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The West in Early Cinema

The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning

Nanna Verhoeff
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    The West in Early Cinema
    Book Description:

    Verhoeff investigates the emergence of the western genre, made in the first two decades of cinema (1895-1915). By analyzing many unknown and forgotten films from international archives she traces the relationships between films about the American West, their surrounding films, and other popular media such as photography, painting, (pulp) literature, Wild West Shows and popular ethnography. Through this exploration of archival material she raises new questions of historiography and provides a model for historical analysis. These first traces of the Western film reveal a preoccupation with presence and actuality that informs us about the way in which film, as new medium, took shape within the context of its contemporary visual culture. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0974-4
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-8)
  3. Note
    (pp. 9-10)
  4. A After the Beginning
    (pp. 11-22)

    Do you remember those films with cowboys and Indians, captures and chases, mountains and rivers, guns and arrows, that we call ʺthe Westernʺ? In contrast to the passage quoted in the first epigraph, which calls these films ʺthe latest of fashions,ʺ for us, today, the Western is old, yet far from disappearing. The genre so firmly associated with early America has in fact, according to some critics, been enjoying a postmodern comeback.³ These mirrored situations across a century call into question common-sense historical linearity. If this book is devoted to theearlyWestern, it is in order to understand how...

  5. 1. After-effects

    • [1. Introduction]
      (pp. 23-24)

      Each chapter in this first cluster presents aspects of features that characterize the films of my corpus by default, in their difference, that is, by todayʹs standards, which tend to consider them ʺawkward,ʺ aspects that seem incomplete, inauthentic, and ambiguous. Since matters of alterity demand cautious questioning of the ʺselfʺ in relation to whom the other is different, it is this difference that is the starting point for the questions I will raise in the following chapters. Historical difference is, on the one hand, an anachronistic projection because of the reversed perspective inherent in looking back at the past. On...

    • B Bits & Pieces
      (pp. 25-44)

      How, then, to write the history of this corpus? In this chapter I discuss this key question of method. In the Archive of the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam,Bits & Piecesis the term used in the catalogue to refer to fragments rather than allegedly complete films. This notion of bits & pieces can serve to set up the conceptualization of cinema as a representation of theotherseen through the eyes of aself– modern urban culture – subjected to fragmentation due to modernity. In other words, the name used today – Bits & Pieces – becomes a metaphor for the most...

    • C City Limits
      (pp. 45-54)

      Let us now turn to yet another, paradoxical, characteristic of early Westerns: their roots in urban life. My argument in this chapter is that the Western was the creation of the Westʹs opposite: not the East as ageographicallocation, but the city as thediscursivelocation of ʺusʺ which produces the myth of its Other, ʺthem.ʺ This discourse of opposition may be clearly seen in reviews of films, whether on the level of their content (stories about the West as opposite of East) or of reception (the alleged reasons for judgments). Reports about Eastern, urban ʺnaïvetéʺ in the evaluation...

    • D Deconstructing the Other
      (pp. 55-76)

      Lest we take a condescending view of this early form of theothering,a view that so plagues our present cultural moment, the other side of the coin needs exploration. For, if the us/them discourse may betray an impulse that runs counter to the documentary ambition to represent the West, this does not mean that it is completely successful in its compulsion to othering. Within many films there is a kind of internal, self-defeating logic at play, which undermines its own othering. In this chapter, I will look at the way this self-deconstruction operates by looking at the integration of...

    • E Easterns
      (pp. 77-95)

      In addition to the cultural and racial othering we have witnessed in previous chapters, there is a third, less obvious, but perhaps even more crucial element in the tension inherent in representation of the West. This tension concerns the Westernʹs nature as an historical representation. What will become central in this chapter is a conflation of ʺfarʺ and ʺlong ago,ʺ two forms of remoteness that underlie the representation of the past as metaphorically embodied in the idea of the West. Concretely, I am referring to the paradoxical phenomenon of the historical Western. The histories of the 17th and 18th centuries...

    • F Facts and Fictions
      (pp. 96-107)

      By 1912 the press had demonstrated a keen and sophisticated awareness of the meaning of ʺthe Westʺ in American modern culture. Read, for example, the following almost philosophical musing:

      There was a West worth knowing. There is a West better worth knowing. Those who were there thirty years ago understand what this means. Those who have been there recently understand full well that the present is quite as seriously misunderstood as the time long since passed. The West is a state of mind which requires adjustment, no matter whether the author is indulging in reminiscence or is reproducing facts which...

    • G Genre
      (pp. 108-126)

      It has become clear enough, in the five different challenges to the long-held notion that the Western equals the classical Hollywood genre, that, when searching in film archives for Westerns made before World War I, the variety of films found demonstrates that many different readings of what we now call Westerns are possible and that different markers of the West are variably activated by different films. As a consequence, it is not so obvious which films we would classify as Westerns and why we see them as belonging to this genre.

      In the collection of the Filmmuseum, for example, a...

  6. 2. Coincidences

    • [2. Introduction]
      (pp. 127-128)

      In the following chapters, I discuss what characterizes the films in my corpus not so much in terms of their paradoxical features or non-features, but in terms of the underlying philosophical ambiance, which I see as a result of the moment in history marked by the coincidence of the disappearance of the wild West and the invention of the Wild West. This moment generates a phase in film history in which the invention of moving pictures as a technology leads to the birth of the medium of cinema.

      Historiography is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the ambition to ʺreconstructʺ the past...

    • H History Lessons
      (pp. 129-147)

      Is it true that no one goes to a Western for a history lesson? Perhaps one should. It might be a good idea, if only to ponder how the relationship between past and present changes over time. Historical distance seems to have transformed the historical West into a mythical West. This mythification as an after-effect of time happens to occur in parallel to the process of development of the genreʹs own representation of the West. But, like cinematic genres and forms, myth is an unstable, as well as fictionalizing structure. One could see myth as a continuous process of negotiating...

    • I Instant Nostalgia
      (pp. 148-156)

      The sentiment discussed in this chapter was born from the interweaving of three pairs of simultaneously occurring cultural happenings that bear on the meaning of Westerns.

      First, there is a sense of simultaneity between the present-future and the recent past, or to be more precise, the present-future and the present-past. Modernity, the present but experienced as inherently future-oriented, is on its way in. The past, the recent past in particular, is still around – in the present – but is on its way out, officially declared dead at the closure of the frontier in 1890, but possibly, hopefully, recoupable in...

    • J Jeopardy
      (pp. 157-174)

      We have seen that my speculations in the opening chapter have turned out to be relevant not only in theory, but also in the practice of analyzing early cinema: as in the popular American television game showJeopardy!,in which contestants have to ask the questions that correspond with answers provided (instead of the other way around), historians have to pose their questionsafterthe ʺanswers,ʺ the historical bits & pieces, have been found. The consequences of this situation are many and varied. At this point, therefore, a historiographic intermezzo seems called for. The problem of ʺearlyʺ can now be addressed...

    • K Kaleidoscopic Worlds
      (pp. 175-187)

      The film Buffalo Billʹs Wild West Parade produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (AM&B) shows the entrance of Buffalo Billʹs Wild West Show into New York, on April 1st, 1901. The parade attracts a great many spectators. On the old, black-and-white images we find almost a century later in the film archive, in the first seconds it is difficult to distinguish who belongs to the public and who to the show. The people in the street walk along with the parade, accompanying the figures from the show, a cortege of horsemen marching through the image, making their way...

    • L Landscapes
      (pp. 188-206)

      The kaleidoscopic structure of both programs and films of the mediumʹs early deployment, is especially visible in the element that, like a kaleidoscopic vision, shows itself asimage,not narrative. I mean the element that most centrally characterizes the Western, so much so that the genre derives its name from it: thelandscape.The Western land we see: is that really a land, or a manipulated image we are presented with on the basis of theas ifstructure that characterizes fiction? If the latter is the case, as inescapably we must assume, then the questions arise: what manipulations underlie...

    • M Modernities
      (pp. 207-220)

      The plural of this chapter title is, of course, programmatic. Rather than coming up with yet another philosophy of, or even just another statement on what constitutes modernity, I will sketch three areas in which a notion of modernity plays itself out in direct relation to my corpus. But the plural must be taken as programmatic in another sense as well. To foreground the emphasis in my study on the concrete, material cultural objects under scrutiny,modernitiesis also meant as parallel to the wordantiquities,indicating not the ʺspirit of the times,ʺ but the objects that we cherish, today,...

  7. 3. Strategies

    • N Narrativity
      (pp. 223-235)

      The larger question of narrativity in the films of my corpus raises a number of subsidiary issues. Each of the chapters in this cluster on semiotic strategies are devoted to one of them. This chapter addresses the presentation, the representation, or rather, in a specifying combination of these two, theshowingandtellingof the West. The tension between narrative movements in the plot and the fabula does not bear comparison with the kind of harmony between these that we take for ʺnaturalʺ in – or in the case of more experimental, post-modern films as a background for – present-day...

    • O Old Timers
      (pp. 236-249)

      Narrativity has mostly been studied in narrative texts from the literary tradition. Strategies such as appeal to identification, suspense, and attraction have been considered major elements in the ʺliterarinessʺ of literature. At the same time, these strategies have been alleged to explain the specific popularity of non-aesthetic, mass literature called, precisely, ʺpopularʺ (Cawelti 1976; Denning 1987; Bold 1987). This double agenda is no coincidence. It points to the way in which mass literature and, by extension, our films, are mediators between cultural domains that tend to be artificially separated: ʺhigh art,ʺ ʺpopular culture.ʺ Such a trans-artistic status change is not...

    • P Picture Postcards
      (pp. 250-269)

      To continue the exploration of the relations between narrative and its neighbors: On the other side of narrativity, pictorialdisplayis a counterforce to the moving aspect of the new medium. It remains to be seen, however, if it counters both senses of that qualifier. For if display stops the movement of the narrative that so characterizes the moving image, it can move the spectator just as much as can the gripping speed, suspense, and sensation of the fabula. In an earlier chapter, I suggested how the West could be primarily represented through the landscape that characterized it in the...

    • Q Questioning Categories
      (pp. 270-281)

      Throughout this study so far, I have been questioning the categories upon which film history, and specifically, the history of a genre such as the Western, is predicated. In that endeavor, I have systematically considered all those features of my corpus that an evolutionist concept of ʺthe Westernʺ inevitably, by virtue of its own logic, would compel historians to consider as flaws, imperfections: signs of ʺearlyʺ as a lack of sophistication and development. Hoping to counter such a logic, the remedy I have been advocating has been to take any such features as defining the emerging genre, rather than hindering...

    • R Riding the Wilderness
      (pp. 282-295)

      Travel was the modern practice; a railroad system the material production that made it possible; settlement the socio-political result. In between, the railroad as sign and material object became the focus of fascination. All those who remained in the East gained cultural access – through films, among other cultural activities – to the vanishing point of the perspective that the railroads opened up. That gaining, having, and using access: That, too, is a cultural practice, and visual culture thrived on the fascination with that rather suddenly emerging access. Behind the imaginary vanishing point lay the equally imaginary wilderness against which...

    • S Spectacle
      (pp. 296-307)

      Once the train stops, either held-up or crashed, the type scenes discussed so far in this cluster congeal in a suspension of movement. Narrative yields to vistas of the wilderness destroyed and mourned. Sensation is intensified in such moments, as the viewer is seduced on the two most attractive levels of filmic pleasure: suspense that makes the heart beat faster, and a natural scenery whose beauty recalls its absence in the urban setting in which the viewing takes place. Sensation is doubled at the moment that the medium is most acutely confronted with its paradoxical position between narrative movement and...

    • T Time Travel
      (pp. 308-324)

      We are not finished yet with the thematics of travel. Central to my case here are again the films about, made from, and using trains, discussed in R, but here they are considered as part of a larger category of films, all thematizing travel as an activity of modern life. Travel is used as a strategy to keep medium and theme integrated, to the greater enjoyment of the urban viewer who is fully aware of the possibilities beyond his armchair. In previous chapters I discussed the fine line between travelogue and fiction film, as one case out of many where...

  8. 4. Practices

    • [4. Introduction]
      (pp. 325-326)

      In this final cluster of chapters I will consider the cultural practices that already began to shimmer through the strategies of representation and cultural intervention discussed in cluster 3. In cluster 1, the background from which to make a case for the specificity of the corpus and the ensuing plea for a more adequate historical approach was introduced by way of an emphatic and self-conscious positioning of the researcher in the present. In cluster 2, the contemporary ʺfeelingsʺ that most profoundly explain the success of the films as well as their inevitable ʺstrangenessʺ to us today, were presented as an...

    • U Universal Ambition
      (pp. 327-344)

      From travel films, this chapter shifts to traveling films: to the ʺuniversal ambitionʺ implied in making films travel. This is the ambition of grasping the world by camera and collecting, then displaying in traveling programs, these moving world pictures. In a first outward movement, the camera traveled in order to document, to grasp the world ʺuniversally.ʺ In the second, inward movement, the films that were produced by that ambition were brought ʺhomeʺ to the collectorʹs archive. In a third, outward movement, they traveled from there to many places to show the world what the world looked like. Together, these three...

    • V Virtual Museums
      (pp. 345-360)

      InMoving Picture Worldan advertisement appeared for Kalemʹs The Red Manʹs Way (1907) on behalf of George Kleineʹs Optical Company. The text of this ad, quoted as epigraph here, shows the explicit promotional strategy. This strategy emphasizes the ʺmusealʺ aspect of the film. It mentions that the props are ʺgenuine,ʺ the details ʺaccurate,ʺ and the scenery ʺbeautiful.ʺ As if to prove the authenticity of these elements, and thereby to legitimize the production, their provenance – from a ʺfamous collectionʺ – is cited. This is significant for an understanding of film as cultural practice. It points to what I would...

    • W Wild West Show
      (pp. 361-375)

      As we have seen, Buffalo Billʹs presence at the 1893 Worldʹs Columbian Exposition in Chicago was significant for the phenomenon that concerns us. As a show within this exhibition, it offers an emblematic example of the practice of showing that is so characteristic of the culture at the time. More specifically, his show there can be seen as a practice that mediated between two ʺsubgenresʺ or variants of showing, between the longer-term museal spectacle that was the Worldʹs Exposition, but then devoted to the globe in its entirety, and the punctual spectacular show that, within that framework, represented that part...

    • X X-Rated
      (pp. 376-389)

      Childrenʹs play is not only envied, admired, and celebrated, but also the site where culture is most vulnerable. There is always a touch of danger when children are involved: the dangers of ʺbad influenceʺ of film and/or dime novels that threaten both when they show and when they tell popular fictions of the Wild West. In the previous chapter I analyzed the ʺplayʺ aspect of putting on a show, playing a role, and imitating adventures and tricks. Here, the focus will be slightly different, but only a small step away from ʺplay.ʺ The focus is now on the practice of...

    • Y Young Wild Women
      (pp. 390-403)

      The issues mapped out in this chapter, which is the last analytical one, serve to take or tie up one important loose end left in a number of earlier chapters. It concerns the tension between stereotyping and the inherent self-deconstruction thereof. For example, in R type scenes were related to the visual possibilities of the medium and its place in modernity. In M different meanings and manifestations of modernity were laid out. In C and D constructions of self and other were discussed in terms of representation, of space and of agents, respectively. In J the focus was on inherently...

    • Z Zooming In, Zapping, Zooming Out
      (pp. 404-412)

      What I have done in this study is make several moves between zapping and zooming.Zappingstands for the fragmentation, the speed, and the lack of unity in, and between, the films: in the programming, the spectacle, the panorama, the tensions between various strategies, such as display and narrative. It stands, in short, for the kaleidoscopic view that I have tried to construct of early Westerns as a cultural moment.Zoomingrefers to the detailed attention to concrete films whose informative interaction with more general historical and methodological problematics is the key that has opened, for me, the door to...

  9. List of illustrations
    (pp. 413-414)
  10. Filmography
    (pp. 415-426)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 427-454)
  12. Index
    (pp. 455-460)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 461-462)