We’ve all experienced the sensation- watching an old film, maybe a grainy 1970′s horror movie. A vulnerable woman is trapped in her home by a crazed killer who has cut the telephone cord, rendering her helpless. How will she escape? What will she do?
It is difficult to watch a scene such as this through a modern lens and disassociate from the technological comforts we are used to in 2012. A scene such as this would never fly today. Her cell phone would still work. Paul Young’s chapter “Media On Display: A Telegraphic History of Early American Cinema” discusses the quite meta concept of not only considering the relationship between two types of media, but also depictions of one form of multimedia within the another. Young explores within this analysis the sociohistorical subtext which can be interpreted within these relationships- a subtext which reveals much about how we have historically interacted with new forms of media, and furthermore, the ways in which different types of media play off of one another.
Young analyzes images of the telegraph in early American cinema, and he explains early on why he has chosen the telegraph over the telephone. The telegraph, Young explains, was a “people’s medium” from early on. Different from the telephone, which was still a largely upper class technology at the time, the telegraph communicated ideas across society rather than private conversations between two individuals. Images of the telegraph in early cinema, as Young asserts, play the role of “the public medium’s public medium”, often mirroring early audiences’ democratic and symbiotic relationship with films and the art of filmgoing itself.
I chose this article from our selection because early American film is definitely a research interest of mine, and the title of this chapter alone indicated a fresh take on cinema history. Young’s article was indeed teeming with cultural analysis of which one could spend pages discussing. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of how early forms of media purported to democratize society while in fact serving to further enforce class structure. However, for the purposes of this blog, and this class, I will focus on the image below:
This screenshot from the end of Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery is an iconic one. In his article, Young discusses this image, which perhaps achieved its notorious status because it was one of the earliest cinematic instances of an actor breaking character, thus breaking the 4th wall, communicating directly with the audience, and bringing to light the relationship between technology and the audiences consuming it. As a self proclaimed amateur film historian, this got me thinking. In what ways did this image foreshadow the ways in which twentieth century audiences would subsequently interact with film? Does this relationship reemerge in the ways we’ve interacted with newer technologies in recent decades?