Breaking the Fourth Wall: Direct Address and Metalepsis in the Cinema and other Media


On Railways and the Movies

The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) was a film I ardently watched countless times on television as a child, and, I have to confess, I have seen and loved it countless times since. I had certainly seen it long before I saw  L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (Lumière Bros., 1895). I noticed the resemblance between the two films only when watching Jeffries’ film again recently. But when I explored this, I was struck by the extent of their resonance, and by the uncanniness of the later film’s pastiche of the earlier one: Bernard Cribbins‘ Perks revivifies, down to his moustache, the La Ciotat station porter; an identical luggage trolley lurks in the background; the beshawled woman looks like she stepped off the earlier train, except that she’s in Technicolor.
     I began to figure, to fantasize, that the uncanniness of The Railway Children‘s penultimate sequence was not only set off by its graphic and musical evocation of the uncertainty of young Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) about quite why she was standing by the rail track, but also by its palpable haunting by the Lumière’s originary scene, with its powerful, ghostly, urtext of a, much more bustling, railway platform just after the arrival of cinema.
 For me, of course, it will also always be the other way round: that The Railway Children, and this film’s own afterwardsness, haunt L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare
[From the introduction to “Uncanny Arrival at a Railway Station” by Catherine Grant

In the ‘folklore’ of cinema history there is one anecdote which seems to be perennially fascinating to layman and historian alike. It might be summarised as follows: an audience in the early days of the cinema is seated in a hall when a film of an approaching train is projected on the screen. The spectators are anxious, fearful –    some of them even panic and run.
     This fearful or panicky reaction has been called ‘the train effect’. It is such a common anecdote, cited by so many writers both at the time and later, that it has also been called `the founding myth of cinema’ or the cinema’s ‘myth of origin. [Stephen Bottomore, ‘The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the “train effect’”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1999

Rather than mistaking the image for reality, the spectator is astonished by its transformation through the new illusion of projected motion. Far from credulity, it is the incredible nature of the illusion that renders the viewer speechless. What is displayed before the audience is less the impending speed of the train than the force of the cinematic apparatus. [Tom Gunning, ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator [1989]’, in Linda Williams, ed. (1994) Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. 114–133.]

Cinema as we know it, as an institution, as an entertainment based on the mass spectatorship of projected moving images, was born in ’95, in the Golden Age of railway travel. As the prehistory and beginnings of cinema strongly suggest, film finds an apt metaphor in railroad. The train can be seen as providing the prototypical experience of looking at a framed, moving image, and as the mechanical double of the cinematic apparatus. Both are means of transporting a passenger to a totally different place, both are highly charged vehicles of narrative events, stories, intersections of strangers, both are based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous motion and stillness. These are two great machines of vision that give rise to similar modes of perception, and are geared to shaping the leisure time of a mass society. [Lynne Kirby, ‘Male Hysteria and Early Cinema’, originally in Camera Obscura May 1988 6(2 17)]

Following on from Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s now seminal account of the nineteenth-century railroad and the institution of “panoramic perception” as being emblematic of modernity, critics like Lynne Kirby and Mary Ann Doane have already explored the historic connections between film and the train’s profound re-configuration of vision, with its mechanical separation of the viewer’s body from the actual physical space of a ‘virtual’ ‘perception. [Saige Walton, ‘[Review of] Jeffrey Ruoff (ed), Virtual voyages: Cinema and travel. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006′, Screening the Past, 20, 2006]

Above, Film Studies For Free gifts to you another of its author’s experiments with real-time video comparison (also a further exploration of cinematic pastiche).

This tiny videographic donation accompanies the links, below, to Omar Ahmed‘s truly wonderful, much more comprehensive and informative video essay series on trains in Indian cinema.

And below those links are others to further, openly accessible online scholarship that touches on the topic of railways — a very cinematic apparatus indeed — in the movies.

Bon voyage!

    All That Film Pastiche Allows: Fifty+ Online Studies

    All That Pastiche Allows by Catherine Grant

    “[Pastiche] can, at its best, allow us to feel our connection to the affective frameworks, the structures of feeling, past and present, that we inherit and pass on. That is to say, it can enable us to know ourselves affectively as historical beings.”
    Richard Dyer, Pastiche (London and New York: Routledge, 2007)

    Film Studies For Free today presents a whole host of links to studies of cinematic pastiche. It begins with the above video — the latest in FSFF‘s experiments in videographic comparison — which is designed to afford its viewers a space for real-time co-contemplation of the opening titles sequences of All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) and its ‘pastiche’ Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002).

    Video Essays and Scholarly Remix: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Forms – Audiovisual Film Studies, Pt 2

    Catherine Grant will discuss the above companion piece to her video essay Touching the Film Object? at a workshop on “Video Essays: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Form” at the 2012 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, 5pm on March 22, 2012 in Boston.
         Her fellow workshop participants will include Christian Keathley (Middlebury College), Girish Shambu (Canisius College), Benjamin Sampson (UCLA), Richard Misek (University of Kent), Craig Cieslikowski (University of Florida) and Matthias Stork (UCLA).  

    In her book Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey considered how the intersection of cinema with various digital technologies has changed film studies in recent decades.  Most obviously, DVDs allow film scholars unprecedented access to high-quality copies of our objects of study, and the internet has supplemented this with a wealth of online critical and archival material.  As a result, these various digital tools have significantly enhanced film scholars’ research and teaching.  But this intersection of cinema and digital technologies has brought not just accessibility, but the potential for dramatic transformation in the study of film.  Mulvey wrote, “New ways of consuming old movies on electronic and digital technologies,” she wrote, “should bring about a ‘reinvention’ of textual analysis and a new wave of cinephilia.”

    One place where this ‘reinvention’ of analysis and revived cinephilia can be seen is in the emergence recently of a new scholarly form — the video essay.  Practitioners of this form are exploring the ways in which digital technologies afford a new way of conducting and presenting film research — for the full range of digital technologies enables film scholars to write using the very materials that constitute their object of study: moving images and sounds.  Examples of this video essay work can be readily viewed online, especially at the Moving Image Source website, and at the vimeo site Audiovisualcy .  But most of the work in this new form is being produced by scholars outside academia (with some key exceptions), in part because the strictures of written academic discourse pose a challenge for this nascent form of multi-media scholarship.

    This workshop — which will include presentations by film scholars who are also video essay producers — will consider the challenges faced in legitimizing the video essay as a valid form of academic scholarship.  The participants will address such issues as: How does the use of images and sounds in the presentation of scholarship demand a rethinking of the rhetorical strategies employed by the film scholar?  How does aesthetics play a role in an academic discourse that aims to produce knowledge and emotional response?  How would teaching courses on video essays help legitimize the form, and how might such instruction be undertaken?  How might emerging scholars situate themselves as leaders of this emerging academic mode? [SCMS workshop proposal drafted by Christian Keathley, author of the must-read essay ‘La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia’, in Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism. London: Routledge, 2011]


    [H]apticity — a grasp of what can be sensed of an object in close contact with it — seems to me now to be very helpful in conceiving what can take place in the process of creating videographic film studies. It can also help us more fully to understand videographic studies as objects to be experienced themselves.

    In the old days, the only people who really got to touch films were those who worked on them, particularly film editors. As Annette Michelson (1990) and others have argued, the democratization of the ‘heady delights’ of editing (Michelson, 1990: 22) was brought about by the introduction of video technology in the 1970s and 80s. Now, with the relatively wide availability of digital technology, we can even more easily share ‘the euphoria one feels at the editing table […] a sharpening cognitive focus and […] a ludic sovereignty, grounded in that deep gratification of a fantasy of infantile omnipotence ” [Michelson, 1990: 23].

    But, are there other ways in which ‘touching film’ is just a fantasy? In videographic film studies, do videographers actually touch or handle the real matter of the film? Or are we only ever able to touch upon the film experience? Our film experiences? Do video essays only make objects of, or objectify, our film experiences, our insuperable memories of them, our own cinematic projections?

    These questions may not flag up significantly new limitations. Film critical video essays do seem to work, it seems to me, in the same ‘intersubjective’ zone as that of written film criticism. As Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton argue of this zone, ‘we are immersed in the film as the critic sees it, hence brought to share a deeply involved perspective’ (2011: 9).

    Yet, in videographical criticism, is there not a different intersubjective relation, a more transitional one, to the physicality or materiality of the objective elements of films that the video essays reproduce? Like written essays, video essays may well ‘”stir our recall”‘ (Klevan and Clayton, 2011: 9) of a film moment or sequence, but they usually do this by confronting us with a replay of the actual sequence, too. How might this difference count?

    If nothing else, this confrontation with, or, to put it more gently, this inevitable re-immersion in the film experience, ought to make videographic critics pursue humility in their analytical observations with an even greater focus, make them especially ‘willing to alter [their analyses] according to what [they come into] contact with […] give up ideas when they stop touching the other’s surface’ (Marks, 2004: 80).

    A further, built-in, random element in non-linear digital video editing — the fact that this process frequently confronts the editor with graphic matter from the film (e.g. thumbnails) that s/he may not specifically have chosen to dwell on — may also encourage a particularly humble, usefully (at times) non-instrumental form of looking that Swalwell (2002) detects in Marks’ notion of hapticity.

    As Marks writes, ‘Whether criticism is haptic, in touch with its object, is a matter of the point at which the words lift off’ (2004: 80). Haptic criticism must be what happens, then, when the words don’t lift off the surface of the film object, if they (or any of the other film-analytical elements conveyed through montage or other non-linear editing techniques and tools) remain on the surface of the film object, as they often do in videographic film studies. In addition to this, video essays on films may often be an especially ‘superficial‘ form of criticism, frequently using slow motion or zoom-in effects to allow those experiencing them to close in on the grain or detail of the film image.

    With so many words, or other filmanalytical strategies, simultaneously available to be sensed on the surface of the image and, in terms of sound strategies (such as voiceovers or other added elements), seeming to emanate from it, videographical film studies may be curiously haptic objects, then. It is useful to remember that the art historical concept of haptic visuality emerged from the scholarly and artistic traditions of formalism, which made procedures such as defamiliarization central to their practice. Defamiliarization — the uncanny distancing effect of an altered perspective on (such as a hyper-proximity to) an otherwise familiar object — may be one of the greatest benefits of the particular hapticity of videographical film criticism. [Catherine Grant, ‘Touching the Film Object’, Filmanalytical, August 29, 2011: citing Laura U. Marks, ‘Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes’, Framework” the Finnish Art Review, No. 2, 2004 (large pdf – scroll down to p. 79); Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton, ‘Introduction’, in Clayton and Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism. London: Routledge, 2011; and Michelson,  Annette, ‘The Kinetic Icon in the work of Mourning: Prolegomena for the Analysis of a Textual System,’ October 52 (Spring 1990)]


    One of the elements that Film Studies For Free appreciates most about online audiovisual film studies (film studies in digital video forms) are the phenomenological possibilities they offer viewers for the experiencing of moving image and sound juxtapositions in real time. We can synchronously feel, as well as know about, the comparisons they make. In other words, unlike written texts, they don’t have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us. [Catherine Grant, ‘Garden of forking paths? Hitchcock’s BLACKMAILs – a real-time comparison’, Film Studies For Free, March 12, 2012]


    What interests me most in academic study is the exploration of what Gérard Genette called “transtextuality”, that is to say, “everything that brings the text into relation (manifest or hidden) with other texts” (Genette, Palimpsestes, 1992: 81). Sometimes this interest alights on matters of cultural influence and film authorship (see here, for example), but often it focuses itself on the issue of the recognition of cinematic interconnectedness.

    Now, in an age of digital and multimedia scholarship, how better to explore filmic connections of different kinds than to use the format of the video mashup? [This video essay on Peeping Tom and Code Unknown] is, then, the first in a series of “scholarly mashups” […] examining the obvious and obscure connections between particular films in ways that are both striking and, hopefully, more precisely illuminating with regard to their form as films, than comparisons performed purely in non-audiovisual formats might be. [Catherine Grant, ‘True likeness: Peeping Tom and Code inconnu/Code Unknown’, Filmanalytical, June 26, 2010]

    Here is the second entry in a mini-series of posts here at Film Studies For Free on the practical possibilities for, and the critical debates about, audiovisual film studies research and ‘publication’.

    Today the focus is on two of film scholarship’s emergent forms, much loved by FSFF: video essays on, or scholarly remixes about, film. The above quotations draw attention to the range of issues these forms  raise for film studies: from the changes they involve in the processes of film studies research to the questions they pose about its publication forms and knowledge effects, as well as the possible roles for creativity and affect in our discipline.

    The occasion for this latest meditation is an upcoming workshop discussion at the annual conference of the U.S. Society for Cinema and Media Studies. But  there are also a whole raft of online developments in, and other important, recent, publications on, this genre that FSFF wanted to flag up. Those are listed below.

    Beneath all the links you will find embedded versions of some of the online video essays by FSFF‘s very talented, fellow workshop panellists and respondents in Boston. (You can find all of FSFF‘s audiovisual essays here).

    If you are able to come to the workshop, hurray! Do please say hello to us all at the end! If you can’t come but would like us to discuss any questions you have about video essays, do post those in the comments below. Thanks.

    FSFF will take a little blogging break during and after the SCMS conference, but will tirelessly tweet during the conference, reporting on panels attended and other events. So do please follow @filmstudiesff if you’d like those updates.

    Otherwise, see you back here sometime in early April.

    Christian Keathley, Pass the Salt

    Garden of forking paths? Hitchcock’s BLACKMAILs – a real-time comparison

    Having begun production as a silent film, the studio, British International Pictures, decided to convert [Blackmail (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)] to sound during shooting. A silent version was released [probably only in Britain] for theaters not equipped for sound (at 6740 feet), with the sound version (7136 feet) released at the same time.[*] The silent version still exists in the British Film Institute collection.[**] [Blackmail Wikipedia entry, last accessed March 12, 2012]
    Critic and historian Charles Barr, in his 1976 article “Blackmail: Silent and Sound”, in which he closely compares the two versions, notes that the silent version shows Hitchcock striving to escape a ‘theatrical’ style in which the action is generally viewed face on, with the camera occupying the position of the ‘fourth wall’. In a theatre, this represents the position of the proscenium arch, which marks the boundary between a conventional stage and the audience.
         In the silent version, Hitchcock experimented with changing the position of the camera within a scene, and tried to avoid ‘face-on’ set-ups, that is, where the camera is placed at ninety degrees to the action. Because of the limitations of sound at this early stage – for example the need to position the microphone where it can pick up all of the actors in the scene but cannot be seen – Hitchcock was obliged to adopt a less experimental approach in the framing of the sound version. [Mark Duguid, ‘Hitchcock’s Style’, BFI Screenonline]
    Although 1929 was rather late for a “first” sound film, the delay enabled Hitchcock to produce an advanced meditation on the possible uses of sound. The text incorporates silent footage (lifted whole from the original silent version, made immediately prior to the sound version), which allows for a series of comparisons/contrasts between sound and silents/silence. The conceit of this early sound film is an attempt to keep a man silent (paying off a blackmailer). The heroine spends over a third of the film virtually speechless. When she finally speaks, her boyfriend urges her to keep quiet. The dialogue is laughably banal, yet the right word can cut like a knife. The opening scene, an exciting silent chase, is immediately contrasted with a poorly dubbed, confusingly cut dialogue scene that seems as if it will never end. But before we glibly assume silents were “better” movies, sound becomes a moral force, while silence is linked with corruption and moral lassitude.
         The text’s position on “sound plus image” versus “image alone” is carefully paralleled with the depiction of Alice. Thematically, she veers from one extreme to the other. She is introduced as a chatterbox. After a violent assault, she becomes almost catatonic. Finally, she accepts speech as a moral imperative, achieving maturity and the audience’s respect before slipping back under patriarchal control and enforced silence. Alice White becomes Hitchcock’s personification of the course the sound film must take. [Amy Lawrence, Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 119]

    Hitchcock first makes us aware that he is distorting the sound track subjectively when he exaggerates the loudness of bird chirpings to stress Alice’s agitation on the morning after the murder. When the mother enters Alice’s bedroom to wake her, she uncovers the cage of Alice’s canary. Once the mother leaves the room, the bird’s chirping is loudly insistent while the girl takes off the clothes she wore the night before and puts on fresh ones. The chirps are loudest, unnaturally so, when she is looking at herself in the mirror, the most “interior” action she performs while dressing. The sound reminds us of the tiny, birdlike jerkings that the girl made immediately after stabbing the artist. Just after the knife sequence there is another subjective distortion of sound, when a customer rings a bell as he enters the store. We are in the breakfast parlor, and yet the bell resonates much more loudly than it does elsewhere in the film. The camera is on a close-up of Alice’s face to indicate that it is her point of view, once again, from which we hear.
         In a sense the use of bird noises in the bedroom scene should be distinguished from the other techniques mentioned here. Whereas aural restriction and distortion of loudness are related to character point of view, the choice specifically of bird sounds has a particular meaning for Hitchcock independent of the film. This sequence marks the beginning of an ongoing association of murder and bird noises in Hitchcock’s mind that accrues meaning from film to film, from Blackmail and Murder through Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Psycho, and culminates in The Birds. [Elizabeth Weiss, ‘Chapter 2: First Experiments with Sound: Blackmail and Murder in The Silent Scream – Alfred Hitchcock’s Soundtrack (Rutherford, Fairleigh: Dickinson University Press, 1982) p. 46]

    One of the elements that Film Studies For Free appreciates most about online audiovisual film studies (film studies in digital video forms) are the phenomenological possibilities they offer viewers for the experiencing of moving image and sound juxtapositions in real time. We can synchronously feel, as well as know about, the comparisons they make. In other words, unlike written texts, they don’t have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us.

    Embedded above is FSFF‘s homemade example of this kind of simple, more or less medium-specific, eloquence: a real-time video juxtaposition, made for the purposes of scholarly comparison, of corresponding sequences from the silent and sound versions of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Blackmail (1929). It is a work intended to supplement the contribution of an earlier blog entry here, entitled Thrilling the Ears: Sound in Hitchcock’s cinema in which the two sequences were separately embedded.

    But it is also intended to publicise FSFF‘s support, as ever, for the very relevant For the Love of Film Preservation Blogathon which will take place this year between May 13-18, 2012 . The blogathon has a Hitchcock theme and will support an important film preservation and dissemination project focusing on an early ‘Hitchcock film’: The White Shadow (1923).

    You can read more about the blogathon below, and much more about it at the linked-to websites. But suffice to say this may not be the last Hitchcockian video study here at Film Studies For Free this Spring!

    It’s time to reveal our fundraising project for 2012: Online streaming and recording of the new score for THE WHITE SHADOW, directed by Graham Cutts and everything else done by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s all about access this year, folks. [For the Love of Film Preservation Blogathon Facebook page, February 1, 2012]

    The good people at National Film Preservation Foundation are committed to making many of the films they have rescued available for cost-free viewing by streaming them on their website. But online hosting ain’t cheap. NFPF estimates that it will cost $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months and record the score. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice. [Marilyn Ferdinand introducing the cause supported by this year’s For the Love of Film [Hitchcock] Blogathon at her website Ferdy on Films]