Body Shots: Early Cinema's Incarnations

Body Shots: Early Cinema's Incarnations

Body Shots: Early Cinema's Incarnations

Body Shots: Early Cinema's Incarnations

Synopsis

This original and compelling book places the body at the center of cinema's first decade of emergence and challenges the idea that for early audiences, the new medium's fascination rested on visual spectacle for its own sake. Instead, as Jonathan Auerbach argues, it was the human form in motion that most profoundly shaped early cinema. Situating his discussion in a political and historical context, Auerbach begins his analysis with films that reveal striking anxieties and preoccupations about persons on public display--both exceptional figures, such as 1896 presidential candidate William McKinley, and ordinary people caught by the movie camera in their daily routines. The result is a sharp, unique, and groundbreaking way to consider the turn-of-the-twentieth-century American incarnation of cinema itself.

Excerpt

Judging from the title, you might assume this will be a book about boxing, one of the first and most popular subjects of moving pictures during the 1890s. Or maybe you could expect a broader genre study that examines a range of athletic activities captured by early cinema—dancing, juggling, tumbling, fencing, marching, and so on. Marcel Mauss called such daily routines “body techniques,” which he endeavored to classify ethnologically according to various cultural practices. Such a generic approach has potential, but my interest lies elsewhere. Shifting from subject matter to theme, we might explore these early moving images of the human figure as marking and measuring foundational concepts of identity: gender, race, age, social class, nationality, and disability. in the humanities and social sciences, this is currently the central way that bodies are understood to signify. As feminists have argued, “natural” bodies and “cultural” categories such as gender and race mutually constitute one another.

While I am indebted to these powerful accounts that show how the body is always already inscribed or culturally coded, this is not my explicit aim, because I am not primarily concerned with matters of identity. Therefore, in the pages that follow, at the risk of installing the white middle-class male body as a default, I present little or no discussion of African Americans eating watermelons or performing jigs, laboring blacksmiths shoeing horses, half-naked vaudeville strongmen flexing their muscles, or ladies vanishing in a magician’s trick (although some consideration will be given to the gendering of space, for reasons that I hope will soon become apparent).

If not as explicit subject or theme, what is there to say about the moving body, or perhaps more accurately, what can the represented body itself say in moving images? of course it would be naive or foolish to insist that “the body” (already an idealized generality) or any body in particular could nat-

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