Movie Musings: Is cinema making a spectacle of itself?

By Kezia Tooby

Tom Gunning coined the term ‘the cinema of attractions’ in his 1986 essay ‘The Cinema of Attractions, Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’. Gunning considers early film, pre-1906, to be an attraction primarily due to the use of new and exciting technology, the main thrill for audiences was the abilities of the camera; film was not a storytelling device but a technological marvel. In Edison’s Brooklyn Bridge (1899) the camera moves along a railway track highlighting the miraculous nature of the train and the camera. Hale’s Tours perhaps took the idea of film as an attraction the most literally by actually offering audiences of the films a seat in a train car in a theatre and adding sound effects to authenticate the ‘ride’ on a train. The films shown were views from moving vehicles which added to the whole experience, there were no narrative considerations whatsoever.

Although most early films didn’t have a narrative, trick films such as Melies’ Voyage dans la lune (1902) did have a story of sorts. According to Gunning however “the story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema”. The spectators of these films were active and engaged rather than passive, they were aware of the illusion and actively sought it out; the films offered it transparently. Shots featured many things meaning the audience had to rapidly scan the busy image unlike classic narrative viewing where we gaze and are almost hypnotised. Looks to the camera by actors acknowledging the audience were often seen in the cinema of attractions, anything to grab the attention of the spectator.

The illusion of film at that time was in the technology not in a constructed fictional world, like that of narrative cinema, where it is easy to believe we are voyeurs looking in on other people’s lives. However, there are many similarities between early films of the ‘cinema of attractions’ and the narrative films of today, particularly the Hollywood Blockbuster. Computer generated imagery, CGI, infiltrated film in the 1980s and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) epitomised this new technology. It demonstrated many breakthrough visual effects, such as the T1000 morphing sequences, by incorporating human movement with CGI. The intricacy of these effects set a new standard for special effects within films. T2 reflected the new technologies of the screen and the modern in 1991 just as Brooklyn Bridge did in 1899. Terminator 2 enjoyed an incredible reception, amongst other accolades it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but as we get used to computer animation the novelty wears off and we need something even more spectacular to attract our attention. Of course Terminator 2 has a strong narrative, it is not merely about the spectacle, but it shows the inception of the blockbuster film – a genre which is persistently attempting to create a new spectacle; a new magical illusion.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) reflects this relationship between early cinema and contemporary Hollywood cinema in two ways. Firstly, as it is based on a ride at a Disney theme park it is very literally linked to an attraction. In the early 1900s theme parks and attractions became a popular activity with the emergence of Coney Island parks, such as Steeplechase Park and Luna Park, offering people an escape from reality. This was happening at the same time as early film was developing and it is thought by many that these amusement parks directly influenced early film. Secondly, Pirates of the Caribbean is a spectacle unto itself. Industrial Light & Magic, who worked on T2, developed staggering special effects that showed the world a group of pirates who were revealed to be skeletons in the moonlight in a believable and realistic way. The scene harks back to Ray Harryhausen’s famous skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but it utilises modern technology and offers the audience a never-been-seen-before spectacle. The film was not expected to be such a hit and was a big risk for the studio, which did not have much faith in the pirate genre, and so the film relied on the spectacle of the special effects and showing everybody a world far away from our own. But what about the story?

One begins to wonder how much thought is put into the story in terms of a ‘good’ story rather than the story merely being a means of stringing the spectacle together. Warren Buckland states in his 1998 essay ‘Notes on narrative aspects of the New Hollywood blockbuster’ that “Many critics argue that, in comparison with Old Hollywood, New Hollywood films are not structured in terms of psychologically motivated cause-and-effect narrative logic, but in terms of loosely-linked, self-sustaining action sequences often built around spectacular stunts, stars and special effects. Complex character traits and character development, they argue, have been replaced by one-dimensional stereotypes, and plot-lines are now devised almost solely to link one action sequence to the next. Narrative complexity is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle. Narration is geared solely to the effective presentation of expensive effects.”

Transformers (2007) took special effects to the next level and was only feasible due to advances in technology, again ILM were involved. The robots looked real and that was the most important thing, if the robots did not look believable then the film would be a disaster. The story is not particularly bad, although it is not great, but the visual spectacle is the strongest and most impressive part of this film and is the true attraction. Would people have gone to see this film if it had been the same story minus the fact that retro toys have been computer animated, updated and impressively integrated into the ‘real’ world? I doubt it. The fact is it was offering something new and exciting, a new spectacle that demonstrated our latest and greatest technology. Perhaps the reason why many were disappointed with the second film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) was because they had already seen the spectacle in the first film (of course it could also have been because it was over an hour too long). People continuously want to see what can be done with new technology and nothing demonstrates this more than the emergence of 3D and the popularity of Avatar (2009).

At the moment 3D is the latest technological craze that has turned films into an event, just as watching a camera move with a moving vehicle while sitting in a train carriage and listening to train sound effects was in the Hale’s Tours. The exhibition of film has once again become a significant focus with presentation technologies developing so that digital 3D projectors are prevalent and audiences can wear glasses in order to experience the 3D effect. Yet again going to the cinema has become more of an attraction where people are actively viewing, they are engaged just like they were at the cinema of attractions. Gunning believes “the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle- a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself”.

When hearing people discuss Avatar I have found it has predominantly been about the visual spectacle rather than the story. The storytelling is a secondary feature to such Hollywood blockbusters on the part of both the makers and the viewers it seems. With an increasing number of films being released in 3D it seems there is a never-ending challenge for Hollywood to provide a new attraction for its spectacle hungry audience. This is surely why cinema is, and has been since its origins, making a spectacle of itself.

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