Early Cinema to Exploding Cinema.

Contemporary mainstream cinema tends to be defined by its basis in a scripted drama and an industrial mode of production. Its power is inevitably related to the way it concentrates a massive amount of resources on the production of a sequence of images.

On the other hand film and video production isn't inherently expensive and films that are made outside of this commercial system will often have a different form, content and aesthetics to the mainstream. The huge capital investment into mainstream film inevitably guides the overall content within the realm of its own interests, interests which are admittedly dynamic, heterogeneous and in contention with each other. The apparent diversity of the mainstream is all contained by a form which is based on the entertainment of a passive and atomized audience.

In spite of the heterodox content, the general effect of feature films inevitably protects the ideology of the financial backers. Films made outside this system are able to articulate ideas, which are either of no interest to the mainstream or are critical of the mainstream, in ways that are not possible within that system. Not all ideas of relevance to the human condition are commercial or entertaining. Most people would probably agree that the interests of capital could never be entirely congruent with the totality of human interests.[1]

It is worth noting that the industrial mode of cinema did not appear fully-fledged. The early days of cinema shared much in common with those areas which are now outside the mainstream. Magic lantern shows preceded the invention of film by three hundred years.[2] It was popular in those places of entertainment without fixed seating that preceded the purpose-built music halls of the latter Nineteenth century. The sense of variety, the Master of Ceremonies, the magic lantern slide projections, the drinking audience, the raucous atmosphere, even the occasional technical chaos, seem to be reflected in a typical Exploding Cinema show.

Film had found a popular audience from its earliest days in the late 1890s. Films were made by entertainers and showmen and shown in empty shops, local halls, amusement arcades, itinerant peepshows, circuses and particularly fairs and musichalls.[3]

In that shuttered shop there was a miracle to be seen for a penny, but only twenty-four could enter at a time; there wasn't room for more. (Low & Manvell 1973 p36)

The Empire Leicester Square was one of the first three music hall venues to show films in 1896. After a while the fad for simple cinematic illusion wore thin in the Music halls but stayed firmly established in the fairgrounds.

Films spread quickly through the fairs as they did through musichalls. They first reached Hull Fair for example in October 1896, brought there by one of the original fairground showmen of the cinema, Randall Williams. (Chanan 1996 p140)

At the peak of fairground popularity there were six cinemas at the Goose Fair in Nottingham. It was the fairgrounds that bridged the gap to the respectable picture palaces of the 1920s with their increasingly sophisticated narrative product.[4]

As a low-art form of entertainment with a popular audience, cinema had a set of aesthetic values somewhat at variance with those of high art and more in line with those of other working class cultural traditions. These were values that highlighted comedy, spectacle, improvisation and spontaneity, a somewhat explicit sexuality, satire, 'irony in the face of establishment homilies' and a general vulgarity.[5]

Pantomime had given rise to a certain type of theatrical clowning which was later carried to a very high level of perfection in the cinema by such artists as Chaplin, while acrobatic clowning like Buster Keaton's evolved rather more from circus traditions. (Chanan 1996 p130)

The Middle classes had, however, already realised the power that cinema had to inculcate the values of respectability into the working man and to 'rationalise' his entertainment.[6]

Calls for the best writers often accompanied demands for the uplift of the industry. The trade press urged the motion picture industry to legitimate itself by producing scenarios penned by well-known writers of fiction and drama. In 1908, for example, the New York Dramatic Mirror ran an article by a 'moving picture enthusiast' who strenuously advocated 'a higher class of authorship in the construction of plots or stories' as opposed to the 'crudest kind of drama' and 'the lowest kind of slapstick comedy'. Which had hitherto dominated, stories produced by higher-class authors would appeal to the 'more intelligent class of spectators'. (Uricchio & Pearson 1993 p46)[7]

It was not until 1904 that the first purpose-built 'electric palaces' made their appearance. Movies' production and distribution rapidly expanded in the early 1910s.[8] By 1925 the USA had nearly a thousand opulent 'picture palaces' - no longer simple halls but buildings of spectacular opulence which rivaled the best theatres. By this time the total cinema audience in the USA alone had reached around 50 million a week with the industry increasingly centred on Hollywood.[9]

As a form of popular mass entertainment, cinema-going did not generally find favour among the middle class until the advent of sound systems heralded the era of art deco picture palaces in the 1930's. (Gomes 1998)

The inception of sound and the increasingly large sums of money to be made also brought the mass-market film firmly under the control of the capitalist class. They imported their own literary culture by way of the script and the aesthetics of good taste. The Charlie Chaplin films of the 1920's can be seen as a bridge to this period. His influences from working class culture and music hall met a Hollywood system which had an ethos of respectability and taste, and a literary heritage and articulation. Commercial cinema continued to evolve through the 1930's and 1940s with an increasing reliance on scripted dramatic narratives. The content was respectable and sentimental. The illusion of narrative continuity was smooth. There was a sheen of perfection which created an increasing gulf from the self-generated activity of artists and amateurs. This dominance was maintained until there was a resurgence of the vulgar in the form of B-Movie horror, rock and sex genres in the consumer explosion of the 1950's.

 Through the 1920s and 1930s, as the Hollywood Star/glamour system was evolving, there was a lot of experimental activity in Europe, from the agit-prop cinema trains of the Soviets to the abstract film experiments of artists, to the worker film groups in England.[10] From the time of the Futurists, artists quickly saw film as a new medium of experimentation. The inventiveness of this experimentation supplied a stream of innovation to the commercial mainstream.



[1] This point is developed later in the terms of Jurgen Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action.


[2] The early culture of film had arisen from a visual culture, which included "chronophotography, panoramas and dioramas, slide shows, bill boards and the instant snapshot." (A.L. Rees 1999 p21). A good source on the culture of projection before film is 'The Magic Lantern's Wild Years' by Mervyn Heard in Cinema: the beginnings and the future, edited by Christopher Williams (Westminster U.P. London 1996). A comprehensive collection of information is Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, edited by David Robinson et al (The Magic Lantern Society 2000).


[3] See Chanan (1996 p35)


[4] Exploding Cinema used a Circus Tent in Mountsfield Park, Catford for a show on 8th July 1995.


[5] These are the values encompassed by the musichall and the burlesque sideshows that were part of the travelling fairs. For the history of music hall see Music Hall: performance and style, edited by J.S. Bratton (OUP 1986) and Music Hall: the business of pleasure, edited by Peter Bailey (OUP 1986). For a history of fairground see The English Fair by David Kerr Cameron (Sutton Publishing 1998) and for the USA, Blue Ribbons and Burlesque: a book of country fairs, by Charles Fish (The Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont 1998). For cinema at the fair see 'The Fairground Bioscope' by Vanessa Toulmin in In the Kingdom of Shadows: a companion to early cinema, edited by Colin Harding and Simon Popple (Cygnus Arts 1996) and Life to those Shadows by Noel Burch (BFI 1990).


[6] For details of the movements to provide 'rational' entertainment and leisure activities for the new urban working class, see British Socialists and the politics of Popular Culture 1884-1914 by Chris Waters (Manchester U.P. 1990)


[7] Uricchio and Pearson are quoting from the article 'Room for Improvement' from the New York Dramatic Mirror (22-8-1908 p9). For more on the effect of literary culture on the movies, see Highbrow, Lowbrow: the emergence of cultural hierarchy in America by Lawrence W. Levine (Harvard 1988)


[8] Exploding Cinema had a show in the Rivoli Ballroom, Brockley on 22nd December 1994. The Rivoli is an old barrel vault cinema in South East London that was converted into a ballroom in the 1930's.


[9] Richard Maltby, Popular Culture in the 20th Century (Grange Books 1994)


[10] Don Macpherson Traditions of Independence - British cinema in the Thirties (BFI 1980)