The Internet loves classifying things into easily consumable categories and hierarchies. It also loves bitching about classifying things into easily consumable categories and hierarchies.
The new year sees this practice in full force, where the best, most memorable, worst, most significant, most distracting, or simply the most events are exhaustively catalogued, either for thoroughly organized and astute analysis of pop culture or click-friendly web ephemera – or, let’s be honest, sometimes both. But the style of pop culture writing perfected by Cracked and overextended by Buzzfeed (with FSR somewhere in the middle) is hardly exclusive to the age of the Internet. In fact, it stands to evidence that pop culture listology has been around as long as pop culture has existed.
The following image was screen-cap’d from Gerald Peary’s 2009 documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, an informative – if a bit clunky – chronology of what the job of the film critic came to be in America during the past century-plus (it’s currently available to stream on Netflix).
The image shows up about six minutes into the film, as Patricia Clarkson narrates about the earliest film coverage in newspapers, which was primarily information-based, rarely extending beyond basic plot descriptions to help consumers navigate through the multitude of titles presented at local nickelodeons and vaudeville theaters. This was, in short, a way of writing about movies before feature films existed, meant to accommodate a nascent medium associated with passing spectacle.
Thus, we have here a list of “6 Great Scenes with Cartoon Titles.” I’m befuddled as to exactly what this means, and particularly confused by the headline blurb’s use of the term “cartoon.” (Are the titles cartoon-ish but the content that follows not? Do these “titles” refer to intertitles or some sort of breaks in the program?) The clipping comes from newspaper coverage of the film The Tender Foot, a one-reeler that ran 850 feet, or 21 minutes.
Some basic web searches failed to drudge up exactly when this film was released, not to mention when or where the clipping came from (it’s presented in For the Love of Movies as a generic example of early film criticism). My best guess would be some time after 1907, when blurbs for films first began showing up regularly in newspapers, but before 1915, the year of The Birth of a Nation — during this period, early short-form, entertainment based filmmaking was at its height of production. A quick IMDb search reveals that there are versions of The Tenderfoot released in 1907, 1909, and 1910.
What’s much far more interesting than any questions about the film itself is that this list, whatever it meant exactly, implicitly held some accessible appeal to the venn diagram that intersects movie audiences and newspaper readership. The idea that films can be catalogued by moments with shared characteristics that can then be aggregated together into some easily readable hierarchy is presented here as a given. The anonymous scribe of this blurb assumes, as does current listology in pop culture writing, a reader with a limited economy of time and an attention span prone to diversion, which makes sense considering the context of a late industrial era where information was spreading, new technologies were popping up left and right, and movies were only a few fleeting minutes long.
Coverage such as this constituted little more than a public relations move by newspapers on behalf of motion pictures – this clipping may, in fact, simply be a straightforward advertisement. So those skeptical of pop culture listology could argue that the Internet’s adoption of this form of writing wholesale signals a return to writing without substance, or information without criticism.
I choose to be a bit more optimistic, to take this as evidence that listing and categorizing is something intrinsic to pop culture writing: a way of making sense of entertainment that can just as easily yield substantive analysis as it can superficial publicity. Keeping in mind that this ad appeared during a time in which filmmakers, theater owners, and audiences were attempting to figure out what movies were exactly, what better way to introduce people to the idea of actively understanding and appreciating movies than a list?