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Body Shots

Body Shots: Early Cinema’s Incarnations

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 214
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  • Book Info
    Body Shots
    Book Description:

    This original and compelling book places the body at the center of cinema's first decade of emergence and challenges the idea that for early audiences, the new medium's fascination rested on visual spectacle for its own sake. Instead, as Jonathan Auerbach argues, it was the human form in motion that most profoundly shaped early cinema. Situating his discussion in a political and historical context, Auerbach begins his analysis with films that reveal striking anxieties and preoccupations about persons on public display—both exceptional figures, such as 1896 presidential candidate William McKinley, and ordinary people caught by the movie camera in their daily routines. The result is a sharp, unique, and groundbreaking way to consider the turn-of-the-twentieth-century American incarnation of cinema itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94119-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Body, Movement, Space
    (pp. 1-12)

    Judging from the title, you might assume this will be a book about boxing, one of the first and most popular subjects of moving pictures during the 1890s.¹ Or maybe you could expect a broader genre study that examines a range of athletic activities captured by early cinema—dancing, juggling, tumbling, fencing, marching, and so on. Marcel Mauss called such daily routines “body techniques,” which he endeavored to classify ethnologically according to various cultural practices.² Such a generic approach has potential, but my interest lies elsewhere. Shifting from subject matter to theme, we might explore these early moving images of...


    • 1 Looking In: McKinley at Home
      (pp. 15-41)

      Let us begin by looking at a singular body, with important implications for the body politic: the president of the United States. William McKinley was the first U.S. presidential candidate to be filmed, appearing on-screen within six months after the earliest projected moving images had been commercially exhibited in the United States. Depicting McKinley campaigning near the end of the decisive 1896 election, the film inaugurated a long-standing intimacy between politics and cinema in twentieth-century America that would culminate in the presidency of the actor Ronald Reagan.¹ William McKinley was also the first U.S. president whose funeral appeared on film,...

    • 2 Looking Out: Visualizing Self-Consciousness
      (pp. 42-62)

      After the criminal Czolgosz is strapped into the electric chair, before the current is switched on to surge through his body, the prison guards in Edison’s filmed 1901 reenactment (and presumably in the real event) pause to blindfold the assassin. As Foucault remarks, the practice of veiling the condemned that began a century before marks a key turning point in the history of public executions: “The condemned man was no longer to be seen. Only the reading of the sentence on the scaffold announced the crime—and that crime must be faceless. (The more monstrous a criminal was, the more...

    • Interlude: The Vocal Gesture Sounding the Origins of Cinema
      (pp. 63-82)

      Cinema is surely one of the most overdetermined of technologies, emerging in the 1890s from a wide array of prior cultural practices. To devise an archaeology of the medium, we can trace a long history of projected moving images, such as magic lantern shows, with the decisive difference residing in cinema’s photographic realism. Or if we choose to emphasize cinema’s grounding in still photography, the key distinction becomes motion itself. Another lineage links cinema to stage, contrasting the presence of live theater to the disembodied virtuality of the screen. Even as they offer different points of departure, all three of...


    • 3 Chasing Film Narrative
      (pp. 85-103)

      A certain kind of early movie, circa 1903: A man, perhaps impatient for something to happen or perhaps reacting to something already happening, begins running. Others follow after him, until all figures exit the frame, one by one. The action is repeated in the next shot, and then again, and then again, shot after shot showing a man and his pursuers running over hill and dale, from one scene to another. The chase proves immensely popular, and so it is imitated or copied or reproduced by other filmmakers, until one sues another for copyright infringement. The legal case raises important...

    • 4 Windows 1900; or, Life of an American Fireman
      (pp. 104-123)

      It may be a truism to say that “all media were once new media,” but if so, it is a truism exasperatingly difficult to keep in mind.¹ It is one thing to recall that it took a full twenty years for Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which he intended to serve as a dictation device for businessmen, to achieve its primary function as a machine for musical entertainment, or that for two decades radio’s first enthusiasts were convinced it was perfect for two-way communication rather than for unilateral broadcast, the function it gradually came to acquire in the 1920s. But it is...

  8. Conclusion: The Stilled Body
    (pp. 124-136)

    What happens when the body stops moving? Death may be the mother of beauty, as Wallace Stevens wrote, but it does not seem a promising subject for early cinema, which was premised on corporeal movement. Yet a quick glance at the films discussed in my previous chapters reveals the surprising number of moments, virtually from the new medium’s inception, when stasis, unconsciousness, and death punctuate the flow of motion pictures: McKinley pausing to read a telegram, those multiple state funeral processions with his slain presidential body at the center but hidden from view, the graphic execution of the assassin Czolgosz...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 137-178)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-194)
  11. Index
    (pp. 195-200)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)