afterglow of excitement and in the process imposes a form of epistemological order.