I'm beginning work on a dissertation on the theatrical heritage of
early American film. I'm thinking both about film narratives that are
explicitly about theatrical subjects (I'm using "theatrical" broadly right
now, in the interest of discovering what's out there--but I don't mean
"performative" in Judith Butler's sense of the word: I'm talking about
a performer and an accomodating audience--boy, I don't want to get into
the quagmire of definitions arguments!), and I'm thinking about theatrical
conventions and forms that find their way into early film, such as the
procenium arch in the frame and asides to the camera, as well as more
extradiegetic things, like blackface (eg. Birth of a Nation).
Taking my cue from Tom Gunning, I feel film used theatrical conventions
and subjects strategically rather than ignorantly, to create a particular
kind of audience address (Gunning says Melies's use of the stationary
camera masks over as "theatrical" all the very filmic editing that went
into his trick films; I say he's right: this isn't theater, but it's
cinema that WANTS to look like theater for some reason).
I'm trying to figure out exactly what's going on when film uses theatrical
modes: is our gaze begin fascilitated since we're able to identify with
the viewers in the film and thereby find solidarity in taking up the
diegetic performer/performance as object of our gaze (a la Mulvey?); or are
things more complicated, since early film audiences were heirs to a vibrant
and varied theatrical entertainment industry, as yet not a distant memory,
which encouraged all sorts of strange cross-identifications (see Eric
Lott's book on blackface minstrelsy, *Love and Theft*) and which allowed
theatrical performers to "return the gaze" (see Barbara Freedman's *Staging
Certainly the issue doesn't lack complexity, especially when we consider
that scholars of theatrical forms are referring to film theory to help
explain the kinds of multiple identifications enabled by the stage. Eric
Lott refers to Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws in discussing the
cross-race, cross-class identificatory ambivalences of blackface minstrelsy.
Are watching theater and watching film all that similar? My goal is to
restate their differences and discuss the theatrical traditions film
draws upon in orchestrating audience response--early film, at any rate.
I hope this serves as enough of a context for my request for film titles
and useful resource books. I'm especially looking for silent films
(American) that theatricalize race and gender.
U of Michigan
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