Tom Gunning’s thesis in his article “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde” is, in the author’s own words, “it is precisely this harnessing of visibility, this act of showing and exhibition, which I feel cinema before 19o6 [sic] displays most intensely” (Gunning 381). The rest of Gunning’s article goes on to explain and defend this thesis.

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Gunning’s thesis proposes that the first films were of attractions akin to going to an amusement park for the viewers. Photographers filmed attractions and oddities seemingly making the audiences voyeurs into someone else’s life. At the time the new film industry was taking off in the first decade of the 1900s, a new set of attractions are also being invented. Amusement parks offered working class people cheap entertainment, and movies became one of the working-class amusements too. Vaudeville had been popular in the latter part of the 1800s for the working-class and film becomes part of the vaudeville program. Nickelodeons also become cheap entertainment. However, Gunning does not mention sports as part of the working-class entertainment and how they show up on film as well, offering movie attendees another form of cheap entertainment. Kathy Peiss’s historical 1986 monograph titled Cheap Amusements chronicles this rise of cheap entertainment venues for the working class. She explicitly details how cheap amusements supplanted upper-class entertainment. Thus, Gunning does a good job of explaining the change from classical types of entertainment like the ballet and the opera, to the popularity of working-class attraction of the amusement park, nickelodeons and movies.

Movies of the first decade showed women dancing, a couple kissing, and a muscle man lifting weights. That is what Gunning meant by attraction. However, film itself is also an attraction. The fact that a camera could capture a moving image and show it on a movie screen or in a nickelodeon was miraculous. The films, as Gunning points out, made viewers nervous, and they could not handle too many shocks to the system. Gunning mentions what some consider the first full length motion picture (10 minutes) in his article: The Great Train Robbery. It has a story line, a plot, and it is an attraction because of its last scene. A gunman looks straight out at the audience and shoots his gun. Reports from the time say the audiences ducked upon seeing the gunman staring out from the screen pointing a gun at them (“Audiences Liked the Great Train Robbery” n. p.).

There are several implications the new artform could foster. One implication the new film industry could have was that cheap amusements became the popular amusements so that the working-class people were the arbiters of amusement. Another implication was not only fostering attraction types of films, but the invention of movies offered a new way of storytelling, of learning, and technology. Popular books could be made into films as the technology progressed to make it possible to show longer and longer films. Film made it possible to visit other towns and countries without leaving the theater seat. It could show viewers documentaries on a variety of subjects including sports. However, the overall implication is that film made millions of people into voyeurs, which is a very unsavory thought. What started out as a medium of attractions, as Gunning says, continues currently. Who has not visited a movie theater to be bombarded with “coming attractions” before the movie comes on the screen? Little do movie goers know what the movie industry started in the first decade of the 1900s remains today.

  • “Audiences Liked The Great Train Robbery.” Accessed 14 Sept. 2018.
  • Gunning, Tom. The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, Wanda Strauven, ed., Amsterdam, New Amsterdam Press, 2011, 381-388.