Narrative Cinema, From the Modernity Thesis to New Digital Technologies: Traffic in Souls, Avatar, and Beyond

modernity  traffic in soulsHow do you feel about 3D cinema? About CGI, and other SFX? Touchy subject, right? But hardly a new one. Opinions about the development of cinema and even the changing technologies of cinema have been up for debate since the very beginning. As new technologies invade how we experience life more rapidly than ever before, I can’t help but think back to old ideas about how the changing world affects the cinema. Take, for example, America’s first feature film, Traffic in Souls (1913). It presents modernity as having equal potential for good and evil. Thus, this 1913 film supports the hotly debated “modernity thesis” by implying a new perception of life is needed in order to establish the habits and skills required to negotiate it. According to Ben Singer, in his book Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts, the modernity thesis has three components (102): cinema is like modernity in all of its fragmentation and abruptness; cinema is a part of modernity since it itself is a new technology; and lastly cinema is a consequence of modernity. This third component is considered controversial because of its implication that “the intensity of modern experience generated in individuals a psychological predisposition toward strong sensations, reflecting profound changes in the “perceptual mode” prevailing in modern society” (103), thus influencing the style and pace of cinema. Clearly, this is not so different from how we think of new 3D technology as stimulating our senses.

Singer refers to this as the “history of perception argument” (104). However, David Bordwell challenges this argument with two interrelated critiques; that many early films did not reflect intensity in their style (Singer 104), and by denying the plausibility that the human perceptual apparatus could be significantly altered by urban modernity (Singer 105). In other words, such a major biological change cannot take place on such a whim. Fair enough, but there are a number of convincing counters offered by Singer in his satisfying attempt to reassert the modernity thesis. Through a brief analysis of Traffic in Souls I will attempt to prove that, if the modernity thesis were contextualised, as Singer suggests it should be, it can actually be a very useful framework through which we can understand early cinema.

modernityThe history of perception argument contends that there is a causal link between modernity and cinema and exemplary causal forces are thus identified as urbanisation, technology, and capitalism, all of which not only exist within Traffic in Souls, but actually drive the narrative of it. The prologue introduces sex slavery as a socio-political problem by showing its documentation in newspapers and then providing a glimpse into how it functions by following the short story of two young immigrant girls who believe they have come for work, but upon attempting to navigate the new big city all alone, they are easily manipulated, kidnapped and sold. By the end of the prologue, we have learned that the new world, whereby the word “new” can be substituted for “modern”, is full of moral corruption and greed (capitalism). However, faith in authority is restored when the policeman refuses the bribe and busts all of the women out. And yet, the problem of sex slavery itself has not yet been resolved.

Immediately after this “happy ending”, the problem is intensified when our protagonist’s sister goes missing and is being held captive by more of these criminals. The scheme is so elaborate that the inter-titles of the film are primarily used to identify all of the players and their roles, so as to allow the viewer to understand the system and follow all of the action. In both cases, with the Swedish girls and with Lorna, the suggestion is that urbanisation, technology and capitalism have the capacity to corrupt and to make the streets unsafe. The bad people are everywhere in this film because urbanisation and technology make it incredibly easy for them to stay organised. We see this in the fact that they use telephones to stay in contact with one another and in how convenient the motor vehicle makes getting girls from one place to another (keep in mind this is 1913). On that note, the sheer number of motor vehicles shown in the film alone is striking. Meanwhile it is capitalism that motivates them; such a system makes everything into a commodity and so we get to see the criminals holding, counting, and passing about money quite a few times in the film. Even Mary is fired because of the disgrace of her sister’s disappearance; for her boss, business is more important than compassion. This is the way of the modern world as presented in Traffic in Souls. Modernity, it asserts, creates more problems; however, it also offers many solutions. Lorna is taken to the house in which she is held captive by cab, but she is also found by Mary and a group of policemen who arrive by car. Moreover, it is their father’s innovative technology, and Mary’s great idea to use it, that allows them to find Lorna and arrest all of the people involved. Like Bordwell’s own habits-and-skills argument, the film seems to say that we can adjust; that there is positive in modernity despite the chaos it creates.

modernity traffic in souls

Traffic in Souls

Walter Benjamin was concerned with understanding the physiological experience of urban modernity; nervous restlessness as a new feature of the perception apparatus. But Bordwell’s suggestion that people simply adapt, makes the concern moot. That is, if we acquire the habits and skills required to navigate the “new world”, it follows that such nervousness only exists when our habits and skills fail us. In this case, nothing would have literally changed in our perceptual apparatus; as always, we will only have a stress reaction to the sense of danger. The difference being, urban modernity offers more opportunities to encounter danger. Consider Singer’s example of crossing the street in a time before motor vehicles and in a time of motor vehicles. We develop the habit of looking both ways, arguably to reduce the need for stress, which should only occur if we cannot properly assess a situation and react to it in time. The stress response must have existed in pre-modern times as well, so there seems to be no reason to assume that a physiological change in perception has taken place. Rather, as Singer points out, “in modernity the individual faced a more hectic, intense, and unpredictable array of audiovisual and social stimuli… and the consequences reverberated throughout the mind and body” (107). Therefore, it seems natural that the way one perceives modern reality is characterised by complexity and speed. As Anderson and Lindeman are quoted as suggesting: modern society is likely to generate a preference for stimulating entertainments. Consider cinematic advents such as continuity editing and cross-cutting. They become standardised because audiences relate best to them because they mimic our perception of the real world in which there is a constant flow of action, everywhere at once: “There is something doing every minute” (Howard Woolston 119). It is worth thinking about Andre Bazin’s attitude towards the ontology of the photographic image and how this translates in cinema as a desire to recreate the way people experience life.

modernity Traffic in Souls

Traffic in Souls

From a historical point of view the development of cinema can be generalised as going from simple/photographic, to spectacular with the cinema of attractions, to narrative. Singer explains that the emergence of narrative cinema brought with it continuity editing with the main purpose of making the story easy to follow and that this could be seen as counter to modernity which is characterised by chaos (127); but “classical editing opened up a whole new dimension of visual rapidity” (Singer 129). It’s understandable then that as modern technologies continued to change our experience in the world, there came a desire to change how we experience film – hence the ongoing digitisation of cinema.  And yet there has been an obvious ambivalence towards the ongoing digitisation of cinema. Many argue that CGI (for example) ruins the movie-going experience, while simultaneously millions line-up early to catch 3D showings of Blockbusters at their local cinemas. These debates and conversations about changing film technologies are widespread, even among film scholars. As early as the 1990s publications on the topic can be found to express a worry for what the changing technologies mean for the well-loved art of visual storytelling.

In 2001, Dr. Lev Manovich (City University of NY) raised an interesting argument when he questioned the validity of live-action in the digital age, suggesting that to some degree these movies all fall within the genre of animation. While this may seem absurd at first, that in 2014 Hollywood produces innumerable works that are nearly full-CG makes it necessary to take another look at this argument.  In redefining cinema, Manovich lists 4 principles of digital filmmaking:

  1. Live-action footage is no longer the primary filmic material
  2. Once digitised, live-action footage no longer shares an indexical relationship to reality, as it becomes pixels, no different from CG
  3. Live-action footage is now only raw material to be manipulated
  4. Computer technologies alter the act of filmmaking, so that editing and SFX becomes an inherent part of the process

modernity AvatarIf nothing else, what this definition of digital cinema makes apparent is that how we think about “film” has been drastically altered by new technologies, or in following the Modernity Thesis, perhaps our now overwhelming reliance on new technologies has altered how we create “films”. Of course, that a movie’s primary purpose is to tell a story has not changed, simply the means by which the stories are put together and experienced. That these stories are now heavily informed by the art of CG can be understandably threatening to die-hard film buffs, but the biggest obstacle filmmakers in the digital age must overcome is the pressure to rely only on CG.

Author Pam Keesey writes: “…despite the rapid development of SFX technology and the untapped potential of this new resource, SFX needs to be a tool in the service of storytelling and not the story itself” (1999). This cautionary statement, made rather early on in the digital debates, has often gone unyielded as the digitisation of cinema continues to be made a spectacle of. However, it also seems worth considering that new technologies have been able to literally animate stories like never before. Consider Avatar (2009), which is largely a new way to experience Pocahontas, or A Christmas Carol which in 2009 animated an old story in a big new way. And it hasn’t ended there. So, I guess the question remains, what can be made of the digitisation of cinema? It’s hard to say, and there may be no definite answer as to whether this is necessarily beneficial. But one thing is for sure, while people will always be skeptical of new technologies, SFX, CG, and 3D have all made their mark on the art of storytelling, at the very least opening up a new chapter in the history of cinema and technology.

Extract from Traffic in Souls:


About the Author:

My passion for film has manifested itself into years of study in both film production and film studies. I am currently completing a Master’s Degree at Carleton University for which my focus has been Slasher cinema. My research interests include Horror, Gender, and Adaptation. My typical approach to film study is to think critically about the cultural contexts of any given film in order to make sense of the formal elements, story and connotations. I am also a freelance writer and, not surprisingly, I run two film related blogs: Sinema Addiction and Pick Canadian Pictures.

9 thoughts on “Narrative Cinema, From the Modernity Thesis to New Digital Technologies: Traffic in Souls, Avatar, and Beyond

  1. Hi, really great essay. I’m currently writing an essay for my final year at university about whether films are spectacle over narrative and it would be really good to get the original location of that pam keesey quote. thanks!

  2. Great article, Shyla! This is always a fascinating subject for me, though I don’t know as much about it as I wish I did (so thanks for writing about it!). In general, I don’t love many of the movies the employ a lot of CGI, although I actually did like Gravity a lot. However, I have recently become very excited by the potential these technologies have, especially after reading a bit of Manovich last year.

    I also like to think about CGI and 3D in the context of Andre Bazin. In “The Myth of Total Cinema,” Bazin postulated that every artistic invention from photography to film (and now CGI) has lead us closer to representing reality as we know it. What great foresight he had! This raises a few more questions, though: Do we want art to imitate life this completely? What would that even look like, and would it still be cinema? I don’t have answers to either of them.

    In the end, I think filmmakers haven’t really figured out how best to use these technologies yet, and decades into the future we may be astonished by the sophisticated films created using these techniques.

    I found a link to the Bazin essay, if anyone is interested:

  3. Bill, you raise a crucial part of this equation. Film production has gone through other technological innovations and ultimately incorporated each into its product. Some, like sound, profoundly changed that product. Others, like Odorama, did not. It’s impossible to know, as we live through it, what ultimate effect CGI will have. But the revolution in distribution and exhibition we are now experiencing is largely unprecedented from the establishment of the first nickelodeons. The communal nature of viewing a movie may not vanish (I distinctly remember when home video was predicted to eliminate the movie theater experience), but it certainly will continue to change.

    As for the future of narrative, I think Gravity may be a lasting example of our current rebalancing of Gunning’s concepts of Cinema of Attractions (in which realm Gravity strikes me as extraordinary) and Cinema of Narrative Integration (a realm in which it strikes me as beyond silly). Modernism may lead to a new idea of cinema which is more immersive, which makes use of virtual reality and may resemble video games more than what we think of as film today. Or perhaps not. We won’t know til we get there. And even then, we may not know.

    • Jon, I dont believe Gravity accomplished anything that was not better done in 20 minutes of 2001. a movie that contexualized its non-narrative passages into both literature, science, and the SF movies that preceded it. From where I sat, Gravity was nothing more than an IMAX experiment stretched out to the length of a feature film. It is the movies like 300 that are more disturbing to the breakdown of character and narrative in contemporary film. In 2013, we saw an unprecendented number of unwatchable movies that relied upon a constant stream of random imagery strung together to hold the attention of the audience. We also saw movies fail because they were tied to the narrative traditions of the past, and today’s audiences could not follow the logic of story and character development. They have become accustomed only to an action so abstract that it selfom matters who is zooming long as the zooming never stops.

  4. In non-narrative cinema, narrative was replaced by structure. The films of such non-narrative film-makers such as Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage were nothing like the arbitrarily edited mess of shots that became standardized with the popularity of “Con Air” and now blaze on in a cinema with neither grammar nor logic. When Von Helsing was released over a decade ago, it meGI was just so ridiculous and the narrative made no sense. Now, watching the new I Frankenstein, it must be admitted that the earlier, loathsome piece of trash was ahead of its time, and now should be considered a classic forerunner of today’s non-narrative, CGI-laden action pictures.

  5. It has been 100 years since “Traffic in Souls,” and movies on sex slavery are more popular than ever. Although each decade had brought a different slant to the familiar plot, the story remains essentially the same. It is no different with the technical advances in the medium. Just a few years ago, my young nephew insisted that movies were better now than they ever were primarily due to the invention of 3-D. I told him that I grew up in the 1950’s watching 3-D movies and he didn’t believe me. As for CGI, is it any different that using a green screen or back projection? Well, yes. As you mention in your article, the CGI movie should be considered animation, not live action. Personally, I cannot stand the phony, primitive look of these movies. But my way of perceiving motion picture reality is not the same as my nephew’s.

    I think the real problem today is not the advances in technology, but the loss of moviegoing itself as a communal experience that unites the societal culture. It has gone from being an inexpensive form of weekly entertainment that united people in small towns with big city culture to a periodic venture into the expensive IMAX palaces for an experience more sensory than cerebral. From the 1930’s through the 1980’s movies were an entertainment medium through which the national literature was dispensed to the common people. They no longer had to take a trip to new York city to see a Broadway show; they could see it on screen at their neighborhood theater. And Im not just talking about musicals, but everything from The Front Page to Golden Boy, from A Streetcar Named Desire to Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Literature, too, found its place on the movie screen, from world classics like Les Miserables and War and Peace, to national treasures like The Great Gatsby and From Here to Eternity.

    Movies are no longer written by writers, but by amateurs who follow strict templates. When a movies comes out that does have an original story or a new way of telling a story, most of the audience have trouble following it. “I couldn’t tell where it was going” is a common complaint against the literate movie in these illiterate times. And this cannot be blamed on technical advances in the art of movie making, but the death of literature in our culture. There are too few books or plays being written for the writers to base their screenplays upon.

    We go to the movies now, not for story or characters, but for a bit of sensory stimulation. With so much of our time running errands or socializing in cyberspace, the real world has become dull, devoid of human activity. The sensory jolts provided by the CGI IMAX 3-D Experience are perhaps a substitute for what we have lost in our day to day living experience. Perhaps we can no longer identify with the human story because we no longer live in that world.

  6. I agree with James, Shyla. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing it. For me, the most provocative issue you raise comes in your final two paragraphs. What if your assumption that “a movie’s primary purpose is to tell a story” proves untrue? Or what if there is no ultimate primary purpose at all? Amongst the early innovators, Muybridge was concerned with motion, Demeny with teaching the deaf how to read lips. That their inventions turned into a massive industry founded on narrative entertainment may have been inevitable, or it may prove to be an aberration, like the 30 year period in which many film people believed non-synchronised sound was cinema’s ultimate evolution. Although narrative cinema remains dominant, the cinema of attractions does seem to be rearing its head.

    Like Pete, I am not familiar with Traffic in Souls, but it sounds a lot like some of the contemporary work of Louis Feuillade and Lang’s Mabuse movies. (I have not had a chance to read Gunning’s recent book on Lang and Modernity.) With few exceptions, they all seem to be works that revolve around crime, which no doubt is important. But my head aches too much to postulate a reason why at the moment.

    Thanks for a very informative essay.

  7. An interesting and well-argued article, of an obviously academic standard Shyla. I have never seen ‘Traffic In Souls’, but I have been known to voice strong opinions about film effects in the past. I agree that there have always been developments in film technique, as well as in the society that it once reflected. On a personal level, I lament the lack of compelling plots, and sharp scripts, that once made films so appealing.
    I can see no substitute for these, in mind-bending graphics, or special effects, and would have to agree with Ms Keesey that they should be a tool, and not the primary purpose. The outcome remains to be seen, but I do not have great optimism for the future of cinema at the moment.
    Thanks for a different and insightful article though, and like James, I am pleased to see you here.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

Leave a Reply