The Birth of Adult Cinema: “The Kiss” / “Après le bal” (1896/1897)
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”] as I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …“
– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 1964
It’s all a matter of perspective. One era’s pornography is another’s quaint antiquity and perhaps nothing is more universally telling of both the flexible measure of contemporaneous moral standards and a fairly accurate barometer of a society’s cultural climate than its preoccupation, both in enthusiasm and condemnation, with sex. However, it should be no surprise that with the emergence of new cultural art form, among those to give an initial critical voice to the infant cinema were the naysayers whose intemperate sense of moral condemnation found suspicious seeds of community corruption in any innovation that attracted popular attention, especially (in their view) that susceptible unwashed public who must be protected from themselves and the corrupting of any encroachment by a subversive ascension of purveyors of sin and filth regardless of form. (For the record: the public has never been simpleminded, simply susceptible to bad taste, however, that’s an entirely different problem.)
Enter the infant cinema whose audience’s appetite for sensationalism would soon prove to be insatiable. However, before the primitive wonders of Georges Méliès’ special effects enchantments, or the later initial excitement of such seminal genre templates as “The Great Train Robbery” and “Musketeers of Pig Alley”, there were incidentals: short unembellished filmed records of. not so much events (though in a contextual vacuum in which little had been represented cinematically, every incidental might be regarded as an event), but everyday occurrences- the ancestor of the newsreel clip, though often without a newsworthy context. Thus, the camera might record a common incident made novel merely by the fact that it was a viewed as a product of being recorded: not unlike painting, sculpture and the relatively infant form of photography before it, the motion picture could be recognized as the latest cultural manifestation to bombard the public with a representative form promoting public fascination with the banal merely due to the fact of its own existence: the ordinary becomes extraordinary merely through the process of cinematic reproduction, with reality briefly transmogrified into a wondrous state of sensory stimulating artifice. Before the novelty of the incidental wore thin enough to make way for the evolution to a primitive narrative form, the drawing card was little different than that of the far more complex- but equally non-nuanced -contemporary cinema in that there was a constant demand for greater and more gratuitous sensation (one of the greatest attractions heralding the arrival of the incidental period was the Lumière Brothers’ “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”, a 50 second film depicting an almost head-on arrival of a locomotive at a train platform, an image which film legend claims sent many patrons screaming from the theater in fright), rather than increasingly challenging artistic expression which would weave its way through the history of cinema more through individual vision rather than an encouraged grander design.
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