The Cinema of Attractions

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Movies, Philosophy
Tags: ,

This is a video essay looking at the pre-1910 film era, known as the “cinema of attractions”, and how it relates to the more contemporary concept of narrative films.


During the early stages of film production, audiences demonstrated a fascination with moving pictures, now referred to as the “cinema of attractions”. This period emphasised visual spectacle and unique imagery, over narrative structure (Gunning 231). The first film-makers were more aware of their audience, and were creating images of fantasy and exoticism, specifically for them to see. After 1910, however, film theorists observed a decisive shift towards theatrical storytelling. Film-makers began to emulate the more established narrative modes of theatre and literature. Tom Gunning expressed frustration over this transition, viewing it as a retreat towards safe, conventional forms of entertainment, and away from cinema’s artistic potential (233).

The primary difference between the cinema of attraction and narrative cinema is their relationship to the audience. Modern film-makers work towards the creation of a story, with a realistic setting (even in the context of fantasy and science fiction). The screen is a window, through which we can experience this world, but the characters in it are unaware of us, and our gaze is voyeuristic and unrequited (Smith 121). Early film-makers, however, directly interact with the viewer, and their images are meant to stimulate us on a purely exhibitionist level. In the cinema of attraction, the visuals are the subject of curiosity, and even if there is a story, its importance is ancillary, and serves only to generate further aesthetic stimuli for the audience (122). For narrative films, the opposite is true. Certainly a contemporary film can produce spectacular images, but the immediate reality of the script must always take precedence. A character in a narrative film (with the possible exception of satire) will never address the audience, or break the “realistic illusion” that the movie screen provides (Strauven 33).

Conversely, characters in the cinema of attraction, often acknowledge the audience, thereby breaking the fourth wall. This instils in us the notion that, what we are watching, is also watching us, that these moving pictures are in an active dialogue with us, and that we are not passive, but active observers (Gunning 230). Gunning described this kind of cinema as a fictional world willing to rupture itself in the solicitation of attention (233). The spectacle of these films is shared by the characters and the audience. The screen is not a window, but a doorway. Films during this period had “the ability to produce exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption” (Strauven 35). To Gunning’s annoyance, however, film-makers after 1910 began to move away from this style of cinema, instead working on narrative-driven features which he regarded as mere imitations of theatre (Gunning 230).

The cinema of attraction presented several types of spectacle to illicit audience attention. Perhaps the most prevalent images were of the fantastical, the exotic, and the erotic. The latter two are fairly self-explanatory, and continue to exist in the form of documentary and pornography. Exotic films allowed people to view foreign animals and cultures, and experience worlds that they would otherwise never be aware of (Strauven 36). They were able to transport the poor and working class into a state of wonder and excitement. Erotic films were slightly less ambitious, and sought to illicit arousal, and possibly laughter from audience members. Nevertheless, it was a popular attraction for people in the early 20th century, and as stated, continues to exist today, especially online. Modern documentaries and pornography are pure exhibitionism, and labour under the aesthetic power of their subjects, rather than any pre-constructed narrative (Rizzo 12).

Fantasy spectacle faded quickly after the 1910s. Film-makers like Georges Melies and Edwin Porter have been studied primarily for their contributions to cinema as a storytelling medium. However, they were far more fascinated with the visual power of film (Gunning 231). Melies’ 1902 feature A Trip to the Moon depicts the first imagery of man’s flight into outer space. Yet there is no scientific process to the film; rather it is pure mysticism. The rocket is built by men dressed as wizards, and the moon is depicted as a living human face. While Melies’ brilliant set design might have been achieved on a theatre stage, his use of editing is something uniquely cinematic, and would have left audience members in a state of delight and awe. With the proliferation and dissection of the movie industry in the proceeding century, one wonders whether movies could ever again inspire such amazement. Gunning explains that the cinema of attraction has not so much been extinguished by narrative, but has instead gone underground (234). It occasionally presents itself as a component of narrative film. For example in musical films, such as The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music, the narrative reality will suddenly halt, and characters will burst into sporadic song and dance, for the direct involvement and enjoyment of the audience. Furthermore, avant-garde film-makers, like David Lynch have continued to utilize imagery over plot (Smith 121).

YouTube has been described as the new “cinema of attractions”. Like early cinema, online videos are created to illicit a reaction from the viewer, whether it be shock, surprise, laughter, or excitement (Rizzo 17). As online videos are so short (usually five to ten minutes), they are rarely narrative-driven, and instead focus on provocative imagery, designed to engage the viewer. People are expected to comment on YouTube videos, and engage with the poster or other viewers. Another connection to the cinema of attractions is the way people discover popular videos through links, emails, and friend recommendations. It is a sort of communal process that compares with the advertising techniques of vaudeville and sideshows, and contrasts the rigidly corporate advertising of narrative cinema (18). YouTube, and other online media networks, may represent a return to the style and atmosphere of spectacle over narrative.

Finally, video games might also be described as a medium that emphasises spectacle over narrative. Like the cinema of attractions, it engages directly with its audience, and focuses on imagery designed to excite, threaten and bamboozle them. The dialogue between game and player may be even more intense than film, since the player’s virtual self resides inside the screen, and is therefore experiencing the joys and dangers of the imaginary world in real time (Gurevitch 5). The player is able to change and interact with the fantasy world, but is in turn altered by it. Ironically, video games are undergoing their own crisis of identity, which echoes early cinema. Game designers are increasingly emulating the narrative style of Hollywood films, employing cinematic cut-scenes, and using celebrity voice actors, to appeal to a wider demographic (7). Little by little control is being taken away from the player, and reconstituted into a more linear narrative trajectory. Perhaps each new medium faces a period where it has to choose between emulating the conventions of older art forms, or developing its own, unique style.

Works Cited

Gurevitch, Leon.The Cinemas of Interactions: Cinematics and the ‘Game Effect’ in the Age of Digital Attractions.” Senses of Cinema 57.1 (2010): 4-9. PDF file.

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: BFI, 1989. 229-235. PDF file.

Rizzo, Teresa. “YouTube: The New Cinema of Attractions.” Scan Journal 5.1 (2008):11-21. PDF file.

Smith, Greg. “What Difference does a Medium Make?”. What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss: A Student Guide. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2010. 117-123. E-book.

Strauven, Wanda. “Attractions: How They Came into the World.” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 31-40. Book.

  1. Thank you for sharing! It gave me a lot of inspiration how to start my essay in this topic! 🙂

  2. Megan says:

    Love this! Very insightful read. Keep going.

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