By Chuck Williamson
It all beginsâ€”and endsâ€”with a close-up. While most of The Great Train Robbery (1903) features the sort of distant, proscenium-level framing typical of preclassical cinema, past exhibitions of Edwin S. Porterâ€™s hugely influential proto-western also included a single medium close-up that (as instructed by Edison Studios) could be inserted either at the filmâ€™s beginning or end. Set against a neutral background, the filmâ€™s train-robbing antihero glowers and gazes directly into the eyes of his captive audience, aiming his pistol theatrically toward the camera and unloading a round of gunfire into the thoroughly dismantled fourth-wall. This now-iconic shot (famously recreated in the denouement of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas) encompasses the contradictions of the preclassical â€œtransitionalâ€ cinema. Narrative absorption could be momentarily upended by a single image that, in its direct address to the spectator, ruptures the illusion of a contained diegetic space and derails the forward momentum of narrative progression. It epitomizes what Tom Gunning terms an â€œexhibitionist confrontation,â€ where the continuous flow of action is momentarily interrupted by a discontinuous image designed to elicit pure stimulation or shock. Gunning describes the effect this shot might have had on turn-of-the-century spectators as comparable to the thrill of a carnival ride, and citesÂ its inclusion as evidence that the film â€œpoint[s] in both directions, towards a direct assault on the spectator (the spectacularly enlarged outlaw unloading his pistol in our faces), and towards a linear narrative continuity.â€Â A discontinuous â€œattractionâ€ autonomous from the film narrative, this â€œprimitiveâ€ use of the close-up does not plunge toward the banditâ€™s face in some last-ditch effort at characterization or audience identification, but rather provides an exhibitionist display designed to startle or surprise the audience; it is, in short, a remnant from the cinema of attractions where â€œ[t]heatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direction stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story.â€
Four years later, Porter directed another â€œstory filmâ€ that sandwiched its crude narrative between a pair of fourth-wall shattering close-ups. Laughing Gas (1907), an early Edison gag film, bookends its narrativeâ€”again told in vignettes filmed from a distant, stage-bound camera positionâ€”with a pair of close-ups that recall the confrontational shot of the gunman from Porterâ€™s earlier film. The film opens with a medium close-up of an African-American woman, identified in the Edison Catalogue as â€œMandyâ€ and played by Bertha Regustus, whose bandaged face contorts into a comic, puffy-cheeked expression of pain as she rhythmically shakes her head and massages her swollen toothache. At the filmâ€™s conclusion, after a dose of nitrous oxide momentarily sends her into uncontrollable fits of laughter, we again see her face in medium close-up. This time she convulses into a series of exaggerated open-mouth guffaws, rolling her eyes in a delirious display of drug-induced pleasure as she bobs her head from left to right. The filmâ€™s middle sectionâ€”the bulk of the filmâ€™s flimsy narrativeâ€”documents Mandyâ€™s slapstick encounter with her dentist, a put-upon straight man who administers the eponymous â€œlaughing gas,â€ and her perilous trek back home, a journey fraught with passers-by who find her nonstop laughter contagious and gradually all crack up themselves.
In Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity, Jacqueline Stewart argues that these close-ups of the filmâ€™s African-American heroine (a rarity in early twentieth-century cinema) gave turn-of-the-century audiences a fleeting (if vital) moment of identification with a person of color. She contends that these shots â€œmight further indicate a rare effort to bring this character closer to the (white) viewer, to enlist audience sympathy for and/or identification with a Black subjectâ€ or, conversely, â€œmayâ€¦ instead highlight her function as spectacle.â€ Stewartâ€™s last-minute about-face, where she concedes that these close-ups might not humanize Mandy but rather reduce her into larger-than-life racial spectacle, exemplifies one of the dangers of understanding a transitional cinema that straddles the dividing line between attraction and narrative. One cannot approach these films as one might with their â€œclassicalâ€ brethrenâ€”the language will not be decipherable.
Laughing Gas, in short, traffics in racial spectacle. These autonomous close-ups of Mandyâ€™s face function as aÂ spectacle divorced from the temporal flow of the filmâ€™s narrative. Porterâ€™s film does not use these close-ups to elicit audience identification with our heroine or drum up some sort of cross-racial empathy with her plight, but instead tries to jolt, jostle, and stimulate. These shots recall the â€œfacial expressionâ€ subgenre of fin de siÃ¨cle cinema, where close-ups of the performerâ€™s comic or ghoulish facial contortions served as the prime source of shock and amusement. Like the confrontational image of a bandit firing into the faces of his unsuspecting audience, the â€œbefore and afterâ€ close-ups of Mandyâ€™s face take place behind a toneless, indistinct background far removed from the urban exteriors and transparently fake interiors that make up the filmâ€™s story space. Following the linear temporal logic of the filmâ€™s narrative (indeed, the close-ups match the narrative progression from medical malady to drug-induced euphoria), these shots nonetheless ruptureÂ the illusion of narrative absorption and ignoreÂ all notions of an invisible fourth-wall (whichÂ would later become de rigueur in the classical narrative cinema). She gazes directly at the spectator, delivering what Gunning describes as â€œthe recurring look at the camera by actorsâ€¦ [that] spoil[s] the realistic illusion of the cinema,â€ and warps her face into over-the-topÂ expressionsÂ of physical pain and narcotized delirium.Â Twisted into a variety of comically absurd contortions, Mandyâ€™s face becomes an â€œattractionâ€ on par with the flurry of gunshots found in The Great Train Robbery. Porterâ€™s film treats our heroine as a comedic object, his camera simulating an ethnographerâ€™s gaze as it renders her into a spectacle to be gawked at by white theater patrons. It perpetuates the same racist fascination with Black (or â€œotherizedâ€) bodies that contributed to the development of human exhibitions, ethnographic surveillance, and black minstrelsy.
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.
 Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde‘, in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. (London: BFI P, 1997), p.59.
 Gunning, ‘Cinema of Attractions’, p.61.
 Gunning, ‘Cinema of Attractions’,Â p.59.
 Jacqueline Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity.
(Berkeley: U of California P, 2005), p.46.
 Gunning, ‘Cinema of Attractions’,Â p.57.
 Stewart, Migrating to the Movies, p.46.