I’ve written about it before, but it continues to amaze me.
When watching the film Annabelle Serpentine Dance #1 filmed for Edison in 1894, it is easy to compare it to contemporary film thinking that something is missing. The single-shot film is silent, no longer than 20 seconds and not employing any editing or camera-movement. All we see is a female dancer performing “The Serpentine Dance”, thus the performance seems to be more important than narrative continuity, and a characterisation of the performer. When analysing Annabelle Serpentine Dance this way, we fail to understand the origin and the conditions in which the film was made. Also, we assume that cinema have to consist of a narrative and a characterisation of its “performers”. I believe cinema should also be celebrated because of its ability to create visual attractions while expressing an art of motion.
Annabelle Serpentine Dance was created in the early days of cinema, originally intended for exhibition in the Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device showing short films, no more than a minute long, which people could see by peering down through a viewer at a tiny image. The audience in these kinetoscope parlors was mostly male, one reason being that the topics chosen were taken from vaudeville performances created to appeal to male audiences, thus the moving pictures often featured clips with female dancers, railway trains, fire and police workers and sporting events. However, the films also attracted women who were interested in a glimpse into the usually forbidden world of masculine amusement. Annabelle Serpentine Dance features the popular vaudeville performer Annabelle Whitford Moore performing the “Serpentine Dance” – a choreography assumedly invented by the American performer Loie Fuller. Annabelle’s costume composing of billowing fabric with wands attached to the sleeves makes her able to manipulate and extend the costume above her head and diagonally to the sides. Throughout the film, she either looks down or directly into the camera smiling, while the movement and her long, flowing skirts create a variety of visual patterns. The movements of her costume continuously hiding and exposing her body, makes you think of a magician’s vanishing act.
In addition to the pro-filmic elements mentioned, Annabelle Serpentine Dance also employs a “direct” film manipulation element, as each black and white frame of the film has been hand-tinted in different colours. This has been employed to imitate the original performance by Loie Fuller who had light in different colours projected onto her costume while performing. This additionally adds something from a magical world, as it looks like Annabelle’s costume changes colours as she moves. The effect of hand tinting had never been used before in moving pictures, which undoubtedly must have been a spectacular sight for the audience.
The variety of visual patterns created by movement and hand tinting are exactly the elements that should be heightened when analysing Annabelle Serpentine Dance today. It not only creates a very aesthetically pleasing sight, it also develops an astonishing magical world that the spectators are allowed into. When Annabelle acknowledges the camera by smiling, she creates a bond between her and the spectators asking for their full attention while allowing them to be voyeurs. I believe, this direct address of the spectator increase the attraction of the performance as she is reminding us that we are looking at a performance on a screen, yet we are being greeted by a “real” person who knows we are watching her. In later classic cinema, when the application of “invisible editing” became popular; looking at the camera became a taboo and the acknowledgement of a spectator disappeared. This created a new kind of moving picture industry that mainly focused on narrative continuity and psychological characterisation.
Another attraction of Annabelle Serpentine Dance is the movement of Annabelle’s costume that can be celebrated as cinema as an art of motion, which has been a huge inspiration for later filmmakers and philosophers. I believe Annabelle Serpentine Dance creates an art form celebrating motion in itself. The background is dark and the stage Annabelle is performing on is shallow, leaving the only place to focus your attention on her performance, thus the movement. These framing techniques were often employed in Edison’s early moving pictures.
It is important not to forget that Annabelle Serpentine Dance originated from the vaudeville stage where it was a very popular attraction. When bringing it into early cinema, it was obviously desired to carry on the popularity. The publicity posters made for Loie Fuller’s performances of the serpentine dance portrayed her body as highly eroticised. I would imagine that Edison could have used the same “trick” to attract more people. If so, this could confuse people when seeing the performance, as they may have come with a preconception that Annabelle Serpentine Dance was supposed to be a skirt dance. It is easy to see the choreography’s relation to burlesque dance in the way Annabelle’s costume through movement is constantly concealing and revealing Annabelle’s body. This effect of using the rhythm in hide and seek also creates an attraction.
“The magnetism in the simultaneously bewitching and confounding of the male gaze, the rhythm of hide and seek, the promise offered by glimpses of a withheld body and its sublimation into pure form and energy”.
— Tom Gunning, Loie Fuller and the Art of Motion.
Annabelle Serpentine Dance was actually censored because of the short glimpses of Annabelle’s underwear, but I think this was due to the beginning of a utilization of power in the American film industry. We have to remember that Annabelle Serpentine Dance also attracted women who wanted to see what the fuss was all about, and I would imagine that they were not less attracted to the performance than the male audience. Therefore, instead of focusing on the potentials problem of a woman as a subject of the male gaze, I believe it is more relevant to see Annabelle Serpentine Dance as a performance done by a woman consciously deciding to create a sexual element of attraction. Thus, her control of the male (and possible female) gaze resulted in giving the performance an immediate sensual attraction, cutting across classes and letting everyone experience it. However, I believe the sexual attraction was only a minor reason why people were attracted by the performance. Another immense attraction of Annabelle Serpentine Dance was the before mentioned direct use of hand tinting. The effect of the changing colours was employed to give the spectator a feeling of watching a magic show.
“The changing patterns of free-form color, as opposed to the attempt at color consistency and subordination to photographic form that characterizes most tinted films, make these first color films perhaps the most satisfying instances of the art of motion in early cinema”.
— Tom Gunning, Loie Fuller and the Art of Motion.
These “magical” elements of Annabelle Serpentine Dance are exactly why the film should not be read as having a lack of narrative or characterisation. Instead, it should be viewed as an amazing example of The Cinema of Attraction(s). To see Annabelle Serpentine Dance as lacking a narrative or a characterisation, or to call it a primitive example of cinema could not be more wrong. Denoting early cinema as primitive, is to forget that the technological developments in early cinema were the ground upon which cinema is built today. It also inclines that cinema should follow a linear progression where the newest is the best. Further, as Tom Gunning has argued, there is no need to only read cinema in the classical way, we can also look at the cinema of attractions. Instead of assuming that early cinema should be inspired by theatre because classical cinema was, we should celebrate cinema’s multiple ways of moving us. Annabelle Serpentine Dance is meant to fascinate us with the thrill of display rather than the construction of a story and I believe it does so in the most magical way. I am not interested in arguing that Annabelle Serpentine Dance is superior to films employing a classical approach by emphasising narrative continuity and characterisation.
What I want to argue is that Annabelle Serpentine Dance should not be read as a piece of primitive classical cinema. Instead it should be celebrated for its ability to create a spectacle, which has an immediate effect on us while watching it. The cinema of attractions and the classical cinema are two different modes of approach to film making, and instead of trying to categorise all cinema into one category, I believe we should enjoy them in their own different ways. The celebration of cinema as an art of motion and the use of the latest technological developments are not less interesting than creating a film with a narrative or a characterisation. Sometimes we just want to be directly addressed by a spectacle that creates a sense of wonder and amazement.