Project (2005-2006)

Devices of Curiosity: Cinema and the Scientific Vernacular

This book project explored cinema’s early involvement with popular science, a field of texts and media that produced scientific knowledge for a lay audience and that flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century. Poised between astonishment and enlightenment, cinema was both a part of the onslaught of scientific innovation and a decipherer of it. This book not only explores an uncharted area of early cinema history but it also aims to elucidate a dynamic that persists into the present, in which the supposedly separate "two cultures" intermingle in significant ways. The book uncovers a visual aesthetic that influenced the history of special effects, the creation of the nontheatrical film market, and the intersection of the avant-garde and the documentary.

By providing an account of the cinema’s engagement with popular science, the book recovers a lost genre of films In addition to this archival work, the book also reframes better-known fictional films by arguing for stylistic and thematic similarities that indicate the popular scientific aesthetic's wider impact. The book responds to an increased interest in understanding the permeable boundary between science and fiction by insisting on the interrelations between the largely anonymous popular-science films and more well known fiction films, especially the crime melodramas of Louis Feuillade and such avant-garde experiments as Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or. This crossover is facilitated by curiosity’s dual nature, which serves as both an important step in the process of scientific discovery as well as a strategy in producing spectatorial fascination.