Academic journal article Framework

Infrastructural Affi Nity: Film Technology and the Built Environment in New York Circa 1900

Academic journal article Framework

Infrastructural Affi Nity: Film Technology and the Built Environment in New York Circa 1900

Article excerpt

In an effort to describe the energy surging through Koster and Bial's Music Hall during the April 23, 1896, premier of Edison's Vitascope, a New York Times reporter settled upon a fitting, if predictable, technological metaphor. The theater, s/he wrote, was full of "electricity." Little shock. Aft er all, when it came to the Wizard of Menlo Park, what wasn't electric? More curious is the source of that metaphorical energy, which emanated not from the "buzzing and roaring" Vitascope hidden in the balcony above, nor from the electrical system that powered the theater's lights, but rather from the audience that filled its seats. As the Times reporter put it, "the spectator's imagination filled the atmosphere with electricity," an electricity so powerful that "sparks crackled around the swift ly moving, lifelike figures" on the gold-framed white screen.1

What, we might ask, made those spectators' imaginations electric? How could the New Yorker of 1896 conjure up an energy so palpable that it could-like the Vitascope itself-generate a moving, shocking, sparking vitality? It has, for good reason, become common in early film historiography to use such descriptions to draw associations between the experience of early cinema and the conditions of modern life. These kinds of associations came thick and fast at the turn of the century. From newspaper reviews and motion picture catalogs to the work of artists, critics, and theorists, the character of modern urban experience became one standard against which the experience of moving images was judged.2

Modern technology, in particular, shaped that experience and couldn't have been far from the New York filmgoer's-or critic's-awareness. By the time of the Vitascope premier, New York was already in the midst of a period of rapid and far-reaching change. Historian Max Page has described this process as Manhattan's "creative destruction."3 Prompted by demands for new infrastructural systems to support an expanding population and appease progressive reformers, New York's municipal officials and private entrepreneurs oversaw large-scale urban renovations. The filmmakers who took to the streets en masse in cinema's first decade made the ensuing demolition, excavation, and construction projects (and celebrations of them) popular film subjects. In doing so, they shaped how urban infrastructural development would be represented and received by audiences.

But filmmakers did more than simply document the city's metamorphosis; they took advantage of film's ability to mimic the processes of urban change and to enhance its effects. This correlation between the technologies that changed the built environment and the cinematic forms used to capture them underlies the close correspondence that developed between film and technology in cinema's earliest years. In cities, in particular, new filmmakers generated that correspondence by recording emerging urban infrastructures, oft en in ways that emphasized their scale and dynamism. New film technologies and techniques allowed them to explore these sites in ways that refl ected and reinforced what I will term an "infrastructural affinity" between modern urban infrastructure and the infrastructure that underpinned film production. In characterizing its material base as a kind of "infrastructure," I mean to highlight cinema's status as a technological system, the changing and interchangeable parts of which helped shape how filmmakers worked and what they could do.4 In the case of the early New York City films analyzed here, film's infrastructural developments-including rotating tripod heads, devices for time-lapse photography, in-camera editing techniques, and artificial lighting effects-shaped how filmmakers approached the city by helping determine the kinds of films they could make.

The idea of "infrastructural affinity" corresponds, in many respects, with the argument at the heart of Siegfried Kracauer's study of film's "redemption of physical reality" that "certain subjects . …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.