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Body Shots: Early Cinema's Incarnations

by Jonathan Auerbach
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007
214 pp., illus. 17 b/w. Paper, $24.95, 14.95
ISBN: 978-0-520-25293-6.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


The early years of the cinema remain fascinating, and author Auerbach has collected and analyzed some significant movies in the medium's first decade. In 1896 William McKinley conducted the first cinema-enabled campaign to be elected President of the United States, for short silent films of him at his Ohio home were shown nationally. He might walk around in his front yard, meet a visitor purported to bring news of his successful campaign, and merely look grave and presidential. Not only did this allow him to be at home with his sickly wife, but affirmed the wisdom of his brother Abner's investment in Thomas Edison's movie production company. Republican newspapers would advertise and tout the showings as a major political event, one that dwarfed a personal appearance by the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, a movie was quickly rushed into production that re-enacted the electrocution of his assassin Leon Czolgosz.

Though lacking the exploding automobiles that seem mandatory in today's adventure films, robust chase scenes enlivened early movies too. "The Escaped Lunatic" (1903) had a great title worthy of revival, and a protagonist who returned to leap three stories back into the window of the asylum. "Dix Femmes pour un Mari" (1905) was a French vignette of ten women pursuing a single potential husband; its nuptial pandemonium was evoked for later generations in the Three Stooges' "Brideless Groom" (1947). In the short 1901 comedy "The Big Swallow", a pestering, proto-paparazzo "camera fiend" is swallowed by his photographic subject's gaping mouth. Like the 1894 "Edison Kinetoscope Filmed Record of a Sneeze", or the 1896 filmed kiss upon the lips of the vaudeville actress May Irwin, such facial activity implies vocal sounds even though film was then a silent medium. Auerbach's chapter on vocal gesture here draws upon Jonathan Sterne's work on early audio recording for its technological context.

The late Norman Mailer noted, during the filming of his own film "Maidstone" in the 1960s, that the relationship between death and cinema was worthy of further exploration. Auerbach compares a dead cop on the street in "Daring Daylight Burglary" (1903) to Eduard Manet's painting "Dead Toreador" (1864). Yet perhaps an appropriate response to cinematic eye might be that of the young boy who stares towards the camera through the duration of the short fiction film "What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City" (1901): a certain skepticism that punctures the self-conscious, staged activity of the entire filmed spectacle.



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