The following document is an abstract of a paper accepted for presentation at the Visual Delights III — Magic and Illusion conference at the University of Sheffield, July 15-17th 2005.

From the beginning, early film audiences discovered within film a series of largely conventional and familiar pleasures. Among these, illusionist spectacles of explosion, dismemberment, and transformation proved enduringly popular among the distractive qualities of early film shows. Using materials from the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University, this paper will focus upon the broader notion of 'trickality' at work within the development of early film genres, as described by Andre Gaudreault and others, and upon the spectatorial pleasures associated with the authority of the conjuror in the years before 1905. Whether performing live, on-screen, or by implication in the development of trick effects, spectators found in the conjuror a coherent agency persistently associated with qualities of spectacle, surprise, sleight of hand, and with a confounding mastery over space and time. This figure offered spectators a clear focus within the remarkably complex and often conflicting performances and registers of early film shows, and thus generated a degree of consistency in their negotiation of the rapidly changing institutional structures of early film. This paper argues that such stability had an enduring significance for developing institutions of film comparable in many ways with the function of authorship for later cinematic institutions.


3 May 2005