Cinema Of Attraction: Fifty Shades Of Grey Analysis

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Question chosen: Where might we encounter Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attractions” today?

Tom Gunning’s theory of “Cinema of Attractions” refers to an early form of cinema entertainment, where the spectacle of the film was more important or more prevalent than any narrative or complexity of characters. Akin to a trip to the circus, cinema of attractions would be “exhibitionist”, exercising the “novel ways in which cinema took hold of its spectator” (Gunning, 1990) with the audience or spectator playing an important part and often being acknowledged or encouraged to interact with the picture. A complex narrative was not necessary – the appeal of cinema of attractions was the images on screen, which were often boundary-pushing or even scandalous (for the time). Rather than having audiences focus on the narrative or even the characters, cinema of attractions captivated the audience through these images, with their excitement and curiosity stemming from the images themselves, rather than the story or the writing.

In this essay, I will argue that cinema of attraction did not just exist as a form of early cinema. In fact, it still exists today and can be seen in many different ways in modern cinema and entertainment. It has also evolved into having a strong presence not only in cinema, but in social media as well. Cinema of attractions still has a large presence today, with large-budget Hollywood films and even social media platforms utilising at least some aspects of the theory. In order to demonstrate this argument, I have chosen a film from the past five years which contains most, if not all, elements that define cinema of attraction, and one social media video platform which also could be categorised as a form of cinema of attraction. For this essay, I have chosen Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and the video sharing platform TikTok. In both of the modern films I have chosen, narrative does play a somewhat important part. However, I will argue that from the perspective of their target audiences, the narrative and character motivations take a backseat to the captivating or provocative images that are portrayed on screen throughout these films. As for TikTok, I will argue that viral videos, viral trends, and active audience participation are the elements that make TikTok a viable candidate for cinema of attraction.

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Beginning with the film chosen for this argument, Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2015 film based on the erotic novel of the same name by E.L. James. The film follows the story of Anastasia Steele, who enters into a BDSM relationship with Christian Grey after interviewing for a job with his company. The film averaged 25% on Rotten Tomatoes (Rotten Tomatoes, 2015) and was heavily criticised for poor dialogue, poor plot and even poor acting. The film was largely targeted at women and was released on Valentine’s Day in 2015. Despite the low critical reviews, the film, which was the first in a trilogy, was a huge box office success, making over $500 million against a $40 million production budget (The Numbers). In order to understand how this film, with its underwhelming reviews, was such a success at the box office and made such a large profit, we can look further into another aspect of cinema of attraction: voyeurism.

Voyeurism is defined as “the desires or behaviour of a voyeur” and includes one such example as “the practice of obtaining sexual pleasure from observing others” (Merriam-Webster). In terms of cinema and literature, erotic novels and films are possibly the most commonly accepted means of consuming voyeurism – when an erotic film is given a cinema release and a large presence in the media, it is deemed socially acceptable to partake in the act of voyeurism in this instance. In terms of cinema of attraction, Gunning actually theorised that cinema of attraction was opposing voyeurism, being an exhibitionist display rather than a voyeuristic one (Kessler, 2006). However, he also noted the “voyeuristic pleasure” (Gunning, 1990) of audiences watching the 1903 film The Gay Shoe Clerk, in which both the audience and the shoe salesman himself find pleasure in the close-up shot of the woman’s ankle. Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels utilise the same voyeuristic pleasure, albeit on a much more explicit scale. In theory, both the audience and the characters take pleasure in the raunchy, explicit scenes detailed within the film. This voyeurism connects with Gunning’s analysis of The Gay Shoe Clerk, however the film as a whole also plays into the idea that cinema of attractions is exhibitionist. The narrative is still second to the imagery, and the graphic imagery was the most highly publicised aspect of the film prior to its release. So in this case, I argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is both voyeuristic and exhibitionist, and therefore is an example of cinema of attraction in the modern day.

Fifty Shades of Grey also coincides with another, more modern take on cinema of attraction. King (2000) argues that modern day cinema places emphasis on cinema as a “thrill ride”, where narrative and story issues are pushed to the side to place emphasis on “purely visceral thrills”. This can be seen in Fifty Shades of Grey, with its explicit sexual content including scenes of BDSM. Although King’s analysis is largely referring to large scale action-packed productions, such as superhero or monster films, the idea of a “thrill ride” can also be applied here. In this instance, the “visceral thrills” come from the voyeurism carried by the sexual images and nature of the film. Like The Gay Shoe Clerk, the audience gets a thrill from the scandalous images and camera shots used throughout Fifty Shades of Grey.

The other case study I have chosen for this essay is the video sharing platform TikTok. TikTok is a platform which is currently used by over 500 million people around the world (Business of Apps), and is well known for its “trends” which see hundreds or thousands of users recreating dances or scenarios using the same audio clips as each other. It is currently one of the most popular social media platforms and has seen a recent surge in popularity in 2020. TikTok embodies one of the aspects of cinema of attraction mentioned beforehand: the idea that the audience or spectator plays a key role in the cinema itself.

First of all, TikTok relies heavily on the aforementioned “trends”. The app is targeted to teenagers and young adults and uses hashtags to collect videos of a similar nature in one place. These hashtags can range from the name of the dance, to the name of the song used in the audio clip, to the name of the challenge that the user is attempting. These hashtags are used to extraordinary success (Herman, 2019). These hashtags, and the extent to which they are used, create a sense of virality when it comes to TikTok videos. The most popular videos on each popular trend’s “hashtag” page often have hundreds of thousands of views, sometimes even millions. As opposed to other video sharing platforms, such as YouTube, TikTok’s successful and organised hashtag feature allows several videos to surge in popularity and become viral. This is also due to the endless “for you page”, in which each user has a curated, seemingly endless stream of videos tailored to the user in particular due to the algorithm that the platform uses.

In terms of audience interaction, these hashtags and viral challenges create a sense of audience importance, with the popular “duet” feature allowing users to, in a sense, reply to one another using a video of their own. Viral challenges are also often created by a massive audience response to a popular TikTok user doing the challenge. For example, although the ever-popular “Renegade” dance was created by a user named Jalaiah Harmon, it was not particularly popular until user Charli D’Amelio took part in the trend (Levitan, 2020). Due to D’Amelio’s incredible popularity on the app – she is currently the most followed user – the response to her attempt at the dance was what popularised “Renegade” and caused it to become one of the most popular TikTok trends in its history.

Active audience participation is incredibly important for TikTok’s growth. Without its virality, the massive responses to the trends set by popular users, and its features such as hashtags and duets, the app would not be nearly as popular as it is today. When it comes to cinema of attraction, I mentioned earlier that audience participation and perception plays a key role in the theory. This is why I argue that TikTok is a strong example of cinema of attraction in the modern day. The spectator is always acknowledged – in fact, everything about the app is tailored and catered to the spectator. As well as the duet feature, every video comes with a comments section in which the audience can give feedback and comment on the video. This also highlights the importance of the audience or spectator with regards to TikTok – the more comments there are on a video, the more popular and successful it is likely to be. TikTok thrives on its audience interactivity.

The idea of a “thrill ride” can also be applied to TikTok as a platform. Unlike YouTube, the videos recorded and posted on TikTok can be no longer than sixty seconds long. This provides a motive for users to make their videos exciting and attention-grabbing from the very start. The sixty-second time limit also means that, in a single video, there is no room for a complex narrative. The sixty-second limit fits an “exhibitionist” approach much better as it is much easier to be loud and flashy in a minute than it is to tell a compelling, complex story.

Both of the case studies that I have chosen for this argument demonstrate at least some ways in which cinema of attractions can be found in today’s media. While the two mediums discussed are vastly different in their appearances and how they are received and consumed by their respective target audiences, they both contain important elements that pertain to cinema of attractions as a concept.

In conclusion, although Gunning’s theory of “cinema of attraction” typically refers to early cinema, placing importance and emphasis on exhibition over narrative, I have argued that cinema of attraction is a theory that could be applied to many films and visual mediums in the modern day. By choosing two relevant case studies – Fifty Shades of Grey and TikTok – I have demonstrated how each case study incorporates at least one of the key elements of the theory of cinema of attraction.

Throughout this essay I have demonstrated how Fifty Shades of Grey utilises the idea of voyeurism of voyeuristic pleasure in cinema, with its explicit sexual scenes and erotic nature. I have also demonstrated how TikTok effectively uses the idea of virality and audience participation. Both of these examples demonstrate how one may find cinema of attraction in the media today.

Cinema of attraction, therefore, is a theory that is not only relevant to historic early cinema, but also has a strong presence throughout visual media today. Not only can it be seen in actual cinema, in the film industry, but it can also be seen in the social media we use today.


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