Non-continuity, continuity, discontinuity : a theory of genres in early film


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Tom Gunning

Non-Continuity, Continuity,

Discontinuity :

A Theory of Genres in Early Film

In my essay entitled « The Non-Continuous Style of Early Film »/1, I surveyed a group of what could be called anomalies in early film -elements which, from the viewpoint of the later dominant style of film-making (which we could call - with caution and reservation - the classical style of continuity) seemed deviant. Inspired partly by the work of Noel Burch and partly by own interest in later «deviant »styles of film-making in the avant-garde, I felt it was important not to see these anomalies as primitive mistakes groping towards the later

esta-blished ideal of match cutting and diegetic unity but as indications of another direction in film narrative than that of later dominant cinema, a road not taken by the major film industries.

My essay was announced as preliminary, and in it I indicated my uncertainty as to whether the group of anomalies I surveyed could actually be thought of as forming an organic and unified style in early film. It now seems to me that the importance of the elements I discussed is not primarily that they sketch an alternate approach to narrative than that of the classical style, but rather that they reveal how complex and dialectical the development of the classical style is. Rather than serving as markers on a deviant route in film history, the elements of

non-continuity in early film punctuate the body of film history, beco-ming a series of blind spots. For traditional historians who see film as moving towards an ideal of continuity, the anomalies can only be seen as errors or failed attempts. For recent theorists such anomalies are JI. This paper has since been published in French: 1< Le style non-continudu cinema des premiers temps», in Les Cahiers de la Cim!mmht?que (Perpignan. hi ver 1979) and in English ln Cinema /900/ 1906: An Ana(1,1ical Study, ed, Roger Holman, Bruxelles, FJ.A.F., 19&2, Volume I, which anthologizes all of the papers delivered at the Brighton Conference.


102 Tom Gunning

significant as deconstructive deviations. But in fact these critical points

in film discourse reveal precisely that film history can not be conceived

according to static models of coherence or non-coherence to an (often unspecified) ideal of classical continuity (which, after its establishment would seem to have no history, other than that of a static definition

while other films can only be conceived through the relation of

deviance from the norm).

Early cinema, then, need not be viewed as either a moment in the natural development of the later modes of classical continuity, or as a

prelapsarian era before the betrayal of cinema to the monopolistic representatives of bourgeois culture and morality. The challenge that early cinema offers to film history is a search for a method of unders­

tanding the transformations in narrative form in cinema's first

decades ; a method that maintains an awareness of early film's diffe­ rence from later practices, without defining it simply as a relation of

divergence from a model of continuity (that, in fact, has not yet

appeared). It is precisely the history involved in these changes that mustbe understood. There is no question that the understanding of this history ultimately must include not only a close and comparative viewing of all existing films with the tools of analysis that structuralism and semiology has provided to film study, but also an understanding of these films as economic products. The means of production and consumption (in a broad understanding of these terms) of early film is only now being

described and investigated. It is only from a full description of the means of financing, the actual methods of production of films, the processes of their distribution, the practices of exhibition, and finally the way films were received by audiences, that a truly historical view of cinema will be possible. If the methods of analysis of films as signifying systems and as economic commodities are different, they are by no means mutually exclusive, nor ultimately fully independent. I must single out the recent work of Charles Musser for his attempt to unders­

tand the signifying process in early films in relation to the strategies involved in their presentation and production.

If the history of film as a commodity is necessary for a full understan­ ding of film form in history, it is not the only means of approaching the film historically. We must develop methods of analysis of the films themselves which include a historical dimension. The investigation of film texts as systems had encouraged an approach that is rigorously synchronic. Certainly this synchronic investigation of films was neces­ sarily the founding task of a structural approach to film. However the

time has now come for a diachronic comparison of filmic systems within history. One particularly fruitful method in a diachronic approach to early film is the investigation of cine-genres.

. '




. . Continuity. Discontinuity


. . . on the recent stud Two 1tm1tat1ons . 'ts almost exc

. The ftrst ,s t .

evident. . . ather than express1

content Ill ftl.m� �tion I wiII discuss

fiers). Thts Itmtt much of recent s

tion is that,hke so haps not surpri� history. Thts ts h��ld precede its dt:synchron1caily s

studies that tr;

been genre f '

of course, .

something o a .

genres, supplying

But the rclatio': film, or weste��een broached. Thi: general has no ·,n which get

· , of genre h

concepuon of genre oft E

change : th� t�:eo:�riticized for rerr Althoug O . . ·n fact in the I

cal contexts, ,t :/ �ed the historic, Formaltsts intro

�erstanding of a, The Formalts( unr of art forms a gave to the h1sto rnov put it, (( anrenewal. As Tyny t'on of old v2 l destruc 1

strugg e, a I this view ltterary elements » /2. n for dominance as with nval .genres

d ventual decay. , canoniz�t,on an �e and moves inE

defam1hanzing ro

new fonns/3. hi

s dy�amic vieW C

Certainly t new forms »/4 h self-creat1on.

lof.t provides for a

. Wht e I t'

history.. t of «self-crea 1c forms, its conc�ph influence the 1cal factors wh1c. l to our unders which are essent1:elves were awat Formalists the�ichenbaum descr however, and d d by a wholt evoluti?n surdrBut, tf in nee o of�o':np\etion by' d by Boris Eic V quote .. ·

/ 2 Tynyano . F a/i�t Cnt1c1.

Method' )) in Russian orm . \965. p. I34F. alist approach to g:/ 3. The . orm ll summarized i� . nr above and is usefud y n Aesthetic o.f R Theory )) in Towar 1982. P�· 16-bl8. m s o

op. cit .. P· 135. / 4. E1chen au


ns. But in fact th film history can �s

itc�itical Points _ice or non-cohere e conceived 1{{;:'nh:��t aJ}er it��:t�bt�1:en ceived throug� \! �tic definitio�t e relation j :wed as either a m . o -s of_ classical conti�ment In the

of cinema to th Uity, or as a

nd morality. Th/c:�J°opolistic se�rch for a methoda enge that rative form . . of unders-a in c1nem '

. wareness of l . as first 'Ining it sim l ear y film's

diffe-1ty (that inp )' as a relation of 1 d . ' ,act has , ve in these h ' not Yet c anges that must

indingofthis hist . iarative view· ory ull!mately ucturalism a��g of �IJ existing tderstanding f s�m1ology has uction and o t ese films as f early film �o

nsumption (in a

· is only

b . rom a fu]] de . now


s of productii�n

ption of the ices of exhib"t· of films, the

th I Ion and f"

, at a truly h" '. maIJy f analysis of fl istoncal view ofare different' i;;,s as signifying ly fully ind ' ey are by no ;s�r for his a1fe�


dent. I must

; In relation to



Unders-1ction. e strategies

tecessary for a fu]]

1ly means of Understan­

ods of anal a))proachingthe ension Th J'.Sis of the films appro�ch thm tv_esti_gation of . 1· . a is ngo l s 1gation of film rous y

t,roach to fil


was neces­ mparison or"}-1 ?Wever the

1 method · 1 m,c systems r

I of cine-ge�� a diachronic es.


Non-Continuity, Continuity, Discontinuity 10)

Two limitations on the recent study of genre in film are immediately evident. The first is its almost exclusive attention to the aspect of content in films rather than expression (of signifieds rather than signi­ fiers). This limitation I will discuss somewhat later. The other limita­ tion is that, like so much of recent serious film study, it is cut off from history. This is perhaps not surprising since the description of genre synchronically should precede its diachronic investigation. There have, of course, been genre studies that traced the modification of particular genres, supplying something of a specialized history of the gangster film, or western. But the relation of such genres to film history in general has not been broached. This is surprising because there exists a conception· of genre in which genre itself is a vehicle of historical change: the theory of genre of the Russian Formalists.

Although often criticized for removing the literary text from histori­ cal contexts, it is in fact in the theory of genres that the Russian Formalists introduced the historical dimension to the analysis of texts. The Formalist understanding of art as a process of de-familiarization gave to the history of art forms a necessity for constant change and renewal. As Tynyanov put it, « any literary succession is first of all a struggle, a destruction of old values and a reconstruction of new elements »/2. ln this view literary genres become dynamic, competing with rival genres for dominance as they move through a cycle of origin, canonization and eventual decay. As a genre gains popularity it loses its defamiliarizing role and moves inevitably into decadence giving way to new forms/3.

Certainly this dynamic view of genres as part of the « dialectical self-creation of new forms »/ 4 has limitations as a model for film history. While it provides for a dynamic view of the succession of forms, its concept of « self-creation » limits our access to other histori­ cal factors which influence the growth and decay of genres, factors which are essential to our understanding of film as a commodity. The Formalists themselves were aware of the limitations of the approach, however, and Eichenbaum described it as « only a general outline of evolution surrounded by a whole series of complicated conditions »/5. But, if in need of completion by a consideration of these «complicated /2 Tynyanov quoted by Boris Eichenbaum in «The Theory of the 'Formal Method')) in Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. Lemon and Reis, Lincoln, Nebraska,

1965, p. t 34.

/3. The Formalist approach to genre is discussed in the Eichenbaum essay cited above and is usefully summarized in « Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory 1) in Towards an Aesthetic of Reception, by Hans Robert Jauss, Minneapolis,

1982, pp. 16-18.

/ 4. Eichenbaum. op. cit., p. 135.

/5. Ibid., p. 136.





-, l -,


t t - I


104 Tom Gunning conditions » (which for me involves film as a commodity, primarily), nonetheless this concept allows us to grasp film genres as truly histori­

cal events. From this the conception of a historical series of film genres arises in which, to quote Hans Robert Jauss «the next work can solve formal and moral problems left behind by the last work, and present new problems in turn »/6.

We can now turn to the limitation of the concept of genres in recent film analysis to aspects cif content. Although there are reasons why this

has been useful in the approach to later cinema (in which the concept of genre is basically one taken over from policy of production and distri­ bution within the industry: hence the categories of musical, gangster

film, horror film, etc.), it also has limited our approach to genre as an aspect of the actual form of films. The Russian Formalist come to our

aid again in their (admittedly preliminary) works on film, with the concept of «cine-genres »/7. Writing in the 'twenties, the Formalists were primarily concerned to establish what genres were uniquely cine­ matic as opposed to those «parasitically» taken over from literature

and drama. For our purposes, however, the most important aspect of

the concept of cine-genres is that it does not define genres simply in

terms of content («Story » for the Formalists), but also in terms of its actualization as expression through the specific stylistic devices of film

(«Plot» for the Formalists). As A. Piotrovskij puts it:« We shall define

a cine-genre as a complex of compositional, stylistic, and narrative devices, connected with specific semantic material and emotional emphasis but residing totally within a specific 'native' art system -the

system of cinema. Therefore, in order to establish the 'cine-genres', it is necessary to draw specific conclusions from the basic stylistic laws of

cine-art, the laws of'photogeny' and 'montage'. We will observe how the use of'space', 'time', 'people', and 'objects' varies from the point of view of montage and photogeny, depending on the genre. We will also

observe how the narrative sequences are arranged, and what the inter­

relations among all these elements are within a given cine-genre »/8. This approach to genres is particularly useful in dealing with early cinema. This is partly because such « genres » as have already been discussed in early cinema -such as the chase film or the trick film

-can partly be differentiated through their approaches to filmic space

and time. Equally important is the way the genres of early cinema can /6. Jauss, op. cit .. p. 32.

/7. Russian Formalist writings on the cinema are found in RUssian Formalist Film Theory, ed. Herbert Eagle, Ann Arbor, 1981. On genre, see particularly Tynjanov (Tynyanov) 110n the Foundation of Cinema i>, p. 100 and (<Towards a Theory of Cine-Genres )> by A. Piotrovskij, pp. 131-146.

/8. Piotrovskij, op. cit., pp. 131-132.

• f


. ·,y Continuity, Discontinuity Non-Conttnm

. h" torical series in v be placed


,s tput of film manu

dominatm& t e ��bsolute. As Shklo successi_on is nJ ·1 does not cease t_o

not o bhterate , ' t and may aga1r

· 1· dorman . ·

crest . it ,es

. I competmg cir

' /9 Certain Y f d

throne» . \ear patterns o or But there ar

� � d·cate the cycles o1 genres, wh1c 1�i�hin the film induiand then decay liminary stage m is only at a pre

ds and catalogue produ_ction reco�cessary to estabr exh1b1t10n are �le of genres from c rence m the cy h during th1se investigated, a!th�ug npara!lel in h distribution that is u

d scription of four I will offer a

�895-1910) as a I (appro�1mat�ly film. Certainly my



ear Y. . enres dunn1

exhaust all _ex1stmi.;(ct other genre

framework mto w enres are defir

modified as other gd by further · hange

succession _c .1 on their relat10 depends pnman

Id time. The firsl terms of space a I hot The sec, ted within a _stn';,inssists· of a narn non-contmuity, ed by the cut(s) disrupuon ca��e story level oft_he disrupt10n on f continuity' consistas the genre o d by cuts I

discontinuity �aus

tey of action or

h ha contmu1 . .

t roug f discontinuity, Ill v the genre _o ·s continuous onaction which_ 1. on the plot le caused by ed •The genre o _s1 films of Ed11 tt� ngle shot nam

the earliest fict1of/oping by Ho, arrose ( 1895h or me narrative ac film in wh1c so tion of thes<Most often the ac for instan1

unsuspecting v1ct1m,

d in Eichenbau


ivolves film as

" us to grasp fi!:ncommodity, pr;

:ptwn of a hi t . genres as trul ;anly)

; Robert Jau:s on�al series off/ istor;: :ft behind b h«t e nextwork mgenres y t e last Work can Solve

. , and pr

tation of th esent

, e concept f

. nt. Although the O genres in

to later cinem ('re ar� reasons Whecei.u rfrom polic a inwhichtheco Ythis ice the cateio o_f Production an�'JPt C?f is limited ou nes of musical g istn- .

s. The RussiJna���oach to g�nr:�ster

,rehminary) k mahst comet an iting in th ,wor s on film . o our blish wh e twenties, the F With .the . . at genres w . ormahst sitically » tak ere uniquely . s ,w . ever, the most im rom literature en over f . cine-. it does not define portant aspect ofFormalists) b genres simpl .

h h , ut also · Y in

p·t e specific stylistic JOt�ovskij puts it . evices of film


�erms of its 1pos1twnal, stylisti�< We shall define

semantic material ' and narrative I a specific 'native' and emotionaler to establish the ,art system -the ons from the b . cine-genres' it i'sd' as1c st 1· . '

montage' W . y ist1c Jaws of d 'objects' v�riei till observe how Jending on the rom the point of : are arranged fe

�re. We will also ire Within a : n what the inter l given ci I arJy useful . d . ne-genre »/8 «genres» as h in eal,n · g With early the chase film av� afready been their approa hor t e tnck film_ h c es to fil · iy t e genres of earl i.mic space

Y cinema can a are found in R

> On genre, see , p. 100 ;::tk:rorma/is1. Film

and «Tow d ar Y TynJanovar s a Theory of





Non-Conlinuity. Continuity, Discontinuity 105

be placed in a historical series in which each succeeds the former in

dominating the output of film manufacturers. Of course this pattern of succession is not absolute. As Shklovsky put it,« The vanquished line is not obliterated, it does not cease to exist. It is only knocked from the crest; it lies dormant and may again rise as a perennial pretender to the throne »/9. Certainly competing cine-genres occur during this period . But there are clear patterns of dominance of production by different genres, which indicate the cycles of origin of a new genre, dominance and then decay within the film industry. (The description of these cycles is only at a preliminary stage in this essay. Detailed research into production records and catalogues, information on distribution and exhibition are necessary to establish them with certainty. The diffe­ rence in the cycle of genres from country to country also needs to be investigated, although during this early period film has an international distribution that is unparallel in later history).

I will offer a description of four cine-genres during this early period (approximately l 895-l 9 l 0) as a preliminary sketch for a theory of genres in early film. Certainly my discussion of these genres does not exhaust all existing genres during this period. But is does provide a framework into which other genres may be integrated (or which may be modified as other genres are defined and examined, or the patterns of succession changed by further research). My definition of genres depends primarily on their relation to the articulation between shots in terms of space and time. The first genre consists of narratives comple­ ted within a single shot. The second genre, which I term the genre of non-continuity, consists of a narrative in at least two shots, in which the disruption caused by the cut(s) between shots is used to express a disruption on the story level of the film. The third genre, which I refer to as the genre of continuity, consists of multi-shot narratives in which the discontinuity caused by cuts is de-emphasized by being bridged through a continuity of action on the story level. The fourth genre I call the genre of discontinuity, in which a multi-shot narrative conveys action which is continuous on the story level through a disruption caused by editing on the plot level.

The genre of single shot narrative can be said to be inaugurated by the earliest fiction films of Edison and Lumiere, such as L'Arroseur

arrose (1895) or Eloping by Horseback (1898), and would include any

film in which some narrative action is developed within a single shot. Most often the action of these films is comic, a gag pulled on an unsuspecting victim, for instance. Incidents of erotic display are also

/9. Shklovsky, quoted in Eichenbaum, op. cit., p. 135.

I .






106 Tom Gunninx frequent in these single shot films, and a host of other sorts of action

occur. It is somewhat surprizing how long this genre lasted (in the U.S.

the medium of penny arcade exhibition via mutoscopes may be a

partial explanation of its longevity). As late as 1905 both Pathe and

Biograph are. still making films in this genre (e.g. Biograph's A Rube in the Subway* and Pathe's Le Bain du charbonnier*)/ 10. The genre

appears to have been dominant (at least in number of films released)

until about I 903.

The next genre, the narrative of non-continuity, is more complicated

to describe. It does not simply indicate films which contain the elements

of non-continuity that I described in my earlier article, since many of

those devices appear in a number of genres. Rather, this genre indicates a particular approach to the joining of shots. The disruption caused by

the move from one shot to another, rather than being minimized

through the rules of continuity editing, is actually emphasized (and

explained) by a discontinuity or disruption on the level of story. A clear

example of this genre would be Smith's Let Me Dream Again* (Great

Britain, 1900) or its near copy, Zecca's Reve et realite* (Pathe, 190 I). In both these films the first shot shows a man drinking and flirting with a

young girl. The second shot (linked in Smith's film by a blurring effect,

and in Zecca's by a dissolve) shows the same man waking in bed next to

his quite unattractive wife. In both films the transition between shots is

used quite visibly to express a contrast in the film's story: the disconti­

nuity between dreams and life.

There are many other narrative lines within this genre, with the many

dream films which cut from reality to fantasy being perhaps the most

numerous. The dynamics of this genre may explain why the dream is

such a popular subject in early cinema, since the discontinuity it

represents could both be conveyed by a cut between two shots and at

the same time could naturalize the disruption of editing on the story

level. But a number of other situations allowed similar strategies. The

radical ellipses that express explosions and deaths in such films as

Porter's Another Job for the Undertaker* and The Finish of Bridget Mc Keen* (both from 190 I) deal similarly with the cut that bridges the

two shots of each film. Porter's What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

also acknowledges the transition between two shots with a disruption

on the story line. A fade out to black leader covers a kiss made in the

darkness of a tunnel, but in the second shot the man discovers the

women in the compartment have changed places and he is now kissing

the wrong girl. Again this was a widely imitated gag in early cinema, / I 0. Films which are starred appear in the descriptive filmography Cinema

/900/ !906: A Anall'rica/ Srudy, F.1.A.F., Volume II.

. ·1 Discontinuity Non-Continuity, Continm y,




. . _ e in two t 899 Brifr findmg its proto

2-p ·n the Tunnel an< both entitled A ,ssh,. 1903?) . d r • (Pat e, · ·

chemm e 1er

s oth er films wh There are numerouha s be included

genre and s_hould pe; fil� and not sim

be the magic or tnc In 'most magic

present_ed as dre:::�en s

eparate sh ot

primarily that � mes or photograms shot_s, betwhemat10n ac ,eve . to itself en J�hrough stop motimand ex which calls attent10� ability of the s<leve

l -dh e m

t�:1�zzy differentiatio1 nature. ,ven

on transformation (par'

and stop mot, Malthete John Fra;

work of Jacque� transfor�ation wer,

many cases sue ) 11 it would se(

as camera stoppage

/ Certain other 1

included m th� gen�r�ally linked tabl•

of a �enes of,t ema Four Seasons* (l as B10graph s T;e trick film it might Ap�rt frod1f\t �ve

r is truly' domina1

genre 1s, an b 1904 Later trick fil

to fade aw;r y of tra�sformation ar

1904 such 1 m� the actual cuts bet·

that de_al wit h. the story. In many

disruphon wit ,n ber of transition

blurrs mto .. a num (such as the man

include nar�ativ

1\ableaux function

which a senes

O rt of micro-narrati­ these films is a so

However, contim com plete ac�1on. knowledge of the

th e audiences f

hore th n emphasizir

. ·ty rat er a

contmu1 , 1 functions then,

This tableaux sty e

· ·ty' and t·ve of non-contmm narra 1

continuity. . f continuity is unc The na�rauve o

lified by a form o genres. It is exemp

M'J'' techniciend1 / 11. See Malthete,,(( e i. · · dans I ceuvre esde Georges r « narrat1v1te )) h. e ed Made\e1 ,pectacle cintmatograp iqBu 'ton. GK. H;

· d Scenes os , ·

· ficallr Arrange ' The Nickleoc


ms, and a host of oth

'how lo h' er sorts of .

, h "b .. ng t is genre lasted(" ac!Ion ex i ,t1on via muto m the U S

vity) A 1 scopes m · ·

: s ate as 1905 bo h ay be a n this genre (e g B. t Pathe and 1 · · am du charbonnier*) 1 s Rube in · · IOgraph' A

(at least in number


The genre

. ms released)

f non-continuity is mor



which'co 1 . e complicated din f my earlier article si · n am thee! ements o genres. Rather this' nee.many of1g of shots. The dis g�nre Indicates '

>!her, rather than rbUJJIIon caused by

d·t· ' mg, is actual! em . m1mized emg m· .

sruption on the 1/v I


has12ed (and nith's Let Me Dre e 0)10ry. A clear :a's Reve et realite�C:.aita,m1* (Great 's. a man drinkin a . e! 901). In ! In Smith's




1rtmg With a the same man wak" . urnng effect films the transitio��g ast in the film's st e Ween shots is

bed next t�

ory : the

disconti-1es within this genr to fantasy being p�;r;th the many

nre may explain wh th! the most

mema, since the d Y dre�m is

I ,y a cut betw 1scontmu1ty it

.. 1 j. isrupt1on of editin . een two shot d s an at

·ns allowed s · .1 g on the storyim1 ar strateg· Th

ans and deaths in i_es. e

taker* and The . such films as

larly with the cuf;��;bo\iBridget t Happened in th Ti fl ges the veen two shots we un�e/(]903)leader covers a /h a disruption >nd shot the iss _made m thed man discover th tge places and he . . s . e

:ly imitated gag . is now k1ssmgm early cinema,

the descriptive filmog h

ume IL rap Y Cinema

· Non-Continuity, Continuity, Discontinuity 107

finding its proto-type in two I 899 British films by Smith and Bamforth, both entitled A Kiss in the Tunnel and a later French version, Flirt en

chem in de fer* (Pa the, I 903?).

There are numerous other films which seem strongly related to this genre and should perhaps be included within it. Most important would be the magic or trick film, and not simply because many trick films are presented as dreams. In most magic films the rupture utilized is not primarily that between separate shots, but a rupture created within shots, between frames or photograms. The effect of magical transfor­ mation achieved through stop motion is certainly that of a disruption which calls attention to itself and ex presses a disruption on the story level - the magical ability of the sorcerer to transcend the laws of nature. Given the fuzzy differentiation between montage between shots and stop motion transformation (particularly with the revelation in the work of Jacques Malthete, John Frazer and Andre Gaudreault that in many cases such transformation were accomplished by splices as well as camera stoppage)/ 11, it would seem that the magic film should be included in this genre. Certain other forms, such as films which consist of a series of thematically linked tableaux without narrative links, such as Biograph's The Four Seasons* (1904) relate strongly to this genre.

A part from the trick film, it might be questioned how pervasive this genre is, and if it ever is truly dominant. It appears quite early but seems to fade away by 1904. Later trick films relate to it, of course, but after 1904 such films of transformation are most often multi-shot narratives that deal with the actual cuts between shots without expressing a disruption within the story. In many ways this genre of non-continuity blurrs into a number of transitional or mixed genres which would include narratives (such as the many versions of the Passion Play) in which a series of tableaux function semi-independently. Each shot in these films is a sort of micro-narrative, showing a single location and a complete action. However, continuity of characters and, frequently, the audience's foreknowledge of the story/ 12 maintain a sort of sluggish continuity, rather than emphasizing the disruptions between shots. This tableaux style functions, then, as a sort of transition between the narrative of non-continuity and the next genre, the narrative of continuity.

The narrative of continuity is unquestionably later than the previous genres. It is exemplified by a form often noted as a« genre » in early film / 11. See Malthete, <( MCiies technicienducollage >>and Gaudreault, «Tht3.tralite )>et

« narrativite i> dans l'ceuvre de Georges MCties )> both in Milies et la naissance du spectacle cinimatographique, ed. Madeleine Malthete-MClil!s, and John Frazer, Arti­ . fica/Jy Arranged Scenes, Boston, G.K. Hall and Co., 1979.



Tom Gu1111i11K - the chase film. In this genre the disruption of the cut is naturalized by

a continuity within the story. Specifically this continuity is the actual

movement of a character(s) that bridges the cuts. The end of one shot is

signalled by characters leaving the frame, while the next shot is inaugu­ rated by their reappearance. The disruption of the cut is, as it were,

smoothed over by the continuity of the character's movement and the brief ellipsis of his action between shots is minimized rather than emphasized. We find proto-types of this sort of continuity in early

multi-shot narratives, such as Melies' A Trip to the Moon* (1902), in

which the tableaux form is modified by the departure from one location at the end of the shot and their arrival in the next locale in the following

shots (not to mention the fully developed continuity of the sequence of the rocket's return to earth in Melies' films)/ 13. But this form of

continuity finds its complete expression in the chase film, in which the

action of dashing from one locale to the next provides the narrative armature of the film.

Although there are proto-types of the chase form from as early as 1901 (Williamson's Stop Thief

!*), it becomes an important form about

1904 with such films as Biograph's The Maniac Chase* and Personal*. These films form a sort of template from which an enormous series of

imitations and variations are produced over the next four years. The

pattern is consistent : a character is chased by a group of characters

from one location to the next, with each shot showing the character being chased at some distance from the pursuing mob, the shot held

until first the pursued and then the pursuers exit from the frame. The next shot begins this movement through the frame over again. This

continues until at some fairly arbitrary point the fleeing figure is captured. This form of narrative was extremely popular and appears in a large number of films. Its dominance is undoubtedly overdetermined,

but its mastery of the problem of the disruption of the cut through a

narrative continuity shows the way a genre responds to a formal issue

raised by preceding genres.

The approach to continuity established by the chase film also allows a series of variations in which continuity of action over a series of cuts

establishes a coherent synthetic geography. Films such as Rescued by

Rover* (Hepworth, Great Britain, 1905) are examples of this as is a sort

of sub-genre of the narrative of continuity in which the gags of the

single shot narratives are concatenated along the trajectory of a single

character. These films present a series of linked vignettes as a character sets off a series of comic disasters along his route, as in Hepworth's Thai Fatal Sneeze (Great Britain, 1907), in which a man d

oused with

/ 13. See Gaudreault, op. cir.

. . Discontinuity . ·,y Cont1nu1ty. t,:on-Conunu1


(Hepworth. \905). 11 · R,11•er ne.,nH'' )_, ' . hi\d causes, mischievous c ·1 of pepper by a . f locales. Fi ms .

in a succession o d may signal a reco. quently in 1907 a� the decline of_ thechase format an the narrative , The fomth g��:edisruption of th,

introduction of disruption on the I<chase form. This . of parallel edit with the introdutminute rescues ou\�on d in the Biog'

el editing repre

appearance of par�f early film for i

ture in the h1story_f. tion . -1 spec1 ,ca of temp

, which is 1 s context of the su

shots. But m the se to the genre of

dialectical respon clear examples ol film. The earliest he Runaway Hor in such films as T h \906). Alth One Shot (V1tagrap

fr�quent to Sl · too 111 · 908

they rema111 It is only 111 I .

types of a genr�ke use of this ed1


re th e ,_sruption d · ofth

y. Specifically th" ecut is naturai· '

h b . at ndges th is cont · muity is th ized b Y ig the frame :hcrts. The end of one actual The disruption' e


next shot is


shot is uity of the char o t, e cut is, as . naugu. >et ween shots typ�s. of this Sort'F1mIUd rath:i:cter � m_ovement ,t nWere,


M elies' A T,


Cont1nuit . r t an dified bythe;'P to the Moon•Y

i'n early arrival in the eparture from onI 1902\ in

developed co ne:'(t kicale in the fo ocat(on

in M ·1·, e ies' f,/ J . ntmu,ty of th e sequ llow,ng �pression in tf1s


13. But this f;nce of ca/e to the ne:t Cp�ii�lm, es the nar in WhiirtJ�:

Jes of th h rative

*) .

e c ase form f

' It becomes an . rom as earJy h's The Maniac J�o�tant form aboi: fate from Which an e: and Persona/• .od_uced over the nexto/mous series of .r is chased by a our Years. Th v1th each shot shf�1iP of character: om the pursuing mo g the character


pursuers exit fro b, the shot held

through the fram m the frame. The ,rb1trary point th: over again. This ias extremely popuJafleemg figure is tnce IS_UndoubtedJ rand appears inthe disruption of{iverdetermined

Y a genre respond e cut through;



. s to a formal issue

>l1shed by the ch


muity of action ase film also allows /raphy. Films s�:� 05) are examples a series of cuts

of as .Rescued by •ntmu1ty in Which this as is a sortted along the

tr . the gags of the

,s of Jinked vign a{�ctory of a single tlong his route ea e� as a character 107), in Which � s m Hepworth's man doused with



;-Non-Continuity, Continuity, Discontinuity 109

RC'.H'lled hy Ro1·er (Hepworth, 1905).

pepper by a mischievous child causes disorder as he sneezes explosively in a succession of locales. Films of this sort appear particularly fre­ quently in 1907 and may signal a recognized need for variation from the chase format and the decline of the genre of continuity.

The fourth genre, the narrative of discontinuity, refers to the re­ introduction of the disruption of the cut into situations similar to the chase form. This disruption on the level of plot rather than story comes with the introduction of parallel editing and its locus classicus is the last minute rescues found in the Biograph films of D. W. Griffith. The. appearance of parallel editing represents a particularly important junc­ ture in the history of early film for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its specification of temporal and spatial relations between shots. But in the context of the succession of genres it can be seen as a dialectical response to the genre of continuity represented by the chase film. The earliest clear examples of parallel editing appear around 1907 in such films as The Runaway Horse (Pat he, 1907) and The.Hundred to

One Shot (Vitagraph, 1906). Although there may be earlier examples,

they remain too infrequent to signal anything other than the proto­ types of a genre. It is only in 1908 and 1909 that a large number of films appear that make use of this editing pattern.


110 Tom Gunning

. While the genre of continuity is based on the immediate continuation

of an action interrupted in the previous shot, parallel editing interrupts

this immediate continuity by interpellating another line of action. Griffith's first extended sequence of parallel editing in The Fatal Hour

( 1908)

can exemplify this form. A woman detective has been tied up in

front of a gun-clock contraption rigged to fire a bullet into her heart at twelve o'clock. Learning of this, the police rush off to rescue her before

the gun goes off. The climactic shots proceed as follows :


10 :

Along a country road, a carriage filled with police rushes

towards the camera, exiting from the frame (a trajectory familiar from

chase films).


11 :

The woman detective bound and gagged in the crook's

hideout. The clock hands move to

11 : 52.


12 :

A different location on the same country road. The carriage

again enters the frame and rushes past the camera.


13 :

Return to the woman detective as the clock hands move to

11 :


Parallel editing represents a discontinuity on the level of plot (the actual assembly of shots) that disrupts the continuity of action on the level of story (the carriage rushing down the road, the movement of the clock hands). By intertwining two lines of action, it literally suspends the outcome of each one, creating that device of narrative delay which

is known as suspense.



parallel editing has become dominant in such rush-to-the­

rescue situations and has almost entirely displaced the older chase

format. More than any other element of film syntax, it represents the

transformation of film syntax that takes place during this period. With its specification of temporal/spatial relations, its effect of an omnis­ cient point of view on action, it is exemplary of the techniques that begin to allow films to formulate works that aspire to the genres of the

novel and drama. At this point the factors determining the cine-genres

become quite complex, and the sort of series I have been describing

would have to deal with a number of other factors, such as the influence

of literary and dramatic genres, the move towards longer lengths of

films, and the appearance of forms that use a variety of syntagmas in

dealing with relation between shots. Undoubtedly the next major syntagma to be introduced would be that of the scene. The scene in this

context would be defined as a series of shots which, rather than presenting a succession of locales, analyze and establish a single locale

and the action within it. The key articulation in the scene would be the cut-in (or cut-out) in which successive shots overlap spatially. This would find its beginnings in the cut-ins to medium shots in such films as

Mary Jane's Mishap (Smith,


but becomes a dominant practice around


(in such films as Griffith's The Lady and the Mouse or A


. ·,y Discontinuity . · Contmut , Non-CononU1ty, ) However it do Girl and Her Trust . rform a differ< editing, but see;s �fsr:rical point nee

that genre at

ht i; a succession of genr This sketc O

. • on of such genr<

terms of the reco��1 atterns that d_e If by genre we m

PfoJlowed by hl

. d patterns d ,

audience an ·ved by pro uce

way films were _conce_1on during the J.

needed. The d1fctss�ersonal shows :

graph over the 1 1dwin S. porter a1makers involved ( d Edison) nol

. B' ograph an d

companies I . ·1 as oppose to the genre of contmmriicu\arly clear t

context that it is pa treatment c

genres cannot rely Certainly other coon n !rns within tl ell The fo� the foregoing sket��:!rticuiation be their approach tot nt aspect of ':ine1is the most imli; tte co


may_ be room Likewise consider:

fi\m1c discoursed d lt is evident th, narrsitive is nee e

. enre is, in fac era the dominant gn to these earl

cinematic form giv\et·on to the fict

I \y in re a 1

more c ose hat early [!\ms we

The discovery t . -making wa than later style� 0�i�as a field of to discover _ear y I

of an art form. than as the.1nfanc� number of rece an insp1raft1ohn tt�ifference/ t6. Anc

history o t a

<< Edison Sales ,

/ \4. See David Levy John Fell. and G, Film be}ore GrfJ1th




unethioriena,. Jilmique :rroler�= Paris\\\), PP· 244-thesis, Un1v.ers1 e ' dmirable << Re-c01

I 15. David Le".Y 5 }·irn i> in Cinema American N3:rrauye l eared in Frenc· direction. This aru�l

te �i��s et le film nar

. \e's \es reconsll u


theque. no 29. . h films as Kei:iJ / 16 One can cite sue ton's Gfona

Eurek·a and HC!llis fram:ny other ftlms rence to ear�y Cllr:�iy�inema. See �) the anomalies o A ant Garde}) in.

Early Film and the v


y is based on the im .

previous sho

mediate conti .

. interpellati t, parallel editing int°uahon

ice of parallef!/?0ther line of :��Pis

. A_woman detedtt°g in

The Fa1a/


n ngged to fire a b��/:s been tied u:rr

: tge police rush off t e mto her heart a�


its proceed as fo�J����e her before

, carnage filled .

n the frame (a trajec�':t faol(cl� rushes

m, iarfrom

ve bound and

to 11 : 52. gagged in the crook's

, the same countr

es P


st the came(a road. The carriage

·tect,ve as the clock h


andsmoveto 11.

,scontinuity on the l

rupts the continuity :�el 0( plot (the


: down the road th action on the

> lines of action' it �-�ovementofthe

that device of n'a 't erally suspends

rra ive delay Which

:ome dominant

entirely displa��ds��h rush-to-the­

ent of film synt


x . e older chase



kes p lace duri ' It_ repr7sents the

ll relations its nfg,this penod. With

exemplary of th

' e ,ect of


omnis-nks that aspire toetbechniques that

actors determin. e ge�res of the

·t of series I h mg the cine-genres

other factors sauvehbeen describing


, c as the· fl

. move towards l

m uence

:hat use a va · 1 onger lengths of

s. U ndou bt;��/ �{ syntagmas in

that of the seen e next major

ies of shots w�·. \he scene in this

alyze and establi 1� , �


ther than

ulation in the s s a single locale

Ye shots over] cene Would be the

: to medium sh


f _spatially. This

ut becomes a


s '� such films



's The Lad


anJ':J,m��t practice

e mouse







Non-Continuity, Continuity, Discontinuity


Girl and Her Trust).

However it does not simply displace parallel

editing, but seems to perform a different narrative role, so we can see

that genre at this historical point needs to be re-theorized .

This sketch of a succession of genres needs further investigation in

terms of the recognition of such genres by film-makers and audiences.

If by genre we mean patterns that determine expectations aroused in

audience and patterns followed by film-makers, more evidence of the

way films were conceived by producers and understood by audiences is

needed. The discussion during the lawsuit between Edison and Bio­

graph over the film


shows a clear consciousness by the film­

makers involved (Edwin S. Porter and Wallace Mc Cutcheon and the ·

companies Biograph and Edison) not only of the chase form but also of

the genre of continuity as opposed to the single shot film/ 14. It is in this

context that it is particularly clear that a theory of the succession of

genres cannot rely on a treatment of the films exclusively.

Certainly other concerns within the corpus of films can supplement

the foregoing sketch as well. The four genres I investigated derive from

their approach to the articulation between shots. Although I think this

is the most important aspect of cinematic plot during this period, there

may be room for the consideration of genres based on other aspects of

filmic discourse. Likewise consideration of genres outside of fictional

narrative is needed.


is evident that at least in the early period of this

era the dominant genre is, in fact, that of actualities. The sort of

cinematic form given to these early actualities needs to be examined

more closely in relation to the fictional genres I have discussed/15.

The discovery that early films were formulated in a different manner

than later styles of film-making was an important insight.


allowed us

to discover early film as a field of investigation in its own right, rather

than as the infancy of an art form. The fact that this difference has been

an inspiration to a number of recent avant-garde films is a part of the

history of that difference/ 16. And, paradoxically, the fact th_at these

/ 14. See David Levy, «Edison Sales Policy and the Continuous Action Film)) in Film before Grijjit h ed. John Fell, and Gaudreault, Ricit scriptural, ricit theiitral, Tecit Jilmique :pro/igomenes a une thiorie narratologique du cinima(unpublished doctoral thesis, Universite de Paris Ill), pp. 244-248.

/ 15. David Levy's admirable <( Re-constitued News Reels, Re-enactments and the American Narrative Film>> in Cinema /900-1906 is an important beginning in this direction. This article appeared in French: «The Fake Train Robbery»: les reportages simules, Jes reconstitutions et le film narratif amCricain », in Les Cahiers de/a Cinima­ theque, n°29.

/ 16. One can cite such films as Ken Jacobs Tom Tom the Piper's Son, Ernie Gehr's Eureka and Hollis Frampton's Gloria as obvious examples. But without direct refe­ rence to early cinema, many other films of the America Avant-Garde can be related to the anomalies of early cinema. See my article« An Unseen Energy Swallows Space:


112 Tom Gu1111i11g same early films are also the ancestors of later dominant practice is another part of the history of that difference. It is a difference that.must haunt us and impell us to discover a method of historical investigation that can do it justice.

L'histoire des debuts du cinema doit faire /'objet d'une nouvelle theorisation qui puisse rendre compte de la difference du cinema


ses debuts d'm•ec /es modes de realisation ulterieurs, et qui puisse aussi indiquer de que/!e .fa;on ces modes anterieurs sont historiquement relies


la pratique dominante qui suivit. L'approche de la notion de genre par /es Forma/istes russes est ici proposee comme un moyen de decrire historiquement /es debuts du cinema. Pour eux, le genre est un

processus dynamique de naissance, de domination et de decadence, clans leque/ /es genres riva/isent pour la domination.

En m'appuyant sur le conceptforma/iste de «cine-genres» (qui sont de.finis aussi bien par leur.faron d'utiliser /es moyens cinematographi­ ques d'expression, que par leur contenu narratif), je propose une succession de quatre genres pour /es debuts du cinema. Le premier est le genre des films narrati.fs


plan unique. J'appe/le le second «genre de non-continuite)): narrati.f; ii consiste en .films narratifs d'au mains deux plans et clans lesquels la rupture causee par la coupure entre /es deux plans exprime une rupture au plan de /'histoire racontee. J'appelle le genre suivant <<genre de continuite


oU une continuiti de /'action recouvr,: la coupure, comme par exemple clans le .film-poursuite. Le dernier genre est celui de la discontinuite clans leque/ /es actions qur sont continues au plan de /'histoire sont discontinues clans /eur repre­

sentation, comme clans /es sequences en montage alterne.

' t



Noel Bu

de de represen

Un mo

, . s J·e me su , · nteneur ,

Dans mes ecnts a ., propose , d'appeler le . . . t

definir ce que J a, J'aimerais ,c, tn tionnel (M. R.\c1 ·ne'ma pour essay .)/ \r d'en degag' st const1tue,e_r I� 1

·1 ne s e . I comme on

k �

a, ' S'

agit-il « s1mP en

·1nnees de cinema., seraient dues a,

dont \es sing�la

n�;alors _ poid_s du va·,I\ent le cinema f ns econom1que

d'une part, aspira ,10 . t ii d'un « mo< l'autre'' Ou b:,en s_at� �n M.R.1.? S

meme titre_qu ii e:is rope durabi\ite? pro pre \og1que, s p

deux a la fo1s. II a effect1ve1:1en xiste,je cro1s,, ��nd nombre de Ies films (un tr��� certain deve\oppques. ca d_ uement que le�­ pauvre se11,1ant1q

· Histoire cl w remarquab\es,


de Melies jus dans /a Lune ( G d ou fan tom 1910) de Nielsen et : sa \ente ero de I 906_ commr��rupage nee dan concept1on d, menta », u e I qui co-ex11

plus «exi:en

. rsateur, ma1s qu che7. le meme rea 1

. ltre . la Luca


r e a para

*Chapitre dun ivr

ou l'ambiva\e�ce ))

; I Voir {< Porter . Flammanon,

Ray�ond Be\\our. Pans\Vinter 1978-7�

ambivalence i>, _sc;;;;;;panying Co1-rec\

Pictures: notes a . < Passion, poursu





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