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A Not So Simple “attraction:” Edison’s Cockfight as an Argument for a Dynamic Model of Representation

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Eric J. Adams

A Not So Simple “Attraction:” Edison’s Cockfight

As an Argument for a Dynamic Model of Representation

One of the very earliest films of note is the 45-second black-and-white short known as “Cockfight” (1896) produced by the Edison Kinetoscope Company and directed by W.K.L. Dickinson.  Like all films of its time,  “Cockfight” is considered by film historians as an attraction, a class of film that Tom Gunning (The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde) describes as a “visual curiosity…supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle.”  Gunning goes on to suggest that most such films were “in effect plotless...The story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema.”  

There are three approaches to representing meaning in film, the reflective, the intentional and the constructionist, each one more complex than the preceding, according to TK in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices Edited by Stuart Hall (Sage Publications & Open University; 1st edition (April 1, 1997).  

Because of its simplicity, “Cockfight” is thought to utilize a reflectionist representation.  That is, it merely reflects the image or scene in front of the camera without comment or intrusion by the filmmaker (intentional) or the need for the audience to construct meaning from it (constructionist).

But a closer look and the ostensibly innocuous film reveals that there’s more to the piece of film that meets the eye.  Indeed it can be argued that “Cockfight” satisfies the criteria for not one, not two, but all three prevalent theories of representation.

To begin with, the critic and film historian Kate Fortmueller (Assistant Professor in Entertainment and Media Studies in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia) tells us on the website “Critical Commons,” this was not an actual cockfight but a staged event.  http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/kfortmueller/clips/cockfight-1894/view. “Edison was known for filming popular vaudeville acts and performers, but he always asked performers (who were usually in New York) to come to the Black Maria studio in New Jersey. Cockfight, like many Edison subjects, was shot in the Black Maria. Had this been an actual cockfight (with an audience) this film would not have the same angle on the action.”

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Let’s begin by what’s on screen in the film.  The viewer is immediately drawn foreground to the two black cocks engaged in a furious battle, feathers a flying (hence the title).  The camera never moves, there are no edits to the piece, and really no beginning or ending.  These characteristics quickly suggest a reflectional representation, “like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world.”

The film is blatantly reflectionist, one might suggest.  But there’s more to this scene than meets the eye.  Behind the cocks, two scruffy and crude men are cavorting, wagering and haggling on the cocks as they tear each other to pieces.  One of the men is situated higher in the scene and more prominently.  He waves his finger to his companion in an “I told you so” manner, meaning his cock is assuredly the winner.  The fellow on the left is smaller and partially concealed behind the makeshift ring. Each man is located behind a cock, so that the scene is composed of four figures, two cocks and two rivaling less-than-gentleman.  This is obvious placement by the director of the short and hence satisfies the intentional theory of representation in which “…the author…imposes his or her unique meaning on the world.”

There is a message here that the director delivered: cockfighting is brutal, and the men who conduct and enjoy such endeavors are crude, unruly, and perhaps even immoral.  

To wit, we have already seen evidence of a both reflective and intentional representation.  

But we are not done.  Cockfighting, certainly today, is a controversial endeavor.  Some see it as a traditional sport enjoyed for generations.  Others believe it to be cruel inhumane.  Do to this dichotomy of belief, it’s hard to imagine a viewer approaching the short without some opinion, bias and even potentially revulsion. Hence,  now we veer into the domain of constructionist approach, in which the viewer – and not the creator --  determines the meaning of the representation.  For a quick and albeit random example, take a look at the sole viewer comment on a Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGIVPri_W48.  The commentator “Lone Star” writes:  

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