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Screening The Past -
“It is essential reading and serve to remind us of the richness of this period of cinema production for film scholarship.”
About the Author:
Jonathan Auerbach is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park
Let us begin by looking at a singular body, with important implications for the body politic: the president of the United States. William McKinley was the first U.S. presidential candidate to be filmed, appearing on-screen within six months after the earliest projected moving images had been commercially exhibited in the United States. Depicting McKinley campaigning near the end of the decisive 1896 election, the film inaugurated a long-standing intimacy between politics and cinema in twentieth-century America that would culminate in the presidency of the actor Ronald Reagan. William McKinley was also the first U.S. president whose funeral appeared on film, after he was assassinated in spectacular public fashion at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition by a lone gunman with shadowy left-wing ties. Eagerly viewed by audiences across the nation, the 1896 cinematic debut of the presidential candidate, as well as the tremendously popular 1901 films of his state burial, offer an important means to gauge the effects of a new kind of visual technology on the shaping of public opinion. Both in terms of how McKinley is embodied in these films, and of how these films were received, I seek to show how early cinema significantly altered Americans' understanding of the relation between public and private space-a question, if not a confusion, that clearly continues to plague the office of the president today, thanks largely to the intervention of mass media: television, video, the Internet, and snap opinion polls.
Working backward from Clinton, Reagan, and JFK to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fireside chats, scholars of mass communications often end up conferring the title of "first media president" on Theodore Roosevelt by virtue of TR's self-conscious public management of his manly physique and equally charming personality. Early in the century, Roosevelt dynamically courted the press, encouraged cartoons and caricatures, and mugged for the cameras, both moving and still. Yet the prior claim of McKinley on film offers perhaps a more intriguing case, in that the powerful mass media effects he occasioned had less to do with charismatic presence than the cinematic and cultural forces of production that served to render him incarnate. While there are certainly other ways to examine the relation between cinema and the public sphere at the turn of the twentieth century, these moving images of McKinley offer a useful focus, especially since the historical period they frame, 1896 to 1901, corresponds closely to crucial changes in the emerging medium of film and to key transformations in American politics.
It is important to realize that early cinema was a profoundly intermedial mode that emerged as a new sort of visual representation, one that drew heavily and conservatively on a wide range of established nineteenth-century cultural forms such as still photography, vaudeville routines, staged amusements and spectacles, popular magazine illustrations, and comic strips. We therefore must resist the teleological temptation to regard cinema strictly as a technological innovation carrying its own self-evident and self-contained meanings for audiences then and now. Film theorists during the 1970s frequently proposed psychoanalytically inflected accounts of "the cinematic apparatus" that tended to assume a single, unitary kind of movie spectatorship. Yet despite cinema's apparent appeal to the self-sufficient eye, viewers at the turn of the twentieth century had to learn how to read the moving images projected before them in relation to what they already knew and understood.
Early Cinema and the News
In the case of the McKinley films, audiences' prior cultural knowledge centered on newspapers and the news as a medium of mass communication. Film historian Charles Musser has emphasized how early cinema often functioned as a "visual newspaper" offering glimpses of the kinds of stories, events, and people that readers found in their daily newspapers. According to Musser, before the advent of fictional story films in 1903-4, the majority of films depicted "documentary-like subjects" ranging from simple everyday actualities that featured motion in the very early novelty years of cinema (feeding doves, crashing waves, and speeding trains) to historical events and personages such as Pope Leo XIII and McKinley. Beyond serving as a cultural point of reference for these early films, newspapers served more specifically on occasion as shooting scripts, allowing filmmakers like Siegmund Lubin to reproduce famous boxing matches, for example, by closely following the detailed blow-by-blow "body shot" accounts in the newspapers.
However useful as a starting point, the phrase visual newspaper requires far greater historical contextualizing and more precise attention to the differences between seeing bodies on-screen and reading about them in print-differences that can help us more carefully articulate conceptions of the public sphere. First, at the turn of the twentieth century virtually all newspapers relied on woodcut or steel line-engraved illustrations rather than photographs, so that "the motion picture news film provided a predominantly photographic kind of news coverage long before most newspapers and magazines of the period began to do so." Early cinema thus gave newsworthy figures the power and immediacy of a photographic realism that could not be matched by print. Second, as a print medium, newspapers depended on physical transportation for their daily circulation, which therefore tended to be restricted to a single region, usually a city.
In this regard it is instructive to briefly consider for comparison the telegraph, an antebellum electronic technology that, as James Carey has demonstrated, "freed communications from the constraints of geography" by "allow[ing] symbols to move independently of and faster than transportation." Without falling prey to a technological determinism, we nevertheless can see how this distinction between telegraph and newsprint gives greater specificity to the concept of a national public sphere. As Harold Innes has suggested, "The telegraph emphasized the importance of news with the result that the newspaper was unable to meet the demands for a national medium." Meditating on this new communications technology, Henry Adams in his autobiography chose to mark the moment in May 1844 when "the old universe was thrown into the ashheap and a new one created" by the opening of a railroad line, by the introduction of Cunard steamers, and most important, by "the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency."
Like telegraph transmissions, the screening of McKinley films also could give citizens the experience of instantaneous news without being tied to the material medium of newspapers. But unlike the telegraph, the news of the cinema, a potential new national medium, was made up of moving images. When we turn from transmission to reception, we begin to see how the reading of images, rather than print, could transform perceptions of public and private. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas, Michael Warner has shown how, in the colonies and the early republic, print culture crucially built and sustained a public constituted by impersonal, abstract citizens: writers and readers motivated by disinterested civic virtue. With the introduction of the penny press in the 1830s; a growing emphasis on lurid stories detailing crime, violence, and sex; the attenuation of the editorial page; and the increasing blurring of the boundary between information and entertainment, American newspapers by the end of the nineteenth century were primarily serving other purposes more in line with the self-interest of a free market mass democracy.
By the 1920s, Walter Lippmann and other cultural critics would openly castigate the press for fostering a "phantom public" in which Americans found themselves increasingly privatized and impotent, cut off from the political and social processes that most affected their lives. While this thumbnail historical sketch is certainly open to refinement, its broad outlines remain convincing. One thinks, for instance, of how Theodore Dreiser in his novel Sister Carrie (1900) depicts George Hurstwood's increasingly desperate, lonely, and self-absorbed newspaper reading, which serves to convey, and to protect him against, the ravages of New York, providing a simulacrum of the city more "real" than Hurstwood's own firsthand experience. Consider, too, how American paintings representing newspapers change during the century, from antebellum genre paintings rendering well-defined social groups reading the news together, to William Harnett's 1880s trompe l'oeil still lifes of folded newspapers, which offer the eye only "disembodied news, as free of ideas or events as ... of readers."
Cinematic news seemed to allow for a very different kind of reception than isolated newspaper reading, in that the McKinley films and others were exhibited in front of noisy crowds of spectators who were encouraged to give voice collectively to their responses and to interact with each other. Until the arrival of storefront nickelodeon movie houses around 1906, these brief films were shown in vaudeville houses in between live stage acts. Yet audience reaction is only half the story, since I am equally interested in examining how public and private dichotomies are negotiated on the screen as well as in the vaudeville house. In discussing these early films, I tie together my twin concerns-representation and reception-by way of the pervasive incorporated figure of the politician "at home," which runs throughout my argument. Referring at once to the domestic and the national sphere, this key trope helps us to appreciate the formal composition of the films as well as the composition of their audiences. Examining the implications of "at home" for both viewers and viewed also compels us to link representation and reception to broader cultural transformations taking place in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. Given the explicit political content of the McKinley films, particularly the fact that his debut as a presidential candidate roughly coincides with the debut of cinematic exhibition, it makes sense to look at the 1896 presidential campaign in some detail.
The Front Porch Campaign
Republican candidate McKinley's successful 1896 presidential contest against Democrat William Jennings Bryan marks a pivotal moment in modern American politics for a variety of reasons. The contest raised important issues of some consequence, particularly the Republican business-oriented embrace of the gold standard versus Bryan's free silver stance, as well as the absorption of the more radical Populist movement into the Democratic Party. But perhaps more important than the issues themselves was the fact that the 1896 election signaled a break in the way presidential campaigns were run. On the Democratic side, Bryan displayed youth, vigor, and an open desire to court the American people for the presidency against a political tradition that favored experience, age, and reticence. Democrats were banking on Bryan's personal presence, especially his eloquence and charisma, as a public politician who tirelessly stumped across the country giving hundreds of campaign speeches in front of large crowds of sympathetic listeners.
The Republicans opted for a different campaign strategy. Under the watchful eye of party boss Mark Hanna, the party raised enormous sums of money, far greater than in any previous presidential campaign, by systematically soliciting major corporations in the East and Midwest. The Republicans spent their money on numerous flag-waving parades and thousands of pamphlets, posters, and buttons, while McKinley himself mainly stayed put in Canton, Ohio. As Theodore Roosevelt famously remarked of Hanna, "He has advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine." At home, the candidate cordially greeted dozens of delegations on a daily basis, delivering carefully crafted short speeches (sound bites, in effect) to selected groups of supporters who had been brought in via train at reduced rates courtesy of the Republican-leaning railroads.
This orchestrated "front porch" campaign allowed Hanna to control access to the newspapers, whose reporters were invited to come to Canton to interview McKinley and cover the campaign from the relative comfort of a small town-a setting laden with nostalgic associations invoking simpler times and family values. Rather than have the candidate reach out to the press as Bryan sought to do, Hanna invited the press to come to the candidate. Maximizing his party's fund-raising power, Hanna sought to rationalize and standardize political campaigning (along the lines of emerging national brand name advertising) by first localizing the candidate and then disseminating his message via national networks of distribution. As Harold Innes has noted, Hanna in effect managed the Republican newspapers as if they were a trust, mobilizing them into a unified front and giving them a single story in common to counteract the regional, local inclinations of each paper. If the 1896 campaign is noteworthy for being the first national election in which the presidential candidate himself was the entire message for each party, then it is doubly noteworthy that the victory went to the candidate who remained at home, physically removed from the campaign trail, a reticent body rather than an aggressively virile one.
Yet to contrast an absent shadow of the Republican Party against a fully manifest Democratic candidate is somewhat misleading. For one thing, the majority of American citizens directly encountered neither McKinley nor Bryan in the flesh; rather, they primarily negotiated them via newspaper print. Bryan's self-consciousness about the press, in fact, occasioned his first and worst major speech on August 12, a droning two-hour acceptance address at Madison Square Garden that according to Bryan was calculated "to reach the hundreds of thousands who would read it [the speech] in print" at the expense of a few thousand bored audience members. Bryan believed that how he would be read was more important than how he was heard. In his subsequent campaign stops, over six hundred all told, Bryan strove mightily to bridge this gap between newsprint and personal presence, directly reaching approximately 5 million listeners with his golden oratory, a remarkably high percentage of the 6.4 million men who voted for Bryan in November.
But Bryan was not the only candidate who managed to touch citizens in such massive numbers. Given the astonishing daily procession of delegations brought in by the railroads to meet McKinley-one historian estimates 750,000 people, or 13 percent of the total votes cast for him-empirical data is less crucial here than the fundamentally different ways each of these candidates was represented and represented himself. In the case of Bryan, traditional rhetorical context was everything. His acts of speaking emerged from deeply held personal convictions (as even the Republican press granted), intended to touch the convictions of his listeners. Any news that Bryan made was made by virtue of the public directly before him, while the press conveyed the style and content of his speech.
Confining their candidate to his porch but also keeping him well in front of the press, the Republicans by contrast tended to blur the traditional distinctions between private and public, between corporeal presence and media representation. Only by being absent from the campaign trail could McKinley be at once at home and before the nation. Hanna's strategy thus paved the way for a new style of modern presidential campaigning that more and more has depended on the power of abstracted images produced by "pseudo-events," to use Daniel Boorstin's term: images most forcefully, immediately, and efficiently disseminated by film technology.
Excerpted from Body Shots by Jonathan Auerbach Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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