Reproductive metaphors abound in discussions of cinema. The ‘birth’ of cinema is typically dated to 1895. Like the other creative arts, cinema has its founding ‘fathers’ (the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison) and ‘mothers’ (Alice Guy-Blaché). Like all cultural endeavours, filmmaking has been likened to a collaborative, creative enterprise akin to making babies. Film has allowed women and men to ‘give birth’ metaphorically, as directors, and literally, as actors. Films have a preproduction stage and like embryos go through development. The capacious and slippery term reproduction itself can refer to a biological and social process of human procreation, or to a mechanical process of copying images now closely associated with the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin's classic essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ (1935).
This ambivalence is likewise found in the title of this introduction to a special issue, drawn as it is from one of the first documentaries devoted to the history of cinema, A Machine for Recreating Life (1924–1933).
Cinema, it was thought, re-creates life both through its approximation to reality – its verisimilitude – and through its movement of the still image – its vivification.
Beyond metaphors and language, reproductive science, technology and medicine have developed especially since the early 1900s alongside techniques of capturing, displaying and analysing moving images. For over a century, embryologists, obstetricians and scientists and medical professionals of other kinds have made movies for purposes of research, teaching and propaganda. Meanwhile, the mass-market products of lucrative entertainment industries have made previously taboo reproductive experiences, practices and technologies more publicly visible than ever before. The road to What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012), the first Hollywood movie to be based on a pregnancy advice manual, has been winding and bumpy, with significant detours along the way. The canon of reproductive film includes some of the best-loved and most controversial artefacts in the history of the cinema. The relevant scholarship is extensive, but often organized by genre, analytically focused on the narrative content of fiction films – and the types of representation embedded therein – and scattered in disparate studies on a range of more discrete topics, including sex education, genetics and eugenics.
Cinema, as we shall see, has always been reproductive. But with few exceptions film studies did not take much notice of reproduction until around 1990. In the United States, heavily mediatized landmark events, including the sensational ‘Baby M’ surrogacy case of the late 1980s and the appearance in 1991 of a visibly pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair, contributed to an increasingly public culture of reproduction.
Hollywood got in on the act with romantic comedies such as Baby Boom (1987), Three Men and a Baby (1987) and Look Who's Talking (1989) (Figure 1).
Influential critiques of foetal imaging took shape at around the same time.
So too did the feminist critique of representations of the maternal in cinema, for instance in Hollywood films that blamed mothers for ills that befell their children.
More recent literary studies have probed the latest crop of IVF films, in which romance and marriage often follow (medically assisted) conception, rather than the other way around.
Figure 1. Screen capture from the memorable opening credits of Amy Heckerling's Look Who's Talking (1989) showing what appear to be human sperm racing towards an egg, but are in fact vinyl ‘sperm’ weighed down with fishing sinkers and filmed in a tank by an underwater camera. Produced by MCEG, distributed by Tri-Star Pictures.
Taking film – broadly conceived to include cinema, television, video and digital imaging – as the case study, this special issue explores the highly generative confluence of biological reproduction and mechanical reproduction. It also considers the production and circulation of moving images in relation to a broader visual and material culture of research, teaching and communication that has included – and continues to include – a diversity of publication formats, from three-dimensional models to illustrated textbooks, scientific journals and magazines, to name just a few.
How did reproduction shape film and vice versa? Reproduction on Film will begin to answer this and other questions.
The six contributions to Reproduction on Film examine developments mainly in Britain and the United States, from around 1910 to the present. In this introduction we take a somewhat broader view, both geographically and chronologically. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, we first examine early genres and editing techniques that produced newborn babies from behind cabbage patches and out of thin air. Dwelling on the silent period, we consider Soviet avant-garde filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's career-defining engagement with a foetus, and the impact of this encounter on his theory of animation. We next investigate the promises and constraints of biological and medical cinematography, particularly in relation to the manipulation of time and motion; embryologists used time-lapse techniques to accelerate otherwise imperceptibly slow developmental processes, while obstetricians learned how to pause their films in order to make rapid surgical manoeuvres intelligible to students. Turning to genres that blurred the boundaries between entertainment and education, we consider the shock of the birth scene in ‘exploitation’ and avant-garde cinema before concluding with a glance at the mainstreaming of reproduction in cinema as well as the related media of television, video and streaming. Overall, we propose that moving images not only have significantly shaped the scientific understandings, private experiences and public cultures of reproduction, but also have done so in media-specific ways.
The birth of cinema and the cinema of birth
Prior to the ‘birth of cinema’ in 1895, a variety of nineteenth-century mechanical devices and display techniques, as well as music hall and fairground attractions, offered appeals similar to those that would soon become associated with the Lumière cinematograph, a portable hand-cranked device that served as both camera and projector: optical toys such as the zoetrope (the ‘wheel of life’) ‘animated’ the inanimate, panorama paintings immersed the viewer in another space, magic-lantern projectors were indispensable in medical education, and mechanical postcards added a kinetic movement to a simple message.
This last format, the postcard, played a crucial role in the history of reproduction on film.
Postcards boomed in Europe and North America at the turn of the century, and among the most successful genres were birth announcements. Usually featuring imagery of storks bringing babies to new parents or (in the francophone world, where they were known as faire-parts de naissance) equally politely premised upon the folk notion of babies emerging from cabbage patches, they would be sent by new parents to friends and relations (Figure 2).
Postcards were a common medium for adaptation in the first decade of film, given their abundance and affordable popularity at the time; adaptations of postcard landscapes, postcard humour, and postcard birth announcements were common.
The most sustained engagement with pregnancy and birth on screen in the earliest part of film history was an adaptation of the birth-announcement genre of postcard, made by the pioneering French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché.
Figure 2. Typical example of the cabbage-patch baby motif of the French postcard (c.1900).
The Cabbage Fairy, made in 1896 and barely one minute long, was a postcard brought to life (Figure 3). A non-theatrical ‘demonstration film’ intended to promote the Gaumont company's camera, it showed a fairy plucking newborns from a painted wooden cabbage patch and laying the babies at her feet. The film was a success, and (such was the technology of the time) had to be remade by Guy-Blaché twice in order to strike new prints.
Perhaps as a result of this success, Guy-Blaché went on to make a number of films on reproductive topics, including First Class Midwife (1902), which survives, and Their First Baby (1911), now lost. None of this work was as unusual or as comic as Madame Has Her Cravings (1906), in which an insatiable pregnant woman is driven to steal increasingly inappropriate foodstuffs, including herring from a tramp and absinthe from a café. The film ends with her giving birth in a cabbage patch, in a trick cut.
Figure 3. Screen capture from Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Cabbage Fairy (1896); note the dolls’ heads protruding from behind the cabbages. Produced by Gaumont.
Birth often occurred in a trick shot, a special effect invented and much deployed in the era of ‘early cinema’ (1895 to c.1913).
To produce a trick shot the filmmaker either stops cranking the camera while it is filming, rearranges the scene (in this case adding an infant child), and starts the camera again, or, more commonly, cuts and glues pieces of the film together as a substitution splice in order to better conceal the trick.
The alternative sources for children in early film are the flora and fauna of myth (the cabbage patch, the stork); or off screen, from the euphemism of implied space. To show a documentary birth outside a medical context would have been unthinkable. The trick cut let newborns be produced out of thin air. For example, in Artistic Creation (1901) the London trick filmmaker Walter Booth has a lightning sketch artist transform a drawn infant into living one in a single cut (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Consecutive screen captures from Walter Booth's Artistic Creation (1901), showing the ‘trick birth’ of a baby. Produced by Robert Paul's Animatograph Works.
Moral panic about venereal disease and racial degeneration resulted in the production during and after the First World War of numerous ‘social hygiene’ films. These included S.O.S.: A Message to Humanity (1917), a film about congenital syphilis and ‘eugenic marriage’, and Whatsoever a Man Soweth (1917), a British War Office production about a young Canadian soldier who learns of the ‘grave evils’ of syphilis.
By then, an institutional ‘second birth’ of cinema was well under way, this time through the rise of the movie theatre.
As cinema became increasingly dominant as an independent mass medium in its own right, older notions, such as the idea of ‘maternal impression’, were reworked in connection to moving images: a Variety critic worried that ‘vivid portraits of defectives’ in The Black Stork (1916), a highly publicized film that advocated eugenic infanticide, ‘would cause birth defects if pregnant women were allowed to see them’.
Conversely, as Patrick Ellis shows in this issue, New York suffragette Electra Sparks advocated that poor, urban pregnant women should go to the movie theatre in order to form positive ‘mental pictures’ and so produce attractive, healthy children.
Some directors responded to moralizing propaganda with satirical films of their own, such as Edwin D. Porter's spoof of eugenics, The Strenuous Life; or, Anti-race Suicide (1904).
The Over-Incubated Baby (1901) parodied the popular ‘incubator baby sideshow’, while The Miraculous Waters (1914), an Italian film, seemed to cheekily endorse infidelity as the ‘cure’ for a childless marriage after hydrotherapy fails to restore the husband's potency.
In Japan and Soviet Russia, where abortion was made legal between 1920 and 1935, cinema was still less constrained by Christian morality. Kid Commotion (1935), a slapstick benshi or narrated ‘silent’ film originally titled Birth (Out of) Control, cast Shigeru Ogura, Japan's Charlie Chaplin, as an unemployed father and midwife for a day.
Abram Room's Bed and Sofa (1927) humorously depicted a ménage à trois – a woman and two men – in a Moscow flat and frankly depicted a visit to a private abortion clinic.
The Soviet avant-garde, too, found inspiration in reproduction. Dziga Vertov's experimental classic Man with a Movie Camera (1929), edited by his wife Yelizaveta Svilova, cross-cut documentary childbirth footage with that of a funeral procession.
And Sergei Eisenstein, one of the most influential filmmakers and film theorists of the silent era, had a formative encounter with a human foetus while filming an educational film about abortion.
Celebrated for Battleship Potemkin (1925) and the development of montage theory, in his later years Eisenstein developed a devotion to Disney cartoons and a posthumously published theory of animation that corresponded to it.
Writing about Disney, Eisenstein recalled visiting a women's clinic in Zurich in 1929, where he was filming The Misery and Fortune of Women (Frauennot-Frauenglück), a health education film that warned of the dangers of illegal, unprofessional abortion and promoted the wonders of hygienic medical childbirth, caesarean section, blood transfusion and surgical abortion.
The experience of seeing ‘a little living being, dying in [his] hands in about ten minutes after its premature appearance in the world’ was profound, and he had himself photographed with the foetus (Figure 5).
Eisenstein, as film scholar Anne Nesbet notes, later acquired a preserved foetus and kept it, as a ‘souvenir’ of his Zurich experience, in a jar on a bookshelf in his Moscow apartment.
Figure 5. One of several photographs Sergei Eisenstein had taken of himself holding and contemplating a dying foetus at the Zurich women's clinic where Frauennot-Frauenglück (1929–1930) was filmed. Anne Nesbet, Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking, London: I.B. Tauris, 2003, p. 140, courtesy of Anne Nesbet.
The experience was to inspire Eisenstein's theory of the plasmatic, which he defined as follows:
The rejection of the constraint of form, fixed once and for all, freedom from ossification, an ability to take on any form dynamically. An ability which I would call ‘plasmaticity’, for here a being, represented in a drawing, a being of a given form, a being that has achieved a particular appearance, behaves itself like primordial protoplasm, not yet having a stable form, but capable of taking on any and all forms of animal life on the ladder of evolution.
In application, he meant the metamorphic quality of animation – the ‘stretch and squash’ that characters performed, the water-balloon physiology of the dwarfs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). For Eisenstein, the unfixed cartoon character was full of foetal potential. He imagined animation itself as a kind of quickening, bringing the non-living to life, animating the inanimate. This understanding of animation, prompted by the encounter between a Soviet filmmaker and a Swiss foetus in 1930, persists in the literature to this day.
Embryological and obstetric filmmaking
Movement, proclaimed Anthony Michaelis in his encyclopedic Research Films in Biology, Anthropology, Psychology, and Medicine, ‘is one of the characteristics of life: it begins with the penetration of the ovum by the spermatozoon and ends with last cytoplastic streaming of the cells. Both have been registered on motion picture film’.
For Michaelis, the greatest contribution of cinematography to biology was its ability to produce quantifiable records of movement ‘on any given scale of time and length’. In the hands of an embryologist, time-lapse cinematography became the ‘perfect technique’ for recording the ‘slowly growing embryo’. The difficulty, as Michaelis saw it, lay not in the mechanical limitations of the cine camera, but in the biological properties of living organisms; only when the living embryo could be rendered transparent and its extraneous movements prevented – without disturbing the natural movements in the course of development – would it ‘become equally possible to record all its growth stages by means of time-lapse cinemicrography’.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, embryologists created and consulted standardized images of ‘normal’ embryological development for a range of invertebrate and vertebrate species. Organized into stages, series and tables, these visual standards organized a discipline and have sustained developmental biology to this day.
At around the same time, French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey and British American photographer Eadweard Muybridge finessed the method of ‘chronophotography’ for visualizing human and animal motion in a series or grid of still images.
In 1908, Swiss biologist Julius Ries filmed urchin development at the Marey Institute in Paris with a Lumière cinematograph connected via a prism to a Zeiss microscope (Figure 6).
Though far from the coast, he was able to obtain fresh specimens from Les Halles, the central food market of Paris. Starting with a single, fertilized egg, Ries recorded the first hours in the life of the organism. Microcinematography enabled him to visualize developmental change that was too slow to directly perceive under the microscope. ‘One really believes one has a living, developing egg before one’, he remarked of his achievement.
Figure 6. Line drawing of the hybrid apparatus used by Ries to make the first time-lapse films of sea urchin fertilization and development. Julius Ries, ‘Kinematographie der Befruchtung und Zellteilung’, Archiv für Mikroskopische Anatomie und Entwicklungsgeschichte (1909) 74, pp. 1–31, 3, with permission of Springer.
In contrast to sea urchins and other invertebrates, vertebrate embryos posed additional challenges for would-be cinematographers, including obtaining rarer and more fragile specimens as well as keeping them alive during often lengthier periods of development. The Development of the Fertilized Rabbit's Ovum (1929), a celebrated time-lapse film by American embryologist Warren H. Lewis, compressed seventy-two hours of development into fourteen minutes of projection time.
By the 1940s embryologists had filmed development in amphibians, incubated chick embryos, mice, rabbits, worms and zebra fish.
Today, as Janina Wellmann discusses in this issue, systems biologists are attempting to create a ‘digital embryo’, a computational model that enables the visualization of development at the cellular level in real time. In the decades before digital technologies, however, embryological films routinely employed intertitles, animated drawings and staged documentary footage (of specimen preparation and filmmaking) to elucidate and supplement the elusive process of development (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Screen captures from Bradley Patten and Theodore Kramer's Development of a Bird Embryo (1934), showing the removal of a piece of eggshell followed by that of a ‘living chick embryo from the egg’. This animated sequence comes after live-action footage of the same process. The British Medical Association's copy of the film is available online at http://catalogue.wellcomelibrary.org/record=b1672552~S3.
Magnified, moving images of embryos revealed much that was previously hidden, but there were limits to how much manipulation an embryo could stand. The later stages of mammalian development were particularly resistant to filming. As for human embryos, the additional, specific challenge of sourcing foetal material (from abortions or miscarriages) ‘precluded any films of their developmental stages’.
American anatomist Davenport Hooker, however, did manage to film the reflexive reactions of dying aborted human foetuses. Today, the most remarkable feature of the films Hooker made between 1932 and 1963 is just how uncontroversial they were. Time magazine favourably reported on Hooker's research on ‘living abortuses’ in 1938.
In contrast to the developing embryo, the process of delivery and childbirth was comparatively amenable to medical filmmaking. In this issue Caitjan Gainty examines the efforts, in the late 1920s, of Chicago obstetrician Joseph DeLee to transform the birthing room into a film studio, as well as his later objections to The Fight for Life (1940), a documentary about DeLee's own maternity ward. DeLee's approach was highly distinctive, not least because of the way he extended the engineering concept of ‘streamlining’ to childbirth, but he was not the first obstetrician to take up cinematography. A decade earlier, Paris obstetrician Victor Wallich had produced a series of short obstetric teaching films.
In 1916 Wallich recorded various interventions, including forceps delivery, performed on a mannequin, which, in contrast to the living patient, enabled the interior movements of the operations to be visualized. Later editions of his popular textbook, Eléments d'obstétrique, were illustrated with enlarged photographs of short strips of film to show in a few frames the stages of an operative movement.
Obstetric models, textbooks and cinematography thus came together on a single page (Figure 8).
Wallich further used his films for teaching, screening them to students using an innovative stop-frame device to pause the action without causing the highly flammable nitrate film stock to burn up under the heat of the projection lamp. Few universities, however, could afford expensive 35 mm film projectors and, besides, did not have access to Wallich's innovation for ‘pausing’ the action. Safety regulations and fire laws further inhibited the adoption of film in classrooms. So, despite the efforts of Wallich and other enthusiasts, the audience for teaching films remained limited by practical and financial constraints. Medical students were more likely to encounter obstetric cinematography second-hand, in textbooks.
Figure 8. The fourth edition of Victor Wallich's textbook, Eléments d'obstétrique, Paris: Masson, 1921, pp. 530–531, open to pages picturing and describing four frames of a surgical manoeuvre with forceps.
The advent of portable and less expensive 16 mm projectors, as well as non-flammable celluloid film stocks, facilitated the instructional uses of films, especially after the Second World War.
Medical films of reproduction and, of course, many other aspects of biology and other sciences increasingly circulated as universities created film libraries, catalogues and distribution networks. Medically approved ‘factual films’, such as Human Reproduction (1947) and Encyclopaedia Britannica's Biography of the Unborn (1956), combined documentary footage, animated drawings, X-ray photographs and models to depict intrauterine life. These were nominally produced for married parents, but other films were intended for more specialist audiences.
Birth and the First Fifteen Minutes of Life (1947), which showed the ‘removal of the placenta’, was made available ‘only to advanced classes in psychology and medical students in groups under the leadership of a physician or a senior member of a psychological faculty’.
In 1950 it could be rented for four dollars a day or purchased for seventy-five, significant sums of money in those days. Despite the barriers medical professionals erected, educational films were widely appropriated and found mass audiences through alternative distribution networks that persisted until the 1960s.
From exploitation to avant-garde
Between 1930 and the late 1950s, as David A. Kirby demonstrates in this issue, American film censors treated the biological reality of human reproduction as sacred but horrific; they believed that pregnancy and childbirth should be celebrated but not seen, and feared that realistic portrayals would put young women off pursuing motherhood.
They were only partly successful in their mission. Whereas major studios worked closely with the censors to ensure the widest possible distribution, an itinerant group of entrepreneurial roadshowmen produced and distributed cheaply made ‘exploitation’ films on prohibited topics, including reproduction.
So-called exploiteers appropriated and exhibited medical footage, including of childbirth, before general audiences in theatrical venues typically reserved for entertainment films. In so doing, they challenged the boundaries between educational and obscene visual materials that medical professionals, the film industry and censor boards worked hard to maintain. Exploitation films traded in forbidden spectacles and ‘bad taste’. Low production costs, alternative distribution networks and distinctive marketing techniques set them apart from major studio releases. These titillating films, which flourished at the height of the Hays Code, showcased nudity, sex, drugs, abortion and childbirth, but stopped short of hard-core pornography. In contrast to stag films, which were technically illegal, were always short (one or two reels), depicted actual non-stimulated sex, and were shown privately to men only, exploitation films were legal, often feature-length, and shown openly to mixed audiences.
Whereas major studio releases typically opened with four hundred prints in the 1930s or 1940s, ‘exploiteers’ would strike no more than fifteen or twenty prints of any given film, but these could remain in circulation for decades.
As film historian Eric Schaefer explains in his comprehensive survey of the genre,
Going to an exploitation film was often a carnival-like event because of the extrafilmic practices that accompanied the show. Lectures, slide presentations, the sale of pamphlets or books on the picture's topic, and the presence of uniformed ‘nurses’ to attend to those who might faint due to the ‘shocking’ sights became a major part of the exploitation film experience.
As birth control became more socially acceptable in the 1930s, attention shifted to the ‘mystery of birth’, and the direct promise of the spectacle of childbirth became a frequent advertising tactic. For instance, publicity material for The Birth of a Baby (1938) proclaimed, ‘See a baby born before your very eyes!’
Initially intended as a ‘nontheatrical’ medical training film, The Birth of a Baby was presented to general audiences under the auspices of the American Committee on Maternal Welfare, an umbrella group consisting of several reputable medical and public-health associations.
It received generally positive reviews. Time praised the ‘absorbing example of visual education’ and Variety judged that it was ‘not in the class with so-called sex films’.
Yet The Birth of a Baby went on to become one of the most controversial films of the 1930s: ‘The cinema explodes the stork myth’, proclaimed journalist Geraldine Sartain. ‘Almost overnight’, she claimed, ‘The Birth of a Baby became the most discussed picture since The Birth of a Nation’.
A major debate over The Birth of a Baby was sparked not directly by the film itself, but indirectly by a photo-essay in Life magazine on 11 April 1938 (Figure 9). The magazine's publisher, Roy E. Larsen, sent warnings to subscribers, explaining that the section with the pictures could be removed, but in many cases the magazine arrived before his letter. The issue was banned in Canada as well as in several American states and cities; news dealers were arrested. Larsen had himself arrested for selling an ‘obscene’ magazine. He was ‘promptly acquitted’, as were most of the dealers. The issue sold out and the film did ‘tremendous business’.
The Birth of a Baby played in cinemas for some twenty years and inspired imitators like Childbirth from Life (c.1938), Life (1938), Childbirth (1940) and The Birth of a Child (1938), the last of which provoked a ‘series of suits and countersuits’.
Figure 9. A page from the controversial ‘Birth of a baby’ photo-essay in Life magazine, 11 April 1938, p. 35, including three frames of the childbirth scene (bottom row); note the total covering in white cloth of the patient to preserve her modesty, a typical convention of such films. Pictures © Special Pictures Inc. Text used with permission of Time Inc.
The exploitation circuit was not the only route whereby obstetric films found non-medical audiences. In 1947, Austrian émigré Amos Vogel and his wife Marcia established Cinema 16 in New York City. Though better known today for cultivating the first American audience for European and home-grown experimental art films, the Vogels also programmed medical and scientific films, alongside documentaries, propaganda and other oddities. Cell division, sexual development and childbirth were consistently among their favourite themes.
Reactions to childbirth were especially strong. For instance, one (female) commentator wrote of Childbirth: Normal Delivery (1950), screened in 1953 at Cinema 16, that the medical film depicted ‘the actual birth of a baby so graphically that the baby seems to leap simultaneously into the world and through the screen at the audience’.
Cinema 16 eventually became a membership society to evade state censorship law, but before that Vogel ran into trouble with a documentary about not childbirth, but the birth of kittens.
In The Private Life of a Cat (1944), Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren, the first power couple of American avant-garde cinema, documented the arrival of their pet cat's kittens in their West Village apartment.
Their cat Glamour Girl had previously ‘amazed’ the couple by calling them ‘to her side while she was delivering, unlike other cats who are known to prefer to hide away from people when they give birth’. This provided Hammid and Deren with the ‘key impetus to make the film’, which they narratively structured around the ‘act of delivery’.
Hammid later described filming the birth scene:
To film her, it was necessary to only place her box more in the open, so I could get around with my camera. She seemed to mind little that her box was near the window – contrary to the belief that cats give birth only in dark places. The strong lights I needed turned on only for a few seconds necessary to take each shot. At first she disliked this, but when delivery got under way she was too busy to mind … almost none of the film is staged. Usually, I waited for the cats to do what I knew they would do from habit, or often I waited for a surprise, as in the case of the father seeing his children for the first time. My only contrivance was placing the kittens where I wanted them, making them look one way or the other by some noise, motion, or food. The film was taken over a period of four weeks … some seemingly consecutive shots were in reality taken days apart. Others, like the delivery, are seen in almost the same actual continuity.
Vogel's programme notes praised the film, singling out the delivery scene: ‘Birth is shown as a tender, yet painful miracle, the very objectivity of portrayal robbing it of all sensationalism’.
A positive review in the magazine Popular Photography similarly praised Hammid as a ‘sensitive and original thinker-with-the-camera’ and his film as ‘unusual’, ‘absorbing’, ‘charming’ and ‘instructive’. It did not remark on the birth scene one way or another, but did laud the ‘marvellous sequences in which the kittens take their first faltering steps, and lurch along as uncoordinated as any new-born baby’.
The censors took a different view. As Vogel later lamented in his classic book, Film as a Subversive Art (1976), state censors banned the film in 1948 ‘as “indecent” because of its moving birth sequences’.
Hammid later recalled the incident as ‘funny’.
That even the birth of kittens was censored in the late 1940s provides some indication of the degree to which norms have changed since then. Human reproduction, however, is a somewhat different story. In 1957, BBC TV's flagship current affairs programme Panorama made headlines around the world when it broadcast footage of an ‘actual birth’ for the first time. In this issue Salim Al-Gailani recovers the history of the production, distribution and screening of the footage, originally intended for use in antenatal classes, in the context of heated debates over ‘natural childbirth’. Meanwhile, just as censorship was beginning to relax, experimental filmmakers found new ways of pushing boundaries, including by visually exploring the sexual and reproductive human body.
Between medicine and pornography
In contrast to the no-longer controversial birth of kittens, the spectacle of childbirth still has the power to shock. Take, for example, Window Water Baby Moving (1959), by pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. This intentionally silent, ambient study of his wife Jane's pregnancy and the birth of their first child Myrrena has become part of the canon of experimental film.
Here it is worth noting, with medical film scholar Kirstin Ostherr, that it was the ‘graphic, bloody, close-up views of childbirth’ that caused trouble for the landmark film.
It is also worth considering the highly contingent circumstances that led to its production. Brakhage had no intention of making a childbirth film when his pregnant wife Jane insisted on his presence during labour. When her doctor learned that the ‘expectant father’ was a filmmaker, he commissioned a movie that he would be able to show to his patients and their husbands. The camera, then, was to be Stan's passport to the delivery room – that is, until the hospital's management had second thoughts and retracted their initial offer to allow filming. The doctor, undeterred, agreed to a home delivery, an uncommon practice by the late 1950s. To make it happen, Brakhage, as he later recalled, was required to ‘hire a nurse and rent some very expensive emergency equipment’.
Reactions were strong and began in pre-production, well before the film was even edited, much less projected for the first time. The Kodak laboratory where Brakhage had his film developed threatened to notify the police and only released his footage when Jane's doctor wrote a letter. Of the New York premiere in December 1959, film critic Jonas Mekas wrote for his column in the Village Voice, ‘On the screen probably for the first time ever in film history: a woman gives birth to a child. We see it all. The woman is ecstatic. And so is the father. The audience is totally totally silent’.
After the screening, for which Stan was the projectionist, Maya Deren, his mentor and now the ‘grandmother’ of American avant-garde cinema, took the stage to declare emphatically that childbirth was a ‘private matter’ and should never be made public: ‘Even the animals, when they give birth, retreat into a secret place’, she proclaimed.
Men reportedly ‘threw up’ and ‘rushed out’ of early screenings in ‘revulsion and panic’.
Women, in turn, made their own, no less challenging, films about pregnancy and childbirth, notably Agnès Varda's L'opéra mouffe (1958), Gunvor Nelson's Kirsa Nicholina (1969) and Marjorie Keller's Misconception (1977).
Varda, the ‘mother of French New Wave cinema’, described L'opéra mouffe as the ‘notebook of a pregnant woman unafraid to show what pregnancy really looks like’ (Figure 10).
One critic contrasted Nelson's ‘open and matter-of-fact’ take on childbirth in Kirsa Nicholina with Brakhage's ‘melodramatic fascination’ with the pregnant and birthing body.
And Keller, a student of Brakhage's, used the newly affordable synchronized sound recording technology of Super-8 explicitly to challenge what she saw as her teacher's silent ‘idealizations’;
Misconception, as she soon after explained in an interview, was her ‘loving critique’ of Window Water Baby Moving.
Figure 10. Screen capture from Agnès Varda's L'opéra mouffe (1958) showing a chick hatching in a shattered light bulb. The title refers to Rue Mouffetard, in Paris, where documentary elements of the experimental film play out.
Performance artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann responded somewhat differently to Brakhage's provocation. She worried that Brakhage's ‘male eye replicated or possessed the vagina's primacy of giving birth’. Moreover, she ‘wanted to see “the fuck,” lovemaking's erotic blinding core apart from maternity/paternity’. The result was Schneemann's own sexually explicit Fuses (1967), a still more controversial landmark in the history of experimental film.
Yet, even as Schneemann critiqued Window Water Baby Moving, she acknowledged Brakhage's ‘unique … willingness to focus on the actual birth’. ‘You must understand’, she later recalled, ‘there were no precedents that we know of – only medical and pornographic models’.
Considering that Window Water Baby Moving was surely not the medical training film that Jane's doctor had bargained for, it is all the more remarkable that thousands of 8 mm prints circulated in maternity clinics in the 1960s, where it often screened on a double bill with George Stoney's All My Babies (1952), a lyrical documentary about midwifery in the American South.
But Brakhage's film lived on mainly as a staple of film studies syllabuses.
‘That's a film I cannot teach without’, remarked a film scholar in the late 1990s. ‘I show it in nearly every course’, he continued; ‘many of my students are amazed, shocked; they swear off being parents! Anyway, forty years later it's still one of the most powerful films I can show’.
Today, Window Water Baby Moving remains a ‘rite of initiation’ for students, who, as another film scholar recently remarked, ‘tend to respond to it as either the “most beautiful” or the “most obscene” film they have ever seen’.
The film's undiminished visual impact speaks to the dearth of non-sanitized, realistic portrayals of childbirth, even in the present context of a mass culture persistently saturated with reproduction.
It is worth dwelling on a final, little-remarked aspect of Window Water Baby Moving. As Brakhage later recalled,
Jane had German measles at three months, and in those days, they thought this meant there was a much higher chance of giving birth to a monster. We were always concerned about that. When I first looked through the camera at the baby emerging, I thought, ‘This is a monster!’ I had never seen a newborn baby before and thought this was a deformed monster, and I remember the thought passing through my head, ‘Then I will make a monster film!’ and continued to film in a kind of rage. Of course, it turned out much happier than that.
Several features of this eye-opening anecdote merit discussion. First, the disease. The couple's concerns were not in fact unfounded. As was already suspected in the 1950s, contracting rubella (German measles) in pregnancy does increase the risk of giving birth to a malformed child and highly mediatized epidemics of the disease would soon after play a significant role in the liberalization of abortion law in the United States and other countries.
Second, Brakhage had ‘never seen a newborn baby’ until filming the delivery of his first child; birth imagery was scarce in the 1950s and fathers were still banned from the delivery room.
Third, the ‘monster movie’. Though Brakhage may have been thinking of ‘classic’ 1930s horror films such as Frankenstein (1931) or Island of Lost Souls (1932), the Cold War reinvigorated the genre, which traded old fears for new ones about radioactive fallout, mutation and degeneration.
Between the medical reality of rubella and the cinematic fantasy of nuclear disaster, it is perhaps understandable that Brakhage, an avid filmgoer and naive father-to-be, momentarily feared he was casting his daughter in a monster movie.
From taboo to cliché
As with graphic nudity, sex and other taboos, reproduction on screen has become something of a cliché: part of a broader liberalizing trend across a wide range of mainstream media that really got going in the 1960s and 1970s.
From A Taste of Honey (1961) to Up the Junction (1968), British ‘kitchen sink’ cinema looked to recent novels and stage plays for gritty narratives about unmarried pregnancy and abortion; Ken Loach's Poor Cow (1967) opened with documentary footage of childbirth.
New reproductive technologies supplied plotlines, as with Prudence and the Pill (1968), a comedy film based on a novel and folk tale about a daughter taking her mother's contraceptive pills and replacing them with aspirin, resulting in the mother becoming pregnant.
The public visibility of human embryos increased when colour pictures appeared on 30 April 1965 on the cover of Life magazine and then in Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson's global bestseller, A Child Is Born.
The flatmate and boyfriend of a pregnant woman are together seen marvelling at Nilsson's photographs in Georgy Girl (1966), a British film that also features the same pair watching childbirth on television and reading Dr Benjamin Spock's leading pregnancy advice manual, Baby and Child Care (Figure 11). The photographs soon provided the model for the ‘star child’, a foetus floating in space and the next step in human evolution in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967).
The classic ‘repro-horror’ films, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Alien (1979), bookended a decade obsessed with the unsettled and increasingly contested contents of the womb.
Activists in the 1970s both made and protested films about reproductive rights, transforming movie theatres and film festivals into sites of occasionally violent confrontation.
Figure 11. Screen capture from Silvio Narizzano's 1966 adaptation of Margaret Foster's Georgy Girl (1965) showing flatmates Georgina Parkin (Lynn Redgrave) and Jos Jones (Alan Bates) marvelling at Nilsson's photographs republished in the Sunday Times magazine. Georgina refers to them as ‘the most marvellous pictures’, but for Jos's pregnant girlfriend Meredith (Charlotte Rampling), not pictured here, they are a ‘chamber of horrors’. Produced and distributed by Columbia Pictures.
In the 1980s, after several Western countries had legalized abortion and the first ‘test-tube babies’ had been born, ‘pro-life’ activists mobilized in utero videography, most notoriously in The Silent Scream (1984), while infertility experts made television documentaries about the ‘miracle’ of IVF.
‘Body horror’ films such as The Fly (1986) incorporated pregnancy, miscarriage and abortion into storylines about genetic contamination and monstrous hybridity.
The announcement in 1997 of the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep shifted cinematic narratives about human cloning ‘from horror to hope’,
while ‘repro-dystopian’ films, from The Handmaid's Tale (1990) to Children of Men (2006), continued to evoke abiding concerns about reproductive control.
Today, the Alien franchise is still going strong, with the most recent instalment, Alien: Covenant (2017), continuing to engage in a sophisticated way with reproduction, from embryo to fully grown monster. The Handmaid's Tale lives again as a critically acclaimed television series, provoking fresh discussion on the enduring relevance of its source material, the 1985 dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
So much has changed since Lucille Ball made prime-time history in 1952 as the first pregnant actress to play a pregnant character, on the popular American comedy series I Love Lucy.
From The Kids Are All Right (2010), an independent film about a married lesbian couple who meet the sperm-donor father of their children, to Two 4 One (2014), a crowdfunded film about a transgender man who accidentally becomes pregnant, unconventional family forms have inspired new takes on older themes, queering reproduction on film.
Changing norms have in some cases been bolstered by advertising campaigns. As Jesse Olszynko-Gryn shows in this issue, product placement helped from the 1990s to propel the commercial rise of the Clearblue brand of home pregnancy test by making it a fixture of boundary-pushing British soap operas that increasingly looked to unmarried teenage pregnancy and abortion for dramatic plotlines.
Depictions of pregnancy and childbirth on television have become a commonplace, including on so-called reality programmes such as MTV's 16 and Pregnant and Channel 4's One Born Every Minute.
Six of the more than 250 children born on One Born Every Minute were recently filmed watching their televised births for the spin-off miniseries I Was Born on One Born. As recently as the 1980s, in contrast, home movies were still a novelty and the birth of a child could stimulate parents to purchase their first Polaroid instant-film camera or video camcorder.
Today's ubiquitous smartphones are also digital video cameras and, since the inception of YouTube in 2005, the Internet has increasingly played host to homemade childbirth videos, some of which have stirred considerable controversy.
Companies, meanwhile, offer ‘keepsake’ ultrasound scans, displayed on large LCD screens, and recorded to DVD, ‘usually with a soundtrack of the client's choice’.
It is now possible to watch, in the comfort of one's home or on one's phone, pioneering embryological films, vintage sex education films, or the latest computer simulations of zebra fish development. Reproductive scientists and clinicians routinely generate, display and analyse moving images, including of human conception in a Petri dish.
Journal articles and textbooks continue to matter in important ways, but embedded or linked videos play an increasingly prominent role.
Teachers rely on movies to broach sensitive subjects and broaden classroom discussion, including about reproduction.
Feminist documentaries have stirred debate on everything from painless, even ‘orgasmic’, childbirth to India's booming surrogacy industry.
Reproduction on Film began as series of public film screenings and discussions, activities that have fed back into the research process in ways that film appears to facilitate most effectively. This introduction has explored some of the media-specific hopes and fears associated with the history of reproduction in cinema, and on television and video: the potent realism of the moving image, its fraught visual politics, and the disruptive power of innovative distribution networks – from roadshows to the Internet – to collapse boundaries between genres. Focusing on one neglected medium always throws taken-for-granted features of other media into relief, and reproduction, as a theme, seems to have an intensifying effect. It opens up resonant issues, from the manipulation of scale, time and motion in research and teaching to the contested visual communication of biological and medical subjects to laypeople. From postcards to time-lapse, cabbage fairies to IVF, communication technologies and reproductive technologies have structured the stories we tell about making or not making babies. The rest of this special issue will set the stage for further exploration of a vast and still mostly uncharted history.