THE ENVELOPE FROM THE MELLON Foundation languished in Tom Gunning’s mailbox for days, maybe even a week. Last year Gunning served as Chair of Cinema and Media Studies, and he was too busy to check his departmental mailbox very often.
When he opened the letter, “I couldn’t figure it out,” says Gunning: “‘You’ve been awarded…blah blah.’ I thought, I didn’t apply for this.” He handed it to Martha Ward, Chair of Art History, who was standing behind him. “She looked at it and began screaming, ‘Woo! Woo! You hit the jackpot!’”
One of the nation’s leading film historians and theorists of early cinema, Gunning had received a Distinguished Achievement Award, which provides as much as $1.5 million jointly to an individual scholar and his or her institution. He is using the grant—which honors scholars who have made significant contributions in the humanities—to pursue “Poetics of the Moving Image.” The heterogeneous project encompasses early cinema and magic, moving images and poetic images in literature, the history and stylistics of the detective genre in film, and the use and meaning of scientific footage. The grant will also subsidize a visiting professorship, graduate student research, and conferences on such topics as “Cinema and Magic” and “The Optical Uncanny.”
Gunning is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College. A member of the Chicago faculty since 1996 and a 1998 Guggenheim fellow, he has authored more than 100 works on film history, including D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (1991).
In late summer, Gunning spoke with Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93, from his home in Hyde Park. Here are excerpts from that interview.
It’s wall-to-wall books in here, but you still have books on the floor, books on the chairs. Do you read them all? I certainly read more than 100 books a year. There’s always the fantasy that when you get to the desert island or when you become a political prisoner, you’ll get to them all. So send everyone to jail. And start with me.
Are you fascinated by books as objects? Does this fit with your interest in technology? I’m mainly interested in older technology, mainly displaced technology. I don’t think it is nostalgic. I’m not saying I don’t have any nostalgia. But I’m not one of those people who only likes things that are gone. I’m very interested in the way that the past leads to the future. I don’t mean that in a sense of “progress,” because I even prefer nostalgia to the myth of progress.
There’s this quote that I often inflict on my students, that I heard from a Romanian scholar under Ceauşescu, the last Stalinist government that would rewrite history every morning: “The future is what we put our faith in, because the past is always changing and is so unreliable.” Although for them it was a joke about government policy, for me it’s a profound statement about history. History keeps on changing; our image of the past transforms.
How did you make your way into film studies from art history? I didn’t. I’m a film person—my PhD is in film studies, in the first program of that at NYU. When I got hired at Chicago, film wasn’t a department, it was a committee, and I had to choose a departmental affiliation—either English, where Miriam Hansen [Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in Humanities] was, or Art History. I chose Art History, because I actually like to think about film as visual, as images. I often feel its connection to art history is underdeveloped. And I never took a course in art history, so I love telling people I am a Professor of Art History.
Do you feel taken seriously in film studies, at the University and more broadly? No. It’s still a struggle. And I’m not sure it won’t always be a struggle. I sometimes think it’s generational. I don’t think it ever occurs to younger people that film is not an art form.
When I first came to Chicago, I was talking to someone in History—I won’t mention the name. I said, “I’m kind of a historian. I’m a film historian.” And he said, “Hah! And that makes you a historian?”
"Everybody has a different year for when cinema was invented."
Do you remember the first movie you ever saw? Yes—Escape from Fort Bravo (1953). I remember the scene where a group of cavalrymen are crawling through the desert, and Indians are shooting at them. My memory was literally a shower of arrows. I thought later, I’m sure that was my kid memory. But it came on television, and sure enough, it was almost exactly the way I remembered it.
But you always wonder what’s the “first” of anything. Because I work with early film, there always used to be this habit of [trying to identify] “the first close-up” and so on. And I tell my students, no one will use that word in this class, because we don’t know. You could say “the first you’ve seen,” or “the earliest one that’s being discussed” but to say “the first” doesn’t work, even with your own memory.
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Do you watch movies for fun? Are you able to stop working and have the escapist experience? Do I ever turn my brain off? Certainly, but that’s probably when I watch the news. I really do enjoy movies. I go for the pleasure. Avant-garde movies are pleasurable to me. Sometimes that pleasure is not a massage. It’s a real challenge and it’s difficult.
This is something that you encounter, particularly among undergraduates: “I don’t want to take your course, because I want to just have fun at the movies, and you’re going to ruin the fun.” But I would say, “If I ruin some type of fun, I’m going to give you another type.”
How do you define early cinema? It is an interesting question. I actually cofounded an organization 20 years ago for the study of early film, called Domitor, and we had to define it. We came up with a way that defined it historically but made the dates squishy: “cinema from its invention to World War I.” Everybody has a different year for when cinema was invented. Most of it’s around 1895, but it could be as early as 1889. World War I is also nicely ambiguous, because it’s 1917 in America, 1914 in Europe.
Film is different after World War I. What most people think of as a movie—the feature film, around 90 minutes—did not exist until about 1913. Before that, films were very short. The period 1913 to 1917 is also when the film palace begins to appear. Up until about 1912, film theaters are small. The nickelodeon is the model.
And then, demographically—and here I’m talking about America—the middle class began coming. Up until 1912, movies were primarily seen by working-class audiences. There was a lot of concern by reformers that movies were harmful. In 1908, the mayor of New York shut all the nickelodeons, because they were deleterious to the morals of the audience. Between 1908 and 1912, middle-class people began to go to the movies a little bit, but no upper-middle-class person would be caught dead—unless they had decided to go slumming. Finally, in 1914 you get the first movie stars: Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.
There’s also another very big thing: very early cinema, particularly up until 1908, is very international. If you went to a nickelodeon in Chicago in 1906, probably half the films would be French.
What are these early films like? Everyone assumes movies tell stories. But when movies first appeared, partly because they were so brief, that was not the case. I use this phrase, “the cinema of attractions,” to emphasize the visual spectacle and display. That’s not contradictory to storytelling. A film like Avatar (2009) is a perfect example. What’s good in it is the cinema of attractions. But it couldn’t exist without a story, partly because it’s very difficult to have an audience sit for two hours without a story. So that kind of attraction, and brevity, I find aesthetically very interesting. It’s not as though that disappears, though—it gets absorbed into Hollywood cinema, or else many years later reappears on YouTube.
When I began studying early film, everybody said the story of early film is how it began to tell stories. But I was interested in what came before that. When I was a graduate student, a senior film scholar asked me, “Why are you interested in films when they were the least interesting?” And I said, “Are you asking me why I have more fun at the movies than you do?”
So with YouTube, have we all become early cinema-goers again? I think so.
"I’m not a television fan. Television doesn’t have a strong visual presence."
I don’t want to digress too much, but have you seen Mad Men? The quick answer is, for the first time this Sunday. I’m not a television fan. Television doesn’t have a strong visual presence. I’ve only seen one episode, so I don’t want to pontificate on it, but I can immediately see the influence of Douglas Sirk, a filmmaker from the 1950s, in the color schemes. Usually television is pretty boring to look at. And this is definitely rather interesting.
What are you going to use the Mellon award for? I call it “The Poetics of the Moving Image.” I’m very interested in storytelling, but movement is to me the first thing. Why is movement interesting, visually? I’m trying to conceive what this medium is, both historically and theoretically. I have some subissues as well: film and poetry, film and science—breaking down the idea that film is always a story. Finally, I wanted the Mellon to fund things that it might be difficult to find funding for, like an event I had at the Getty [Museum] this past spring. It wasn’t a conference. It was not about presenting papers. It was a group of about 20 people—a magician, filmmakers, a couple of graduate students—just talking and playing with these toys.
I’d also like to try professorial vaudeville. Have everyone do a ten-minute act. The thing I realize is, none of them would do ten minutes. I’d be in this horrible position of being—
The man with the cane? Yes. Like on The Gong Show.
Besides devouring books and watching films, Tom Gunning is fascinated by early visual technology. Here are some of his favorites.
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1 | Magic lantern A very early image projector, first developed in the 1600s. By the mid-1800s, two slides with similar images were being projected at the same time: “If you switch them fast enough, it looks like movement,” says Gunning.
2 | Zoetrope Optical toy with a series of pictures on the inner surface of a cylinder. When the pictures are rotated and viewed through a slit, it looks like motion. “A contemporary animator named Jodie Mack made this one,” says Gunning of his zoetrope. “The magic lantern is a little more complex. I don’t know of anyone today who’s creating new work for magic lanterns.”
3 | Chromatrope Similar to a kaleidoscope, but lit from behind by a magic lantern. “It would have been projected on a screen or a wall, either at home or in a theater.”
4 | Stereoscope In stereoscopic photography, two images shot from slightly different angles are viewed at the same time to create the illusion of three dimensions. “It’s like a Viewmaster—that’s the kid’s version of it,” says Gunning. “In the nineteenth century, most photographs were stereographs, but it lost favor. With a lot of famous photographs from that period, only one is shown today. You don’t know it’s part of a double.”
5 | Flip book A book with a series of images that vary gradually from one page to the next. When the pages are turned rapidly, the images appear to move. “In Germany they call them thumb-cinemas: Daumenkinos.”
Still curious? Read Tom Gunning’s scholarship
“An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator,” Film Theory: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, edited by Philip Simpson, Andrew Utterson, and Karen J. Shepherdson (2004).
“‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions,” The Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (2004).