by Noël Burch

In 1899, Étienne-Jules Marey, physiologist and inventor of what had potentially been the first motion picture camera, wrote in a preface to a book on ‘animated photographs’:

What such pictures show, after all, our eye could have seen directly. They add nothing to our ocular powers, they remove none of our illusions. Now the true character of scientific method is to remedy the inadequacies of our senses or correct their errors. In order to achieve this, chronophotography must renounce showing things as they really are.

And Marey concluded this veritable credo of anti-illusionism by asserting that the only techniques of motion synthesis that could possibly interest science were those which enabled us to slow down or speed up the appearance of reality.[1]

Twenty-five years later, Dziga Vertov wrote:

What am I to do with my camera? What is its role in the offensive I am launching against the visible world?

I think of the Camera Eye... I abolish the customary sixteen frames-per-second... high speed cinematography,... frame-by-frame animation and many other techniques... become commonplace.

The Camera Eye must be understood as ‘that which cannot be seen by the human eye’, as the microscope and telescope of time...

The Camera Eye is the possibility of making visible the invisible, of bringing light into darkness, of revealing what is hidden... of turning the lie into truth.[2]

And now here is another pair of quotations, spanning, this time, a period of over sixty years. In 1904, future pioneer producer Fred J. Balshofer was working for the Shields Lantern Slide Company in New York City. In his memoirs, he recalls the following anecdote:

I timidly suggested to Shields the possibility of making moving pictures as well as lantern slides. Shields was a stubborn, pompous man and in his typical sarcastic manner, said: ‘Make moving pictures? Why those flickering things hurt your eyes. They’re just a passing fancy.’[3]

In 1966, Jonas Mekas interviewed Tony Conrad, maker of The Flicker:

Conrad: ... The patterns that I selected to use in The Flicker are an extension of the usual stroboscope techniques into a much more complex system. The Flicker employs harmonic relations, speeds, pulses and patterns different from those used until now.

(At this point in our conversation, James Mullins, the manager of the Cinémathèque, where The Flicker was screened, walked in.)

Jonas Mekas: What was the effect of the film on you? You saw it twice.

James Mullins: It gave me headaches.[4]

What these two pairs of quotations have in common is their ambivalence. Neither pair can be said to express a true equivalence – either between the thinking of a conservative, middle-class scientist whose mechanistic materialism goes straight back to Descartes and that of a Communist film-maker deeply committed to dialectical and historical materialism, or between the effect of scintillation due to a technological ‘blindspot’ of the early cinema (the failure to discover that flicker could be eliminated by the simple expedient of the double-action shutter) and that which was deliberately produced by a sophisticated film-maker using single-frame exposures of a kind unthinkable until at least the 1920s.

Yet at the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that such encounters – and there have been many – are meaningful, that they can clarify our thinking, not only about the Primitive Cinema – and pre-cinema – but also about the various avant-gardes, provided we avoid simplistic conflations, and are careful to hold onto both ends of the chain – as the French working-class colloquially expresses its grasp of Marx’s dialectics.

It is no exaggeration to say that Marey, on the brink of inventing the cinema, and despite his belated and half-hearted attempt to emulate Edison, actually did refuse to accomplish the decisive step. The attitude behind this behaviour, expressed in the above quotation and shared implicitly by Muybridge and explicitly by Albert Londe, derived from a scientistic functionalism which inclined him to see the synthesis of movement as a gross redundancy from his cognitive point of view. Yet Marey’s science was far from innocent: he himself advocated applying the results of his studies of human locomotion to the rationalization of the burdensome load of Monsieur Thiers’ foot-soldiers, and his analyses of work motion may be seen as one source of Taylorism (that technology by which Capital sought and still seeks to make the worker an appendage to his machine). Vertov, of course, made no pretence of being a scientist in the usual sense; yet, perhaps because Marxism is also a rationalism, his project does have that one point of tangency with Marey’s; the pre-eminence of the cognitive over the analogical model.

What, however, can possibly link these two other facts: that, on the one hand, in the 1960s a handful of middle-class connoisseurs successfully combated headache and eyestrain to achieve, no doubt, an ‘expanded vision’, an attentiveness to the marginal functionings of their own optic systems under unusual stimulation and that, on the other, the large plebeian audience of the first ten years of motion pictures put up with a flicker that their social ‘betters’ regarded as so intolerable a discomfort that it contributed to their overwhelming absence from the places where films were shown – those smoke-filled, rowdy places frequented exclusively in those days by a class of people for whom motion pictures were cheaper than an evening at the gin mill and certainly less uncomfortable than a day spent in the racket and stench of the factory or sweat-shop?

In any but a purely contingent sense, there appears to be no link at all here, and in fact any attempt to establish one might seem at best ahistoric, at worst grotesque. Yet I have come to regard this encounter as an emblem of the contradictory relationships between the cinema of the Primitive Era and the avant-gardes of later periods. For the elimination of flicker and the trembling image, fairly complete after 1909 was, it seems, a crucial moment in the achieving of the preconditions for the emergence of a system of representation which conformed to the norms of the bourgeois novel, painting and theatre, and for the recruitment of an audience which would include various strata of the bourgeoisie. When the successive modernist movements set about extending, whether pragmatically or systematically, their ‘de-constructive’ critiques of those representational norms to the realm of film, it was inevitable that sooner or later the flicker should reappear, valued now for its synesthetic and ‘self-reflexive’ potential.

While such links, then, are not entirely arbitrary, we must, it seems to me, consider them with the greatest caution. For while it is no doubt the experience of the avant-gardes – and particularly those of the 1960s, in both Europe and the United States – which has enabled us today simply to read many of the phenomena encountered in the earliest films, that experience has also led, for want of an understanding of the historical context, for want, too, of any coherent theoretical framework, to highly tendentious assumptions of many kinds. I will cite only two, sufficiently remote for their mention not to be too embarrassing to their authors. Early in the 1960s, a well-known scholar of the American film had the naivety to suggest that the celebrated narrative anomaly found in Porter’s Life of an American Fireman – the same action shown twice, from different angles – was in some way a prefiguration of the labyrinthian textuality of Last Year at Marienbad. And, later in the 1960s, a distinguished archivist, who should have known better, authenticated what appears to be the prodigiously ‘modern’ editing of a 1907 bicycle farce included in the Paper Print Collection of the Library of Congress. Yet a perusal of other films deposited by the same firm (the Selig Polyscope Company) clearly shows that those daringly elliptical match-cuts, worthy of Eisenstein at the very least, are due simply to the fact that the producers considered it necessary for copyright purposes to supply only fragments of their films.

Such confusions should make us very wary whenever we encounter an effect of familiarity in an historical context which is, in fact, only deceptively close: these seventy-five years of cinema history are to be equated, in my view, with seven hundred years of literary or theatrical history, and the ‘logic’ which governed the productions of Pathé and Biograph before 1905 is in many respects more contemporary with that of The Romance of the Rose or Le jeu de Robin et de Marion than that of Major Barbara or L’assommoir.

The otherness of the Primitive Cinema – and I am referring precisely to a quality which is recognized by a generation of critics, historians and film-makers suckled on the radical modernism of the last three decades – is, in fact, two-fold. Let us first consider the Primitive Mode of Representation proper, derived without question from a number of models that were socially important at the turn of the century – the picture postcard, the vaudeville and melodrama stages, the circus, the Wild West show, the comic strip, etc. – but which cannot be said to be a literal or wholesale transposition of any of these. By the time it reached maturity, by the time it began gradually to give way to the Institutional Mode of Representation that was to supersede it, the Primitive Mode had become undeniably stabilized, having acquired a degree of specificity as advanced as that which the Institutional Mode itself was one day to achieve. The Primitive Mode was initiated as much by W. K. L. Dickson as by Louis Lumière, and was kept alive in its purest form until 1912 by Georges Méliès. It continued to haunt the cinema of France until the end of the silent era and left visible traces in many American films until at least 1920.

In its most characteristic guise, the Primitive Mode has, I believe, four primary traits. The first is well known: the autarchy and unicity of each frame. Any given tableau will remain unchanged in its framing throughout its passage on the screen, and from one appearance to the next (in the event of a recurring set or location); it is complete unto itself and never ‘communicates’ with any other. In other words, the successive spaces depicted are presumed to occupy a common diegetic framework, but that is all: their spatio-temporal connections remain fundamentally unspecified.

The second primary trait which I distinguish may be called the ‘non-centred quality’ of the image, and it must be considered under two separate heads: first, the entire frame is a possible playing area. The areas close to the edges of the frame are as likely to be the site of vital action as those more centrally located. Secondly, it is often difficult for the eye – at least for our eye – to locate the narratively significant centre of the diegetic action – and there are times when none actually exists at all, when the entire image is being offered simultaneously to our gaze. The most famous films of Louis Lumière come to mind here, of course (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), but also countless tableaux of narrative films as well.

Next, there is the crucial matter of camera distance. In the great majority of films made before 1906 (though not in all – and I shall return to this point), shot-size approximated to what we today would call ‘medium long shot’. That is to say, a standing character seldom occupied more than two-thirds of the height of the screen and often much less. The consequences of this were several, but they may, I believe, be summed up as the production of an overall effect of exteriority: the third primary trait of the Primitive Mode. The lack of any significant facial detail in such shots inevitably renders the characters’ presence solely behavioural: one sees what they did, but there is absolutely no sense of that psychological interiority characteristic, for example, of the classical novel, except when such interiority is grossly exteriorized through a markedly calligraphic pantomime, which deprives it of any ‘naturalness’. The Primitive Cinema at its most characteristic is apsychological. Characters lack that internal ‘presence’ which was guaranteed on the bourgeois stage by the voice (with the help, from a gallery seat, of a strong pair of opera-glasses), and in the bourgeois novel by such strategies as the omniscience of a demiurgical narrator. Moreover, their external presence is comparatively weak as well: spectators remained far more apart from those tiny silhouettes than from the characters on any stage, whose actual, physical presence could be verified by countless details addressing nearly all the senses (besides the visual perception of colour and depth, we may mention the sounds of footsteps on the planks or of swirling gowns, the odour of grease-paint, tobacco or perfume).

Maxim Gorky, in an article written upon first seeing the Lumière Cinématographe at the Nizhni Novgorod fair in 1896, expressed eloquently the alienation which the spectator, accustomed to the bourgeois stage and novel, almost certainly must have experienced to some degree when confronted with those images:

Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours – the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.

It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows... you feel as though Merlin’s vicious trick is being enacted before you. As though he had bewitched the entire street, had compressed its many-storied buildings from roof-tops to foundations to yard-like size. He dwarfed the people in corresponding proportions, robbing them of the power of speech and scraping together all the pigment of earth and sky into a monotonous grey colour.[5]

Significantly, the film from that first Lumière programme which seemed most ‘alive’ to the great naturalist writer was Baby’s Meal. And while he not unexpectedly addresses his remarks solely to the iconography of the film – the couple ‘are so charming, gay and happy and the baby is so amusing’ – we cannot fail to note that this film was the only close shot on the programme. And in this connection, I wish to stress that Baby’s Meal not to remain an isolated instance in the Primitive Cinema. Contrary to popular belief, this shot – and similar ones, produced by Dickson – inaugurated an important minor genre which was to last for nearly ten years, that is a presentational medium close-up – or close-up – of one or two (generally well known) actors mugging into the camera, or even – in the Gaumont Phonoscènes, for example – singing or reciting comic monologues in very approximate synchronism with a tinny cylinder phonograph. These shots, which undoubtedly introduced the presence of the persona into the Primitive Cinema programme and later, through the related practice of the emblematic close-up, into individual films, may be said to have fulfilled a role prefiguring that of the interpolated close-up in the nascent Institutional Mode of Representation after around 1910.

The fourth major trait of the Primitive Mode may be designated by the somewhat barbarous term ‘non-closure’. Consider one of the latest and most accomplished examples I know in the American cinema of the purely Primitive film: the 1905 Biograph A Kentucky Feud, thought to have been directed by Billy Bitzer, soon to become Griffith’s precious collaborator. This film refers to an actual feud which took place in Kentucky and which has come down to us through a celebrated ballad. However, the film’s mode of fictionalization has little to do with that of, let us say, All the President’s Men. Instead, it is assumed that the audience is familiar with the broad lines of the events described, and the successive tableaux seem conceived more like hors-textes or tabloid newspaper engravings. They are illustrations for a narrative which is elsewhere: that is, they are not self-contained scenes in the usual sense. Moreover, the function of the intertitles deserves careful consideration here, exemplifying as it does the fundamental non-linearity of many Primitive narrative procedures. Indeed, in A Kentucky Feud, as in so many films of the period (and the films which Griffith directed six or seven years later for that same Biograph Company still retain this trait), the titles pre-empt, as it were, the strictly narrative dimension of the images, destroying any sense of suspense, baulking for the moment any formation of the bi-univocally concatenated narrative chain that ultimately was to characterize the Institutional Mode.

Of course, in one sense, this description of the narrative process at work here is incomplete, as was my description – and as also in one’s experience – of the topologically a-centric Primitive tableau. For we must never forget that in what may have been by this time a majority, or at least a large number, of cases, the presentation of a film was accompanied by some sort of oral commentary in the theatre, delivered by the ‘lecturer’. And however much these ‘lectures’ varied in quality and effectiveness, it seems fairly certain that their chief aim was to linearize the visual signifiers – to tell the audience where to look and when – and to operate some sort of closure – in this case, to give the audience background material they might not have known. Yet while the lecturer represented a concerted attempt to overcome certain inadequacies of the Primitive Mode, and to help new middle-class patrons decipher a medium to which they were unaccustomed, that lecturer was also part of a general exhibition situation which continued to stress the priority of the actual spectatorial space-time over the illusory space-time of the film. We know that besides the lecturer’s comments, off-colour jokes, etc., there were always the more or less irrelevant piano accompaniment, and the constant comings and goings among the patrons, and in New York City, at least, it seems that the nickelodeon doors were generally left open during the performance. Clearly this was a far cry from the rapt attention devoted to silent films in film societies and Cinémathèques today, but was strangely close to the atmosphere that reigns in a 42nd Street flea-house during a kung-fu movie.

Before going on to describe a very different aspect of the ‘otherness’ of Primitive Cinema, I would like to open a brief parenthesis concerning terminology. It seems to me that the films of the Primitive Era suggest why the category ‘narrative film’ is powerless to define in any essential way the films produced within the Institution. A Kentucky Feud can hardly be described as ‘non-narrative’, yet I am sure most modern viewers of it would agree that the experience of watching it is about as far removed from that of watching a fully-fledged Institutional film as is that of watching, say, Ernie Gehr’s Reverberation. Not, I hasten to add, that I regard these equally removed experiences as equivalent; however, they do help us to define the boundaries of a centred, linear, closured, Institutional experience which is not at all co-extensive with the ‘space’ of narrative (most classical documentaries are less ‘narrative’ than A Kentucky Feud, and yet are an integral part of the Institution). The very meaning of the term ‘narrative’ seems clouded indeed in the minds of those who adopt a critical stance towards narrative. A well-known American film artist recently presented one of his works to a London audience with the warning that it contained ‘narrative elements’. These turned out to be a strip of film (apparently slipping past the camera lens) on which there were dark, blurred photograms showing what might have been a woman’s face. ‘Figurative’ had come to equal ‘narrative’. The use of the term ‘Institutional Mode of Representation’ to designate the basic framework within which mainstream cinema has evolved during the last fifty years has the advantage, even if it has no other merit, of avoiding such tendentious confusions.[6]

The pressures – economic, ideological and cultural – that were eventually to create, first in the United States, then throughout the Western world, the conditions for the triumph of the Institutional Mode exerted themselves on the cinema as soon as it was born. The Primitive Mode, as a consequence, never existed in a vacuum. It was challenged from the outset by that aspiration to analogue representation that is so deep-rooted in Western culture, that throughout the nineteenth century was so closely associated with the development of photography, and that further manifested itself in such peripheral but significant phenomena as the Diorama, the stereoscope and the British temperance movement’s photographic lantern-shows known as ‘Life Models’. The Primitive Era was essentially contradictory; it was the scene of a constant confrontation. On the one hand we have the analogue aspiration, exemplified in Edison’s sensationalist declarations about the canned operas of the future, and in the couplets about ‘man’s victory over death’ intoned by French newspapers after the premiere of Lumière’s films at the Grand Café. On the other hand are the attitudes about representation which stemmed both from certain popular art-forms and from the scientistic ideology upheld by a number of pioneers. Marey’s out-and-out anti-illusionism is one instance of this attitude and Louis Lumière’s personal commitment to the ‘raw document’ – his indifference to mise en scène – is another.

Actually, the most spectacular and most ‘obvious’ evidence of the drive towards the perfect analogue is to be found in the constant presence on the motion picture market between 1894 and the First World War of systems designed to endow those silent pictures with the Logos – with a Soul, as some have put it – in other words, with lip-synch sound. In the period between the Edison Company’s Kinetophonograph of 1894 (whose earphones and eye-piece prefigure, over and beyond the clatter of the penny arcade and the nickelodeon, the sensorial isolation of the picture palace of the 1930s) and the vastly improved machine bearing the same name that was placed on the market in 1911 (but which failed, like all its rivals, for want of adequate amplification) an impressive number of synch sound systems appeared and disappeared. The Gaumont Chronophone had a considerable commercial success, and the several hundred Phonoscènes directed by Alice Guy figured on the programmes of theatres in France and elsewhere for over half a decade, in alternation with silent films. It is significant, of course, that all these efforts (as well as those which involved the ‘dubbing’ of films during the projection by actors hidden behind the screen) had ceased completely by the eve of the First World War, when the Institutional Mode, with its interpolated close-ups and spoken titles, was beginning to assert itself in the films of Reginald Barker, the Ince brothers, DeMille and others.

Far more exotic, however, are the traces left by attempts to transform films visually in such a way as to overcome the exteriority – the lack of presence – from which the Primitive Cinema, judged by the criteria of late nineteenth-century naturalism, was felt to suffer so severely. One of the most spectacular of these was the Cinéorama, presented by the French engineer Grimoin-Sanson at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. This was a technically successful attempt to create a single, unbroken, circular image, filmed by twelve synchronized cameras and projected onto the inside of a dome-like screen by twelve projectors placed beneath a platform which held the audience. This ingenious attempt to surround the audience, to enfold them in an image which still otherwise cleaved to the distant exteriority of the Lumière model, can, of course, only have heightened the topological dispersion of the Primitive tableau (where were you supposed to look now?), so that this experiment objectively retarded the historical movement towards spectatorial identification with a ubiquitous camera, that linch-pin of the Institutional Mode.

The American equivalent of the Cinéorama was Hale’s Tours. Here we are no longer dealing with an eccentric parapraxis – a term which can aptly describe many of the contradictory experiments of the age – but with an astute commercial venture, however extravagant it may appear today. Hale’s Tours were permanent cinemas which flourished in the United States between 1904 and 1912 and which were more or less elaborately fitted out inside to resemble Pullman coaches. Sitting in the seats as if they were passengers in a moving train, patrons watched films that had been taken from the cow-catchers of moving trains or trolley-cars. This strategy of penetration no doubt conferred upon the Lumière model an effect of presence which it hitherto had lacked, but such exhibitions were necessarily limited to documents of a very particular sort, and the only immediate impact of Hale’s Tours was to establish the need for fixed exhibition centres for films. Yet for me, Hale’s Tours are above all emblematic of a tendency which marked the first decade of cinema and which consisted in interventions from outside the film – interventions in the realm of spectatorial space – designed to achieve a goal which history was to show could, on the contrary, only be achieved by blotting out spectatorial space.

The director whose work perhaps best embodies the contradictory ‘otherness’ of the Primitive Era is Edwin S. Porter. The anomalous character of so many of the major experiments (and here I use the word ‘experiments’ advisedly) that he produced for the Edison Company between 1900 and 1906 was always due to the conflict between the Primitive Mode as I have described and illustrated it and the drive to overcome its ‘shortcomings’, to achieve the interiorized presence of the future Institution.

I shall cite only two examples of these experiments, chosen for their direct relevance to our subject. Porter’s celebrated The Great Train Robbery was taxed by Sidney Peterson[7], among other spokesmen of the American avant-garde, with embodying the Original Sin of the motion picture, of incarnating the precise moment when the Primitive Paradise was lost, when that evil object ‘narrative film’ reared its ugly head. Paradoxically, this view was also shared by narrowly chauvinistic historians of mainstream film, such as Lewis Jacobs, for whom Porter was indeed the inventor of all the basic elements of ‘motion picture grammar’. However, when the smoke of such special pleading has cleared, the film can be seen for what it is: a significant moment in the continuing, historically inevitable process of the expansion of diegetic space-time beyond the confines of the Primitive tableau. It was certainly not the first film to attempt what semiology has dubbed the ‘alternating syntagma’, and its famous chase sequence was only one among the first of its kind – both had appeared earlier, in the work of the British pioneers. However, it was certainly one of the earliest attempts in the USA at a developed form using these linearizing figures, key harbingers of the future Institutional Mode.

At the same time, however, this film remains wholly within the Primitive Mode in at least one essential respect: for every tableau, the camera is still placed at a considerable distance from the action, and the lens used is such that the characters are often no taller than a quarter of the height of the screen, with their faces only barely visible and hence unreadable. Despite, then, the extension and linearization of diegetic space-time, perceptual exteriority is maintained throughout and character presence is still minimal. However, this film – and in this respect it may have been a ‘first’ – also displays a peculiarly acute awareness of this lack, an awareness expressed in the famous medium close-up showing Barnes, the outlaw chief, shooting into the camera. This shot, as is well known, was not actually incorporated into the film itself but was delivered to exhibitors as a separate roll which they could splice onto the beginning or the end of the film, whichever they chose.

Now, at this simple factual statement, our minds begin to form connections. We think of rare and relatively recent experiments in the film-mobile, such as Chelsea Girls, we think of aleatoric music, etc. But before indulging in such extrapolation, it is important to understand exactly what sort of object we are dealing with here. At a time when spectatorial identification with the camera, and hence the possibility of camera ubiquity within the pro-filmic space of the primary tableau, was still far in the future (despite isolated experiments in England and even the USA, including one by Porter himself, oddly enough), this shot is a particular kind of anaphora of the interpolated close-up. It brings to the film as a whole the dimension of individual presence, but cannot as yet ‘penetrate’ the diegesis proper and must be content to wander about at the periphery, to be placed indiscriminately at the beginning or end of the film, at the discretion of exhibitors, that is to say, at random. Excluded from the film by the taboo still surrounding unicity of viewpoint, the ‘emblematic’ close-up not only introduces the dimension of presence in this overall manner, but also provides an example of an early attempt to encapsulate the ‘essence’ of the film – to provide a ‘treasure’ which each spectator could carry home. Here is another anaphora of an Institutional strategy par excellence, essential to the constitution of the film as a consumer product. In this double capacity, the emblematic close-up became quite widespread over the next five or six years, chiefly in the USA but also in Europe.

The mobility of the close-up appended to The Great Train Robbery is thus seen not to be simply an instance of Primitive ‘freedom’ (though it is true that similar ‘editorial responsibilities’ were sometimes left to the exhibitors). It was also the contradictory symptom of an historical blind spot and of a relentless ideological undercurrent. And while this instance of the ‘openness’ of the Primitive film clearly finds an objective echo in the occasional film-mobile of our time, one wonders whether reflection on the organic relationship of this ‘wandering close-up’ to the history of the Institution might not give rise to a more consequential exploration of aleatoric film forms.

The most celebrated anomaly in the work of Porter occurs in his film Life of an American Fireman (1903). In the form in which the film was deposited at the Library of Congress in 1903, the rescue of the woman and child by a fireman is shown twice, from two different ‘points of view’ – one (diegetically) inside the room where the victims are trapped, and one from outside. We see the same action twice, in succession.

I know of no example in Primitive Cinema where ‘time repetition’ as radical as this occurs again. However, other, shorter repetitions do occur in a few American films and in those of Méliès, for instance. Moreover, a film like The Story the Biograph Told (1904) admirably dramatizes the taboo surrounding camera ubiquity with an elaborate narrative apparatus whose sole purpose is to accomplish a 90° shot change – a figure which as far as I can judge was not to become widespread until the end of the First World War. And the existence of this taboo is what authorizes me, I feel, to speak of the ‘price’ that Porter paid for challenging it in his Fireman as a kind of parapraxis or failed act in the Freudian sense, in which a ‘collective unconscious’ replaces the individual.

Porter’s Life of an American Fireman also gives us a further clue to the underlying nature of the many encounters between strategies employed by this or that modernist movement and certain of these Primitive parapraxes. Let us consider the overlap match-cutting in certain films of Eisenstein. The most famous example here would no doubt be the raising of the bridges in October. It is clear that this has nothing in common, contextually or conceptually, with the time repetition in Life of an American Fireman (or those in such little-known films as Next!, from 1903, and The Policemen’s Little Run, from 1907, in which the repetitions are of a much smaller extent). Yet the Eisensteinian strategy is, at one level, the negative of the Primitive parapraxis. The latter is a contradiction characteristic of an era we may regard as ‘pre-seamless’, whilst Eisenstein’s dialectic between the visual expression of a temporal ‘impossibility’ and the commonsense notion of the linear flow of time is, among other things, a critique, implicit at least, of that same seamlessness. Moreover, if my reading of the narrative anomaly in Life of an American Fireman is an historically relevant hypothesis (it can never be more than that, since even if the producers’ or director’s rationale was conscious, it is no doubt buried with them forever), then there is also an encounter implicit in the two procedures at the level of the ‘positioning of the audience’. The resolution of the Eisensteinian conflict – the acceptance of the time repetitions by the spectators of October is a specifically cultural act today (once it may also have been a political act), and it is hard to believe that the Primitive spectators, to the extent that they were following Fireman at all, did not also need to make some kind of conscious mental adjustment to seeing the same narrative fragment twice. Here, however, I am treading on dangerous ground, which can lead so easily to such myths as that of the Lost Paradise of the Primitive Cinema. I must stress immediately that a parallel such as this is of theoretical interest only. It says little about film history as it was lived by those who made it (behind the cameras or sitting in halls before screens). It is in fact only from the point of view of a working theory of the Institutional Mode and its genealogy that any meaningful correlation can be established between processes which to all intents and purposes might have taken place on different planets. And I should add that to my knowledge, none of these parapractic anomalies was ever consciously emulated. However, in the history of what has been called ‘avant-garde’ or, perhaps, ‘radical’ film-making, there have been a number of more or less concerted ‘revivals’ of this or that aspect of the Primitive Mode, proper.

Without doubt, the first of these efforts was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Although it has not been fashionable in avant-garde circles in the USA to do so, I continue to regard Caligari as a film of considerable importance, and in particular as the first significant modernist film.

It seems to me not at all accidental that the epithet which certain modernist critics have used to dismiss Caligari from the Pantheon of the avant-garde is ‘theatrical’. This, after all, is the same epithet with which classical film history has dismissed the Primitive Cinema: motion pictures ‘begin’ with Smith, Porter and Griffith – with the premises of the Institutional Mode – while the Primitive Cinema is merely an ‘imitation’ of the theatre; the history of the early cinema equals the history of the ‘shaking off’ of the theatrical influence, etc. What such pronouncements have always failed to reflect is the fact that the theatre which, indeed, had a deep impact on the earliest cinema was not the legitimate stage of the middle classes, but melodrama, vaudeville, Grand Guignol and other plebeian forms; and that when cinema at last ‘became a language and an art’, as the saying usually goes, it was through the constitution of a mode of representation which reproduced, albeit with specific, original means, the underlying project of the bourgeois (‘legitimate’) stage.

Nor was it by accident that it was a film issuing directly from the Expressionist movement which was the first to effect a deliberate, sweeping ‘return’ to some of the major gestures of the Primitive Mode. Expressionism, after all, in its critique of all the manifestations of Naturalism, had for nearly two decades been keenly attentive to ‘primitive’ art of all kinds: the sculptures of Africa, the folk woodcuts of Germany, as well as the creations of mental patients and children. I have no evidence that the collective effort which produced Caligari was actually informed by any awareness (or remembrance) of the forms of the Primitive Era. However, here I feel we can all agree that the encounter is striking in its scope. Let me simply point up its chief traits.

Caligari was produced in 1919, at a time when Institutional editing had become a universal aspiration, although mastery of it varied from country to country. Yet here we are dealing with a film consisting almost solely of a series of frontally shot, autonomous tableaux from which intra-sequential editing is almost excluded. The autonomy of the successive tableaux is stressed by articulations that are strongly disjunctive, either through sharp graphic contrasts or through elaborately hesitant irises. Moreover, on the occasional instances when there is a shot change within a tableau, disjunctiveness is similarly stressed – by graphic contrast, notably through the use of vignettes – to a point where we usually feel these ‘match-cuts’ to be as ragged as those in, say, the films Siegmund Lubin was making around 1906.

However, it seems to me that Caligari engages most resolutely with the historical process of the constitution of the Institutional Mode in the matter of the homogenization of pictorial space. Until around 1912, and even afterwards in France, the cinema was characterized by a sharp division between two types of pictorial space. One type, exemplified by so many Lumière films, derived most immediately, I believe, from the scenic picture postcard, so much in vogue in the late nineteenth century. It is a model associated in the cinema for over a decade with outdoor shots almost exclusively, and involves a very strong emphasis on linear perspective and the rendering of haptic space in accordance with the model provided by the painting of the Renaissance. However, and contrary to a rather persistent myth (albeit of relatively recent origin), there coexisted with this model, and often within the same film, as soon as these began to contain both interior and exterior scenes, a pictorial approach which, on the contrary, emphasizes the picture plane. This is done through a number of strategies, some of which seem due to contingency (e.g. small studios, low budgets), while others seem quite deliberate. The role of contingency – massive at this time and never, I feel, historically meaningless – is illustrated by an anecdote recorded by Georges Sadoul. One of Ferdinand Zecca’s many tasks when he became the principal director for Pathé was to paint scenery. He was not good at it. One day, having set out to paint a backdrop meant to represent a cobbled street in perspective, he wound up with what looked like nothing so much as a pile of rocks. Always able to cope with an emergency, Zecca hung a sign over the canvas flat: ‘Men working: detour’.[8]

A British film by a populist film-maker, himself of plebeian origins, the remarkable William Haggar, demonstrates vividly the contrast between the two modes of pictorial representation which characterized the era. The Life of Charles Peace depicts with bold, simple strokes the career of a famous robber and murderer of the mid-nineteenth century. During the early sequences, shot mostly in a studio, each autonomous tableau is filmed against a backdrop that is blatantly and schematically flat, with, for example, wall-beams merely outlined with white paint on a canvas flat. In the latter part of the film, a chase, that typically Primitive mode of narrative concatenation, is shown in a series of shots which, on the contrary, make systematic and equally typical use of deep space (in fact, one of them reproduces the, by then, archetypical frame of Lumière’s The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat).

It has not, I believe, been widely recognized that in this matter of the pictorial representation of space on the screen, those whose historical mission was the constitution of the Institutional Mode, had a double task to perform. First, they had to bring depth and volume to the interior scenes of the Primitive Cinema (and to overcome the tendency, very evident with Griffith in particular, to flatten even exterior images through a rigidly level camera attitude and frames decentred towards their lower edge). This transformation was achieved through innovations in camera attitude and set design, as well as the development of electric lighting, all of which made it possible to introduce the codes of classical painting into cinematography. Secondly, through a variety of means, which also included camera placement along with the choice and handling of lenses and, of course, the development of editing, they had to reduce that depth of field which, in the Lumière model, produced such a strongly dispersed, de-centred image. This homogenization of pictorial screen space, conferring on close-ups and long-shots alike a similar look of controlled haptic depth, was not fully achieved in the United States until the end of the First World War, and in France until a few years later.

Here, Caligari’s relationship to the cinema of previous years is not simply at the level of mimesis, conscious or unconscious. Here the film actually puts the elements of an historical process to work within its own singular system. We are dealing with a precocious example of ‘epistemological creation’ in the film medium.

The imagery in Caligari continually plays upon a carefully contrived ambiguity. The film’s famous graphic style presents each shot as a stylized, flat rendition of deep space, with dramatic obliques so avowedly plastic, so artificially ‘depth-producing’, that they immediately conjure up the tactile surface of the engraver’s page, somewhat in the manner of Méliès. Yet at the same time, the movement of the actors within these frames is systematically perpendicular to the picture plane, in a way reminiscent of Primitive deep-field blocking. The same images thus seem simultaneously to produce two historical types of pictorial space, superimposed one upon the other.

This issue of haptic space has, of course, been at the centre of many important films of recent years – those of Godard and Snow, as well as Dreyer’s Gertrud, come immediately to mind. But what seems to me so striking about Caligari is that through these multiple references to the issue as it historically evolved, it offers an almost unique commentary on the constitution of the Institutional Mode as a visual system.

It is clear from much modern critical work, however, that no purely visual model can satisfactorily account for the Institutional Mode. The issues involved can be indicated by juxtaposing Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet and a 1902 Biograph called A Search for Evidence, in which a woman and a private detective peer through a series of hotel-room keyholes, affording the audience a suggestion of picturesque scenes, until the unfaithful husband and his mistress are confounded at last.

A Search for Evidence was by no means an unusual film for its day. We know that during the Primitive Era, when copyright was either non-existent or virtually impossible to enforce, especially from one country to another, there was an extraordinarily free circulation of signs. It is no exaggeration to say that for a time film images were, in effect, public property. This is a situation difficult to imagine today and it invariably arouses the righteous indignation of classical historians, always quick to denounce plagiarism. In fact, they are peering into a kind of historical enclave in which, for a combination of ideological and economic reasons, the bourgeois concept of property took several years to establish the hegemony which it exerted over every other human endeavour throughout the Western world.

Here I might point out that while I personally know of no such avowed intertextuality among avant-garde artists in the USA or Western Europe – these tend on the contrary to safeguard, jealously, the principles of artistic property – I did see in London in 1979 an example from Yugoslavia which deserves mention and reflection on. Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s Two Times in One Space (1976-1984) is a two-projector, single-screen performance of an interesting single-shot, slice-of-life exercise, directed three years earlier by a main-stream director. A ten-second lag between the superimposed pictures and the sound-tracks heard through separate speakers, adds a new dimension to the original film without ever impinging decisively on its visual and narrative impact. I am not sure that it is completely by accident that such an experiment should come to us from a socialist country, where the concept of property in general is under reconsideration.

I have no idea which was the first version of the archetypal keyhole film, actually more developed in A Search for Evidence than in the standard model, which was totally devoid of narrative structure and simply showed scenes viewed through a keyhole by a peeping maid or bath-boy. I am not even sure where the genre originated, though I suspect that it was in France.

It is my contention that the Primitive Cinema acted out, in naïve, overt fashion, many essential gestures which would eventually become consubstantial with the very morphology of the Institutional Mode, which would become submerged to such an extent in what we call ‘film language’ as to be completely interiorized by makers and spectators alike. The gesture of voyeurism is indubitably one of these.

The earliest voyeur scenes, however, do not follow the model of A Search for Evidence, but rather that of Léar’s famous film Bedtime for the Bride (1896). In that purely Primitive model, the voyeur is at all times co-present on the screen with the object of his gaze – invariably a woman undressing. The shift from this first type of representation to the keyhole type involves a curious change of emphasis, for while overt voyeurism is still at the forefront of the action, curiously enough it is the process of voyeuristic desire, rather than its object, which is exhibited. Destined, it seems, for a larger audience, these films rarely show women undressing, but rather a series of incongruous vignettes such as those seen in A Search for Evidence. More important, however, this evolution clearly introduces the earliest mode of spectatorial identification with the camera, a phenomenon which was to be at the centre of the diegetic process of Institutional Cinema. The keyhole film, I should add, was not the only manifestation of the new voyeurism: there also appeared films with telescopes (and these, it is true, were often pointed at women), magnifying glasses and even microscopes, but the principle was always the same. Through the alternation of views of the watcher and the watched, spectators were given their first, very simple lesson in camera ubiquity, in identifying with the camera, since the voyeur on the screen is the spectator’s obvious surrogate.

It has been pointed out (by Tom Gunning, I believe) that the spectators of the earliest keyhole films were often peering through a hole themselves, since they were patrons of the Kinetoscope or, later, the Mutoscope. But of course this technology was itself by no means ‘innocent’, especially if we remember the analogical dreams that haunted the West Orange Laboratory where the Kinetoscope was born. The fulfilment of the ideal of analogue representation through moving photographs would absolutely require a certain positioning, a certain centring of the spectatorial subject. The peep-hole film was the first step in this process.

What has this to do with Cocteau’s work? In a lecture which Jean Cocteau delivered in 1932 on the occasion of a presentation of The Blood of a Poet, he said: ‘I used to think that... films weary us with shots taken from below or above. I wanted to shoot my film from the front, artlessly.’[9] This is already enough to indicate that to some degree Cocteau was consciously thinking of the early cinema when he devised his pioneering film. I believe he may have been the first modernist film-maker to have turned deliberately to Primitive strategies as an ‘antidote’ to those of the Institution. After all, did he not say elsewhere that the slowness of The Blood of a Poet was a reaction to the rapid-fire editing of American films?

I have little doubt that when Cocteau conceived the sequence of l’Hôtel des Folies Dramatiques in The Blood of a Poet he was remembering, consciously or unconsciously, the many keyhole films he must have seen as a child (for many years, the children of the French bourgeoisie, along with their grandmothers and nannies, were, almost, the French cinema’s only middle-class spectators). When one reflects on the crucial articulation which the keyhole film represents in the genealogy of the Institutional Mode and on the central role the voyeuristic position was to play in the established Mode itself, it becomes difficult to dismiss this as a chance remembrance. Especially when one further observes that this sequence, which aligns apparently disconnected fantasies in the best Primitive manner, also contains an explicit allusion to a type of Primitive trick-film which, though perhaps not as commonplace as the peep-hole film, was in its way equally significant.

In a Pathé film from around 1902, an ‘ingenious Soubrette’ hangs pictures on a wall by apparently crawling up it. The trick – hardly one at all for the modern eye, accustomed as it is to camera ubiquity – merely consisted in placing the camera perpendicular to a horizontal set, which therefore looked as if it must be perpendicular to the ground. The overwhelming dominance of frontality and unicity of viewpoint in the Primitive Era must have made such tricks totally effective illusions, even when there was only a black backdrop lying beneath an actor rolling about on the studio floor (as in another Pathé film The Devil’s Dance [1904]).

Cocteau uses the same device twice in the l’Hôtel des Folies Dramatiques sequence, first in the shots of the poet in the hallway, where the effect is to show the actor struggling against invisible forces, and again, in more elaborate form, in the shots inside the room marked ‘Flying Lessons’, when the little girl is seen inching her way up the wall and across the ceiling. It is difficult not to be impressed by this association in a single sequence of two overt allusions to such central – and ultimately related – issues of early cinema development: the historical resistance to the abandoning of frontality in favour of camera ubiquity, and spectatorial identification with the camera.

It will perhaps appear incongruous that I have chosen to dwell for so long on two modernist films that were made over fifty years ago, when it is clear that these instances are singularly isolated in their period and that there appear to be numerous and widespread correlations with the Primitive Cinema among modernist films of Europe and the USA made since the late 1950s. However, it seemed important in this context to provide a perspective on these matters – to stress that the otherness of pre-Institutional cinema was a natural pole of attraction for even the earliest modernist challenges to the Institution. And perhaps it is also useful to have thus reminded ourselves that until 1930 the impact of Primitive Cinema could still be direct (through personal memory and through traces still found in the cinema – and in that of France in particular), while today we are dealing with apparently fortuitous encounters or with the consciously assumed shock of rediscovery and recognition. It is also true, however – and this is of great significance – that the aspect of the Primitive Cinema which may be said to have had the most ‘success’ among modernist film-makers of this later generation (and I say this even of those who may never have seen a film made before 1920) is one which never remotely interested any film-maker at all, I believe until the painter Andy Warhol turned to film (although I am, of course, confining my frame of reference to the cinema of the West: Japanese films from the 1930s would belie this statement). I am referring to what I will call here the Primitive camera stare, epitomized in the films of Lumière and his cameramen but apparent in the fictional Primitive film as well (in, for example, A Kentucky Feud).

To what extent is P. Adams Sitney’s recognition of Lumière as a distant ‘precursor’ of the so-called ‘structural film’[10] – from Warhol to Gehr, let us say – actually the recognition of a larger affiliation, between the Primitive Mode proper and what is still today, I take it, the dominant attitude in the avant-garde film?

It was the successive effacement of the major traits of the Primitive Mode – the autarchy and the a-centric quality of its image, the exteriority of the spectatorial Subject and the non-closure of the filmic commodity – which in my view made possible the constitution of an Institutional Mode founded on an indefinitely extensible diegetic space-time, on the centred organization of the image (and later of sound), on camera identification and the presence of the filmic persona and on the closure of the film as a consumable, throw-away product. And it is not difficult to demonstrate, in the light of these mutually exclusive models, that many of the major gestures of today’s modernist cinema – and I do mean the gestures, not necessarily the work – have been objectively aimed at reversing the changes that took place after 1905.

The Warhol camera which in Chelsea Girls typically remains staring into space, unable or unwilling to move, when a character goes out of shot is behaving after all like the camera of Méliès, which Georges Sadoul likened to the eye of ‘that gentleman in the stalls who never once thought of getting a closer look at the leading lady’s smile or following her into the dining room when she left the parlour’.[11]

When Barry Gerson says of his own films ‘one part of the image is no more important than another part – the forms operate together – what is occurring on the left edge of the screen lives because of what occurs on the right edge, top edge, middle, etc.’,[12] how can we not be reminded of the a-centric Primitive image and the topological reading which it required?

And here is a very choice example: Michael Snow’s A Casing Shelved is actually a single colour-slide with an hour-long magnetic tape, but I share the view that in our context it is equivalent to a film performance, with ‘the artist’s voice, taped... cataloguing the objects, bringing them into our view, directing the spectator’s eye in a reading of the image’,[13] as Annette Michelson has described it. Here, the encounter with the Primitive model is spectacular, since the projected image of objects on shelves forcefully inscribes – though using very different means, of course – the Primitive exteriority of the spectatorial Subject, while the artist’s voice on tape, reading that image and organizing those apparently disparate, ‘meaningless’ objects into an autobiographical narrative, recapitulates almost literally the Primitive lecturer’s contradictory gesture, both linearizing and distancing.

However, having marked this clear affinity with the Primitive Mode, what, I wonder, have I actually said about these films? Have I not simply said what they are not and discovered that what they are not, the Primitive Cinema also was not, and said nothing, for example, about the elaborate and comprehensive work of testing the limits of diegesis that is to be found in the work of Michael Snow, or about the contradictory ideological implications of role-playing in Warhol, or about the significant role of the new drug culture in the emergence of an audience for these films, if not in the films themselves? Or have I not, rather, simply defined in the most general (or rather, pertinent) terms possible the conceptual framework which so much of the recent avant-garde has laid out for itself, a framework which not too surprisingly is definable, it appears, in terms of the ‘interface’ between the Primitive and Institutional Modes. For, the films mentioned here are limit instances. Their chief privative traits serve to define a ‘space’ within which has evolved much of the significant modernist film-making in the USA and Europe over the past fifteen or twenty years. But the limitations of this ‘discovery’ must be clearly perceived, in order for the usefulness of such an insight, to theoreticians and film-makers, to grow.

I know of only three modernist films which, in recognition of this affinity, have explicitly engaged with Primitive Cinema. In After Lumière, Malcolm Le Grice stages a series of black-and-white variations on L’arroseur arrosé, seemingly stressing the mechanical, exterior nature of narrative in that archetypal film-gag. The ensuing shift to a colour shot of a woman playing the piano music which has accompanied the previous variations opens up an interesting reflection on the role of music in bridging the gap between spectatorial and diegetic space in early film history.

Both Ken Jacobs and Ernie Gehr have engaged directly with Primitive films as ‘found objects’ which can be said to have stimulated the sense of recognition in question here. Jacobs’s choice of Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1905), a film from the mature Primitive Era, is of considerable interest from my heuristic viewpoint. The film’s rigorous respect of the ‘rule’ that all characters must enter and leave a shot before it may end, originally a sign of the chase film’s attachment to the autarchy of the Lumière tableau, was ambivalent at this late date, and verged, I believe, on parody. The film’s stiff frontality, and highly mechanized gags, appear almost as a last, half-sophisticated, indulgence in the ‘child’s play’ of the Primitive Era before Biograph was to get down to the serious business that began with Griffith. It is of course with the future course of film history that Ken Jacobs’s work on this film engages directly, through his re-filming procedures. The opening shot of the film, so typically Primitive in that its narrative substance is totally unreadable for the modern eye at first viewing, is analysed in a way that is evocative – though only evocative – of the linearizing editing procedures of the Institution, so that it becomes readable on second viewing. Here, I feel, is a wonderful example of a combination of work and play on the materials of a crucial historical process.

In contrast to the complexity of Jacobs’s film – addressed as much, I realize, to the synchronic paradigm of film production as to the diachronic – Ernie Gehr’s more recent Eureka, by its very simplicity, points up admirably the ambivalence, and indeed certain illusory aspects, of the parallel between the Primitive and the modernist. This film, which Gehr painstakingly stretched to many times its original length, again by a process of re-filming, was, in all likelihood, made to be shown in the mock Pullman coaches of Hale’s Tours, already described. It was shot from the front of a Market Street cable car in San Francisco and shows the long approach to the Ferry Building. As I have indicated, its existence corresponds to a need felt at the time to create conditions for penetration into the motion picture image a good ten years before this could be achieved by editing and camera placement, and by the establishment of theatres which were dark, quiet and comfortable enough to create the conditions for a symbolical voyage, rather than a simulated one.

Gehr extracts the main visual component – the film – from a context which can be described as a form of synesthetic illusionism – in some instances, fans blew air and even smoke through coaches which swayed and creaked like those of a real train. In his appropriation, he takes images which, though they follow the Lumière model, were no longer viewed as were the original Lumière films, but were experienced as part of a physical environment – and proceeds, indeed, to reverse an historical process, restoring to those images that alienness which Gorky had felt ten years earlier. In fact, as one watches, or tries to watch, that swarming, uncentred, ‘unreadable’ frame, one seems to hear Gorky’s voice: ‘This is not life, but its shadow, this is not movement but its soundless spectre.’[14] And of course, for modern anti-illusionism such a statement is not a lament.

Now, as Peter Wollen had occasion to point out a number of years ago,[15] there have been, in the 1960s and 1970s, two avant-gardes, one resolutely placing itself outside the Institution – and largely outside history – in an ‘anti-narrative’ perspective, the other working on the fringes of the Institution, in both the aesthetic and economic sense, addressing itself to the Institution explicitly – and often, as well, to the social system which fostered the Institution’s growth and maintains its power. This latter avant-garde, mainly European, has incorporated into its critical arsenal strategies which clearly hark back to the Primitive Era. In my opinion, these strategies, on the whole, reflect a much higher degree of historical responsibility than any such in the former of the two avant-gardes, wholly American, where the work, with all its enormous artistic importance, usually seems to have taken place somewhere in the Platonic firmament of Form and Perception.

Jean-Luc Godard’s use of frontality – in the sense both of setting his camera up perpendicularly to a wall, for example, and of having his actors play to the camera – has been much discussed. I simply wish to stress here that this encounter with the Primitive Mode is far from being historically uninformed, as is evidenced by the scene in one of his most radically frontal films, La chinoise, where the characters discuss the respective roles in film history of Méliès and Lumière.

But I would like to mention three other, lesser-known instances, from France, Spain and Belgium, where the issues implicit in the confrontation between the Primitive and Institutional Modes play a central role. Jackie Raynal’s Deux fois, which has been extensively analysed by the Camera Obscura Collective,[16] is in my view an important meditation on several important aspects of Institutional representation. Its almost literal use of the Lumière model (long, uncentred Barcelona street scenes, in particular, all the more panoramic as they are filmed in CinemaScope[17]) provides a kind of point zero from which such elementary but primary issues as the extension of diegetic space-time and the exchanges of the gaze can be explored.

In the Spanish film-maker Paulino Viota’s still little-known Contactos, which I continue to regard as one of the most important European films of the past decade, Primitive stare is conscripted into a representational and narrative system based upon a radical de-centring. For example, an exchange of a few words between two revolutionary activists working in a restaurant is buried, as it were, in the comings and goings of waiters and waitresses through the kitchen door, as the camera stares at this uncentred work activity for several minutes on end.

Chantal Akerman’s masterful meditation on a woman’s alienation, Jeanne Dielman, may be said to be an almost systematic tribute to the Primitive stare, reproduced often with extraordinary fidelity under its two major aspects: the medium long shot, filmed from a position rigorously perpendicular to a wall; and the frontal medium close-up of a person seated behind a table, facing the camera, ‘doing something’ (whether it was the Lumières’ baby eating breakfast or Dranhem kneading dough and reciting his monologue, The Baker.) Furthermore, direct matching – inconceivable in the Primitive Cinema and indispensable to the principle of camera ubiquity in the Institution – is studiously avoided. The association of these attitudes produces one of the most distanced narrative films of recent years – re-creating to a large extent the conditions of exteriority of the Primitive Mode (the sparseness of speech seems to be a further contributing factor here) – positioning the spectator once again in his seat, hardly able because hardly enabled to embark upon that imaginary journey through diegetic space-time to which we are so accustomed and obliged ultimately to reflect on what is seen rather than merely experience it.

It may have seemed at times that my presentation here was over-polemical. This is because I feel that there has been a tendency in the past – and perhaps not only in the past – to oversimplify the significance of our responses to those strange objects which are happily encountered in some archive and which are ‘signed’ ‘Lumière’, ‘Méliès’ or ‘Zecca’ (though never, perhaps, was the concept of authorship so irrelevant to an understanding of films than with those of the Primitive Era). A tendency in particular to regard the Primitive Cinema as a Lost Paradise wherein ‘our’ values thrived before being subverted by the Demon Narrative has helped at times to reinforce a dichotomous, indeed Manichaean, view of film history and film aesthetics which has only served to cloud our understanding of the filmic experience in our society, determined essentially, after all, by fifty years experience of the Institutional Mode of Representation. The Institution is in us and we are in it, and it has been the scene of practices of immense importance, both artistic and societal.

This dichotomous ideology – the Institution as Bad Object, primitivism and modernism as Good Objects – has also given rise to the idea that film history might have been – that is, should have been – different somehow, and that the Muses were only waiting for the New American Cinema to come along and set cinema back on the path of adventure from which it had veered when the shadow of Griffith fell upon it. I am afraid I can only describe such a viewpoint as childish.

As for the theoretician wishing to elucidate the Institutional experience – to clarify its origins, its growth and its transformations, and the relationships of all these to the contest for social control in our societies – it appears necessary for him to deal with early cinema not only as a meta-discourse about filmic process – and here the perspective offered by modernism is of value – but also in terms of its actual insertion into history, no matter how many unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, questions such an approach may raise. As I said earlier, it is essential to try at least to hold onto both ends of the chain.


This essay, the only one in this collection to have been originally written in English, was first given, in a slightly modified form, as a lecture at the Whitney Museum, New York City, in November 1979 as part of a series on primitive cinema and the avant-garde. It was later published in an anthology of criticism edited by Philip Rosen entitled Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology.

I had been engaged in a desultory flirtation with the so-called ‘New American Cinema’ for over fifteen years, under the guiding auspices of P. Adams Sitney and Annette Michelson. The adepts of New York modernism were no doubt distressed to find that the only piece of writing ever to emanate from those hours of privately arranged screenings of the films they championed so fervently took the latter merely as illustrations for a metalinguistic, historiographic approach to the institutional cinema which most of them so heartily despised.

Now that the 1960s, when the most exciting work of Brakhage, Warhol, Snow and others was accomplished, are far behind us, it seems clear that very little is left of that attempt to conscript film into the modernist logic except precisely what those films tell us about the nature of the real institution, and about the isolation of the American community of artists from their society and from the world at large.


[1] Marey, preface to Trutat, La photographie animée (Paris, 1899).

[2] Vertov, Articles, journaux, projets (Paris, U.G.E., 1972), pp. 61-62.

[3] Fred J. Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller, One Reel a Week (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967), p. 3.

[4] Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971 (New York, MacMillan, 1972), p. 230.

[5] Quoted in Jay Leyda, Kino (London, Allen and Unwin, 1973), p. 408.

[6] A comprehensive survey of even the visual dimension of the Institutional Mode and its development over the thirty-five years that preceded the coming of sound lies outside the scope of this paper, although I will be led to mention certain aspects of it. See my book La lucarne de l’infini (Life to Those Shadows).

[7] P. Adams Sitney (ed.), Film Culture Reader (New York, Praeger, 1970), p. 402.

[8] Georges Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma, vol. II (Paris, Ed. Denoël, 1973), p. 187.

[9] The Blood of a Poet, a film by Jean Cocteau, trans. Lily Pons (New York, Bodley Press, 1949), p. 52.

[10] P. Adams Sitney, ‘Structured Film’, Film Culture, ed. P. Adams Sitney (London, Secker & Warburg, 1971), p. 329.

[11] Sadoul, op. cit., p. 141.

[12] Film Culture, no. 63-64, 1977, p. 115.

[13] Annette Michelson, ‘Towards Snow’, Artforum, July 1971.

[14] Leyda, op. cit., p. 407.

[15] ‘Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est’, Afterimage, no. 4, 1972. See also Peter Wollen, ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’, Studio International, December 1975. Both these essays have been reprinted in the collection of Peter Wollen’s writings, Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London, New Left Books and Verso, 1982).

[16] Camera Obscura, no. 1, Autumn 1976.

[17] Jackie Raynal’s Deux fois wasn’t shot in CinemaScope. [Ed.].

(In and Out of Synch – The Awakening of a Cine-Dreamer. London: Scolar Press, 1991, pp. 157-186)





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