Kristen Whissel


On her book Picturing American Modernity: Traffic, Technology, and Silent Cinema

Cover Interview of January 08, 2009

In a nutshell

Picturing American Modernity is about how the early American cinema represented major changes taking place in American society, politics, and culture in the early twentieth century, particularly changes that were related to the introduction and spread of new technologies.  Each chapter analyzes a group of films that directly represented a major, (inter)national, mass-mediated “event”: the Spanish-American war, the Philippine-American war, the Pan-American Exposition, where President McKinley was shot, and the “white slavery” scandal, prostitution rings involving white, working-class women.  I focus on these events because for many turn-of-the-century Americans, they foregrounded the deeply ambivalent character of modern life and demanded new, self-conscious constructions of what it meant to be “American” in the machine age.  That is to say, each made starkly visible both the possibilities associated with industrialization and expansion and its very serious perils.

Picturing American Modernity approaches these events as examples of the increasing incorporation of everyday life in the US into various forms of modern (i.e., high-tech) traffic.  Each was linked to new forms of circulation and hence the increasing power and progress of the nation; yet all gave rise to high-tech crises that revealed various reasons to lament or resist the changes wrought by modern life.  My book shows how the silent cinema—itself a new technology—made each of these events visible, knowable, and pleasurable to moving picture audiences.

In the process, the book discusses how film itself developed during its first two decades and considers how the development of new genres and new types of narrative emerged out of the cinema’s own struggles to accommodate major changes in modern American life.  Throughout, I closely analyze non-fiction films made by the Edison Manufacturing Company shot in military camps before the Spanish-American War in 1898 or at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York as well as fictional films directed by D.W.  Griffith, George Loane Tucker, who directed the first American feature-length film, Traffic in Souls, and Lois Weber, the most prolific female American filmmaker of the silent era.