How does a history of cinema begin? Perhaps with cinema, one can say something along the lines of: “In the beginning was darkness.” But what kind of darkness would envelop around cinema? Is it the same darkness that enchanted poets who associated it with the “formless, void, chaos, ex nihilo”? (p. 1) And if cinema begins with a certain kind of darkness, how does one go about laying out that history? Where does it begin and end? These are the questions at stake in Noam Elcott’s book Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media, whose core argument is that artificial darkness (as opposed to natural darkness) plays a central role in the historical development of various creative sites, including black screens, dark theaters, and photographic and cinematic studios. Film plays an important part in the story, but it is not the central one in Elcott’s story.
Elcott’s study is an example of what is now called media archeology, an interdisciplinary field that, metaphorically speaking, attempts to dig through layers of various media in order to excavate alternative and neglected histories. In his exploration of the nature of the screen, W.J.T. Mitchell rightly points out two pitfalls that a study of media archaeology is prone to fall into: the construction of a progressive “Whig history” in which early practices progress into the present, and a superabundance of evidence.1 Elcott avoids the first pitfall by refusing to delineate linear histories of either artificial darkness or various media through which that darkness operates. As for the second pitfall of overwhelming evidence, Elcott’s reference to a vast collection of archival resources is, in fact, a major strength of his study. His ability to weave through a dizzying array of data – architectural plans for Wagner’s theaters, blueprints for dark chambers, 17th century illustrations, silent films, artistic sketches, and others – reflects his intellectual ambition to trace the historical emergence of artificial darkness.
In Elcott’s account, modern artificial darkness proliferates in numerous forms in the nineteenth century. Artificial darkness is markedly different from shadows, total darkness, night, shadows, and the color black (pp. 12-13). Nevertheless, meaningful similarities can be made between baroque tenebrism, day-for-night shooting in cinema (nuit américaine), and contemporary artworks that utilise artificial darkness. Such connections, Elcott argues, allows us to identify the historical overlaps between various artistic and scientific arrangements (dispositifs) that date as far as back as the 17th century. In Elcott’s history, an obscure 1671 illustration by the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher constitutes an early demonstration of an “elaborate dispositif of darkness.” (p. 84)
It is worth mentioning that the subject of Elcott’s study is not a specific medium but a historically contingent arrangement – a dispositif. Michel Foucault’s concept of dispositif becomes the key theoretical bedrock that paves the way for Elcott’s far-reaching history. Focault’s dispositif, all-encompassing in its reach, constitutes a “system of relations” established between “discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions.” (p. 11)2 Elcott emphatically states that artificial darkness is not a medium per se but rather a dispositif. Hence, a history of darkness must focus not on medium specificity (the what of media) – which, Elcott claims, hinders a historical study of a complex arrangement like artificial darkness – but rather on creative sites (the where of media). In Elcott’s words, a media archaeological approach that “marginalizes film, light, projected moving images, montage, and cameras” compels a “radical recalibration of the origin or arche of cinema.” (p. 10) Rather than focusing on specific components of cinema, Elcott draws our attention to recurring tropes – the disciplining of the body, physical dismemberment (of both the male and female bodies), and “spacelessness” – across technologies of artificial darkness. The important premise underlying Elcott’s methodology is that media histories are inherently unstable, and he emphasizes that his methodological framework is just one venue among many through which scholars and critics can explore artificial darkness. (p. 8) For Elcott, no art or media history should pivot around a certain set of aesthetic features or a singular event, and he displays much impatience towards the often told story about the Lumière screening on December 28, 1895. In the history of artificial darkness, December 28 was “just another Saturday.” (p. 10)
Structurally, Elcott’s study is effectively organised in a way that it places equal emphasis on both technological and art histories. Its first half establishes a media archaeology of various experimental, performance, and technological sites (Étienne-Jules Marey’s Physiological Station, Richard Wagner’s Festspielhaus, and black-screen technologies). The second half attempts to reframe the traditional reception of two prominent artists – George Méliès and the German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer. Elcott’s exhaustive yet fascinating account of Schlemmer makes use of both detailed visual analysis and an extensive research into avant-garde practices. That being said, I would like to pay close attention to Elcott’s examination of George Méliès, a section that is of direct interest to scholars and critics in film studies.
In his re-examination of George Méliès, Elcott focuses on Méliès’s early works and strives to show how the director deliberately and consciously deployed artificial darkness as an aesthetic strategy that bridges the gap between magic tricks, theater, and film. In Elcott’s view, the genius of Méliès lies not in his recreation of outlandish scenes, a reception that arises from the prominent stature of his film Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) and the “hackneyed opposition” made between Méliès as the “father of fantasy” and Lumière as the “pater of realism.” (p. 156) Rather, it is Méliès’s masterful application of artificial darkness across various sites – the studio, the screen, the stage, and the auditorium – that distinguishes him within the history of film. By examining Méliès’s exploitation of a uniquely modernist aesthetic strategy, we can see how the director’s works form a “decisive link between nineteenth- and twentieth-century applications of artificial darkness.” (p. 138) Embedded within Elcott’s larger argument, the chapter provides a new way of appreciating Méliès as an auteur by situating his works within the larger constellation of aesthetic and media practices.
For Elcott, Méliès is not a master of the film image but of artificial darkness, and he engages in a creative reading of his works to demonstrate how Méliès broke down the barrier between the film screen and audience through artificial darkness. Inspired by Stan Brackhage’s reading of Méliès (dubbed as the filmmaker “George”), Elcott argues that the barrier between the “darkling plane” of the screen and the “darkling plain” of the auditorium collapses through Méliès’ usage of the black screen (p. 160).3 What effects such a collapse is the “spaceless darkness” that governs both the audience and the representation on screen; it is a darkness in which bodies are “radically dislocated, disembodied, disciplined, and duplicated.” (p. 163) Elcott engages in a creative reading of Méliès’ L’Homme orchestre (The One-Man Band, 1900) in order to bolster such a claim. In the film, the chairs, rendered invisible by Méliès’ usage of a black drape, “reflect an audience that has similarly disappeared in the darkness.” (p. 162) As part of his attempt to trace a media archaeology through different time periods, Elcott draws a connection between the ecstatic choral drama of Attic tragedy and L’Homme orchestre via Nietzche’s writings on the genre of tragedy. In his writings, Nietzche argued that there was fundamentally no opposition between the viewing public and the chorus, as the chorus came out of the stage and filled the auditorium seats. Needless to say, Méliès does not physically come out the film screen, but Elcott’s point is that the barrier between the viewing subject and film also breaks down through Méliès’s mode of ecstasy in the sense of being “beside onself,” with duplicating bodies of Méliès on screen becoming “untethered from body and space”— in other words, a “spaceless darkness.” (p. 163). Hence the audience is “fused with the image” and “the whole is just one sublime invisible orchestra.” (p. 164)
Without a doubt, Elcott’s reading displays an exciting level of theoretical sophistication, but his actual analysis of Méliès’s film, a pivotal component in his argument, is difficult to follow in general, especially when Elcott emphasizes the film’s details (such is the case even after watching the film itself). More significantly, Elcott’s impatience towards what he calls “fetishistic histories,” which comes to the surface in the author’s chapter on Méliès and throughout the rest of the book, will certainly come off as drastic to many critics and scholars, as evinced in Elcott’s tone when he states that “there remains a palpable reticence to do away entirely with the specificity of ‘film,’ whatever that might mean.” (p. 10) Nowadays, a film scholar or a critic would dread to be labelled a media fetishist, which may be as egregious as being labelled a racist in today’s political climate. But must one really completely disavow oneself of all aesthetic and media theories that center on medium specificity? Must everyone embrace the idea that there are no media (put another way, “media is everywhere and nowhere”)? With media archaeology, there is a strong sense that every concept is malleable and subject to eternal change, the reason why it has generated both fascination and outrage.
That being said, readers of Elcott’s study will inevitably find themselves confronted with tough questions that continue to persist in today’s film and media studies. What exactly are media, and how do we effectively construct their histories without either neglecting pre-historical artifacts or forgoing historical boundaries altogether? And does an acceptance of the ontological differences between media always lead to fetishistic histories that essentialise the characteristics of media (for instance, cinema always accompanies a camera, a projector, and an audience)? No single study will ever lead us out of the dark tunnel of media. Darkness is here to stay.
- Mitchell, “Screening Nature (and the Nature of the Screen),” New Review of Film and Television Studies, 13:3, p. 232. ↩
- Alongside Foucault, Friedrich Kittler, the controversial specter that haunts today’s landscape of media studies, appears frequently throughout the book as both a frequent reference point and a target of criticism as well. ↩
- The phrases “darkling plain” and “darkling plane” come from Stan Brakhage’s writings (The Brakhage Lectures). ↩