Fiction and Imagination in Early Cinema: A Philosophical Approach to Film History | Leonardo/ISAST

Fiction and Imagination in Early Cinema: A Philosophical Approach to Film History

Fiction and Imagination in Early Cinema: A Philosophical Approach to Film History
Mario Slugan

Bloomsbury Academic, New York & London, 2020
280 pp., illus. 30 b/w. Trade, $80.50
ISBN: 9781788314121.

Reviewed by: 
Jane Hutchinson
June 2020

Once upon a time in a (not so) far-off world, going to The Plaza to watch a moving picture in the company of strangers was a common experience. So, given this familiarity with the conventions of cinema, why, at the end of a livestream broadcast of Shakespeare’s Henry V from The Globe to provincial cinemas in the UK, did the audience applaud? Who did the cinema-goers think they were congratulating? It seems unlikely that on this particular evening they decided to show appreciation for the cleaners who followed hard on their heels as they left the auditorium, and of course they knew that as Jamie Parker and the cast in London bowed to the Groundlings in the theatre’s Yard they were oblivious to the cinema audience’s approval. Perhaps the event confused the folk at the Plaza by muddling the conventions of theatre: applaud until the players have left the stage; with those of cinema: leave as soon as the credits begin to roll.

This puzzle came to mind as I began to read Mario Slugan’s monograph Fiction & Imagination in Early Cinema. Slugan begins with Edwin Porter’s 1903 film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first film example of very many that were produced during a 25-year period from 1880 in a discussion of Early Cinema’s audiences’ understanding of what constituted fiction and actuality films. This, he explains, was the opposite to the categories that new and traditional film histories’ assigned to them, broadly, that Méliès’ films were understood as fiction and the Lumières’ films as actualities. To illustrate this thesis, he explains how Uncle Tom’s Cabin was understood as an ‘actuality’, that is, as a recording on film of actors dramatizing a novel just as they would on the stage of a vaudeville house or small town variety theatre, whereas the many and various ‘arrival of the train’ films, with L’Arrivée d’un train en Gare de La Ciotat, notorious among them, were understood as works of fiction. In the following chapters he pursues his argument through travelogues and trick films, scenics and surf films, fakes and fictional stagings and re-enactments of fist fights and wartime battles. The most interesting chapter for this reader explores the relationship of the lecturer to the audience’s imaginative engagement with the film text. The most skilful lecturers, who from the outset were part of the institution of Early Cinema were often considered to provide a necessary supplement to the intelligibility of the action on screen. They could also, Slugan points out, transform the film into a ‘Prop’ for imaginative engagement and so turn an illustrative travelogue into an imaginary voyage through techniques such as the subtle use of the present tense in their narration.

Underpinning Slugan’s analysis is Kendall L. Walton’s theoretical work concerning philosophy of language and aesthetics and in particular ‘Mimesis as Make-Believe’ (1993) in which he discusses fiction and make-believe, Fictional Objects, representations and their role as Props that Mandate Imagining.[1] “Fiction, according to Walton, is a sub-class of imaginings or make-believes where make-believe is an attitude taken towards a certain state of affairs, that is, it is the imagining that a certain state of affairs obtains” (p. 3). Slugan both illustrates and critiques Walton’s theory of Mandated Imagining through the turn-of-the-twentieth-century film audience’s experience of moving pictures, and along with Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse and Theory of Voice presents an interpretation of their historically specific engagement with film that challenges some familiar theoretical models of the audience’s engagement with early cinema. He explores through the contexts of their exhibition, period accounts and commentary in the general and trade press, film-hire catalogues and instruction manuals for prospective film scenario writers. His work is as much a means for the reader to understand Walton’s thesis of Mandated Imagining as it is using Mandated Imagining as a means to analyse the role of imagination in the experience of the film goer.

Walton identifies representations: paintings, photographs and film, etc. as Props (representations are just one type of Prop) in games of make-believe —fictions— in which we indulge in particular sorts of imagining. The Props of Walton’s theory generate fictional truths, meaning things are true within the game world of make-believe and simultaneously (but not necessarily) not true outside of it. Walton’s Props allow us to engage in the make-believe that representations are the things represented and to respond accordingly. That is why we experience ‘real’ emotions in response to encounters with fictional objects. Fiction is not dependent upon narrative. The mandates for imagining that fictions require are found not only in the film itself but also through the mechanisms of production, promotion and exhibition.

Slugan applies Walton’s understanding of how imagination works with the act of looking as a “single complex phenomenological whole” to his analysis of film of this period. He uses Walton’s theory to unpick the categories of fiction and non-fiction applied to the films of this period that are taken for granted, he says, by both new and traditional film history and presents a critical analysis of recent film scholarship, in particular those theorists who analysis film from a linguistic perspective (the final chapter is devoted to this). Amongst the insights and illuminating discussions in this text is the suggestion that when the role of imagination is considered in more detail a film can be understood as both attraction and fiction (p. 172). The Haverstraw Tunnel for example, considered as an example of Gunning’s Cinema of Attractions was, in period accounts, described in narrative terms. The absence of fictional narrators (with rare exceptions) a key difference between literary and film fiction.

Slugan sets out his arguments with clarity, confidence and authority which makes his account an accessible read, even for a reader unfamiliar with the particular philosophical analysis he uses. He is not afraid to point out misunderstandings or misconceptions in the scholarship of the ‘big names’ of the world of film history and theory, including a few who “produce extravagant accounts of what spectators imagine without looking at the historical data” (p. 203). He examines how film content mandates specific imaginings and how these mandates arise, are negotiated and become conventions. He sets out clear distinctions between imagination, immersion and illusion, argues for imagination to have more weight in analyses of audience experience and engagement during the Early Cinema period especially in discussions of immersion, and explains why frequently presented ideas of false belief or willing suspension of disbelief, also an often repeated interpretation of the behaviour of sitters in nineteenth century photographic studio portraits, are not valid.

I anticipated that this book might help me solve the puzzle posed by the account at the beginning of this review. If Mandated Imagining allows the viewer to imagine themselves into the location shown on the screen, to respond as they would in the ‘real’ world, they would not in this case be transported imaginatively into the world of Henry V, or a fictionalised account of it, but into the simultaneously living world of the Globe. And if the fictional experience mandated by a mixture of Props and conventions of cinema and theatre extends beyond the images on the screen, then applauding at a livestream broadcast is perhaps understandable.

In this particular performance the cinema audience watch an internal narrator —Chorus. The King and Captain Fluellen also addressed the theatre audience so, according to Slugan’s thesis, this performance is fiction, but the screening also shows the audience in the Globe and so confuses the genre. This is not a blurring of difference between fiction and reality. This is not the hybridity that Slugan examines and finds wanting as an explanation of audience behaviour. The audience did not mistake illusion for reality but still responded in the way that the 1890 audience is reported to have done —as if the actors were present. The imaginary engagement leaked out of the performance. 

I am curious that Hugo Münsterberg’s work is not considered in this text, after all, he was developing ideas for The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (published 1916) during the latter part of the period Slugan studies, a time when ‘story films’ began to dominate the cinema landscape and created a new profession of script and scenario writers plus an industry producing instructional manuals for those aspiring to become one (Münsterberg amongst them). In The Photoplay  Münsterberg writes, “The associations [with the images on screen] become as vivid as realities, because the mind is so completely given up to the moving pictures. The applause into which the audiences, especially of rural communities, break out at a happy turn of the melodramatic pictures is another symptom of the strange fascination.” So it seems that period audiences (especially those who lived in the countryside and were presumably thought by Münsterberg to be rather less conversant with the visual technologies of the modern world) also applauded ‘on screen’ performance. Münsterberg’s book was one of the first studies of cinema and the techniques cinema employed to encourage the viewer’s imaginative and emotional engagement with the experience. He also began to consider how cinema could be used to educate, inform, and influence behaviour; perhaps something to explore if Slugan pursues his research interests in advertising films. [2] 

This is most obviously a book for those immersed in the world of film theory and philosophy, film history, and media archaeology. I highly recommend it. Dense with period references and informed by analysis drawn from film theory and historiography, it offers comprehensive, insightful and well-informed discussions of imagination, fiction and make-believe in the experience of film during the late C19th and early C20th. For readers not familiar with the work of Walton and Genette it is a little challenging but not an impossible read. And Walton's Mimesis as Make-Believe is now on my reading list.


[1] A comprehensive summary of Walton’s work for readers unfamiliar with it can be found in Robert Howell’s review essay of Mimesis as Make-Believe in Synthese, Vol. 109, No. 3 (Dec., 1996), pp. 413-434,

[2] The affective and sensational forms of advertising media as they relate to belief, imagination and transcendence of everyday experience were explored in Advertising the Sublime, an event at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and the Eye Film Institute Netherlands in 2013 that brought together two HERA projects, TEF (Technology, Exchange and Flow: Artistic Media Practices and Commercial Application) and CIM (Creativity and Innovation in a World of Movement).