Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded

Article excerpt

THE CINEMA OF ATTRACTIONS RELOADED Edited by Wanda Strauven Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006, 460 pp

It is rare enough for a critical slogan to gain the wide currency that Tom Gunning's "the cinema of attractions" has, but what is there to discuss further about the idea, which Gunning has explained variously but always clearly? The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, or a third of it, seeks to answer that question. Another third is a kind of intellectual archeology. The remainder is speculative dilation and re-tasking of the concept.

In 1982, four years before the "attractions" coinage, Gunning took his first swipe at the idea with "The Non-Continuous Style of Early Film, 1900-1906" and pursued it in "An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film" (1983). Finally putting the phrase into play with "The Cinema of Attraction: Early Cinema, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde" (1986), Gunning saw it anthologized and gaining its plural "Attractions" in 1990 in Thomas Elsaesser's important anthology Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative.1

The back-story chronology is developed further in editor Wanda Strauven's wonderfully wacky flow chart, embedded in her earnest introduction to Cinéma of Attractions Reloaded. Here in brief: "The Cinema of Attraction" (singular) began as a conference paper in 1985, close by André Gaudreault's "Le cinema des premier temps: un défi à l'histoire de cinéma?" Gaudreault's lecture was published, in Japanese, in the Tokyo journal Gendai Shiso. Just before this, Donald Grafton used the term "attraction" in a talk on slapstick comedy at MOMA (Gunning was present). However, Grafton published his talk late enough (in 1987) to be quoting Gunning's 1986 essay as if it preceded his own use of the term.

There were more "attractions" essays to come, with surprisingly few redundancies, up to as recently as 2005 when Gunning published "Cinema of Attractions" in Richard Abel's Encyclopedia of Early Cinema.1 The direct impact of these texts is probably less remarkable than the career of the phrase "cinema of attractions" itself, which persuades one that the explanatory aspects of a volume, even one as unwieldy as The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, and as peculiarly decorated as it is with a still from The Matrix, are to be welcomed. Gunning has never gathered his essays into a book of his own but prefers that readers continue to dig them out from academic journals like Art & Text, Modernism/Modernity, and new-film-history organs Iris and Film History.3 In any case, by the 1990s, "the cinema of attractions" had taken on a life of its own to become one of those talismanic slogans anchoring innumerable and various articles and parts of books. It is a sign of the slogan's established relevance to undergraduate teaching that the 1999 edition of the standard Film Theory and Criticism includes Gunning's 1989 "An Aesthetic of Astonishment."

There are perils attending all this. The most obvious is overuse. Repeating a slogan eventually provokes irritation rather than insight. The other two dangers mirror one another: its meaning can become too widely diffused, or the concept can harden into dogma. Gunning devised the attractions model narrowly as a heuristic device in aid of cinema historiography. He has kept his own hand in to protect his idea from dogmatic stiffening by writing on associated topics and fresh examples, including later speculations such as "Re-Newing Old Technologies" (2003) .4 That essay prompts Vivian Sobchak to spin out a fascinating Heideggerian speculation around slow motion in Zhang Yimou's Hero in her essay "Cutting to the Quick." This is in fact where the Reloaded volume concludes, aside from a useful "Dossier" collection of Gunning's previously published essays and some by his critics.

Naturally, Gunning can't do much about overuse of the term, except to recognize that "cinema of attractions" now serves more purposes than he probably anticipated. …

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