Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Crowd Control: Early Cinema, Sound, and Digital Images

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Crowd Control: Early Cinema, Sound, and Digital Images

Article excerpt

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations. Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.

-Edgar Allan Poe, The Man of the Crowd

Of all the changes in cinema's gestation period, perhaps the most interesting concerns a shift in subject matter. The early Lumiere actualities mark the first consistent cinematic appearance of crowds. If pre-cinema pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey posed the problem of understanding individual locomotion, the Lumieres extended this problem to the masses. In fact, beginning with the Lumieres, film history crystallizes into a history of crowd control-in the sense of organizing the masses both on screen and in their theater seats. Indeed, if we trace the historical factors behind cinema's invention, we find a legacy of nineteenth-century institutions designed to regulate the masses. For James R. Beniger, an industry and economics researcher at the Annenberg School of Communication, these institutions responded to a "crisis of control" initiated by the Industrial Revolution's chaotic social and economic upheaval. In The Control Revolution, Beniger suggests that the Industrial Revolution's advances in transportation and communications suddenly separated producers from consumers. Local trade, once based on intimate and personal contacts, became specialized national and eventually global markets. However, problems emerged with this market expansion. The producers' ever-increasing distance from consumers made market conditions murky and unreadable. This economic problem soon carried over into the social realm. For example, as nineteenth-century markets expanded, urban centers became concentrated with workers fulfilling the industrial factories' swelling labor needs. Within a single generation, the basic structure of social relations radically changed throughout industrialized societies. In large cities, unlike local villages or small towns, citizens could be anonymous-a situation leading to an urban anxiety over crime and political instability. Indeed, in popular literature, Edgar Allan Poe exploited this anxiety by promoting the man of the crowd as "the genius of deep crime" (Poe, 492). In the Poe story, the title character was not only illegible in terms of class and occupation, but also totally unpredictable in his movements around the city. In response to this double crisis of illegibility and unpredictability, several nineteenth-century technologies, institutions, and social policies attempted to visualize, classify, and predict the emerging industrial crowds, with devices ranging from the statistical graph to the cinematographe.

However, in film history, reading, organizing, and predicting crowds is not limited to early cinema. Interestingly, film history's most pervasive crowd images coincide with cinema's major technological transitions. Thus, this essay uses images of the crowd as an entry point for reconsidering cinematic technologies in terms of Beniger's "control revolution." How exactly have cinematic technologies controlled the filmic image? Do crowd images contribute to an institutional process for standardizing new technologies? And how has the image of the crowd changed in relation to new technologies? To begin answering these questions, this article provides three snapshots of crowds during cinema's most important technological integrations: its "invention" in 1895, sound's standardization in the 1920s, and the contemporary use of computer-generated imagery. By superimposing three distinct moments in film history-moments generally considered in isolation-this article reveals a recurring pattern to cinema's technological assimilations.

Control: Visualization and Synchronization

As a product of the nineteenth century's crisis of control, photography, and later, cinema, emerged as technologies for restoring identification and predictability among industrial society's anonymous masses. …

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