Strange Continuity


Jeffrey M Zacks in Aeon (image Unknown Soviet film courtesy

Suppose you were sitting at home, relaxing on a sofa with your dog, when suddenly your visual image of the dog gave way to that of a steaming bowl of noodles. You might find that odd, no? Now suppose that not just the dog changed, but the sofa too. Suppose everything in your visual field changed instantaneously in front of your eyes.

Imagine further that you were in a crowd and exactly the same thing was happening to everyone around you, at exactly the same time. Wouldn’t that be disturbing? Kafkaesque? In 1895 in Paris, exactly this started happening – first to a few dozen people, then to hundreds and then thousands. Like many fin-de-siècle trends, it jumped quickly from Europe to the United States. By 1903, it was happening to millions of people all over the world. What was going on? An epidemic of an obscure neurological disorder? Poisoning? Witchcraft?

Not quite, though it was definitely something unnatural. Movies are, for the most part, made up of short runs of continuous action, called shots, spliced together with cuts. With a cut, a filmmaker can instantaneously replace most of what is available in your visual field with completely different stuff. This is something that never happened in the 3.5 billion years or so that it took our visual systems to develop. You might think, then, that cutting might cause something of a disturbance when it first appeared. And yet nothing in contemporary reports suggests that it did.

Articles from the time describe the vivid impressions of motion and depth that film produced – you might have heard the story about viewers sitting down to watch the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895) and running terrified from the theatre. (Incidentally, that story is probably apocryphal, according to a 2004 report by Martin Loiperdinger of Trier University, translated by Bernd Elzer.) Other avant-garde aesthetic techniques of the time excited a furious response: think of the riot in 1913 at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or – closer to the phenomenon we’re interested in – the challenge that stream-of-consciousness fiction is still felt to pose to readers.

Yet the first cinemagoers seem to have taken little note of cuts. Something that, on the face of it, ought to seem discontinuous with ordinary experience in the most literal sense possible slipped into the popular imagination quite seamlessly. How could that be?

More here.