Most movie-goers, when evaluating a film, focus on the film’s content, the complexities of film characterization, the quality of the performances, the structure of the plot, and the social, psychological, philosophical, or political implications of what they have just seen. This essay, however, will focus on an aspect of the cinema that is usually ignored: The role the cinematic medium itself plays in influencing our experience of a film. I hope to demonstrate the extent to which it is not just the content of the film but the very form of representation that explains cinema’s capacity to create such deep and complex identifications and interactions between the film spectator and the images on the screen.

I’ll begin by raising a fundamental question: Why do moving or animated photographs compel our fascination? Why did Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, a peep-hole motion picture viewer dating back to 1894 through which viewers saw 20-second snippets of moving photographs via a magnifying eyepiece, develop into the most popular communications medium of the 20th century, which is still going strong in the 21st century? It is easier to focus on the appeal of the film medium itself by looking at films from this period because the content of these early films was so minimal. They were composed primarily of mundane scenes of everyday life or reenacted bits of stage or vaudeville performances that were photographed on a raised platform in Edison’s rudimentary film studio. The technique was minimal as well: A static camera passively recorded the action, which lasted less than half a minute, presumably

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until the camera ran out of film.

Despite their brevity, minimal content, rudimentary technique, and the fact that many of the same acts could be viewed on the stage where audiences could be present in real life for less money, these images were considered spellbinding. An early reviewer referred to the Kinetoscope as a “wonderful mechanism,” “marvelous,” and “worth going a thousand miles to see” (Balio, 1985, p. 53). Most film historians agree that for early spectators, the attraction was not the content of the movies but the thrill offered by the medium itself—photographic images that seemed to come to life.

There has been much speculation among film theorists and historians on just why animated photographic images are so congenial to the human psyche. In his essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” the French film theoretician André Bazin (Summer 1960) argues that the extraordinary unprecedented realism of the photographic image (on which much cinematography is based) is what fascinates us because it satisfies the human demand for a mechanical process, which can order and possess the natural world by literally capturing its image. Photography, Bazin explains, has a different ontology from other methods of representation—such as painting or sculpture—because of its actual physical connection to the object it captures. That is, the impression on the celluloid emulsion from which the photograph is developed is the direct effect of light beams that bounced off the subject and were mechanically transmitted through the lens to the film emulsion at the moment the shutter of the camera opened. Thus, the photographic image is more like a thumbprint or a death mask than a realistic statue or a painting because in photography the object literally leaves its imprint on the work of art. It doesn’t just resemble its model; it is an “imprint” of the model itself—coming closer to a state of oneness with what it represents than any form of representation that came before it.

Photography “embalms time,” Bazin (1968) writes, capturing and preserving an instant “as the bodies of insects are preserved intact, out of the distant past, in amber” (p. 14). Cinematography, he continues, goes beyond preserving the image of static things: It also preserves “the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (Bazin, 1968, p. 15). The extraordinarily unprecedented realism of the photographic image is what fascinates us, Bazin believes, because the spectacle of the moving photograph satisfies an

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unconscious wish in the spectator, the wish to deny mortality by preserving images of the dead—the same wish that motivated Egyptians to chemically embalm their kings. Our love of cinema, at its root, according to Bazin (1968), is based on a mummy complex.

One of the first reviewers of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinématographe, an apparatus that projected moving photographs of everyday life on a screen in a Paris café in 1895, would seem to confirm Bazin’s intuition when he writes: “When these apparatuses are made available to the public, everybody will be able to photograph those who are dear to them no longer as static forms but with their movements, their actions, their familiar gestures, capturing the speech on their very lips. Then, death will no longer be absolute” (Cook, 2004, pp. 12-13). Moving photographs do not literally preserve the human form the way Egyptians preserved their kings in chemicals that kept their bodies intact. But they do have the capacity to preserve moving images of people and objects and hence keep them alive in our minds.

A wish to preserve our memories of people and places we have lost may well play a part in our fascination with moving photographs and be at the root of the desire that motivated the invention of cinematography. But another French theorist, Jean-Louis Baudry, in the essay “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,” writes that films answer another desire inherent in our psychic structure, a desire for “a form of lost satisfaction which [the cinematic apparatus] would be aimed at rediscovering… and to which the impression of reality would be key” (Rosen, 1986, p. 307). Cinema, he suggests, restores for us the lost satisfaction of primary narcissism, the intensely pleasurable state as theorized by Freud in which we felt at one with the world, and the boundaries between illusion and reality were blurred. In the earliest period of primary narcissism, Freud speculated, the infant hallucinated what it desired. If the baby was hungry, the object of desire (the breast) was imagined as present until the actual breast appeared. The result is a bit of experience that the infant can take as either a hallucination or a thing belonging to external reality. In primitive emotional development, there is a vital moment of overlap between what is real and what is imagined. Our experience with film images, because of their hyper-reality as well as their phantasmatic insubstantiality, permits a fusion between the real and the unreal in a way that resembles this early state

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when reality and illusion magically coincided.

The conventions of cinematic spectatorship, in which we are seated in a darkened theater in a physically motionless yet hyper-perceptive state, a state analogous to dreaming, invoke an early ego state in which, as Baudry (1986) points out, “perceptions are really representations mistaken for perceptions” (p. 314). The combination of the strong impression of the reality of cinematic images with the regressed state in which we view them not only encourages us to perceive film illusions as reality but also to experience ourselves as physically merged with the world on the screen, very much like the way we experience dreams.

More than any other medium, the film medium invites us to imaginatively enter or merge with the world of images before us—providing us with the illusion that we inhabit the same space as the spectacle. A reviewer of the new medium late in the 19th century alluded to the feeling of immediacy inherent in film viewing when he wrote: “you will sit comfortably and see fighters hammering each other, circuses, suicides, hangings, electrocutions, shipwrecks… as if you were on the spot during the actual event” (Balio, 1985, p. 42). For many viewers, it went beyond the “as if.” Accounts abound of how early film spectators shrieked and ducked when confronted with filmed images of waves that threatened to engulf them or a train coming right at them across the proscenium arch. Some historians claim that these tales are exaggerated or apocryphal, but even modern film spectators experience at the cinema the illusion, common in dreams, of being simultaneously spectators and participants in an imaginary but hyper-real perceptual world. When people report dreams in which they have the experience of watching themselves at the same time that they are subjectively experiencing the action of the dream, they often describe these dreams with the words: “It was just like being at a movie.” In our experience of movies, like our experience of dreams, we are split selves, simultaneously inside and outside the action.

Drawing on Baudry’s ideas, Robert T. Eberwein’s (1984) book Film and the Dream Screen suggests that the experience of cinema revives the feeling of the merger we had while dreaming satiated at the breast. We all had to become weaned, but at least we have the cinema. “[Film] makes us babies again,” he writes, “and reverses the process of ego differentiation by plunging us back in memory to that moment of identity with the source of nutrition” (Eberwein, 1984, p. 42).

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Japanese new wave director Jûzô Itami (1985) wittily ends his film Tampopo, the subject of which is eating, sex, and the cinema, with a long, slow tracking shot up to an infant blissfully sucking at its mother’s breast until the screen blurs, seemingly metamorphosizing back into the breast. Eberwein’s and Itami’s association of the cinema screen with the breast and the mystical sense of fusion with the phenomenal world associated with early oral pleasure seems less far-fetched when we consider that the real source of income in many theaters is not the price of the ticket to see the film but the proceeds of the popcorn and candy concessions.

An early film released in England in 1902, by James Williamson, depicts a primitive oral fantasy that plays on the ambivalence of early film viewers who both fear and desire the experience of being taken in or incorporated by the film image. It is fittingly entitled The Big Swallow and available on YouTube. The action of the film is as follows: We see a man angrily protesting against an off-screen cameraman, who is presumably taking his picture without his permission. He even raises his cane against the interloper. Then, from the point of view of the cameraman, we see the angry man menacingly approach, his head getting larger and larger, until just his gaping wide mouth fills the screen. In the next shot, we see the camera and the cameraman plunge into a black hole, presumably swallowed up by the protesting subject. The victim has turned into the victimizer. The film concludes with a big close-up of the man chewing triumphantly.

Rather than being captured by the camera, he has captured it, along with the photographer, taking a fitting act of revenge. This extraordinary early film, which I think of as the first horror film, is both an allegory on the danger of too much identification in the cinema—the fear that you can get completely sucked in and annihilated, the fate of the cameraman—but also the satisfaction of oral incorporation, suggested by the man’s happy chewing face.

If, as I have suggested, the hallucinatory realism of the film medium itself encourages a boundary breakdown between the viewer and the screen, various techniques have evolved into the stock-in-trade conventions of mainstream narrative cinema to enhance and intensify these effects. The choices the director makes—the type of shot (from the long shot to the extreme closeup), the angle from which the action is shot, whether or not and how the camera moves in relation to the image, the way the images are composed in the frame and edited together, the type of lens used to

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capture the action, the way the image is lit, the type of film stock used, or the addition of a soundtrack—all have a profound impact on the degree to which we identify with the characters on the screen and become emotionally implicated in the action or, in some cases, deliberately distanced. Whether a director works with or against it, the uncanny realism and immersive quality of the film medium is at the heart of cinematic fascination and a force to be reckoned with throughout the development of narrative film art.

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  • Balio, Tino (1985). The American film industry (pp. 42, 53). University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Baudry, Jean-Louis (1986). The apparatus: Metapsychological approaches to the impression of reality in cinema. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, apparatus, ideology: A film theory reader, (p. 307, 314). Columbia University Press.
  • Bazin, André (Summer 1960). The ontology of the photographic image. In Hugh Gray (Trans.), Film quarterly (Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 4-9). University of California Press.
  • Bazin, André (1968). What is cinema? (pp. 14-15). University of California Press.
  • Cook, David A. (2004). A history of narrative film, 4th ed. (pp. 12-13). W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Eberwein, Robert T. (1984). Film and the dream screen (p. 42).
  • Itami, Jûzô (Director). (1985). Tampopo [Film]. Itami Productions; New Century Productions.
  • Rosen, Phillip (1986). Narrative, apparatus, ideology: A film theory reader. Columbia University Press.
  • Williamson, James (Director). (1902). The big swallow [Film]. Williamson Kinematograph Company.


Marilyn Fabe

Marilyn Fabe, PhD, is Senior Lecturer Emerita in the Department of Film and Media at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Techniques (2004) and has published psychobiographical essays on Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin, and Maya Deren. Dr. Fabe may be contacted at

How to Cite This:

Fabe, M. (2022). The power of the film medium. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 74-79.

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