Mario Slugan and Daniël Biltereyst (eds.): New Perspectives on Early Cinema History: Concepts, Approaches, Audiences

London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, ISBN 978-1-3501-8197-7, xiv + 283 pp.

Denise J. Youngblood
William Heise; Valdemar Koppel; Edwin S. Porter; Louis Lumière; George Méliès; Archie L. Shepard; tableaux vivant; early cinema; The Great Train Robbery; living photographs; Mediathread; May Irwin; film libretti.

Interest in early cinema is currently at a high point, with early cinema scholars producing some of the most thought-provoking research in film studies, as this volume (and the current issue of Apparatus) indicate. New Perspectives on Early Cinema History is a selection of papers originally presented at an international conference held in Ghent, Belgium in 2018, organised by this book’s editors: Mario Slugan, a lecturer in film studies at Queen Mary, University of London (and a former editor at Apparatus), and Daniël Biltereyst, a professor of film and media studies at Ghent University and director of its centre for film and media studies. The eleven essays – written mainly by European academics, plus two from Canada and one from Malaysia – provide an excellent overview of new trends.

The volume is divided in three sections – “Concepts and Theories,” “Approaches, Methods, and Sources,” “Audiences and Experiences” – rubrics that Slugan and Biltereyst freely acknowledge are arbitrary. I see the ‘new perspectives’ offered by these essays somewhat differently than do the editors. Therefore, rather than assessing each of the eleven essays in the order in which they appear in the book, I will focus first on those that I believe best capture the collection’s stated goals of elucidating ‘new perspectives on early cinema history’.

The volume’s first major contribution is, in my view, to provide radical ‘revisioning’ and/or ‘recontextualising’ of films that are so well known that they are almost clichés. This is the focus of chapter 1, in which André Gaudreault revisits the work of Georges Méliès, considering the ‘delivery technology’ of the times and how this pioneering filmmaker achieved effects like decapitation using the rudimentary apparatus he had available. Gaudreault’s deep exploration of the production aspects of these seemingly ‘primitive’ early works allows for even greater appreciation of Méliès’ achievements. In chapter 3, Gert Jan Harkema takes a fresh look at The May Irwin Kiss (William Heise, 1896, USA), arguably the most famous – and certainly the most amusing – of the early film ‘attractions’. Harkema convincingly argues that the sensation engendered by the Kiss arose as much from audience anxieties as it did from surprise at the new medium and uses The May Irwin Kiss as a departure point for considering ‘presence’ in early film spectatorship. In chapter 8, Paul S. Moore provocatively recasts The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903, USA) as inaugurating a “new rhetoric of cinema publicity” as well as “a new form of cinema” (Slugan and Biltereyst 2022: 167). Moore is, in short, interested in how narrative film was promoted as a stand-alone form of entertainment by Archie L. Shepard, a travelling exhibitor of picture shows, mainly in the northeastern United States, 1903-1907, demonstrating how Shepard shaped audience expectations for what a moving picture should be through his canny newspaper advertisements. And in chapter 10, Frank Kessler and Sabine Lenk recast two of the earliest, best-known works of Louis Lumière in what they call a “historical pragmatic” perspective, an approach that was interesting, but also a bit confusing, even though I am both a historian and a pragmatist.

The volume’s second major contribution lies in its innovative redefinitions of the filmgoing experience. In chapter 4, Casper Tyberg provides a brilliant and imaginative recreation of the exhibition of ‘living photographs’ in Copenhagen in 1896, relying on the detailed review of the show by Valdemar Koppel, who is best remembered as a prominent Danish journalist and editor, not as a film critic. Tyberg shows how Koppel’s ‘review’ is a window into the imaginative world of the literati who first experienced the moving pictures phenomenon (reminding us of Maksim Gor’kii’s report on his first encounter with the ‘movies’ in Nizhnii Novgorod, also in 1896). Chapter 9, Agata Frymus’s careful mapping of the venues open to Black moviegoers in Harlem, 1909-14, is much less poetic than Tyberg’s account, and not very well integrated into Black culture and society at that time, but an excellent example of new approaches to film research. Frymus’ pioneering research contributes to the current vogue for spatial studies of filmgoing. Finally, in chapter 11, Daniël Biltereyst delves deeply into the class aspects of moviegoing in Belgium through his revealing analysis of the Cinema Buiksom disaster of 1912, a small fire at a film venue in an industrial town in western Belgium that turned into a deadly stampede when the audience panicked. Biltereyst’s essay is a penetrating exploration of an ‘unimportant’ event in an ‘unimportant’ place, reminding readers of how much microhistories can teach us

I do not mean to imply that the remaining essays lack merit. In chapter 2, Valentine Robert offers a fascinating theoretical analysis of the composition of tableaux in early films compared to the illustrations or other pictorial art works that inspired them. In chapter 5, Mario Slugan disputes the perennial issue of the validity of a fiction/non-fiction dichotomy, a subject I thought had already been settled in favor of blurring the line, but Slugan does offer additional theoretical justifications and new examples drawn from early cinema. In chapter 7, Anna Kovalova argues for the importance of libretti as a way of ‘seeing’ the many titles from early Russian cinema that have vanished, a valid and important approach, but one familiar to those who know her previous work. But the best of the chapters that elude typecasting is easily chapter 6, Danae Kleida’s demonstration of using Mediathread technology for gesture analysis in early cinema. Mind-blowing!

New Perspectives on Early Cinema History makes a valuable contribution to the next evolutionary stage of a scholarly subdiscipline that is constantly reinventing itself. The editors are to be congratulated for shepherding such a well-executed volume to completion. I challenge them now to produce the sequel: a collection of the conference papers that were not included here. Those titles look equally interesting!

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont, USA


Denise J. Youngblood, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Vermont and an associate editor at Apparatus, has published extensively on the history of Russian and Soviet cinema, including The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia: 1908-1918 (1999) and several book chapters and encyclopedia articles on early Russian cinema.

Suggested Citation

Youngblood, Denise. 2022. Review: “Mario Slugan and Daniël Biltereyst (eds.): New Perspectives on Early Cinema History: Concepts, Approaches, Audiences.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 15. DOI:


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