Cinema would seem well placed to reflect feelings of modernity in society, its invention coinciding with a continuing mood of change, innovation and development. Around the turn of the century technical advances existed that, over a period of time, affected the way people regarded issues of space, distance and time. This notion of mechanical revolution is reflected in publications such as Archibald Williams' The Romance of The Modern Age (i), from September 1902. Williams states in his preface that:
...the object of this book is to set before young people...without technical language, accounts of some of the latest phases of modern invention; and also to introduce them to recent discoveries of which the full development is yet to be witnessed. (ii)
Williams' book contains twenty chapters, each one detailing an invention of the modern age, including the telephone, high-speed railways, horseless carriages, photography, submarines and so on. This indicates the quantity of examples of innovation in existence during the period. The tone of his preface suggests his own definite interest in modern invention, and that a public who, crucially, perhaps wouldn't understand 'technical language' potentially shares this interest. Williams sights children as his chosen audience, but perhaps there would be adults for whom this book, or similar books, might be useful. Indeed the copy that I used contains an inscription at the front denoting that it was given by an 'Uncle George' to his nephew 'Bernard' on April 23rd, 1908, indicating a shared interest, perhaps, in the importance of the themes if not the content: here is something a nephew should know about.
Reactions to this period of innovation, however, appear to contradict, from that of genuine optimism, enthusiasm and interest to pessimism, apprehension and even fear. This essay will look at these different viewpoints and how they are represented on the screen.
By the time cinema arrived, one machine had already adapted people's perceptions of time, speed and distance many years earlier - the railway. Journey times were significantly shortened and therefore distance seemingly reduced, or was profoundly less restrictive. Consequently, some people began to look forward and imagine new possibilities. At the time when film began recording the world, writers had moved somewhat beyond modern invention, or at least taken it somewhere else. We may refer to authors like Jules Verne and H.G Wells, for example. Just glancing at a few of Verne's titles reveals a certain pre-occupation with time and distance: Voyage to the Centre of the Earth, Around the world in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (although there is clearly far more to say about Verne's work and a feeling of modernity than this). Likewise, the tone of one of the first paragraphs of Wells'The Time Machine (iii) could possibly be equated to the feeling of modern machinery radically altering rules of time and space. The inventor of the time machine addresses his assembled audience of friends:
"You must follow me very carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, they taught you at school is founded on a misconception." (iv)
Wells' inventor is here talking about an imaginary existence of a fourth element that allows for the theory of time travel. While one would not want to suppose, or have any concrete way of proving, that the event of the railway or the motor car was quite so jarring, there is a mood in the passage that is reminiscent of the way that they changed certain rules and therefore altered a public perception of what could be achieved and, perhaps more significantly, when. This mood can be found in Scotsman editor Charles Maclaren's predictions for the railway, published in 1825 : (v)
"When the steam-coach is brought fully into use, practice will teach us many things respecting it, of which theory leaves us ignorant. With the facilities for rapid motion for which it will afford, however, there is nothing very extravagant in expecting to see the present extreme rate of travelling (ten miles per hour) doubled. We shall then be carried at a rate of 400 miles per day....From Calais to Paris, or Constantinople for instance, would be a journey of five days; and the tour of Europe might be accomplished in less time than our grandfathers took to travel to London and back again." (vi)
Maclaren's article makes other bold predictions and the tone is similar to that of Well's inventor many years later, in that they are both attempting to persuade an audience to imagine a machine performing the unimaginable. Of course, all of Maclaren's claims eventually became reality, yet many immediately doubted them. Indeed, a colleague of George Stephenson's, on reading the editorial, dismissed as nonsense the idea of a train travelling at over ten miles an hour. Maclaren's tone indicates coming to terms with the ramifications of the new technology, and he continues that:
"…the inventive genius of man is creating new moral and mechanical powers to cement and bind their vast and distant members together to give the human race the benefits of a more extended and perfect civilisation." (vii)
Clearly, Maclaren believed that the long-term effects of this new technology would be to generate even greater progression and development in a wider sense. He graphically depicts the scale of to which the railway might re-shape people's lifestyle and philosophy. The suggestion is of a correlation between mechanical advancement and human ideology. A new command of time, space and distance was forming. And once a train could travel at twenty miles an hour, which had seemed inconceivable, then why not thirty or forty miles an hour? Once we begin to re-order the world, and its rules, where can it stop? Perhaps, then, Wells' imagined fourth dimension in 1895 does not seem out of place, at least in its tone. (Of course, cinema might become a time machine of sorts. After all, here was a machine that could re-order events at will, or present someone's life and movements after their death. We are reminded, perhaps, of Thomas Edison's rather optimistic 'caveat' of 1888: '...the illusion is complete and we may see and hear a whole Opera as perfectly as if actually present although the actual performance may have taken place years before'. (viii) Also, we might recall that a favourite trick of early showings was to play the film in reverse motion after it had been projected, demonstrating a kind of re-ordering of physical laws on the screen.)
With these conceptions of modernity in place, we can suggest ways in which similar feelings of optimism, revelation and prediction were reflected on the screen. Georges Méliès is a filmmaker whose name is synonymous with themes of fantasy and illusion within his work. Without context, what sense are we to make of Méliès' narratives? They are like fantasies or dreams. For example, Journey Across the Impossible (1904) (ix) contains a series of bizarre narrative events. This is a brief outline of an extract:
- Passengers board a train and it leaves platform.
- Train launches from mountain into the sky, then into space.
- The train travels into the mouth of the sun's face. The sun spits out clouds of smoke.
- Train crashes on face of the sun (?)
- The passengers of the train walk around the sun's surface.
- They get too hot they climb into an ice truck, but are frozen solid.
- When melted, they climb into a submarine-shaped, propeller-driven craft.
- The craft flies off the edge of the sun and crashes into the sea, with parachute.
- In the sea it acts as a submarine with a large headlight.
While Méliès' film could be interpreted as fantastic, or even nonsense, there are elements of his narrative that can equate to the feelings of modernity that we have discussed. Clearly there are examples of modern invention and themes associated with them in Méliès' film. Trains and submarines had developed in the past century and both represent a human dominance of the environment on land and under water. Méliès, of course, has developed this theme to incorporate flight into his impossible journey, while still using the existing modes of transport. Certain elements of the film set it undoubtedly in the realm of pure fantasy (the sun's human face representation, for example), but there is a degree of legitimacy to what Méliès is showing us. After all, within the same century planes flew in the skies, rockets were sent to the moon and, interestingly, arrived back in the ocean with parachutes attached. There is, arguably, a degree of logic to Méliès' visions. He equates mechanical innovations (submarines, trains) allowing advancements in when and where we could go on Earth with a logical step forward - to the skies, except that Méliès' passengers journey to the sun, rather than the moon, in a train and come back in a submarine. Just as we have used selected writings as indications of specific feelings towards modernism, we can also view Méliès' film similarly as legitimate evidence, within the same context. The film is perhaps displaying a next logical step, just as Maclaren's predictions for the railway were. Like Verne's stories, it seems pre-occupied with the means of getting to places rather than the places themselves, suggesting a connection with the machine's dominance to the experience of modernity. The question is not where to go, but how to get there? Ideas of modernity are certainly expressed well in Méliès' film because of their visual representation on the screen, providing a graphic illustration of his views on the present and future states of modern innovation. There is an illusion that it's not created but actually recorded, as if reality. Of course, assumptions of this kind have precautions because elements of the film are very unreal and if we recognise cut outs of trains and stars today then Méliès' audience also probably did. There is the impression, though, that Méliès' film continues a theme of showing the public technological events before they happen just as Verne's fictional journeys, or Williams' and Maclaren's contributions, attempt to. The feeling of modernity here is of not simply celebrating today's technical achievements, but looking for tomorrow's.
The theme of Méliès' film is contained in R.W Paul's film The ? Motorist (1906) (x). Here it is the motorcar that journeys into space and rides around both the Moon and the rings of Saturn. Again, the effect is not one of attempted reality in these events, rather a similar concept of advancements on the ground, and the themes of speed, time and distance, being reproduced similarly in the skies. The motorcar is an interesting focus because it perhaps allows a different, more exhilarating travelling experience than the railway: the feeling of speed as the wind gushes past the face and, even better, the greater element of control - no longer the passenger but the driver. There are different aspects to this, however. Railways were, to an extent, distant and relatively unthreatening, but the motorcar was here sharing the streets with the pedestrians, the horses and carts: for some it brought not exhilaration but danger. Indeed, the event of the motorcar (and also the tram or 'trolley car') on the streets provoked a reaction of sensationalism. Henry Adams' description of modern urban life in 1905 (xi) impresses this feeling:
"Every day Nature violently revolted, causing so-called accidents with enormous destruction of property and life, while plainly laughing at man, who helplessly groaned and shrieked and shuddered, but never for a single instant could stop. The railways alone approached the carnage of war; automobiles and firearms ravaged society, until an earthquake became almost a nervous reaction."
Adams expresses the effect of modernity on society in contrast with the shock of an earthquake (a natural phenomenon) as something equally violent and destructive, as though modernity had de-sensitised the public. This extreme attitude is echoed elsewhere in some areas the national press. The 1909 illustration in an edition of Life, entitled New York City, Is It Worth It? (xii) clearly equates the progression of modern transport not with any optimism but with a path of incident, death and destruction, culminating in the 'Takeachance St.' trolley car that leaves a trail of devastation as it rumbles, ominously on. The segment of the illustration that deals with the motorcar depicts a mass pile-up, suggesting that the danger is not just for the pedestrian but also for the driver or passenger. This element of danger is apparent in the film Explosion of a Motor Car (1900, Hepworth) (xiii), which depicts both driver and passenger as victims of a freak accident that takes on a more brutal, but humorous, tone as their decapitated limbs begin to fall from the skies. Interestingly, and probably for comic effect, a policeman begins to record the accident and collect the limbs together in a rather casual, unaffected way. His reaction (presumably unintentionally) gives a feint impression of the nature of motorcar incidents and their regularity in urban society.
Other views of motorcars and their dangers certainly do not empathise with the driver, however, and warnings of the dangers to pedestrians were also prevalent. In the 1913 illustration entitled When Unlicensed Chauffeurs Are Abroad (xiv) a motorcar is depicted appearing around a corner, at speed, into the path of grouped pedestrians. Ben Singer notes that the image alludes to a the stereotype of women as bad drivers, the figure in the car being dressed in women's clothes and the female pedestrians as a symbol of vulnerability. This does rather neglect the other connotations of the motorcar's association with death (the skeletal driver and the car's front motif) and also with speed as a cause of this danger, as illustrated by the artist's uses of lines behind the car and around the corner. The intention of the illustration may be, and probably is, a comment on women drivers, but it contains other elements equating to a general feeling of speed, modernity and their associations to instant fatality - like Adams' cars that 'ravage society.' The skeletal, reaper-like, figure in the cartoon wields the steering wheel like a scythe, and with the same intention. Whatever else we are supposed to feel, we are certainly not supposed to empathise with the driver.
On the screen pedestrians were not safe either. In The ? Motorist, the car bumps into, and then runs over, a policeman before it continues onwards and up. The effect, like Hepworth's film, is comic but also indicative of a perceived danger. Paul's film presents a contradictory image of the car as a vehicle that can broaden the limits of distance, time and space but at the same time poses a fatal threat. This threat is emphasised more immediately for the spectator in Hepworth's film How it Feels to Be Run Over (1900) (xv). At the beginning of the film a horse and cart is travelling towards the audience but passes by on a diagonal, leaving a trail of dust. Out of the dust comes a blurred image that turns out to be a speeding car coming straight towards the camera (us). Despite the driver's efforts to wave 'us' out of the way, the car crashes into the screen. Just as the car careers around a corner in the 'Unlicensed Chauffer' cartoon, the car in the film appears through the dust, partially clouded until the crucial, fatal moment. The interpretation, possibly, is that the speed of the motorcar is such that realisation of danger comes too late. Hepworth also sets up a comparison of the car to the horse and cart: the latter wanders by harmlessly while the former ploughs straight into us. The horse could be seen to represent the past modes of transport while the car represents modernity, in which case the view of modernity is rather sceptical. This sceptical view of modernisation is not unique to urbanity. Thomas Hardy had alluded to similar, sinister connotations of modernity and its effects on rural life. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) (xvi) he writes:
"Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the woman had come to serve...the threshing machine, which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves."
The subservience of the workers to the machine and the way it forces unnatural endurance from them, physically and psychologically, demonstrates clearly a feeling of the modern having a negative impact on human life. In the streets people looked nervously over their shoulders for cars and trams, in the fields they strained to match the pace of the mechanical 'tyrant.' Just as Verne predicts a future of great innovative promise, so Hardy predicts one of constraint and depression. Just as Paul sends us to the moon in a car, so Hepworth knocks us down with one. Consequently, differing versions of modernity are presented to us.
The oversight of contrasting these differing views of modernity in various media is the assumption that public view fell on one of either side, while neglecting possible impartiality. It is perhaps difficult to research neutral viewpoints because they are not as forthcoming in forms of evidence as the views discussed in this essay. Extreme points of view make the 'headlines' and are easy to find. This should not mislead us to think that there wasn't a large group for whom modernity remained an issue of little interest or opinion, or that attitudes were divided easily into the two groups of argument.
British Film Institute, Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers, vol.1, British Film Institute, London, 1993
Charney, Leo and Schwartz, Vanessa R. (ed.), Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, University of California Press, 1995
Christie, Ian, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World, BBC Educational Developments, 1994, Copyright British Film Institute, 1994
Harvine, Christopher, Marin, Graham and Scharf, Aaron (ed.), Industrialisation and Culture 1830-1914, Macmillan for The Open University Press, 1970
Naremore, James and Brantlinger, Patrick (ed.), Modernity and Mass Culture, Indiana University Press, 1991
Plowden, William, The Motor Car and Politics 1896-1970, The Bodley Head Ltd., 1971
Robinson, David, From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film, Columbia University Press, 1996
Spence, Jeoffry, Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel, The Anchor Press Ltd., 1977
Ware, Michael E., Making of the Motor Car 1895-1930, Wood Mitchell & Co. Ltd., 1976
Williams, Archibald, The Romance of Modern Invention, Seely and Co. Ltd., 1907
(i) Archibald Williams, The Romance of Modern Invention, Seely and Co. Ltd., London, 1902 (back)
(ii) See Williams, p.1 (back)
(iii) H.G Wells, The Time Machine, Heinemen Education Books Ltd., re-print 1972 (back)
(iv) See Wells, p.3 (back)
(v) From The Scotsman, 22 December 1825, in Christopher Harvie, Graham Martin & Aaron Scharf (ed.), Industrialisation and Culture 1830 - 1914, published by Macmillan for The Open University Press, 1970 (back)
(vi) See Harvie, Martin & Scharf, p.82 (back)
(vii) See Harvie, Martin & Scharf, p. 82 (back)
(viii) David Robinson, From Peep Show to Palace, Columbia University Press, 1996, p.23 (back)
(ix) British Film Institute, Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers, vol.1, British Film Institute, London, 1993 (back)
(x) See British Film Institute (back)
(xi) Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, reprint, New York: Modern Library, 1931, pp.494-495, in Leo Charney & Vanessa R. Scwarz (ed.), Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, University of California Press, 1995, p.74 (back)
(xii) See Charney & Scwartz, p.77 (back)
(xiii) See British Film Institute (back)
(xiv) See Charney & Schwartz, p.85 (back)
(xv) See British Film Institute (back)
(xvi) Harvie, Martin & Scharf, pp. 392-393 (back)