Garrett Stewart, “Curtain Up on Victorian Popular Cinema; Or, The Critical Theater of the Animatograph”

Abstract

Hard on the heels of the Lumière “Cinématographe” in its Paris debut, the West End appearance of its most successful British equivalent, Robert W. Paul’s “Animatograph,” brought the apparatus for moving-image projection before a British public that would soon flock to its display of miscellaneous short films in theatrical venues all across England, propelling a widespread Victorian fascination with the new medium of visual spectacle and eventual (edited) storytelling, the latter in narrative formats by turns comic, melodramatic, and fantastic. In these emergent genre bearings alone, here was an entertainment technology that looked back into the earlier Victorian period as well as forward to both popular and experimental modernism. Much recent commentary has aimed at connecting this next-century destiny not just to the medium’s Victorian technological origins but to cultural orientations—and literary prototypes—in nineteenth-century habits of attention and imagination.

            Marking a halfway point in the last decade of Victoria’s long reign, 1896 was an epochal year for Victorian technology and popular entertainment alike.  It is also, increasingly in contemporary scholarship, a watershed date for a Long Nineteenth Century cultural history in its ramified interart relations.  To say so is not to burden that single, even-numbered year with more chronological weight than it can bear.  Like most such nodes in any timeline, its importance for literary scholarship and aesthetics, including even film aesthetics—as  opposed to its interest for cinema historians—has little to do with week, month, or even calendar year.  It has everything to do, rather, with the look back the new apparatus reframes and the window forward it uncurtains.  Still, within a crowded field of technological patents and commercial ambitions, this established date of record offers, when moving back as well as forward, a good place to start.

A year after the Lumière brothers unveiled to Paris acclaim their legendary “Cinématographe,” film had its first screenings before the Victorian public in the winter of 1896, via the now-rival projector systems of former partners Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul. A month after the first showings of Acres’s “Kinetic Lantern” (soon renamed “Kineopticon” but quickly losing out to its competitor apparatus), Paul first exhibited his own “Theatrograph” at Finsbury Technical College in London (20 February 1896) before eventually moving a retooled version to the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square (25 March 1896) under the rebranded and eventually dominant name “Animatograph” (Herbert and McKernan). Traced between these two venues, in compressed form, is the giant step of the medium, not just from experimental science to commercial spectacle, but from laboratory to the former site of “live” theater.

Under the proscenium arch, Paul’s Alhambra screening recapitulated more specifically the medium’s theatrical forebears—as it continued to do in being popularized across England in similar music hall settings—by having as one of its offerings a brief clip of a “lightning cartoonist” filmed in a recreation of his theatrical act:  drawing, in the case of this brief actualité (documentary snippet), a rapid caricature of Bismark.  Under the banner of the former Theatrograph’s new institutional name, designed perhaps to distinguish the Animatograph from anything merely theatrical—and certainly aimed at possibilities beyond theater’s own new option for captured transience via filmic record—it is as if graphic art’s long-cherished fantasy of breaking into lifelike motion was fulfilled in the very record of drawing’s own high-speed rendering time.  With the filming of this “lightning” legerdemain, projected footage—cinema as we know it—thus greeted London audiences in the partly acknowledged form of a glimmering photographic cartoon under cover of an unbroken representational gesture.

Fig. 1: Marey, Chronophotograph Study of a Man

Fig. 2: Muybridge, Analytic Motion Study

Half a century earlier, in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, there is a notable if little-discussed pre-technological marker, in the work of oil master J.M.W. Turner, for any such longstanding pictorial fantasy of animation.  Two years, that is, before the French invention of the Daguerreotype, and three before Britain’s own calotype process was patented by Henry Fox-Talbot, the painter Turner, anticipating in hypermimetic form the more evocative optic blur of his mature style, anticipated as well the late Victorian precursors to cinema on both sides of the Atlantic:  the experiments in serially traced chronophotography by Etienne-Jules Marey (fig. 1: Chronophotograph Study of a Man) and Eadweard Muybridge. (fig. 2: Analytic Motion Study).

Fig 3: Turner, The Parting of Hero and Leander

Fig. 3 (Detail), Turner's The Parting of Hero and Leander

Turner did so by showing at the Royal Academy his pre-photographic time-lapse image in oil of The Parting of Hero and Leander, (fig. 3: The Parting of Hero and Leander) the latter mythic figure pictured toward the right of the frame drowning by incremental stages in the Hellespont, one flailing spasm after another, in a storm-battered effort to reach his beloved Hero on the far shore. (fig. 3: detail of The Parting of Hero and Leander).

The craft of painting is seen there bursting at the seams of mere delineation, striving to access the temporality of narrative against its own plastic, spatial, scenic limitations. Hero’s hero, rather than being pictured once and once only on the brink of death, is caught instead in multiple protocubist poses along the invisible descending escalator of his fate.   The coming of photography and its capacity for overprinting the stages of a gesture or action would render any such innovation of brushwork obsolete almost overnight.  As would, more decisively, the coming of chronophotography and cinema.  In the long meanwhile, though, Victorian art, verbal as well as visual, would cultivate in such ways the ground for cinema, where at last the dream of lifelike action, or call it motor vitality, is ultimately realized by the actual motors of a geared machine.

In an “archaeological” rather than “evolutionary” understanding of such distinct moments in technoculture as the coming, first, of still photography, then of chronophotography, then of cinema, we can readily see how such a late-Romantic stratum of innovation in Turner’s narrative canvas, with its schematic efforts at serial positioning, might underlie the Victorian invention of cinema as much as do experiments in narrative prose or poetry in the same century:  all these early and different approximations marking a sedimented, often latent, substrate of cultural disposition rather than the site of some definitive historical cause or medium-specific contribution.

Of course that other model of historical process bred in the nineteenth century as well, not archaeological but Darwinian, is one that is just as often used to discuss the rivalry between media.  On this account, photography’s survival of the fittest, to the detriment of realist representation on canvas, turned painting by default toward impressionism instead, and subsequently toward more radical abstraction.  In like fashion, cinema’s automatism, outstripping all contenders in realist representation, is seen to divert both fiction and poetry from a similar beaten path toward a compensatory modernist aesthetic of nervous opacity and fragmentation, even while having a simultaneous impact on the visual arts, especially in the serial facetings of what could be called cubist montage (Rose, Gunning, and Wild). Not long after cinema put absent bodies into manifest motion, that is, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) exaggerated the intervening cubist attempts to dynamize portraiture according to something like the frame-advance logic of the new technology. (fig. 4: Nude Descending a Staircase– The Philadelphia Museum of Art, http://www.philamuseum.org)

Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase

Figure 4: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912)

Call it painting as “kineoptic” glance—yet always, in its staggered yet static medium, closer to Marey than to Lumière, to Muybridge than to Robert Paul.

If cinema and its immediate precursors help explain the initiatives not just of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf but of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque as well, then certainly on the nineteenth-century end of the great divide—when mitigated as technocultural bridge rather than stressed as rupture—the energetics of literary form, along with narrative painting like Turner’s, helped to percolate film’s advent in the first place.  Fiction’s multifaceted perspectives and quick-cut artistry, its establishing shots and zoom lenses, served to dynamize description as well as action through the technical arsenal of narrative discourse. Epochal, then, that London winter of 1896—but not unprepared for. Indeed, in a nonindustrial anticipation of screen technology, Victorians had hunched over moving pictures long before leaning into the Earls Court kinetoscopes, let alone lining up for those first public projections in the West End.  Well in advance of theatrical cinema, and quite apart from magic-lantern slide exhibitions, they had sat still for motor thrills in none other than their everyday reading.  This is to say that, with no news yet of moving-pictures, they had made pictures move in the head.

And were sometimes explicitly cued to do so by literary turns of phrase. In regard especially to nineteenth-century prose fiction as among film’s inherent forerunners—rather than modernist kinetics as its literary and pictorial fate—a near anticipation may seem to epitomize the many ways in which Victorian literature jumped the gun on cinematic shooting.  When the sleepless lawyer in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is haunted by images of his client’s violent double racing through his brain “in a scroll of lighted pictures” (9), that mixed metaphor evokes spooled textual surface and backlit image at once.  Yet in its unmistakable allusion to the magic lantern and other of the so-called “optical toys” of Victorian popular culture, we catch the historical drift.  And we are further reminded (in retrospect) that, only a decade after Stevenson’s novella, the actual cinematic spool, in its reeling past the aperture, will achieve not just the serial animation of uncanny presence but the whole bequeathed logic of the romantic doppelgänger in machinic terms:  each sequential image the double of its absent original.  By century’s end, just such manifestations of the fantastic will have been instrumentalized and made institutional.  And twice over, too, given an ensuing innovation by Robert Paul himself just a month after the Animatograph’s debut.  For Paul quickly modified his recording camera to allow for a reverse cranking (Herbert and McKernan) that renders possible, on the spot rather than in the lab, the ghostly superimpositions dear to the spirit photography of preceding decades—to say nothing of their use to come for the many resulting screen adaptations of the Jekyll and Hyde narrative itself, where the time-lapse degeneration of the former into the latter is regularly processed, before digital morphing, by the meshed effect of sequential overlays.  With Jekyll on the optical verge of Hyde, embodied space gets redoubled by a different (encroaching and transmogrifying) time frame in these “special effects,” so that  the new medium seems raised, in short, to the uncanny power of itself.

Building on the invention of photography just before Victoria took the throne, cinema arrived at the end of her reign, just in time, as the Victorian art of time itself:  a mechanized choreography of shape in action, duration made plastic, transformation (fantastic and monstrous, or not) seen as such: as imaged motion in the form (the shifting form) of optical mutation.   But if cinema as technological Muse was, from here out, to preside over an industrialized modernity as its native aesthetic (as the Frankfurt school theorized via the cult of distraction [Kracauer], and as Laura Marcus details in extensive citations from modernist writers in a book by the title The Tenth Muse), the new medium didn’t entirely carry the day at first.  In fact, its engineered illusionism of an uninterrupted temporal trace was resisted, on different fronts, by three of the most important Continental figures in the theory of time as ontological and cognitive category:  French philosopher Henri Bergson, for whom time as unbroken durée was the indissoluable medium of consciousness; Sigmund Freud, for whom (oppositely) time was the structuring work of the unconscious, which in itself has no temporal sequence; and Marey, whose chronophotography had resisted the tyranny of temporal flow in order to parse and analyze the increments of animal and human motion.  Addressing just such resistances entrenched at the turn of the century—according to which objections film is not a new and truer way of picturing the world in art but a falsification at base of that world’s constitutive ocular and ontological properties—Mary Ann Doane has laid bare the conflicting terms on which each thinker separately objected to cinema:  Bergson because it was an artifice of duration composed of individual fixed segments, and thus party to the erroneous and uniquely nineteenth-century analogy by which memory was often thought to be an album of still moments lifted from flux, in his word “snapshots”; Freud because the “movies” simulated time itself as real, rather than constructed, and thus made no serious aesthetic intervention in the falsifications of everyday life; and Marey because the moving-image apparatus reversed the diagnostic role of stop-time photography and resynthesized the splay of images into spectacle rather than analysis, mobile scenography rather than descriptive science, or (in other terms) view rather than inscription.

After this early wave of resistance to the artificial continuities of human time in projection, it was Hugo Münsterberg, in the first philosophical treatise devoted wholly to film (1916), who understood cinema’s narrative devices, like cuts and flashbacks, operating not as some technologically fabricated picture of the real but as the prolonged image of thought itself, including the unconscious: a machine picturing back to us the mind’s varying degrees of concentration and memory, its associational jumps as well as glides.  In broader historical terms yet, the media theory of Friedrich Kittler picks up on exactly the sense of masked intermittence in the apparatus to which Bergson, Freud, and Marey objected on theoretical rather than aesthetic grounds, and which was instead for Münsterberg cinema’s most productive feature (the frame break as embryo of the elective cut) in evoking the discontinuous rhythms of mentality.  For Kittler, film operates not only (though he stresses this too) as the nineteenth-century fiction of the fantastic realized in the technological uncanny—the doppelgänger gone mechanical (180-82)—but in the process as a deep structural anticipation of  postmodern technics.  This is because cinema, in Kittler’s millennial history, needs to be reconceived as in its own right “digital” or “binary” (161-62) even when (for most of a century) its recording and editing remained photomechanical rather than computerized. For Kittler, that is, the filmic apparatus—by enchaining the analog or indexical medium of the single photographic imprint (the cellular photogram on the strip)—returns in the process to the spaced array of the early modern printshop, where both Johannes Gutenberg and the rise of perspective painting are part of the same Renaissance moment in a gridded automatization of both textual display and simulated view.  Which is to say, tendentiously enough, part of the same proto-digital logic.  Thanks directly to the “Maltese cross” incorporated into the Animatograph and other machines of projection—a spinning device that blocks the projector’s light for the split second gap between photo frames—it is precisely, and by precision-timing, their modular image band that gets spun into motion only by hiding, or eliding, the segmented differentials (between photograms) by the barred blank of transition.  Such is the necessary intermittence of the projected image in its syncopated pulsation of frame/[bar]/frame—or frame/frame: a “stroboscopic” function stressed by Kittler as discrete, binary, and in itself, though photographically composited, ultimately non-analog in its motion effects.

Suggestive as Kittler’s englobing macroscopic view may be, there is certainly a risk in pitching everything differential toward the “digital.”  With a pivotal development like the advent of cinema, sometimes a backward purview offers a clearer vantage than does a forward vanishing point.  But the critical instinct is strong, lately, to see an electronic future seeded in the initiatives of film’s own electromechanical innovation.  Though mapped against a less world-historical spectrum than Kittler’s return from digital arrays to Gutenberg, nonetheless post-centenary cinema studies—after the 1995 anniversary, and in the full flush of Hollywood’s computer-generated production values—tended at first in a similar direction, finding the late-Victorian past technologically pregnant with its own far future.  Such an approach is inclined to downplay the turn-of-the-century moment in relation to an earlier Victorian seedbed already fertilized for decades before being made available, in part, for avant-garde modernist procedures in their newly automatized viewpoints and overt discrepancies.  Rather, the retroactive template is more likely to reframe early cinema as an experiment in immersive spectacle that was to be merely recapitulated in a new key, a century or so later, by the CGI blockbuster, with its own latter-day subordination of narrative structure to bravura display in a new high-tech “cinema of attraction” (Gunning’s influential term for the earliest non-narrative films, when what first galvanized Victorian attention were “moving pictures” as such—well before what we think of as “movies”).

Emerging since that first-wave of post-1995 commentary, however, and coming at times more directly under the lens of Victorian cultural studies, another path is increasingly being traveled.  For one salutary effect of cross-media analysis in the revival of modernist studies—steeped as it is in the period’s most radical experiments in discontinuous perspective as well as diagnostic objectivity, and thus resisting the explicitly “postmodern” as telos of all technological and representational initiative—has been to shift the gaze of investigation so as to include Victorian visual and literary culture and thus enrich a Long Nineteenth Century perspective on the aesthetic imperative to “make it new.”  With the aesthetic edifices of modernism no longer reduced to the sedimented rubble of a post-modernist stomping ground, the bracing investigations of a self-styled “new modernist studies” return not so much to the period’s ideology of radical innovation (often polemically anti-Victorian) as to its ways and means (often quietly adapted from Victorian technique as well as technology):  a return to the uncovered how rather than the trumpeted why of the century’s multiple turns.

In a literary history of “filmic modernism” in particular, scholarship has moved far beyond such foundational works as Claude-Edmonde Magny’s The Age of the American Novel:  the Film Aesthetic of American Fiction between the Two Wars (1948), where the notion of a montage aesthetic in writers like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos was influentially promulgated.  These arguments are well known even when no longer fully received.  What deserves survey here, instead, is the recent attention given to the cinematic model as framework (more than turning point) in retrieving a sense of modernism’s ongoing urgency from the backward shadows cast by the belating prefix of “postmodern.”  This is an interdisciplinary project that dovetails not only with early cinema studies but, in fact, with the technological paradigms of recent Victorianist criticism, tracking as the latter does certain connections between nineteenth-century fiction, for instance, and such other communication technologies as phonography (Krielkamp), telegraphy (Menke), and of course photography (Armstrong, Green-Lewis, Groth, Novak).  Resisting direct homologies of the sort that would race to detect a modernist lyric or narrative art “written cinematically,” such studies are more inclined to see the imminence of cinema from a multiple vantage in the discursive circuits and technological thematics of late-Victorian representation.

No brief overview of the whole burgeoning field of techno-textuality, with its rethinking of literary practice under the sign of media study, could do more than scratch the surface of its claims, but pertinent samples can offer road marks to certain new directions being staked out and paved forward more patiently than any hasty historiographic catapult to the computer era.  If modernism is in part filmic, in painting as well as writing, Victorian literature is increasingly conceived, along with its art practice, not just as photogenic but also as proto-cinematic.  And by routes that early film itself is not unlikely to register.  As art historian Lynda Nead has noted, cinema was at first drawn back to the Victorian history of pictorial art not only, for instance, with the real-time caricatures done on the Alhambra screen by that first film cartoonist, but, more importantly, with some of the earliest trick films (genre counterparts to the documentary force of the actualités).  These involve magic portraits come alive on film (96-104)—a century before, as it happens, the in-frame animation of oil and newsprint photos in the Harry Potter series.  And these early tricked animations of the painted or sometimes photographed image are derived in part from Victorian fiction’s fascination with uncanny moving portraits (Manion).  On film, replaying up front the artificial animation that projects any and all motion on screen, such dynamizations of plastic form—in allusive interplay across the discernible precincts but eroded borders of distinct graphic media—generate the photomechanical transformations of these portraits as if in a self-enacting form of cinema’s own technological breakthrough: the magic of the framed moving body per se.  This takes place, takes motion, well before any of these moving portraits (within moving pictures) are recruited to anything like whole-hearted narrative formats.  Their early display makes explicit how cinema was at first a gallery of “attractions,” not just “real” but sometimes fantastical, rather than a narrative machine:  a major distinction, and sometimes a vexing crux, in all recent discussion of Victorian cinema.

It was a distinction anticipated, in fact, as early as Robert Paul’s own first month at the Alhambra.  Writing forty years later, he mentions a short film of his surviving only in fragments until, in 2011, a full copy was discovered at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome.  The story of its origin suggests, in Paul’s subsequent account, an urge for fictional narrative, though not yet its structural and rhetorical devices, born almost as the congenital twin of the documentary slice of un-spliced life. For according to Paul, it was “the Alhambra manager, Mr. Moul, who wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder” (emphasis added)—as if to say the human interest of storytelling—and who thus “staged upon the roof a comic scene called The Soldier’s Courtship” (qtd. in McKernan n.p.). The voyeuristic story thus “staged” and filmed by a fixed camera in a single strip might remind us that film historians’ insistence on the “interest” in the “wonder” of the lifelike “attraction” itself, vivid enough at the outset, should not lead us to overlook the latent distinction between spectacle and plot that dawned upon the commercial imagination almost coterminously with the first projector lamp.  Once the “cinema of attraction” had gathered viewers before its kinetic fascinations, the admixture of narrative was a further appealing ingredient, where even the minimal suspense of things told, beyond mere beholding, could hold the audience captive.  And if this is true of a simple wordless romance, it’s equally true of that other perdurable genre of cops and robbers, so that the film Paul had made the year before, in 1895, with photographer Birt Acres, Arrest of a Pickpocket—with its minimal chase and apprehension “plot”—is perhaps a better inaugural candidate for the dubious (since at the time unused) category of British “fiction film.”  (fig. 5: Arrest of a Pickpocket. National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield) Fig 5 Arrest of a Pickpocket (mpg)

Watch there how the minimal action of halted escape and arrest takes place against not just the background of text and image on static posters but alongside a childish drawing—just above and to the right of the pyramid of three struggling figures—that itself seems to operate like a stick-figure cartoon in the uneven flicker and jerk of the projected strip.  The medium begins by drawing, explicitly in this case, on its own prehistory.

In presiding over a terminological shift in the discussion of first cinema—a shift from “primitive” to “early”—institutional film studies wants, understandably, to stress cinema’s early popularity less as embryonic in regard to later narrative developments than as operating within its own aesthetic and its own sphere of reception.  This is meant to impede any facile sense of narrative and editing as the natural goal of projected images.  Such discussion works instead to sketch in a complex picture of inaugural screen practice well before, according to Eisenstein, the manifest Victorian legacy of Dickensian narrative device is taken up by Griffith’s montage (Stewart, Framed 249-266).   But in other ways lately, Victorian precedents, especially the narrative vectors of its most popular literature, are still seen to condition the nature of cinematic expectations and experiments, even if only to be departed from or held in abeyance.  Here the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, building on the film phenomenology of Gilles Deleuze’s two cinema books, is particularly revealing.  In arguing for a dialectical tension between image and temporal sequence at the basis of film form, Rancière backs away from the clear-cut distinction between “attraction” and montage, between sheer image on display and edited storytelling.  Rancière sees the medium as founded, rather, in a reciprocal thwarting of one by the other, the “empty” time of sheer availability to the camera (photogenie) being always in tension with the temporal drive of narrative (and vice versa) even in cinema’s full-blown later forms:  a tension that cannot, as a result, be historicized as clearly as Deleuze does around an earlier regime of perception and movement versus a later (post WWII, and more fully modernist) aesthetic of time, time often held open to inference by held-up action.

On this point the new literary historians of mechanical imaging—a paradoxical job description in any but our current intermedial climate—either weigh in explicitly on cinema or embed a tacit revaluation of it.  This happens, as a rule, accompanied by a tendency to highlight one pole or other of the medium’s spatial (plastic) or temporal (plotted) features, but sometimes includes a concentration instead, and often most productively, on their functional interplay.  According to a general cultural overview like Nancy Armstrong’s, film might be thought to inherit photography’s witness to a world imagined in Victorian fiction as a kaleidoscope of visibilities in an already and thoroughly (such is her argument) pictorialized real.  Put it that, for Armstrong, realist narrative has trained us to think of the world in images—before cinema puts real images to work as narrative.  By way of a related but more exploratory epistemological emphasis, for Michael North (in line with Walter Benjamin’s sense of photography and the “optical unconscious” of ordinary sight to which it gives access), cinema might be understood, continuing on from the single pictographic imprint, as instead a renovation in visibility per se.  The new moving-image medium would therefore appeal to the post-Victorian modernist in the modes of literature, painting, or sculpture not for what it confirmed about the way we “see” (rather than just read) our virtual experience in fiction but for what cinematography reveals to human vision itself, in and beyond realist fiction, that would otherwise go unseen—and that could therefore be recruited for new modes of focus or perspective, or of course fracture and dispersion, in literary rendering.

In a similar vein, according to Susan McCabe’s Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film, the license of such newly skewed angles of vision bears in particular on the gendered and fragmented body, diagnosed in poetry even while manifest in the disruptions of screen technique.  David Trotter, in Cinema and Modernism, thinking more broadly about the foundational optics of projection as literary model (rather than the specifically discursive devices of montage or close up) gravitates, by contrast, to the pre-narrative actualité (or otherwise the non-magical “attraction”) as chief prototype of the new medium.  He stresses the fundamental visibility of the world on film, where the tactical blind spot in the gaze of recorded bodies before the camera is matched by the unblinking neutrality of their filmic capture. Cinema thus approaches more nearly than otherwise possible, by way of a modernist epistemology, to a stringent aesthetics of record without representation.  Derived from the objectif (the camera lens), cinema’s influence on subsequent writing depends primarily, for Trotter, on just this new mode of uninflected retinal attention it allows. In literature as well as machine optics, this is modernism’s deep will-to-automatism.

Both McCabe and Trotter consider in passing my own previous claims for a “photo synthesis” that finds modernist verbal parallels of all sorts, in poetry and prose, to the subliminal rippling of the photogrammatic increment in the self-displacement of the frame advance, with all its blurs and overlaps: as for instance when in 1899 the described radiance of the setting sun in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, once it “sank low,” has the abutting phonemes of that verb phrase fused two words later across the ocular diminution form “glowing” to the barely traceable “without rays” (Between 285).  Even when having nothing to do with the description of a backlit visual horizon, such equivalents are to be found registered not only in the syllabic and syntactic play of Conrad, E.M. Forster, Joyce or Woolf (or, for McCabe, say, of Marianne Moore; or elsewhere for Julian Murphet in Louis Zukofsky), but as far back as the Victorian syllabic ingenuities of Dickens (Stewart, Between 287-88; Framed 249-66).  Or, to cite that text from Stevenson already in evidence, we see there—as near to the dawn of the new medium as 1886—the syntactic (rather than phonemic) “superimposition” that accompanies the degeneration of self into its double with “Yes, I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde” (47). In that self-ratcheting shift of the predicate, a grammatical lap-dissolve (again on the model of Stevenson’s “scroll of lighted pictures,” though at the linguistic rather than ocular level) serves to laminate a transitive mood of the verb upon its parallel intransitive sense, triggering an uncanny conjuration across the adjustments of reflexive grammar itself.  This aspect of proto-cinematic writing, what one might call lexical rather than narrational montage, is explicitly and carefully considered by Trotter before being sidelined by his emphasis on the new medium’s automatic registration rather than its mechanics of projection. Fair enough, given his stress on a willed neutrality rather than a constructed textuality as cinema’s main appeal, if not to modernity at large, at least to modernism.

Fair enough, too, in the ongoing paradigm debates, the desire on Lydia Liu’s part to sidestep cinema altogether in her emphasis on late Joyce as essentially digital (rather than, say, photomechanical) in the oscillations of his lexicon and syntax.  Arguing against my sense in Reading Voices of Joyce’s rippling syllabic wordplay (effects of the sort I later reconsidered in light of the cinematic “flicker effect” in Between Film and Screen), Liu stresses Joyce’s verbal, but “asemantic,” permutations as thoroughly cybernetic.  Represented at opposite poles by Trotter and Liu, such is the difference within modernist studies between perspectives that involve, in part, a rearview mirror trained on the expectations of nineteenth-century literary and image culture and, by contrast, the postmodern template for this same transitional period of the early twentieth century.  It is along one such divide—with Joyce, or elsewhere with Samuel Beckett (see Hugh Kenner’s computer paradigm)—that modernist writing aligns its ventures: either with cinematic automatism or with the artificial intelligence of digital automata.

Yet returning to the contemporaneous modernist rather than postmodernist vantage, and hence to the more nearly cinematic rather than computerized horizons of literary experiment, one finds the intermedial sophistication of these recent studies evident also in the work of Julian Murphet, where the Deleuzian notion of the “affection-image”—associated, for instance, with the narrative close up in Griffith as part of the broader field of the “movement-image” in classic narrative cinema—can be productively read back into the procedures of Victorian poetry (84-88).  Without recourse to Rancière, though in much the same mode of analysis, Murphet finds in Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, in effect, a pre-cinematic tension between opsis and muthos, image and narrative (Rancière’s key dichotomy from Aristotle).  This tension manifests itself climactically when the fixed tableau of the stalled and suffering heroine is stationed over against the temporal melodrama of the adventure plot—and this long before Griffith himself (in 1911) put Tennyson’s narrative (from 1864) on screen.  Here is a new version, within a single verse practitioner at the height of his popular bent, not only of the twin dispensations of Victorian verse, lyric and narrative, but of the longer partisan debate—escalating and increasingly gendered since the Romantics (Felluga)—between the intensities and introspections of poetic form and the narrative relaxations of the novel as upstart and crowd-pleasing genre.

In Multimedia Modernism, given Murphet’s reach forward from a nineteenth-century text into the Bergsonian film theory of Deleuze, such an investigated line of descent—quite apart from the explicit filming of one medium’s work by its inheritor—isolates not the transfer to the screen of a given Victorian plot, here in verse, usually in prose, but the unveiling in retrospect of that earlier work’s textual logistics and their own medial conditions.  With a Deleuzian theory of the moving image and its suspended emphases thus anticipated from within the linguistic tensions of a single pre-cinematic text, Murphet’s approach typifies the most suggestive trajectories of the new cinematographic parameters for literary scholarship. His thinking reflects with a comparatist precision on the founding planar rectangle of cinema and its progeny, the “Animatograph” by any other name, as the scene of what Lyotard (unmentioned) called a pictographic “writing with movement” (57).  Such work thus probes more deeply than would a straightforward Victorian narrative-into-film analysis in the older mode of adaptation study.  When, that is, narrative verses from the Victorian laureate become a filmed poem in cinematic prose—and this only by tapping a formal counterpoint revealed there in the metered language of Tennyson’s structural logic to begin with—an instructive mix of paradigms, theoretical as well as historical, is in play and at stake.

Here and before, then, the real thrust of this entry has not just been to point forward and back by turns from an 1896 flashpoint in representational history.  Rather, it has been to follow out the increasingly prominent feedback loop between media in the circuits of interdisciplinary thinking. We have noted what film editing borrowed from literary narrative once cinema turned from sheer optic display to plot, and what philosophy and theory have in turn responded to and clarified about film in both aspects.  In literary study, the effort of such theorizing has lately worked to understand how both cinematic functions together, imaging and narrating, do in fact instruct us not just about the same Victorian stories and poems on which film cut its (sprocket) teeth, but about what certain resistant modernist texts themselves learned to find in—and found to learn from—those other and underlying material aspects of cinema that fall through the cracks of narrative syntax.  These include not just the separate objectivities of imaging per se in the framed glimpse of people and things but, one level down, the racing difference and bridged fissures between self-eclipsing photo frames in the cellular chain of the image track, where the slipstream of image bits—to sustain the literary comparison—operates at a scale more alphabetic than grammatical, sub-narrative entirely.

In this way the two aspects of cinema, showing and telling, are recognized by analogy in—and later responded to by—works of literature, not as phases in a technological development, let alone a progress, but as alternate facets of a temporal continuity now recorded, now differentially constructed. Here medial comparisons invite exactly the kind of scrutiny whose call has been widely, if variously answered by the new writing focused not only on cinema’s abiding aesthetic fallout in modernism but also on its long Victorian foreshadow.  At least one pattern is clear amid the crossfire of arguments: for its theories of depiction and reception in the modernist moment, as well as for a fuller picture of the period’s narrative innovations, literary theory is going to the movies as never before.

Garrett Stewart, James O. Freedman Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa, is the author of four books on nineteenth-century British fiction, including Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction (2009), winner of the 2011 George and Barbara Perkins Prize from the International Society for the Study of Narrative, and two books on cinema, most recently Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema (2007). He has followed his 2006 The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text with a companion study, Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art (2011).  He was elected in 2010 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

 

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Stewart, Garrett. “Curtain Up on Victorian Popular Cinema; Or, The Critical Theater of the Animatograph.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

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