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Eye-Hunger: Physical Pleasure and Non-Narrative Cinema

Littau, K (2002) 'Eye-Hunger: Physical Pleasure and Non-Narrative Cinema.' In: Arthurs, J and Grant, I, (eds.) Crash Cultures: modernity mediation and the material. Intellect Books / University of Chicago Press, 35 - 51. ISBN 1-84150-071-2

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Schaulust, unlike voyeurism, is not about gratification at a distance, nor is it a private activity; the Schaulustige, unlike the voyeur, neither hides, nor is alone, but emerges in full view as part of the crowd, milling ever closer towards the intense pressure at its spectacular centre. Whether a crowd gathers spontaneously at the site/sight of an unforeseen accident, or comes together for the staged event of a head-on crash, the flirtation with disaster is about an 'urgent need for stimuli'. For Benjamin this 'was met by the film' where 'perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle'; for Krakauer it was fulfilled by the variety format of the picture palace programme where the 'total artwork of effects assaults every one of the senses using every possible means'. When 30.000 people therefore paid to see the spectacle of the crashing train in 1896 at Crush City, Texas, it is not surprising that their fascination with motion, speed, and collision - in short, the aesthetics of shock - was also shared by the early cinema audiences who flocked to see train technology go out of control in Lumiere's Arrival of a Train (1896), Edison/Porter's Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), The Photographer's Mishap (1901) or Edison's Railway Smash-Up (1904). What interests me here is not the correlation between railway travel and cinema-going, but the crowd's assault by and reaction to the crash, be it real, staged, or simulated: this is to say, how the crash, as the very emblem of the thrill, shock and disaster, is not to be understood solely as an impact on our psyche, in that it might traumatize an eye-witness or fulfil a given spectator's fantasy of being run-over, but translates into a physical reflex, a bodily sensation for the Schaulustige. What the now legendary story of the audience fleeing the scene of L'Arriv�e d'un train illustrates, is not so much that they mistook the screen image of the on-coming train for a real train that would run into them, but that visual pleasure is physical sensation. If we take the Schaulustige, rather than the voyeur, as a model for the spectator in what Tom Gunning has called, the 'early cinema of attraction' (or repulsion), then, the pleasure of viewing here is not about fetishism, sadism, or masochism, cannot so easily be explained away psycho-analytically as the malaise of an individual's psyche; instead, cinema is a series of visual shocks which tremor through the body of the crowd, and its attraction is its physical thrill, as the Dadaist Walter Serner put it in 1913, which satisfies 'the hunger of the eyes' as it creeps through the 'flesh' and excites the 'nerves'. If de-emphasising the psychological moment in cinema spectatorship allows us to re-establish a physiological continuity in the act of spectating, whether in the spectacles of public executions in pre-enlightenment societies, or the outings to the morgue at the turn of the century (and who would not be tempted to touch?), that culminates, as Serner tells us in 'Kino und Schaulust', in 'burning', 'feverish' sensations that 'gush through the blood', then spectating the crash is the paradigm case of the physiology of spectatorship that remains irreducible to a merely psychological appropriation: although flight appears to be the physical other of fright, or trauma, what the cinema of the crash reveals is the physiological underpinnings of both. What this paper seeks to trace then is the trajectory of the 'early cinema of attractions' to its more modern incarnations, be it videos of Jeremy Clarkson's mean machines in Apocalypse Clarkson, sporting highlights of 'the most breathtaking' and 'the very best and worst thrills & spills, spins & bashes, smashes & crashes' of Crash Impact, or car pile-ups in television's Blues and Twos or 999 Emergency, in order to argue that our fascination with the crash is nothing other than a taste for thrills, where the viewing experience relates more to the roller-coaster ride at the fairground, or immersion in the VR s(t)imulations, than to the traditions of the theatre and its reinvention in narrative film. What we are looking for then is not the psychological nuances particular to modern life (as if it was modernity that introduced the trauma or incited the ever-increasing demands for stimuli), but the physiological conditions of spectating as they mutate throughout history.

Item Type: Book Section
Uncontrolled Keywords: Early cinema; voyeurism; scopophilia; embodied spectator; railway travel; crash; Freud; trauma
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities > Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, Department of
Depositing User: Karin Littau
Date Deposited: 10 Mar 2017 15:33
Last Modified: 15 Dec 2017 17:15

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