25 May 2017


Murray Leeder. The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

In the cinema of the 1890’s the image of the spectre, the ghost, and the skeleton are regular occurrences. The new trick photography of film was ideally suited to playfully examine our fear of mortality and urge to communicate with the living dead. The claim of Murray Leeder’s The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema is that philosophers and film historians have over-emphasised the break with cinema’s pre-history of magic lantern shows.

When film was successfully fed through a projector technology gave us a powerful representation of the modern world. We could dutifully respect but essentially disregard our earlier attempts to arrive there.

But the past is not just another country but a sensibility that influences the present. The Victorian film pioneers were part of a historical continuity that turned a novel toy into an art form and a business were depictions of the spectral still obsessed us. Science was making possible a form of the “modern supernatural.” Early cinema theorists such as Ricciotto Canudo and Bela Balazs were fascinated by the idea of the cinema as a “haunted medium”. Their critical histories have had a long lasting influence. In 1997, critic Peter Wollen wrote of cinema as “an art of ghosts, projections of light and shadow, which seen while we watch them to have the substance of real beings.”

“Spectral turn” is now the academic description for supernatural phenomena and achieved its most intense philosophical exploration in the work of Jacques Derrida. Today we have academic theory covering ghostings and hauntings in many other fields of study. However the beginnings of cinema still remain to be explored, for it has a close relationship with séances, hypnosis, magic shows and the invention of the x-ray. Cinema’s shock of the technological new was considered a powerful tool for recording the soul or spirit of a person. The x-ray was discovered by William Conrad Rontgen in 1895 and the chromo photography of Eadweard Muybridge preceded and co-existed with the film trickery of Georges Melies.

“The former used double exposures to represent contact with the spirit world, and the latter, which made its debut almost at the exact time as cinema, carried profound supernatural implications in its seeming ability to transform living flesh into a memento mori.”

Leeder’s book consists of eight chapters and covers 210 pages in pursuit of its notion of the spectral. Carefully written, insightful, intellectually exciting and very readable, The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema breaks new ground, not just for film studies, but for its many fascinating reflections on the philosophy of science and art, supernatural manifestations’ and our prevalent anxiety and attempts to explain such ‘immaterial forces’. Leeder’s writing style is elegant and concise: serious minded and packed with suggestive ideas.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 6 bearing the terrific title, 'Melies’s Skeleton, Gender Cinema’s Danse Macabre and the Erotics of Bone'. By using Melies’s short film The Vanishing Lady (1896) as a springboard, Ledder goes on to describe how women were made subjects for erotic scrutiny. In 1896 Life magazine published Lawrence K. Russel’s poem praising the sexiness beneath the skin, as revealed by the x-ray.
“She is so tall, so slender, and her bones –
Those frail phosphates, those carbonates of lime –
Are all produced by cathode rays sublime,
By oscillations, amperes and by ohms.
Her dorsal vertebrae are not concealed,
By epidermis, but are well revealed.
Around her ribs, those beauteous twenty four,
Her flesh a halo makes, misty in line,
Her noseless, eyeless face looks into mine,
And I but Whisper “Sweetheart, Je t’adore.”
Her white and gleaming teeth at me do laugh.
Ah! Lovely, cruel, sweet cathodograph!”
Ghost worlds are the book’s concern and the range and selection of material to illustrate Leader’s argument is very impressive. He effortlessly makes connections with early cinema and modern cinema. (Melies the magician is celebrated in Scorcese’s Hugo of 2011.) One of the additional pleasures of this work is to browse through the long list of notes and works cited at the end of each chapter (it might prove to be unreadable but I delighted in the title of a 1998 book by Bram Dijksta, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de Siècle Culture.)

Apart from encounters with spectres, we’re given engaging tales of spiritualists, avant-garde artists, showmen and mediums working parallel with the emerging technology of cinema. The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema is a cornucopia of ideas, arguments and images both scrupulously well researched and highly readable. This original exploration of film history makes for one of the most pleasurable books I’ve read in 2017. My only negative is its prohibitively expensive cost. (Obviously aimed at scholars, students and specialist libraries.) Yet I hope it sells well and eventually there’ll be a cheaper paperback edition for the general reader. – Alan Price

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