31/05/2017

Forbidden Bath/The Sand Bath/Games Of Youth/A Funny Story At The Window - Early Spectacle Cinema And Its Attractions

Thoughts On: Forbidden Bath (Baden Verboten, 1906), The Sand Bath (Das Sandbad, 1907), Games Of Youth (Jugendspiele, 1907), A Funny Story At The Window (Eine Lustige Geschichte am Fenster, 1908)


A group of early controversial Austrian films made by Johann Schwarzer.

      

Austria has a prominent and long history of cinema that dates way back into the the late 1800s with newsreels and a comedic film called The Exhibition Sausage Seller and the Billposter. Austria has remained a significant country in European and world cinema to this day through directors such as Michael Haneke who made Funny Games, Amour and The Piano Teacher.

An interesting detail about this country's film history is that the first major production company was one called Saturn-Film, which, organised by Johann Schwarzer, solely produced erotic films. So, after the production of the first Austrian film in 1898 (the mentioned, The Exhibition Sausage Seller and the Billposter) all Austria produced from 1906-10 were these smutty shorts that were showcased in Herrenabendes (night shows for men). This all comes down to Schwarzer's recognition that he could make a lot of money in pushing into competition with the French Pathé Brothers' erotic films and phonograph records of the time.

Schwarzer's films where simply 1-4 minute (on average) scenarios in places such as a beach, a lake or in the privacy of a person's home that featured local women disrobing - and then usually being walked in on by a male, who would often just laugh. We see this through the subjects of this post: Sand Bath, a woman is escorted by a topless man to a beach where she lounges naked; Games Of Youth, naked women throw hoops to one another; Forbidden Bath, a group of women bathe in a lake before being chased away by an onlooker; A Funny Story At A Window, two friends prank a third, leaving her stuck and exposed at a window to be walked in on by a man.

What lies at the crux of all of these films is, very clearly, a sense of lurid voyeurism - one that is entirely inherent to cinema. As we have discussed before when we looked at the work of Eadweard Muybridge, cinema granted people an almost absurd power to capture, control and manipulate space time in the late 1800s. It's not surprising that, whilst we would use this to communicate informally, formally, emotionally and intellectually through arts and sciences, we'd also use this power to indulge sexual desires - among other more 'base' impulses.

We see this when taking a look into film history, to, in a certain sense, year zero: 1985. This year is of course known for the Lumière brothers' observational shorts, films such as Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory.


Not only are we seeing voyeurism here through this distant observational documentary, one of the first 'films' ever made, but we have an even stronger sense of this with a film called The Execution Of Mary Queen Of Scots - which came out the same year as one of the first ever special effects shorts, one that depicts a beheading.


We get further examples of this indulgent eye of cinema, one that seeks out violence and flesh, two years later with the first 'adult film', After The Ball (1897), made by Georges Méliès - which takes further the 'strip tease' present in what some claim to be the first adult film, Le Coucher de la Mariee (Bedtime For The Bride, 1899).

On a slight side note, Méliès' After The Ball didn't contain real nudity - the actress, who he later married, only simulated this with a skin-coloured suite that she wore whilst being soaked and washed by her maid. However, almost as a homage to Méliès (this is a detail I cannot confirm), Schwarzer made In The Bath in 1910 - which is almost identical to After The Ball, except it contains real nudity.

Coming back on point, this paradigm of spectacle and cinema's lurid, voyeuristic eye has been famously coined by Thomas Gunning to be a 'cinema of attractions'. This means to define the first decade or so of cinema as one that primarily meant to draw an audience with simplistic, circus-esque displays. However, there are often two things many will overlook or over-embellish when it comes to this early era. The first thing is that this wasn't really a naive and innocent time for cinema; we didn't just go from screwball comedies to 60s/70s exploitation and pornography. If you delve into the filmography of the Edison Manufacturing Company alone, you'll easily find a lot of material that even modern audiences would strongly disagree with - one of these being Electrocuting An Elephant (to death, 1903). The second element of the cinema attractions that is often overlooked is that this paradigm never ended; cinema, by and large, still means to act as pure spectacle as to attract large audiences. Whilst film became more complex as narratives and formal strategies evolved, films like those by Schwarzer are a reminder that simple spectacle remained relevant as we moved out of this initial decade of a cinema of attractions and has continued on to this day.

That said, it does have to be emphasised that censorship was nonetheless a significant antagonist to this free cinema of attractions that Schwarzer represented in the early days of Austrian film. Despite Schwarzer refusing to film actual pornography, only soft erotica as a public entity that publicised and showcased works without concerns for anonymity, the Austrian authorities, in 1911, closed down Saturn-Film, destroyed its vaults (though, prints have survived to this day) and prevented Schwarzer from making films of this type again. Though Schwarzer tried to move into non-erotic films, he quickly gave this up and moved on in his life - all before being called upon during WWI where he was killed in battle.

The final question that can be raised in respect to Schwarzer's films addresses a claim he made in his advertisements, one that stated he was producing art that was focused on beauty, not pornography. This is, to a certain extent, quite true. After all, during this period, in 1908, some of the first actual (known) pornographic films were made - a famous example of this being, A L'Ecu d'Or, ou La Bonne Auberge (A Gold Ecu, or The Good Hotel). However, there is nonetheless an undeniable element of, what we would now call, soft porn in Schwarzer's work. If this wasn't the case then these films wouldn't be shown in Herrenabendes (night shows for men) that women obviously weren't invited to. If Schwarzer's films were art like Farnese Hercules or Lely’s Venus are...

  

... then all would be invited. This ultimately holds a significant question mark over the idea that Schwarzer was making art. However, I wouldn't deem his films, nor any film that could be called a cinema of attractions, a form of cinema that is lesser than later or more modern forms. This is because there is a certain amount of craftsmanship/artistry/creativity required in the construction of any film. Moreover, and as implied, the line between a cinema of attractions and modern forms is, in my view, a very vague one that is only defined by the difference between an era that didn't have the respect for film on a wide scale to begin to consider it art, and one that did/does, but still produces a huge volume of spectacle cinema.

So, I'll now leave you to your own 'research' and with a few questions for thought. What are your views on early cinema spectacle? Are Schwarzer's films art? What, if any, is the relationship between this cinema of attractions, Schwarzer's movies and modern film in your view?

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