Kristen Whissel


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

Cover Interview of January 08, 2009

The wide angle

Picturing American Modernity is concerned with understanding how new (and old) forms of mass entertainment such as moving pictures, world’s fairs and expositions, electric light displays, live reenactments such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and magazines helped Americans make sense of and even delight in the experience of modern life.  If anything, modern life in the United States was defined by the absorption of everyday life into new patterns of “traffic.”  By this I mean not just an increase in automobile and pedestrian traffic on busy city streets; rather, I mean broader, networked patterns of traffic that entwined everyday life in ways that were visible and invisible.  In this sense, “traffic” includes new forms of transportation and communications technologies that helped speed finished products through factories to markets across the US and overseas, as well as the mobilization of immigrant populations from Asia and Europe to the US to create a cheap supply of labor.  It also includes new forms of electrification that spread web-like through cities to power assembly lines as well as amusement parks and illuminated movie screens and department store displays, and eventually incorporated much of the US into an expanding network of circuits and currents.

The early cinema was very well suited to the task of providing audiences with dynamic images of modern traffic that dramatized its perils as well as its thrilling possibilities.  As non-fiction films made in 1898 of troops preparing for the Spanish-American war suggest, absorption into new patterns of imperial traffic could refurbish the image of modern American masculinity by joining received definitions of traditional chivalry and discipline with a new, modern relationship to military technologies that seemed to make naval recruits heroically immune to the “shocks” of warfare.  By contrast, films about the so-called “white slavery” scandal warned young workingwomen about the dangers of being absorbed into modernity’s more “illegitimate” forms of traffic—specifically the traffic in prostitutes that was rumored to thrive in cities across the United States.  Such films often implied, quite scandalously, that more legitimate forms of everyday traffic, such as ordinary commerce or the mass transportation provided by steamship and railway companies, supported the traffic in women and even helped create a supply of young girls who might be procured for this trade.  The 1913 film Traffic in Souls rather sensationally linked wealthy industrialists, reform movements, dance halls and candy shops to prostitution rings while others, such as Lois Weber’s film Shoes, suggested that casual and occasional prostitution was the inevitable plight of working class girls who didn’t earn enough money to support themselves and other family members who depended upon them for their livelihood.

I became interested in researching and writing about the silent cinema’s representation of modern life and traffic after seeing films that were shot at the Pan-American Exposition by Edwin S.  Porter, who made films for Edison.  I first saw these films in the early 1990s while I was a graduate student at Brown University working as a teaching assistant for faculty in the Department of Modern Culture and Media (these films are now available to view on the Library of Congress “American Memory” website).  Porter filmed the Exposition’s nighttime illumination, which was called “The City of Living Light.”  When I first saw these films, I thought they were astonishing: Porter filmed the nighttime display in 360-degree panning shots and created a rather beautiful abstract image of the new, rapidly expanding electric network that made the display possible.  After researching the Pan-American, I realized that the exposition both celebrated new technologies and the power associated with them and gave many Americans cause to lament industrialization and the myriad social and economic problems it caused after Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed laborer, shot President McKinley there and was later executed in the electric chair.  This deep ambivalence around modern technologies and new forms of traffic seemed to mark all of the other major (inter)national events I had been working on, and so I brought them together in Picturing American Modernity.