New Thresholds of Perception: Representations of Altered States in Early Cinema – Marie-Louise Hillcoat


In his book Life to Those Shadows, Noel Burch argues that early cinema (prior to 1908)cannot be interpreted within an evolutionary approach to history in which the first decade of cinema comes to occupy a primitive, less developed stage in relation to later narrative cinema (Burch 164-9). [1]   As a number of film scholars have further elaborated, the diverse range of screen/spectator relations in the early cinema context should be viewed as symptomatic of a new medium that had not yet coalesced within the aesthetic and institutional conventions of the more familiar continuity narrative system (Burch 164-9; Musser 5; Abel 60; Miriam Hansen 23-5). This historical revision of early cinema attempts to resist reading cinematic history as an inevitable and natural trajectory from less developed to more sophisticated forms of narrative. Instead, early cinema’s exploration of non-narrative effects, the presentational as opposed to representational properties of film, are understood as producing a certain alterity, a range of possibilities that exist prior to the institutionalised acceptance of film as a primarily narrative form (Hansen 23-5).

Recuperating early cinema’s difference from later modes of filmic narration provides ways of opening up, not only assumptions about cinema’s historiography, but also analyses about the role that perception plays in screen/spectator relations.  That is, the way in which film might address, impact upon and even adjust viewers’ sense-perceptions in ways that are not necessarily reducible to semiotic and narrative meanings (Shaviro 52) . As I will describe in more detail shortly, in contrast to early cinema, continuity modes of  narration are seen to privilege the coherence of narrative logic and causality over the potentially disorienting impact of cinematic perception; over the capacity of cinema to produce altered perceptions of time, space and motion through devices including editing, camera angles, camera movement, close ups and slow motion. As David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson (citing Thomas Elsaesser) note, the causality of classical narrative “helps the viewer ‘manage’ the potentially disturbing nature of the film-viewing context” (44). In the early cinema context, however, this “disturbing” quality, what I am referring to here as cinema’s perceptual disorientation, is made manifest; it does not lie beneath narrative cohesion, but functions, to use Tom Gunning’s terminology, as one of the primary “attractions” (“Non-Contintuity” 100; “An Aesthetics” 41, 37-38).

This historical revision of the specificity of early cinema’s modes of address is perhaps most famously articulated in Gunning’s article “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Cinema and the (In)credulous Spectator”(1989). In this article, Gunning notes that early cinema privileged the heightening and display of film’s immediate sensory impact over causal narratives and “developing situations” (38). But, as André Gaudreault and others note (including Gunning in an earlier article) [2], a simple polarisation that aligns, on the one side, continuity narrative with representational effects, and on the other, early cinema with non-narrative, presentational effects, can underestimate the role that narrative and representation played in early cinema, contributing to the diversity of screen/spectator relations at this time. [3]A cluster of films, produced and screened in France, England and the United States, that I will focus on here, depict fictional characters’ altered states of perception, providing interesting examples of the ways in which a number of early films did “tell” and “represent” stories, but used modes of narration that remain distinct from those employed in later forms of continuity narrative. 

In films as diverse as Georges Méliès’ Le Rêve du Maitre de Ballet (1903), the Pathé Freres’ film Histoire d’un Crime (1901), Edwin Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1902-3) and Porter’s film The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1901), the subjective states of characters are represented as: magical fantasies (in Le Rêve du Maitre de Ballet); as dreams of past events (in Histoire d’un Crime); as possible premonitions (in The Life of an American Fireman) and as intoxicated hallucinations (in The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend). Other films including Grandma’s Reading Glass (Smith 1900), As Seen Through a Telscope (Smith 1900) and Uncle Josh at the Moving Pictures Show (Porter 1902) represent characters’ perceptions that have been distorted by technological devices such as magnifying glasses, telescopes and the cinema screen itself. [4] Gunning describes “the many dream” films of early cinema as belonging to an “attractions” tradition, but at the same time, through their use of dream narratives, situates them as “ancestors of later dominant practice” . [5] These representations of characters’ altered states share an emphasis on how characters perceive and, more precisely, on the susceptibility of perception to altering and distorting effects. The prevalent representation of “altered perceptual states” in a context characterised by its disorienting presentational effects seems hardly surprising. Yet, films employing narratives about altered perceptual experience, about dreams, memories, hallucinations and intoxication tend to be interpreted as “domesticating” and “naturalising” the “alternative” modes of address that this early context offered (Gunning, “Non-Continuity” 90, 94;  Abel 179).

Because these films at once describe and produce altered states of perception for their audience, they complicate the polarisation between representation and presentation that is often used to distinguish early cinema from later narrative film contexts. As I will argue here, it is precisely because of this complication that these films warrant closer analysis. While they rely on narratives that explain and individuate the impossible perceptual effects of early cinema, they do so in ways that are not easily reduced to primitive forms of later continuity modes of narration. As the following filmic examples will help to illustrate, interpreting early films that depict altered states of perception necessitates a slight shift from an emphasis on early cinema’s direct sensory impact to include a broader notion of perception and its impact on viewers. In her book, The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics, Sara Danius uses a notion of aesthetics which draws on sensory perception in “both a strictly physiological sense as in ‘sensation’, and a mental sense, as in ‘apprehension'” (6) . This interpretation of perception, involving both sensation and thought, is one that might open up an understanding of perceptual address in early cinema beyond the effects of “immediate sensations” to include modes of narration that still conflict with the impetus of classical Hollywood’s narrative strategies.

Perceptual Modes of Address in Early Cinema

Gunning argues that early films did not try to represent reality or an enclosed fictional world, but played on and heightened the perceptual impact of the “impossible transformations” produced by moving images on the audience (“An Aesthetics” 34) . For example, what was on display at the first screening of the Lumière Brother’s A Train Arrives at the Station (1895)(a single shot film in which a trai
n literally arrives at a station) was not so much the force of the speed of a train (the representation of a train) but the force and effect of the moving picture itself. The representation of the train is important only in so far as it becomes the vehicle through which the new perceptual effects and sensations of the moving image can be displayed and presented (Gunning, “An Aesthetics” 35) . As Gunning points out, by presenting the train first as a still image and then by slowly cranking the projector revealing its forward motion, these early presentations “strongly heightened the impact of the moment of movement. [.] the spectator is astonished by [.] the new illusion of projected motion” (“An Aesthetics” 34) . Though already well versed in the altering perceptual effects of earlier technologies and spectacles such as optical toys, magic shows, magic theatre and the projected illusions of the magic lantern (Crary, 104-136), the “force” of this perceptual encounter with moving photographic images, Gunning argues, still produced a response of “astonishment”(“An Aesthetics” 35). This was because of the “unbelievable visual transformation occurring before their eyes”, one that Gunning describes as “parallel to the greatest wonders of the magic theatre” (35). In a range of other films, the impossible transformations performed by new cinematic devices were often framed within the context and traditions of magic spectacles in, for example, trick films and féeries (Abel 61-86).

Astonishing perceptual effects are presented directly to the audience, and by this Gunning means without recourse to a story or developing narrative. The presentational effects produced by screenings of A Train Arrives at the Station were exploited and privileged over the impetus to produce engaging narrative action and empathetic character psychology (Gunning “An Aesthetics” 36). A Train Arrives at the Station does not appear within a series of “developing situations,” its images do not contribute to a larger fictional story according to the dictates of the later continuity system. Gunning describes how  the spectator is not able to get lost in a fictional world that takes place within screen space, but remains aware of the act of presentation; as he writes, “through a variety of formal means, the images of the cinema of attractions rush forward to meet their viewers” (“An Aesthetics” 36). Rather than absorbing the spectator within them, images on screen are designed to move out into the extra-diegetic space of the venue, addressing the audience through their immediate sensory impact (such as the moving image of the train rushing toward the audience). It is in this sense that Gunning comes to describe the early cinema of “attractions” as a cinema of immediate sensations: “this was a cinema of instants rather than developing situations” (“An Aesthetics” 38).

In France, England and the United States films were often presented by a local showman/monstrator (one who shows) whose role was to present the films to audiences, emphasising the act and gesture of display (Gaudreault 110-19; Barnes 34; Musser 103-56) . Gunning describes the important role that this exhibitor or showman played in the promotion and display of the cinema’s “astonishing” perceptual capacities (“An Aesthetics” 37). Not unlike the magician of the magic theatre, these showmen focused audience attention on the attraction of the film; the film would, in turn, perform its “act of display” and then “fade away”(Gunning “An Aesthetics” 37).The synopses of many films found in industry catalogues are punctuated by the “attraction” of particular devices described in detail, often as “fine effects”; such catalogues provided guides to the key points of interest in films for exhibitors (in Barnes 34). Charles Musser describes how the showman, rather than the films, gave the program (made up of a variety of different films and other acts/attractions) its structure (5), and this structure, Gunning argues is determined by the act and gesture of monstration (showing/display) “that founds the cinema of attractions”(“An Aesthetics” 37). [6]

Films were presented/displayed from within the extra-diegetic realm of the venue, rather than from within the spatial and temporal organisation of diegetic screen space. This contributes to what Noel Burch describes as the positioning of the early spectator in an external relation to the screen. The notion of an “external” spectator, however, is not equivalent to the distancing of the spectator; rather, the presentation of films (and this also includes their spatial organisation and framing, as I will discuss) addressed and emphasised a materially present perceiving spectator firmly located within the space of the venue (Lant 69-70). Sean Cubbitt describes the extra-diegetic positioning of the spectator in early cinema as activating rather than absorbing its audiences, as mobilizing spectators in a scoial sense, “as hectic and excited participants in an event that leads them not to contemplation but to sharing” (15-16).

Psychological Screen Space in Continuity Narration

In contrast to the early cinema context, narrative films based on the system of continuity narration, aim to direct attention away from the extra-diegetic space of the cinema context as well as from cinema’s presentational effects; from direct address and the disorienting effects of its perceptual schemata and devices. Here, I am not referring to classical cinema as an undifferentiated whole, but to those modes of continuity narration employed in this (and later) contexts that enable viewers to watch an entire feature film without necessarily noticing the transformations of time, space and motion performed by editing, camera angles, movement and so on. In continuity modes of narration, as Noel Burch describes, the camera has a certain ubiquity that enables it to turn back on itself in any situation without, at the same time, showing itself or the effects of this multi-directional movement (218) . Tom Gunning takes up Burch’s notion of the camera’s ubiquity when he describes how “the classical film can absorb sudden ubiquitous switches in viewpoint into an act of storytelling, creating a cinema whose role is less display than articulating a story” (“‘Primitive’ Cinema” 101) . The dis-continuity of editing, the juxtaposition of jarring contrasts between long shots and close ups, or between shot-reverse-shot sequences, is often smoothed over through a forward moving narrative directed by the looks of and between characters (Elsaesser 296).

Through continuity narration, for example, the camera viewpoint that at one moment shows a particular character in frame might suddenly cut to a shot of another character. Through sight lines and other cues of the mise-en-scene (and also sound), the second character, though now suddenly facing the camera, can be read on an imaginary level as occupying the space directly in front of the first character, thus occupying the place where the first character looks. This basic shot-reverse-shot is just one example of how continuity narration directs attention away from its presentation toward its imaginary unfolding narrative. It also exemplifies how this narrative system, through the juxtaposition of different spatial zones, can create the illusion of a unitary spatial depth, one that begins to encircle the spectator (on an imaginary level) within the film’s diegesis and characters’ imagined points of view (Elsaesser 304).  This depends, as Elsassaer notes, on establishing a sense of off-screen space that the spectator can continue to imagine, to hold in their minds, and build on through the progression of different looks, angles and “developing situations” (299) . In this mode of narration, filmic space becomes inextricably imbued with both imaginary processes and fictional mean
ing. As Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson point out, this fictional meaning can also aim to “personalise” screen space through its dependence on psychological causality (54). Miriam Hansen points out that in order to enter screen space successfully the spectator must do so on a psychological/imaginary level; a level in which the very corporeality of sense impressions necessary for such spatialisation to occur is made less noticeable ( Hansen 23).   Elsaesser goes on to describe how in films employing continuity narration  “a dramatisation occurs of the spectator’s space (now located not somewhere in the auditorium, and instead at the imaginary apex of a textual geometry)” ( 304) .

The extraordinary capacity of continuity based forms of narrative to subordinate the discontinuity of film’s complex perceptual organisation to the effects of a psycholigically motivated story, to create the illusion of a centred and stable viewpoint, points to some of the important differences between continuity narration and early cinema’s emphasis on presentational effects. Of course, in this continuity system, the spectator’s attention can always be drawn to presentational effects, or indeed to the extra-diegetic (external) space of the auditorium that they occupy. Furthermore, the distinction between continuity narrative (often described as classical cinema) and early cinema is a problematic one because it often fails to describe the diversity of screen/spectator relations in both contexts. However, Elsassaer, Gunning, Hansen and Burch’s analysis of continuity screen space can help to contribute to an analysis of what Hansen refers to as early cinema’s “paradigmatic otherness”. This process of “othering” is used to retrieve and preserve early cinema’s sophisticated, though not always familiar, at times effaced, cinematic effects (Miriam Hansen 24) . In order that this “othering” does not inadvertently become reductive and limiting, it is important to continually redress and complicate the definitions and analyses used to differentiate early cinema from later narrative strategies. As I will explore here, such differences do not necessarily imply a polaristion between narrative and presentational effects, but, rather, a series of tensions between representational/presentational modes of narration that vary historically.

The Dream-Insert

The majority of representations of altered states in early cinema use the device of the framed insert to delimit a character’s altered perceptions. In films such as Santa Claus (Smith 1898), Histoire d’un Crime (Pathé 1901), Aladin ou La Lampe Merveilleuse (Pathé, 1906), La Fée des Roches Noires (Melies 1902), Cendrillon (Méliès 1899) and Life of an American Fireman (Porter 1902-3) each vision fades in and out through the use of double exposures that are framed within inserts superimposed onto dark areas of the screen; the inserts hover somewhere above or beside the character whose point of view they represent. In Hisoire d’un Crime (Pathé 1901) the dream-insert appears above a sleeping prisoner who awaits his execution the next morning. It remains unclear from the visual cue of the frame whose dream the insert actually depicts because it is positioned in closer proximity to a guard (who is also sleeping) than it is to the dreaming prisoner. A certain inter-textuality might help to explain the somewhat confusing events within the dream. A version of the story and its visual depiction already appeared in an illustrated crime magazine and also in a tableau of waxwork figures on show at the Musee Greve in Paris, the same year that the film was released (BFI/MOMI; Burch 113) . This prior knowledge of the events depicted might have helped explain/narrate the dream. A familiarity with other media such as strip cartoons, magic lantern shows, chromolithographs, images d’epinal and other illustrated magazines, which also frequently used inserts to depict dream states might also help to explain the purpose of the device (Burch 113,64; Musser 340-1; Barnes 33-5) . [7]

The demarcation of the frame within the frame bears the mark of a narrator who is not internalised within the spatial organisation of the film, but resides somewhere outside in the material realm of the wider social and “shared” contexts occupied by audience members. In Histoire d’un Crime, the narrative of altered dream states is important to the film, but it is not woven into the fabric of the film’s spatial organisation within a more evidently psychologised and absorbing use of screen space.  Instead, it hovers in an external relation, superimposed upon the screen through various sources, as one more layer among others that fail to coalesce within a single and coherent point of view.

The chronological ordering of events in Histoire d’un Crime, as John Fell points out, suggests a flashback, a memory rather than a dream, depicting events that lead up to the fatal crime (292). Because of its use of ellipses, this narrative within the insert points toward the perceptual schemata of montage often associated with continuity forms of narration.  But the spatial presentation of the dream/flashback within the larger frame also works against this reading. The dream-insert of Hisoire d’un Crime presents a different temporal zone from what takes place within the larger frame, depicting past events simultaneously within the present time/space of the sleeping man who remains present throughout the duration of his dream. The co-existence of past events within the present time/space of the dreamer produces a layering of different temporal and spatial zones that never coalesce within a single viewpoint. By cutting between a shot of the sleeping prisoner to a shot of the dream-view that fills the screen, an imaginary representation of space could be produced, emanating and unfolding in a more “interiorised” sense, from a singular and centred point of view shared by both spectator and character. Instead, the layering of co-existing incommensurable zones in Histoire d’un Crime produces a perceptual schemata that, as Steven Shaviro has described elsewhere, exists somewhere below or above everyday thresholds of human perception (51). A range of other films and earlier optical spectacles such as those listed above, present “dream states” through this kind of spatial organisation in which the character remains present through out, and external to the dream. Without the use of perceptual viewpoints that exclude (erase) the figure of the dreamer, the spectator cannot be dramatised into the screen’s space at the apex of an imaginary “textual geometry” (Elsaesser 304) that places them inside the character’s head/dream state.

In his book Techniques of the Observer, Jonathon Crary points out that the camera obscura model of perception, upon which the renaissance, centred, singular sense of receding depth is based, “prevents the observer from seeing his or her position as part of the representation” (41). Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson link this renaissance use of centred space with the continuity system of narration (50-1); both forms of representation share a similar emphasis on the erasure of the continued presence and materiality of the figure of the character and viewer. In contrast, the externality of both the character and the spectator in films employing the dream-insert actually adds to, rather than detracts from an apprehension of their material presence. Such films enact what Antonia Lant describes as “a particular fascination with the perceiving spectator,” making the spectator feel and “apprehend” cinematic effects from a present, material and embodied position (not unlike the perceiving character in the film) ( 48) .

Gunning draws on Gaudreault’s use of the term monstrator (one who shows) to elaborate a rea
ding of how the fixed frame, common to many early films, does not function to construct and narrate a story, but rather to heighten the effect of display (” ‘Primitive’ Cinema” 99-100). As Gunning notes, if the early showman of early cinema is less a narrator “than a monstrator, we must recognise the monstrator’s mark in the act of framing” (“‘Primitive’ Cinema” 101) . While Gunning is concerned with an analysis of monstration that produces non-narrative effects, narration is an important part of the framed insert employed in Histoire d’un Crime, even if this remains largely external to the screen. In Histoire d’un Crime, the device of superimposition, is not presented directly to the audience, as the effects of the moving image (in the shape of the train) are presented in A Train Arrives at the Station (Lumiere Brothers 1895). The direct impact of the superimposition is instead re-presented through the narrative of the dream-state, as a screen within the larger screen space. Yet, through its framing within the larger frame, this narrational device, rather than erasing, draws attention to its  “impossible” perceptual schemata; that is, to the different incommensurable zones of time/space it presents. In this sense the frame also bears the mark of the monstrator, drawing attention to the films perceptual virtuosity and possibilities.

In a very different context, Jodi Brooks describes the act of monstration in film as drawing attention “both to what it indicates and to the very act of indication”(82). In Histoire d’un Crime, the frame presents dream-visions to both characters and audience. The figural relation between the character and his dream mimics the mode of display/indication used to position the early spectator in an external relation to the screen. Bearing the mark of monstration, the frame of the insert continues to preserve the phantom gesture of the early showman (monstrator) that served to display/show the technological ingenuity of new moving images. And in preserving this gesture of the showman within the frame of the insert, it is not only the technological device that is on display but the mode of indication used to display such devices. The frame of the insert becomes a kind of display within the larger frame, producing a display of display. While representing a dream state, the film employs a topographical mode of narration that serves to heighten the technological ingenuity and perceptual thresholds displayed by the device of the insert, as well as the very mode of indication through which this device is displayed. Rather than smoothing over the impact of cinematic perception, it draws attention both to it and to the screen/spectator relations structuring its presentation. Because Histoire d’un Crime draws attention to the presentational effects of cinema at the same time as operating within a fictional, representational realm, the tensions between narrative and perceptual effects are played out in a way that produces a level beyond the immediate impact of “sense” impressions. The “display of display” involves a certain self-referential gesture that might possibly enable the audience to “apprehend” their own relations to the screen.

Non-Continuity Narrative and Dream States

In the British film by G.A. Smith Let Me Dream Again (1900) and its French remake by Zecca for the Pathé Frères, Rêve et Réalité (1901), a transition device is used to differentiate the dream from the “real” space of the bedroom of the dreamer. In each film the first shot shows a man drinking and flirting with a younger woman, in the next he is waking up in bed beside his older and less attractive wife. In contrast to Histoire d’un Crime, and many other dream films from this time, these films use a transitional cut to create the dream space which takes place through the character’s perceptual point of view, erasing his continued presence within the frame. Although this transition allows the dream to fill screen space drawing viewer and character into a perceptual alignment, it does not provide a centred and coherent viewpoint; rather, it unfolds in an abrupt and disorienting manner. Gunning differentiates the use of the transition/cut in Let Me Dream Again and Rêve et Réalité from other early films using the same device according to a distinction between what he describes as “non-continuity” and “dis-continuity” styles. For Gunning, “dis-continuity” heightens the disruption or shock of the cut, the sudden juxtaposition of different spatial and temporal zones as an attraction in and of itself, and thus belongs firmly within the traditions of early cinema’s immediate sensations (“Non-Continuity” 90). “Non-continuity” is when the disruption caused by cutting from one shot to another becomes part of the story. In “non-continuity,” the discontinuity between shots becomes aligned with the discontinuity between dreams and life; the disruption of the cut becomes naturalised within the dream/reality distinction articulated by the story (Gunning, “Non-Continuity” 90).

Gunning describes the films’ narratives as “domesticating” the disruptive effects of the transition/cut by imbuing the device with fictional and explanatory power. But there is perhaps something more to these narrative strategies than “naturalising” early cinema’s perceptual effects.In Let Me Dream Again and Rêve et Réalité the cut or transition doubles as a (fictional) framing device; the disruption it produces between the first shot (the dream state) and the second shot (the waking state) imbues the first shot with a fictional “restricted” narration. It is only through the cut/transition to the second shot of the man waking up, that the first shot is revealed as a restricted point of view: the man’s dream. The cut and the second shot retroactively produce this narration: we do not know this is a dream until the second shot appears in which the man wakes up in bed. While this produces a more coherent explanation of the films’ perceptual discontinuity, the narration, rather than smoothing over, still adds to the disorienting effect of the transition/cut. By fictionalising the transition between shots the audience is not only jolted by the cut, but by the revelation that the previous shot takes place through a particular viewpoint that has escaped their notice or perception. By using the cut as a retroactive mode of restricted narration, the “altered state” becomes perceptible after the fact, requiring a kind of double take, a testing, followed by an adjusting of perceptual orientation. The vulnerability of human sense perception, its susceptibility to deception is here exploited by the manipulations of a cinematic device that is conjoined to and heightened by the narrative of the altered dream-state.  Narrative re-directs cinematic effects not only into the realm of fictional explanation, but into further layers of temporal/spatial disorientation and adjustment.

The perceptual encounter produced by these films is not so immediate, nor purely sensory, but requires a retroactive perceptual adjustment that takes place at the level of “apprehension,” conjoining sense and thought in a way that is not simply reducible to the psychological processes of the dreaming/waking character. The trick of the film, its primary “gag,” along the lines of ” and then I woke up,” depends on the vulnerability of the viewer’s perceptual faculties in the face of the device of the cut/transition; this vulnerability is produced through both the immediate perceptual encounter with the cut (between incommensurate spatial/temporal zones) and its less immediate fictionality. The use of narrative to play upon and deceive perception in these films can be linked to similar devices that Stephen G. Behrendt explores in relation to eighteenth century literature. Behrendt describ
es how writers such as Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne often finished passages with abrupt direct addresses to the reader producing an irritating disruption to the fictional flow of narrative (43-4). Here, Behrendt offers a reading of narrative form that does not attempt to create an enclosed, imaginary fictional world. Rather than drawing the reader into the fictional realm of the character, producing fluid modes of identification, it is the perceptual responses of readers (outside the world of the text) that are heightened. Behrendt decribes this disruption as a kind of trompe l’oeil effect because the author violates “our presumptions and expectations, by seeming to invoke clear, particular schemata when he is in fact conjuring up entirely different ones” (43) . Such interruptions to narrative logic, Behrendt argues, obliterates the frame of illusion, forcing the content of the text to transform before the reader’s eyes, and he goes on to write:

such works are serious practical explorations of the mind’s operation that force the reader/viewer to apprehend not only the works themselves but also the process by which he perceives and assesses them” (38) . In this sense, this form of narration does not “naturalise,” but heightens perceptual modes of disorientation.

The perceptually driven narratives of these non-continuity dream films incite a testing and adjusting of the limits and interactions between sense impressions, apprehension and cinematic effects. Like the eighteenth century narratives described by Behrendt, this enacts a particular kind of narration concerned with directly addressing a perceiving subject and the processes through which she/he senses and apprehends. This emphasis on the viewer’s perceptual response is one that lends the characters in the films figural rather than emotional roles. Any seamless identification with the character is broken by the “obliteration of illusion” itself, by the primary purpose of the film to perform a “trick” at a perceptual, rather than psychological level. The representation of characters’ points of views does not aim to create a psychologically motivated screen space, but rather a perceptual encounter through which the viewer at once feels and apprehends their place in the exterior realm of the venue.

Richard Abel describes how certain dream films from this context use filmic devices not as magical forms of wonder, but to represent “real world” perceptual aberrations emanating from individual characters (179). Because these films are structured by more individuated uses of effects to represent characters’ points of view, it might be argued that they form a certain trajectory moving toward continuity narrative cinema. But they also appear in earlier spectacles such as the magic lantern shows, chromolithographs, images d’epinal and other illustrated magazines and various comic strips pre-dating the invention of film ( Burch 113,64; Musser 340-1; Barnes 33-5) .

Their prevalence within the traditions of spectacles of wonder and new optical technologies perhaps suggests a different reading than one that places them within an evolutionary framework in relation to later narrative cinema. Abel’s reading also suggests that narratives about altered states of perception in early cinema re-direct the effects of the magical theatre/early cinema traditions into the realm of everyday life. This is an interesting point, not because it supports the notion that such films initiate early forms of psychological realism, but because it points to the ways in which these films conjoin spectacles of wonder and astonishment with the perceptual dis-orientations of everyday life.

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin observes that human sense perception is not just “natural,” but determined by historical conditions and transformations (216). Benjamin shows a certain fascination with modern perceptual technologies that continually test, confuse and adjust human sense-perception; that is, with the way such technologies, including cinema, produce altered states of perception (in Cook 217) . And Benjamin links the impact of these new technologies, especially cinema, to the historical changes within everyday experience. As he writes in a footnote from this essay:

” The film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus – changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen” (243).

By re-directing the immediate sensations of perceptual impossibilities produced by filmic effects into narratives about “real world” perceptual “aberrations” (in these cases dreaming), rather than pointing toward later narrative forms of cinema, the films described above might be seen as pointing toward the disorienting changes in modern perception taking place at this time. Describing early cinema in more general terms, Sean Cubbitt puts it this way: “Social, public and active, the event of cinema articulated the modernisation of urban experience”(17).

In the films described above, this articulation of modern experience does not depend on containing the representation of characters’ disorienting perceptual viewpoints within the diegetic space of the screen. Instead, this articulation depends on the heightened and distorted perceptual responses of the viewer located in the extra-diegetic ‘public’ space of the venue. Designed and directed toward this materially present viewer, this mode of narration resists representing an enclosed fictional world and rather develops a more perceptual address (as a social event) associated with the early cinema context. At the same time, these films aim to produce not only perceptual disorientations in viewers, but also describe these “altered” sensations as taking place within a fictional everyday context. In this move toward de-centring the perceiving spectator, but also linking this sensation to everyday life, the films open up the possibilities of apprehending the connections that might exist between perceptual disorientation and modern experience (including the modern urban cinema experience itself). At this historical moment, it is precisely the fascination with perception, with its capacity to “alter”, deceive, contest and adjust the limits of everyday experience that these narratives of “altered states,” rather than domesticating, set out to further dramatise.

Attempting to address early films about altered states in relation to their specific modes of address and narration (in more detail than space allows here) should help to contribute to interpretations of early cinema’s sophisticated, diverse and at times effaced cinematic effects (Miriam Hansen 24). Closer analyses can also begin to open up questions about how the diverse perceptual effects of early films about altered states might persist as historically embedded traces within more recent film contexts. In these later contexts, the disorienting effects produced by various forms of subjective narration might still continue to complicate polarisations between representational and perceptual modes of cinematic address, contributing to more diverse understandings of screen/spectator relations within narrative cinema.


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Aladin ou La Lampe Merveilleuse Pathé Frères 1906

As Seen Through a Telscope G.A. Smith 1900

Cendrillon George Melies 1899

Grandma’s Reading Glass G.A. Smith 1900

Histoire d’un Criminal  Pathé Frères 1901

La Fée des Roches Noires Georges Méliès 1902

Le Rêve du Maitre de Ballet  Georges Méliès 1903

Let Me Dream Again G.A. Smith 1900

Life of an American Fireman Porter 1902-3

Reve et Realite Pathe Freres 1901

The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend Edwin S. Porter 1901

Santa Claus G.A. Smith 1898

Uncle Josh at the Moving Pictures Show Edwin S.Porter 1902


[1] According to Tom Gunning, the early cinema period lasts until 1903-4 before the advent of more narrative films. See Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Cinema and the (in)Credulous Spectator,” Art and Text 34 (1989): 36.   Other film historians, however, such as André Gaudreault, Richard Abel and Miriam Hansen extend early cinema’s dates to 1908 and at times 1910. For Abel and Hansen, this periodisation is based not only on the growing dominance of longer narrative films, but on the shift in the exhibition context to permanent film venues. This latter periodisation is the one I am following, but, in any case, the films addressed here were made prior to 1902. See Richard Abel, The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994) 7, Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) 24. André Gaudreault “Temporality and Narrativity in Early Cinema, 1895-1908” in John L.Fell Film Before Griffith. (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1983) 311-329.

[2] See Tom Gunning “Le Style non-continu du cinema des premiers temps” Les Cahiers de la cinémathèque. 29 (Winter 1979): 24-34. See André Gaudreault “Temporality and Narrativity in Early Cinema, 1895-1908” (1983): 311-329.

[3] André Gaudreaultf “Temporality and Narrativity in Early Cinema, 1895-1908” 1983, 312-14. For work on the role of representation in early cinema see Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), Constance Balides, “Scenarios of Exposure in the Practice of Everyday Life: Women in the Cinema of Attractions,” Screen Histories: A Screen Reader, ed. Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), Linda Williams, “Corporealized Observers: Visual Pleasure and the ‘Carnal Density of Vision’,” Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).

[4] On the use of magnifying glasses and telescopes to represent point of view in early cinema see Ben Brewster, “Mode of Address: A Scene at the Movies,” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (London: British Film Institute).

[5] In an earlier article, Gunning points out that non-continuity should not be considered as exclusively constituting the ground from which continuity style develops although it does point to it. See Tom Gunning “Le Style non-continu du cinema des premiers temps” (1979): 24-34.

[6] Here Gunning draws on Andre Gaudreualt’s not
ion of the monstrator (one who shows). See Gunning “An Aesthetics of Attraction” (1989): 37. See also Tom Gunning, “‘Primitive’ Cinema: A Frame Up? Or, the Trick’s on Us,” Early Cinema : Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Adam Barker (London, Eng.: BFI Publishing, 1990). See also André Gaudreault, “Theatricality, Narrativity and ‘Trickality’: Re-Evaluating the Cinema of Georges Melies,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 15.3 (1987).

[7] Inserts were already common to Magic Lantern Shows that predate this cinema context and were often used to depict dream states. See John Barnes, 1898: The Rise of the Photoplay, Pioneers of the British Film : The Beginnings of  the Cinema in England 1894-1901, ed. John Barnes, vol. 3 (London: Bishopsgate Press Limited, 1983).One such cartoon strip by Windsor McCay”Dream of Rarebit Fiend”, which ran for a year in the New York Telegram (1904), was used by Edison in his film A Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1905) in Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon (Berkeley:Univeristy of California Press) 1991, 340-1.

Marie-Louise Hillcoat is a doctoral student in the Cinema Studies program at Melbourne University. She may be contacted on m.hillcoat