A Homeless Ghost: The Moving Camera and its Analogies

Curator's Note

The camera is like a person. The camera is like an eye. The camera is like a ghost. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood filmmakers made sense of the moving camera by appealing to analogies. Many of these analogies have become commonplaces, such as the idea that the camera is an eye. But these familiar notions were remarkably unstable at first. A film might imitate a person’s movements in one scene, only to drop the analogy in another. This video essay explores these inconsistencies, juxtaposing passages from trade journals with clips from dozens of films to show how analogical thinking shaped and complicated Hollywood’s use of the moving camera.

The central subject of the essay is a crucial contradiction defining the debates about camera movement in the period: the contradiction between anthropomorphism and omnipresence. On the one hand, many filmmakers argued that the camera should move like a person, restricting its motions to those a human might reasonably perform. On the other hand, the cinema as a medium promised to break free of human restrictions, as new technologies empowered the camera to move anywhere. The contradiction is not so much logical as aspirational: one side strives for human connection; the other for transcendence.

By pointing out that filmmakers often moved the camera in ways that contradicted their published statements, I am not seeking to score points on minor inconsistencies; rather, I hope to show that their aesthetic debates produced works of greater complexity. The release of The Last Laugh (1924) and Variety (1925) had inspired Hollywood filmmakers to think more deeply about what the moving camera might do. The best filmmakers drew on competing analogical models to develop moving-camera shots that were technically impressive, thematically rich, and affectively engaging.

Lately, I have been working on a book-length history of camera movement in Hollywood cinema. When I applied to Middlebury’s "Scholarship in Sound & Image" workshop, I was beginning to consider how videographic criticism might enhance my traditional scholarship as a film historian. In particular, I was envisioning ways in which video essays might accompany my forthcoming book. Given the subject matter, still images would be of limited use in providing illustrations for my claims. The video essay will give readers the opportunity to view my examples in motion. As a first step of this larger project, I decided to treat A Homeless Ghost as a stand-alone work, drawing on research I have already completed, but focusing on just one strand of the larger argument: the tension between anthropomorphism and omnipresence. Whereas traditional scholarship enables me to analyze the discourse of cinematographers and directors word for word, the video essay allows me to discover a hidden layer of affect, giving urgency to the practical debates about how the camera should move.



Thanks to Kristin Thompson for her helpful comments on the first version of this video essay. I have made several changes to the video to incorporate her suggestions. Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz for his thoughtful response to the revised version.

This video was produced out of the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop at Middlebury College, June 2015, as funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In addition to the sources listed in the video essay itself, my research has benefited from the following scholarly works:

Lutz Bächer, The Mobile Mise-en-Scène: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the Narrative Film (New York: Arno Press, 1978).

Janet Bergstrom, “Murnau in America: Chronicle of Lost Films,” Film History 14, no. 3/4 (2002): 430-460.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, “Technological Change and Classical Film Style,” in Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 109-142.

Jean Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema, trans. Christopher King (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

Graham Petrie, Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America, 1922-1931, rev. ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).