From Attractions to Avant-garde: Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son and the Aesthetics of Astonishment


Jaakko Seppälä

André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning’s concept “cinema of attractions” has largely replaced earlier pejorative terms like primitive cinema. This newer concept was adopted from avant-garde filmmakers of the 20s who tried to define the radical possibilities of cinema. Like Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, these filmmakers saw cinema less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of fascinating, exotic and astonishing views to an audience. This tradition of early cinema was not opposed to narration and did not disappear with the dominance of narrative but went underground, especially into avant-garde practices.

Using Ken Jacobs’ avant-garde film Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (USA, 1969–1971), a film recycling material from G. W. Bitzer’s 1905 film of the same name, as a case study, this article explores the relation of avant-garde cinema to both narration and attractions. The film is closely analysed in the context of film historical discussions. The main argument presented is that while mainstream cinema adopted narration from early films, avant-garde cinema adopted attractions. This is backed up by analysing connections between early cinema and Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son. In Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son attractions are detriment to narration. Jacobs guides spectators to look past the narrative elements of the chase story and to take pleasure in visual delights. Moreover, in Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son cinema apparatus is represented as an attraction: Jacobs analyses the nature of film images and their relation to machines emphasising technological and material issues spectators are not aware of when watching a mainstream film. Furthermore, by screening and re-filming found footage Jacobs has taken a creative role, which is not dissimilar to that of early film exhibitors and showmen.