April 30, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 15

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    Modernity in disguise

    Gunning will use Guggenheim to investigate detective film as allegory of modern life

    By Shula Neuman
    News Office

    We all watch movies. We are

    all familiar with the two-

    hour stories, plot twists, character development, climaxes and happy endings. Although the formula seems timeless, according to Tom Gunning, Professor in Art History and Cinema & Media Studies, the earliest films did not resemble this model at all. Before 1917, the concept of film was radically different from its modern incarnation.

    It is this difference and transformation that fascinates Gunning. The author of D.W. Griffith and the Origin of American Narrative Film (1991) and co-author of An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema (1992), Gunning has spent much of his career studying early cinema.

    His interest in early film has recently assumed a new focus: the detective film, a genre he will be able to study in greater detail thanks in part to the Guggenheim Fellowship he was recently awarded.

    Until now, Gunning's work has explored the evolution of film from the turn of the century to around 1915 -- from the gag-filled, action-packed short films shown between vaudeville acts to the longer feature films that were initially met with much skepticism by theater managers.

    "It wasn't that they couldn't make longer films before 1915. It was simply a matter of how filmmakers conceived of film," Gunning explained. "Making one film an evening's entertainment was something many people thought was ridiculous. They thought it wouldn't last."

    As feature films gained in popularity, the genres that we know today developed: westerns and novel-based films appeared, as well as the first detective films.

    "The detective format is a particularly modern format for literature as well as for film," Gunning said. "The genre appears first in the 1840s -- around the same time as still photography -- and grows popular by the turn of the century."

    Gunning proposes that detective films reveal the changing structure of society at the turn of the century. For example, the differences in clothing that once marked distinctions between classes and professions virtually disappeared at the turn of the century. Such changes caused a sense of unease with the new modern order.

    "The detective film is an allegorical statement of modern consciousness. The world is suddenly harder to read, but the detective is the expert who is able to read the world in terms of clues," Gunning said.

    Other evidence of modernity in the detective film includes the use of disguise and self-transformation.

    "I'm very interested in the use of disguises in relation to the changing modern identity," Gunning said. "In detective films, either the criminal or the detective has the ability to appear suddenly as a worker or a millionaire. That has a magical quality to it, and that has a lot to do with the ways that social roles were experienced at that time. Obviously, it is a function of any type of fantasy, but it is also the precise social role of identity that is being played with."

    Gunning also notes that the detective film relates to urban life in a manner previously unrepresented. The genre presents an image of the modern city as a kind of labyrinth that only the detective is able to negotiate. The ease with which one could lose or take on an identity was possible in the modern city because the city itself was a honeycomb of mysteries, Gunning said.

    "There was a flood of detective stories between 1911 to 1917, all of which dealt with the catacombs of the city. They dealt with the way the city begins to take on this underground super-structure -- subways, electrical wires, sewers. There is a hidden city beneath the city. This is partly borrowed from the Gothic romances that involve castles, but it is also a function of the modern conception of cities."

    The detective film also was the source for new artistic developments, introducing such cinematographic innovations as the close-up, parallel editing, points-of-view shots, dramatic lighting and the use of reflections and shadows.

    To further explore the genre, Gunning will spend the next school year researching early detective films in the archives of Germany, Denmark, France and England, as well as here in the United States.