Kristen Whissel

 

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

Cover Interview of January 09, 2009

A close-up

Sections of chapter 4 focus on the first feature film, Traffic in Souls (1913), short films by D.W.  Griffith, such as The Lonedale Operator (1911), and Lois Weber’s amazing film Suspense (1912).  These films are extraordinary because of the degree to which they are based on the premise that to participate in modern life is to be absorbed into traffic.  This is true whether the films are set in a big city (Traffic in Souls), a suburb (Suspense) or a rural area (The Lonedale Operator).  Moreover, they feature protagonists who unwittingly find themselves detoured into illegitimate or criminal forms of traffic without any notice.  They feature complex forms of rapid cross cutting to create suspense around their characters’ movements through city streets, along railway lines, across Ellis Island, and even along dirt roads.  Each reveals how the concept of “traffic” with its multiple lines of movement across space and time helped organize strategies of film narration as production companies began to leave behind the short two-reel film that was the staple of most moving picture shows between 1908 and 1913 and began making more features (5 reels or more) after 1913.

This shift towards more features, in turn, had serious implications for moving picture audiences who were accustomed to thinking of themselves and experiencing moving pictures as part of the “traffic” that moved into and out of cinemas.  Before the rise of the long feature, audiences could simply “drop in” to a moving picture show anytime they wanted and get up and leave at any point.  As part of the customary “variety format” of a film program, audiences could expect to see four or five two-reelers and perhaps a slide show and a live musical performance.  Programs ran continuously without an official start or end time.  If a patron came in midway through a film, they simply had to wait five or six minutes until a new film started and they could settle in and enjoy the program.  Many moving picture patrons relied on this flexibility and stopped into moving picture shows while running errands, while on a lunch or dinner break, or on their way home from work.  In short, it was very easy to walk in off the street, enjoy a few films, and leave whenever one wished while still feeling satisfied by the experience.  The exhibition of feature-length films forced patrons to adjust their movie-going habits.  They now had to wait much longer for a film to start over again and sometimes had to sit through the second half of a movie without understanding at all what was going on before the film began again.  This required some real adjustment on the part of audiences and exhibitors who often made their profit from the high turnover that the “variety program” of short films made possible.  I make connections between representations of traffic in film, the use of the concept of traffic in creating new narrative patterns in longer films, and the effect on the “traffic” that moved through moving picture houses in the first section of Chapter 4.