The Crowd Is Dead, Long Live the Crowd!

Les misérables

By Erika Balsom

for RMC


It was a total coincidence and yet it felt freighted with meaning: when I returned to the cinema at the end of August after months of suffering with the small screen, the first two films I saw began with crowd scenes. 

The streets of London were eerily empty as I walked to the Genesis, but as soon as Les misérables (2019) began, the streets of Paris were full. France had won the 2018 World Cup and the city was alive with celebration. The image of so many young people of colour waving so many French flags was a succinct and spectacular way for director Ladj Ly to stage the problem of national belonging and its relation to race, coloniality, and inequality. Since the Revolution, the body politic of France has typically been personified by the figure of Marianne; Ly took a different path, embracing the heterogeneity and ecstasy of the crowd.

And then there was Tenet. Hundreds of audience members at an opera house in Kiev fall unconscious after a SWAT team introduces soporific gas into the air circulation system. They had already been docile, calmly awaiting the commencement of the performance; then, all at once, they conk out. I felt I could relate to them. Why was I at Tenet—a film I was sure to dislike—other than to sink into some kind of stupor? I had missed the cinema so much during all those days stuck inside, missed it even more than the pleasure of being part of the city’s anonymous mass of bodies. It seemed right that when I finally made my way back to the movies, the crowd was there, waiting for me on screen, having mostly disappeared from my life.  


This encounter wasn’t something I could have relied on. A few years ago, when I went to see the director’s cut of Heaven’s Gate (1980/2012), I was overwhelmed by Michael Cimino’s extravagant, virtuosic use of extras, nowhere more than in the exhilarating sequence that takes place at the roller rink. There is the boy fiddler, there is Kris Kristofferson, and there is Isabelle Huppert, but the real star of this scene is the crowd. The camera careens alongside the townspeople as they skate, stumble, and cheer—a raucous country counterpart to the grand waltz in Harvard Yard that opens the film. At Harvard, order prevails; in Wyoming, spontaneity reigns. Yet in both, the frame is bursting with bodies. Cimino creates a mass subject while never leaving behind an attentiveness to specific faces and gestures. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond said, “It was very unusual, the way he worked. He would actually paint by selecting extras and putting them into the right place.” This obsession with choreographed detail was time-consuming, one of the many excesses for which Heaven’s Gate is infamous. Still, whatever they spent on those scenes was worth it. 

Why did these sequences from Heaven’s Gate touch me so deeply, strike me as so remarkable, long before the pandemic draped every image of collective proximity in a veil of fear and loss? Perhaps because they are grounded in a commitment to the visual and social complexities of an actual crowd, a commitment that many epic films had abandoned by the 2010s. The notion of “painting” with people was something directors could later pursue via technological means: in place of wrangling hundreds of extras, they could exert fine-grained control through digital rendering. The crowd took leave from the profilmic, emerging instead in post-production as cost-saving simulation, free from all the mess of human interaction. 

Already in 2001, scholar Eric Faden deemed the digital crowd to be “the most interesting computer-generated invisible effect,” finding in it an articulation of standardization and control. “Whereas the chorus lines in [Busby] Berkeley’s musicals were different people costumed to look identical,” he writes, “the digital crowd is now identical but programmed for difference.” The same archetype is copied and pasted over and over, with slight variations, to form an ersatz multitude. A close look at all those figures populating the stands of the Colosseum in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) reveals that these “invisible effects” actually aren’t so invisible. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it: every digital crowd looked plastic, fleshless, sterile, cloned—in other words, like a betrayal of the crowd’s most seductive attributes.


Do Busby Berkeley musicals feature the crowd? No, for exactly the reason Faden mentions. There are many bodies, sure, but they are costumed and choreographed to produce a fantasy of impossible sameness, a mass ornament. There is little of the unruly particularity, the chaotic unpredictability, that makes a crowd a crowd. Being worthy of the name entails more than just numbers. 


August 1, 2020: Arsenal vs. Chelsea, the FA Cup final. When the referee makes the questionable decision to give Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić a second yellow card, a chorus of booing can be heard on television even as the stands remain visibly empty. Somebody made the decision that the sound effect was needed, even though it is palpably artificial. They too missed the crowd. 


Did the crowd go missing from the movies long before CGI came along? Maybe all those rendered swarms are better understood as the simulacral return of the crowd following a period of absence. After seeing pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and mourners at Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral on television in 1989, Jean Douchet argued that leading directors had abandoned the motif by the ’60s. “Neither Godard, nor Truffaut, nor Rohmer, nor Resnais, etc., take up the crowd as did Eisenstein, Lang, Ford, Renoir, etc. Which is to say, as a main character,” he wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma

As cinema sought to defeat the new threat of television, crowds proliferated, whether in the Todd-AO spectacle of Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the 65mm frame of Ben-Hur (1959), or the VistaVision aspect ratios of The Ten Commandments (1956). In the late ’50s, epics were in. All of which makes it more surprising that Douchet dates the death of the filmic crowd precisely to 1954, to the appearance of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The first concludes with a street procession in which the crowd figures as a foreign horde, spurring an anxious reconciliation of the troubled couple; in the second, the character of L.B. Jeffries embodies the desire to extricate oneself from the rabble and observe the world from a voyeuristic remove. In both films, individuals seek to separate themselves from the collective. Once upon a time, “a great director would not be considered a great director unless he had filmed a great ball and a beautiful battle: the happy crowd and the angry crowd.” No longer. For Douchet, this constitutes nothing less than a betrayal of the medium.

It is easy—too easy—to dispute the legitimacy of this narrative. There is far more to cinema than what happens in Paris, for a start. Hitchcock initially confines L.B. Jeffries to his apartment only to then dramatize the character’s urge to cross over to the other side of the courtyard, to be where the action is. But Douchet does have a point, even if it is one that cannot be rigorously upheld. His account of the death of the filmic crowd maps onto major historical shifts in its offscreen fate: from industrial to post-industrial society, from the urban to the suburban, from a belief in collectivity to postwar disillusionment and anomie, even from cinema to television. Throwing into relief the demophobia that underwrites so much ’60s art cinema and shunting aside the celestial beings of the star system, Douchet recalls a bond between cinema and the masses that had by 1989 mostly been severed.

Unlike the novel, a form literary scholar Nancy Armstrong has shown to be integral to the invention of modern individuality, cinema was allied with the crowd from the start, with those workers pouring out of the factory gates in 1895. On the screen and in front of it, film began as an art of the people—a status the curators of the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid recognize by exhibiting one version of the Lumières’ Sortie d’usine in the inaugural room of a collection display that culminates in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), an artwork made in support of democratic unity. Crowds are everywhere in Soviet cinema, urging the proletariat to recognize itself as the true subject of history. In Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov superimposes the title figure over the revolutionary masses, as if to suggest that in film, they had found an ally. Not that the Left can make any monopoly claim on such imagery: just take a look at Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).

This affinity is not solely sociopolitical, but aesthetic as well. Louis Lumière himself proclaimed l’effet des foules—the “crowd effect”—to be a special attraction of his new invention. The sense of immensity, the all-over movement, the play of contingent details: they all combine to make the crowd an eminently cinematic subject. In 1915, Vachel Lindsay devoted a chapter of The Art of the Moving Picture to “pictures of crowd splendour,” proposing that the theatre was better suited to conveying “private passions,” whereas the cinema’s excellence lay in depicting “the passions of masses of men,” the “sea of humanity.” Jean Epstein wrote that picturing the crowd is “where the cinema will one day find its own prosody.” Without the desire or ability to create such representations, Douchet frets, “The secret of the métier is lost.” What would cinema be without the crowd? What would film criticism be without hyperbole?


The summer of 2020 was a summer of confinement, yes, but also of popular assembly, particularly in the US, where the vital crowds of Black Lives Matter and the repellent crowds of coronavirus truthers presented divergent visions of the polis. In July, Paul Elie wrote in The New Yorker that, “The year 2020 in America is now defined by images of crowds to rival those of 1989: people waiting in mile-long lines at food banks; U.S. Park Police using tear gas to dispel protesters in Lafayette Square; more than ten thousand people gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum in support of black trans rights; President Trump onstage at a less than crowded arena in Tulsa.” His short list sketches the protean character of mass gatherings, the wide range of experiences that give rise to them, and the spectrum of affects they generate. Yet these very different crowds all share something: a relationship to state violence.


“It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art,” wrote Charles Baudelaire in 1869. Gustave Le Bon was one of those who preferred to bathe alone. In The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, published in the same year as the Lumières’ first public projections, he proclaimed, “The age we are about to enter will in truth be the ERA OF CROWDS.” He was right. But rather than celebrating the increasingly mass character of modern life, he saw the crowd as irrational and anarchic, a dangerous and dehumanizing mob within which the individual becomes little more than “a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.” Le Bon has been rightly criticized for his anxious view of popular uprising, but his assessment remains a good reminder not to overly romanticize the crowd, certainly not at a time when so many seek to make America “great” again. The crush of bodies can be suffocating and uncomfortable—to say nothing of what risks happening when the crowd turns against others. 

This malevolence is chillingly pictured in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950, also released as Try and Get Me!), two brilliantly bleak films based on the same real-life event: the 1933 lynching in San Jose, California, of two white men who had kidnapped and murdered a department-store heir. Both directors adapt the story of townspeople storming the county jail, thirsty for vigilante justice, to underscore the brutality of everyday people who band together against an imagined enemy. Lang and Endfield each alter the facts of the case to increase sympathy for the victim of the mob’s aggression, with Fury positing him as falsely accused and The Sound of Fury as a good man who turns to crime out of economic desperation, under the spell of a charismatic stranger.

The lesser-known Sound of Fury—a film Thom Andersen puts in the fascinating category of the film gris, the leftist film noir—excels in conveying the bloodlust of the collective. The rush on the prison that occurs in its final minutes is alive with a newsreel-like naturalism. Endfield alternates between high-angle views that give a sense of the fray as a single murmuration, and closer shots that reveal individual screams and shoves, all blanketed in a feral roar. In the ocean of bodies, a number of men can be seen wearing T-shirts from the (fictional) University of Santa Sierra, foregrounding the participation of “good middle-class boys” in the assault. 

Both directors had good reason to be wary of groupthink and witch-hunts. Fury was Lang’s first American film, made after fleeing Nazi Germany, and The Sound of Fury was the last film Endfield made in the US before going into exile in the UK as a blacklisted communist. Lang focuses on how the town protects its own during the perpetrators’ trial; Endfield blames the sensationalist press for riling up the populace. Both seek to relay a social message, with Endfield going so far as to cast Renzo Cesana—an adman best known for his turn as a suave seducer on the TV show The Continental—in the role of an Italian professor who didactically voices the lessons to be learned. 

That lynching has a distinctly racialized history in the US as a form of white supremacist terror is never directly addressed in either film, but it never left my mind while watching both. Industry censors prohibited scenes of racial lynching in the ’30s, yet looking carefully at Fury, scholar Ellen C. Scott notices that the first figure seen after the mob forms is a Black shoeshine man who jumps up onto his stand to get out of the way. Recalling that the elevated Black body is central to the iconography of lynching, she writes, “Having Black extras and bit characters circulate on the margins of these lynching scenes was a seemingly unsophisticated way to signify the racial history of lynching…But it was also one that could be utterly denied because these figures were entirely divorced from the questions of justice in the mainstage narrative, and their role in the scene hidden in plain sight.” Extras do more than just fill in the background. 


The filmed crowd is an actual crowd, vulnerable to its energies and hostilities. The final scene of The Day of the Locust (1975), in which a ’30s movie premiere turns into a riot, featured a thousand extras and took 14 days to film, coming in at a cost of nearly $1 million (the equivalent of $4.8 million today). American Cinematographer reported that luminaries including George Cukor, Milos Forman, and Christopher Isherwood stopped by to observe the shoot. “Kind of like the old days, but I sure wouldn’t like to be in the middle of that group of fans,” said Mae West. Writing in Sight & Sound, Andrew Meyer noticed that some walk-ons were getting too into character: “One little man became notorious. Before each take he would focus on some poor unsuspecting woman and on the word ‘action’ would throw her down and send her hat flying. Later on a group of his victims got together and in the next take threw him down and tore his clothes off.” Eventually the assistant director had to issue a warning: “Remember that you are all real people!”


Crowd in a Box is a Las Vegas-based business providing a “cost effective, fast and dynamic crowd solution for all media.” A crowd solution, because the crowd is a problem. Crowd in a Box supplies blow-up humanoids, pitching them as the perfect background actors: “No water, no food, no extra AD’s, no bathroom breaks and no ‘I have to leave early.’” In 2007, the company filed a patent infringement lawsuit against its competitor, the Inflatable Crowd Company, only to have it dismissed by a Los Angeles federal court judge. The Hollywood Reporter quoted the defendant: “We are grateful but not surprised by Judge Klausner’s ruling…The use of dummies has been a part of filmmaking for most of its history. We have always welcomed fair competition on a level playing field. May the best mannequin win.” 


Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) is based on the 1993 US military intervention in Mogadishu, Somalia. To make the video RSG-BLACK-1 (2005), Radical Software Group wrote code that would scan through the film and delete every shot containing a white face. From the 152-minute original, only 22:04 remains, with few close-ups and many crowds. By which racist logics are some given the privilege of being an individual and others consigned to the mass? It is a question I also had while watching Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016), and many other films besides.


If one includes documentary, Douchet’s claim that the crowd disappears after 1954 has no hope of ringing true. The appearance of lightweight, sync-sound 16mm cameras in the ’60s—like the advent of portable video shortly thereafter—opened new possibilities of shooting amongst the congregated masses. In I Am Somebody (1970), Madeline Anderson presents the individual voices of some of the 400 Black hospital workers, virtually all of them women, who are on strike in Charleston, South Carolina, for better wages and the right to unionize. But her film’s most powerful images are those of all the strikers marching together, filling the streets, strong and defiant. To make Carry Greenham Home (1983), Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson spent a year documenting the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, convened in protest of the UK government’s decision to allow cruise missiles to be stored at the Greenham air force base. In one scene, a drove of women stage a sit-in outside the gates, singing “You Can’t Kill the Spirit” as the police drag them away, the handheld camera moving erratically in an attempt to capture the violence. Throughout the video, women’s voices resonate together in laughter, anger, and song. 

To belong to these crowds is to find strength in numbers, to feel the joy of solidarity, to collectively resist, to articulate a hope for change. In Judith Butler’s words, “When people amass on the street, one implication seems clear: they are still here and still there; they persist; they assemble, and so manifest the understanding that their situation is shared, or the beginning of such an understanding. And even when they are not speaking or do not present a set of negotiable demands, the call for justice is being enacted.” The documentation of such assemblies on film or video is an integral part of this demand, allowing the scope of its address to expand across space and time. Videos made on mobile phones and circulated on social networks were not external witnesses to this summer’s protests; they were a means by which the protests occurred and spread. And beyond publicizing a demonstration as it happens or commemorating one as past, these representations establish a relationship to the future in that they are—as Dork Zabunyan has suggested of images of struggle more generally—“also addressed to other individuals who might become the bearers of the torch of revolt at a later as yet unspecified date.” The crowds in these films have long dispersed, yet still they call out to be joined. 


King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) ends with an overhead shot of a theatre packed with spectators. They double over as they laugh their troubles away. It’s a devastating way to conclude a film devoted to showing how ordinary people get worn down by the capitalist grind. Even if the protagonists, John and Mary Sims, are watching a live clown act and not a movie, the image has always struck me as proposing a mirror reflection of the audience seated in front of the screen—and not necessarily a flattering one. The crowd hurries to the narcotizing spectacle as a distraction from its misery.

This is certainly a major way cinema has functioned throughout its history, but it is one that might be on the wane today. As I write this, many theatres remain closed and some will probably never reopen. Entertaining films will continue to be made, of course, mostly as “content” to be consumed in private on digital platforms. Where does this leave the crowd of the movie theatre? One possibility: still there, just a little smaller, concentrated in fewer places, and watching different films, better films. In 1988, Serge Daney prophesied, “Defunct as an industry, cinema will once more become an artisanal art, poor or affluent, and will talk of everything that remains in frame after the compressing rollers of mediatized communication have gone by. Any resistance?” Not from me.