Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tom Gunning: Setting me straight

My "Writing About Literature" professor, Dr. Burton, asked that we extend our research process beyond our own isolated bubble, so that we could better take part in a larger conversation about our research topics, and learn to make connections that will allow us to grow through collaboration. So, I decided to send an e-mail to the superstar of silent film scholarship, Tom Gunning.

Tom Gunning is the Chair for the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at The University of Chicago, and is "famous" for creating a new way of looking at pre-feature silent films, which he terms "the cinema of attractions." The following is an excerpt from his Bio on UChicago's faculty page (along with a great Bio pic):

His published work (approximately one hundred publications) has concentrated on early cinema (from its origins to the WW I) as well as on the culture of modernity from which cinema arose (relating it to still photography, stage melodrama, magic lantern shows, as well as wider cultural concerns such as the tracking of criminals, the World Expositions, and Spiritualism). His concept of the "cinema of attractions" has tried to relate the development of cinema to other forces than storytelling, such as new experiences of space and time in modernity, and an emerging modern visual culture.

I decided to send Dr. Gunning an e-mail with a question that I had been researching but could not find an answer for. Here is the e-mail:

Dr. Gunning,

I am a double Film and English Major at Brigham Young University. I don't presume that you respond to e-mails from anonymous students; but as I'm working on a project in your area of expertise, I finally decided that it was worth giving it a shot.

I have spent some time following the work you have done, especially in early silent film. About a year ago I found Martin Lefebvre's volume "Landscape and Film," which you contributed to, and have since learned about your work with what you term the "cinema of attractions." It was an exciting experience to realize that there is still a fairly current and evolving discussion about film, even in its classic stage, and it is a dream of mine to contribute to it myself.

My specific interest is in landscape and film, and I know that you have spent time looking at D.W. Griffith and landscape in particular. I am currently revising a paper I hope to find publication for about Victor Sjostrom and the "landscape view," as I was sharply struck by Sjostrom's use of landscape (seascape) in Terje Vigen (A Man There Was - 1917), and The Outlaw and his Wife(1918). I am formulating a paper that suggests that these two films of Sjostrom's may form a model that we might benefit from today.

One specific question I have is whether Sjostrom was diverging from common practice by shooting such striking, poignant scenes out in nature, as opposed to in the studio. I have extrapolated that most producers would choose to shoot big-budget films on a set in a studio because it would be cheaper than moving a whole film crew to a natural location...and that the studio system was really coming into its own during just this period...but have not found definitive proof for this in the research that I have conducted.

Whether you find the opportunity to respond to this e-mail or not, I wanted to express my admiration for the work that you have done.

Neal Call

About an hour later, I realized that I'd made a mistake in my e-mail (aw suck!), and sent Dr. Gunning a second e-mail apologizing:

As I was looking at Martin Lefebvre's book again, I realized that it was Jean Mottet who wrote an article about landscape in D.W. Griffith. It doesn't alter my interest in your work, but I apologize for misrepresenting. I just knew that you had done work with the early American film and D.W. Griffith.

Despite my silly mistake, Dr. Gunning responded almost immediately with an answer that probably saved me 5-10 extra hours of research trying to find evidence for something that didn't exist (and I'd spent that much time already trying to find it). Here is his response e-mail:

Dear Neal

A quick answer. In the teens when Sjostrom was working, shooting in a big studio for landscape scenes was not necessarily cheaper, so it was not unusual for directors of the teens to shoot landscape scene sin nature (Griffith, prodcuer Tomas Ince and the various directors who worked under him) Maurice Tourneur, all did great work in landscapes, However I would agree Sjostrom was perhaps more powerful than any of the others, not because he was the only one shoorting in landscape, but because he has such an extraordinary sense of the way environment interpenetrated his character and his narrative. Outlaw is perhaps the masterpiece in this regard, but most of his films show this great sensibility. It may partly be a cultural sensibility, since I feel the strongest rival to his talent in this regard is his fellow Swede Maurice Stiller, especially Song of the Scarlet Flower and (available on DVD) Sir Arne's Treasure I have an essay on Sjostorm, but it is not on one of his landscape films: “‘A Dangerous Pledge’: Victor Sjöström’s Unknown Masterpiece Mästerman” in Nordic Explorations: Film Before 1930 ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson (Sydney: John Libbey and Co., 1999).


Tom Gunning

And Dr. Gunning's response to my flub of attributing his work:

Dear Neal

I did wonder, but if you look at my Griffith book you will find pleanty on Landscape...



You'll note that Dr. Gunning directly refutes much of what I wrote in my second post on landscape in film, but I am overjoyed that he did, because I knew that I was making a leap without enough proof. Now I can revise it to make it accurate. Even better, though, was that he corroborated my sense that Sjostrom did something special that other film-makers were not doing - he in essence justified my paper, even if he offered a concrete counter to a sub-argument. All things considered, it was an excellent exchange, and if I can come up with another good, concise question to ask, I hope Dr. Gunning might offer me another pearl or two.


  1. That is awesome. So since Dr. Gunning refuted part of your assertion, what are you going to argue is the main reason why nature took a backseat to story in film? Also, (how) do you plan to relate this to new media or the internet? Could you explore the internet itself as a type of landscape in more recent films?

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  3. Thanks for documenting this exchange. Obviously working scholars are happy to communicate with anyone who show intelligent interest in their work or research field. I'm curious to know how you will answer Ben's question...

  4. Well, to start, I guess I'd have to say that I'll be discussing in a later post (if we get to it) about the difference between nature, setting, landscape, and character. In particular, whiel directors may have included depictions of the natural world in their movies, they may not have emphasized the "landscape" aspect of them as much as the "setting" aspect. But even more than that, and this is something Dr. Gunning corroborates, Sjostrom used landscapes in a way that complemented and deepened the meaning of the story in ways that other directors did not. Why? I'll post on that, too, if i can get to a post on his biography.

    Finally, I feel like film is itself new media...I don't really think I have to push very hard to argue that. Just by discussing the contrast between film landscapes and landscapes in literature or art, I'll be satisfying that requirement.

    IF I had to push it in the way others in our class seem to be doing, though, I might explore the way that a "landscape view" offers a meditative qualification to the modern trend of going faster, with quicker edits, more explosions, shorter attention spans.