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Of Empire and the City

Remapping Early British Cinema


Maurizio Cinquegrani

This book explores the cinematic representation of the city in British film from 1895 to 1914, featuring depictions of London, Glasgow, Dublin, Delhi and other British colonial cities. The author argues that the films are not only an invaluable record of the economic, social and cultural life of these cities but also that the spatial organization of these urban areas, and the cinematic representations of them, were shaped by the ideology and activity of imperialism. The pioneer camera operators who made these early films often put forward an imperialist ideology by paying particular attention to the cinematic representation of monumental and ceremonial spaces, modern communication and transport within the city and between the city and the empire. Of Empire and the City establishes connections between these cities and their cinematic representation by means of continuous motifs and themes, including modernity, Orientalism, spectatorship and the imperial subject. The book makes a unique contribution to studies of early film, British urban history and the history of the British Empire.
«This is a highly original and genuinely groundbreaking piece of scholarship on early British cinema. Very little work on this subject to date has sought to contextualise films of the 1890s and 1900s within the broader field of the history of imperialism. Cinquegrani's book systematically corrects this ‘blind spot’, and in its use of a wide range of ideas and methodologies […] it offers a compelling new model for future scholarship on British cinema of the silent era.» (Dr Jon Burrows, Associate Professor, Department of Film and Television Studies, University of Warwick)
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Chapter 1: Film at the Heart of the Empire


← 42 | 43 → CHAPTER 1

Film at the Heart of the Empire

Where early films of London help us to understand how the splendour and the wonders of the modern city are intrinsically related to its miseries and its inequalities.

It is one of the first moving pictures of London: a few horse-drawn carts, men and women walking and bicycling in Hyde Park on a sunny autumn day.1 The actuality film Hyde Park Bicycling Scenes was filmed in November 1896 by Britain’s pioneer filmmaker, producer and equipment supplier Robert W. Paul.2 By watching it and others like it, accompanied by the whir of a Steenbeck table, one may understand what Maxim Gorky might have felt in 1896 when he wrote an article about the first screenings of moving pictures in Russia. The writer from Nizhniy Novgorod wrote about the Lumière cinematograph in the pages of the newspaper Nizhnegorodskii Listok, and defined cinema as a place with no sounds or colours: “this is ← 43 | 44 → not life”, Gorky wrote, “but a shadow of life, and this is not movement but the soundless shadow of movement.”3 It is true that at the end of the nineteenth century most films appeared in a monotone grey and, although filmmakers like Georges Méliès started to hand-colour their films as early as 1896, the first successful colour film process was not launched until 1908.4 Live sound accompanied films since 28 December 1895, when Auguste and Louis Lumi...

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