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New Left Review 16, July-August 2002

Jeopardy and menace, flight and pursuit: the highwire and lion’s den as kindred to the cinematic thrill. Peter Wollen reflects on the varied tempos of the avant-garde, from René Clair to Michael Snow; and on the planetary expansion of the culture of speed.



In 1959 the psychoanalyst Michael Balint published a book on the subject of Thrills and Regressions which is of great interest, not simply to Freudians, but to film theorists and historians as well. Although Balint never mentions the cinema as such, his opening chapter on ‘Funfairs and Thrills’ covers a number of different varieties of thrill-laden activities, including those in which the thrill is directly experienced by participants and those in which it is experienced vicariously; as, for instance, at the circus, where professionals entertain spectators with their feats on the tightrope or in the lions’ den. Cinema is often discussed in relation to the theatre or the novel but its kinship to the circus is much less frequently admitted, even though we are all aware how important the vicarious enjoyment of thrills has been throughout its history. From very early on, cinema exploited its capacity to create excitement. Even the very first films of the Lumière Brothers had a thrilling effect on their audiences—we are all familiar with the many accounts of spectators cowering or fleeing the cinema as the train approached the station, threatening to run directly off the screen into the auditorium. Soon afterwards Georges Méliès was taking spectators on a rocket trip to the moon.

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Peter Wollen, ‘Speed and the Cinema’, NLR 16: £3

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