Category Archives: 1900s

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

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*. “Rarebit” isn’t a word. It’s a corruption of “rabbit” that is used, and only used, to describe a dish of melted cheese on toast called Welsh rarebit, which has no rabbit in it. I’ve never had it. It looks disgusting. But then I think fondue is disgusting too. And I like cheese!
*. That said, it’s the Fiend who makes it look disgusting here, cramming enough of it in his mouth to make himself sick. I suspect his delirium, however, is brought about by the bottles he’s kicking back. It’s a remarkable display of excess, complete with pasty eruptions.
*. The source material was a serial comic strip written by Winsor McKay (“Silas”) featuring various dreams and fantasies. The comics were adult in nature, and even quite dark at times, complementing the childhood adventures of Little Nemo (another McKay creation from the same period).
*. It’s probably best remembered today for the scene of the Fiend riding his bed over the city. That’s too bad, as I think this is the weakest effect in the film. My favourite part has the Fiend holding on to a lamppost as it swings like a pendulum while superimposed over a street that seems to be shot from the deck of a boat in rough seas. I can only imagine what contemporary audiences thought of this, as the movement alone is enough to make me feel queasy. I guess they must have liked it though, as Edison sold a lot of copies.
*. I’ve seen several different prints of this one, running from just over five minutes to just over seven (the latter, however, in a print where the film speed seemed to be wrong). In some versions there’s definitely been material cut from the opening dining scene.
*. We may feel a familiar tug watching it today, when comic book movies are our dominant narrative form and effects rule. This movie is a bit different, trying to slip a moral in about the consequences of overindulgence, but at the end of the day it’s just a magic carpet ride. In terms of the story’s structure it resembles A Trip to the Moon, with a fantastic voyage and then a crashing back to Earth. That was a familiar trope in early cinema. Some of the effects, however, have held up really well, like the model shot of the spinning bed or the lamppost sequence I mentioned, and Porter really was one of the most accomplished storytellers of his day.

La révolution en Russie (1906)

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*. Well of course it’s hard to follow. It depicts the same historical events as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in just under four minutes. As I noted in my commentary on another Ferdinant Zecca film done for Pathé Frères, Histoire d’un crime, there are real difficulties in compressing a complex narrative into such a format.
*. Given this massive abbreviation I think it’s easy to mistake what is going on. The officer who takes over the ship, for example, isn’t reasserting imperial authority but joining the mutiny. And that’s not the Potemkin lobbing shells into Odessa in the final part of the movie but a warship loyal to the tsar (hence the destruction of the working-class home). These actions are not very clear (and the absence of any title cards doesn’t help).
*. In outline there are four major passages. A brief establishing shot nicely introduces the ship, and sets up the studio-sets that will follow. The mutiny takes place on deck, and but for some rather sad looking dummies flying through the air it’s easy to follow, especially if you know Eisenstein’s film. Then there is the display of the dead mutineer, which works well within the confines of what movies had to work with at the time, being a theatrical tableau.
*. The final section is the most memorable and is actually quite well done. We stand behind a naval officer who in turn stands behind a cannon that fires on the painted city, its shells sending forth eruptions of stage smoke. This master shot alternates with two scenes of violence in the city as seen through a telescope. We see the officer using the telescope, so these shots are nicely integrated with the rest of the passage, even if they are presented on the same plane as the rest of the action.
*. Finally, the sudden cut at the end makes me think they might have just run out of film.
*. The main point of interest, at least for me, is this last part. The man with the telescope, and the way we join with his point of view by looking through its spyhole at the victims of the bombardment, prefigures what’s been called the pornography of war. He exults in the carnage while remaining detached from it, safe offshore. It’s a precursor to the way we watch bombsight explosions from laser-guided missiles on television today.
*. It’s not really comparable to Battleship Potemkin, and not just because Eisenstein’s film is a work of genius made twenty years later with much greater resources behind it. Potemkin was also a movie with a passionately held idea behind it, one that informed the film at every level. Whatever its technical accomplishments, which are not negligible, this is still just a docudrama bound by the limitations of the form.

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Histoire d’un crime (1901)

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*. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca for Société Pathé Frères. A pretty simple and conventional tale of crime and punishment, made almost incomprehensible by the primitive state of the art.
*. A burglar kills another man and steals money from a safe. He is apprehended in a bar and put in jail, where he dreams about the train of events that brought him to this pass. He is taken from his cell and guillotined. Running time: a little over five minutes.
*. Apparently the film was based on a series of waxwork tableaux then showing in Paris, but even if you knew the story I think you’d have trouble following the events. Personally, I felt some confusion over where the first scene, the burglary, was taking place. A bank? The door says “CAISSE” on it, but if it is a bank why would the guard be sleeping, in a bed no less, by the safe?

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*. Then there is the matter of the inset dream visions (which were not original to this film, as pointed out by Kino’s helpful introduction). What is going on? From what I’ve been able to gather from other sources what we’re seeing is a man losing his respectable life (job, family) through drink. But that’s not clear from the brief tavern vignettes we see. Would contemporary audiences have understood better? On what evidence? What visual cues or clues am I missing?
*. The thing is, telling even a simple story like this is hard to do given the limitations in editing and camera placement at the time. For example, we’re too far away from the burglar to be able to identify his face so it’s hard to maintain any sense of continuity in his character. It’s just not clear if we’re seeing the same guy.
*. There was nothing new about the concept of a flashback — they’d been with us since Homer — but translating a flashback to the screen hadn’t been figured out yet. The dream inset was a clever idea, but it doesn’t really work (and hasn’t been used much since except in a humorous way). Just a couple of years later Porter’s Great Train Robbery would be a far more successful story of a crime that made no use of flashbacks, instead using editing to tell a single well-paced action narrative. That’s why you know the name Edwin S. Porter today and have probably never heard of Ferdinand Zecca.

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*. The perspective painting through the arch to the guillotine in the distance is quite convcincing until the priest raises his cross in front of it and you can clearly see the shadow being cast on a surface that should not be there. A shame, as the subsequent beheading is effective. Cutting heads off of dummies is something that film learned to do well right from the beginning, through the use of the stop trick.
*. Crime stories are perfect entertainments: sensational and exploitative, yet moral and didactic. A final judgement on the wages of sin is what we want to see, even if we can’t always credit it.

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The Impossible Voyage (1904)

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*. This is either a sequel to or a remake of A Trip to the Moon. Or perhaps we can just call it more of the same. As David Thomson critically observes, Méliès never developed as a filmmaker. In some of these later films there’s more colour (at least for the prints that got this special treatment) and more elaborate sets, but nothing else has changed.
*. That’s Méliès himself, again, as the lead magician: Professor Crazyloff. Does the good professor want to explore strange new worlds and civilizations? Further the bounds of knowledge? Well, not primarily. As with all of Méliès’s impresarios he mainly just wants to put on a show, in this case a tour of space.
*. There are plenty of dangers. No Selenites this time, but a fire on board the submarine that has to be put out, and an attempt to survive the heat of the sun by climbing inside an ice box. This latter incident made me smile. But it’s really just another version of the old magic cabinet trick: open the cabinet once to reveal what’s inside, close the door, then open it again and voila!
*. There was more to Méliès then just these féeries (French theatre known for its fantastic plots and elaborate scenery and stage effects), but they’re what he’s remembered for today. He was good at them, and he was good at them because they were where his heart was at. Even a trip to the North Pole would turn into a fantastic voyage to another world.
*. He seemed to believe that dealing with fantastic subjects was a more legitimate and sophisticated form of art than the usual vaudeville farce and brief melodramas. Perhaps it was. This gives you some idea of how low an entertainment form early cinema was. Appolinaire told him that they were both trying to lend enchantment to vulgar material.

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*. As time went by he polished his effects of design and perspective, creating an increasingly lush and painterly visual space. In this regard The Impossible Voyage has to be considered one of his finest works. The various sets (the workshop, the train crash, the submarine) are among his most detailed and inventive, and the train being swallowed by the sun, while imaginatively of a piece with earlier films, takes the concept a step beyond the hungry planet in The Astronomer’s Dream and even the iconic image of the moon being poked in the eye in A Trip to the Moon.
*. But there was nowhere left to go after this. Very few artists, and perhaps even fewer filmmakers, who work in a form so dependent on technology are given much more than a decade to produce all of their best and most important work. That’s roughly what Méliès enjoyed. And after the devastation of the First World War France was a different place anyway.

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A Trip to the Moon (1902)

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*. Film restoration. It can be a marvelous thing. If you’re young enough you may have only experienced this movie in the fantastic restored hand-coloured version that premiered in 2011 to much deserved fanfare (the print had only been discovered in 1993). You can view it for free, in high definition, on the Internet.
*. That is not, however, how most people saw it in 1902. I’m not even sure if anyone saw it that way, or at least quite the same way, in 1902 (the colouring was a laborious process that took quite a while). The majority of prints in circulation were in black and white.
*. This is the thing about restorations: they’re often not restoring the film to anything like an actually existing earlier version, but rather transforming it into something new and improved. It’s like what George Lucas did to Star Wars, going back to digitally re-insert the Jabba the Hutt from The Return of the Jedi into a film where he was originally just played by a normal actor. Lucas didn’t have the money to do Jabba the way he wanted to do him in the first film, but later he could make the change through the magic of technology. But that’s not the movie anyone saw in the ’70s.
*. Or think of all the “director’s cuts” that you’ve probably seen. Do they improve on the “theatrical release”? In many if not most cases I would say they don’t, but my point is that they’re different movies. They “restore” material that was cut at some point in the process, but they aren’t really restorations.
*. So, to try and get back on topic, my point is just that when we talk about the HD version of A Trip to the Moon complete with all the bells and whistles, I think we have to recognize that it’s not a definitive version but more like an anomaly.
*. This is sometimes described as the first science fiction movie. It depends on how rigid your classification schemes are. Most hardcore (if not “hard”) SF fans I know would balk at calling it science fiction. It’s more fantastic than anything in Wells or even Verne.
*. The scientists are introduced as a bunch of wizards. Along with their robes embroidered with astronomical signs and pointed hats, those telescopes and umbrellas they carry may as well be wands. The French academy prefigures Hogwarts.
*. It’s a circus show, with Méliès himself as the head wizard/ringmaster Professor Barbenfouillis. The Selenites, or moon men, jump and do somersaults for no reason at all. It’s just part of the show. Frantic action and visual clutter would be Méliès’s way of getting around the limitations of a static camera.
*. How static? That famous moon shot isn’t a dolly in to the face of the moon — which, and this is the important point, would have been easier— but rather was achieved by bringing the moon toward the camera. When you’re that rigid you have to keep getting more elaborate with the tableaux.
*. And they’re certainly elaborate here (though they would become even more so in the sequel, An Impossible Voyage). The layered sets create an effect much like animation. Terry Gilliam must have been a fan.
*. With such a static frame, composition becomes very important, and it’s very well handled here. Note how in the opening scene there are a whole series of diagonals leading up to the moon, at the top center. It’s the same basic structure as in the opening shot of The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), but much more developed. The diagram on the chalkboard flows into the statue of a telescope affixed to the pillar, which flows into a giant telescope which ends with the moon itself. There are three different components to the one diagonal but they form a composite that ends at the same focal point.
*. The impression of animation is enhanced by the colouring, which gives the frame the appearance of a psychadelic paisley. Add in a journey to the land of mushrooms and we have a hallucinogenic trip worthy of 2001.
*. It’s not fair to write Méliès off as a mere magician with a camera. But he was an impresario still putting on what was in the end a very elaborate, very fanciful stage show. There were definite limits to what he could do — even, I think, to what he wanted to do — but what he did remains impressive in its own right to this day.

Moscow Clad in Snow (1909)

*. The documentaries of yesteryear (or in this case “actuality films,” if you insist on the difference), are like a form of fantasy, a magic mirror in this case revealing a time of horse-drawn carriages and sleds, not to mention giant bells and cannon that seem left over from a race of giants. We can recognize the people we see, but it’s a way we’ll never be again.
*. In fact, I find documentaries even more fantastic than the escapists fare of the era, like A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery. A Trip to the Moon is all effects, and effects are always with us. But real streets without cars!
*. I can’t help thinking that if Moscow got any more snow then those streets would be impassable, even with sleds. Then again, a Moscow not clad in snow would be a hellishly muddy mess. Imagine that street in the spring!
*. What makes me find all of this so beautiful? Is it just because it’s a vanished world? I know I feel the same way looking at the streets of 1950s San Francisco in Vertigo, but that’s only natural. I think everyone responds that way to Vertigo (or San Francisco). But these early documentaries almost always have the same effect. And I don’t think I’m romanticizing the past. Snow clad Moscow isn’t some ideal or exotic place. But as I get older, and science fiction gets more and more dystopic, “the past” starts to look like Eden, civilization’s paradise lost.
*. The camera work is very simple, really just a series of pans, but given the limitations of a stationary camera the shots are well chosen. I especially like that opening pan, with the birds sailing about in the middle distance. There’s a tremendous sense of space.
*. It’s very much a city movie, about people going places: walking, riding, sledding, or on skis. Everyone seems so busy.
*. Some of the people seem to know what’s going on, but we also see people looking at the camera with innocence; that is, not seeing themselves as subjects being filmed, not performing, but just wondering what’s the game. That’s another Edenic attribute of the past, a time before the narcissism of the subject, when we all started looking at ourselves.

 

Corner in Wheat (1909)

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*. A short film by D. W. Griffith for the Biograph Company, Corner in Wheat is usually cited for its early use of parallel editing. I would add that it’s rhetorical editing as well. Cutting between the working-class people in the bread line and the fat cats at their dinner party makes a political, more than a narrative, point.
*. It’s not really a “narrative” movie. The people we see look and behave in a manner representative of their type. Farmers sow their crop in a timeless routine, working hard to feed their downtrodden families. Tycoons smoke cigars and throw fancy dinners. The trading floor of the exchange is a chaotic pit.

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*. You may wonder why the baker doesn’t just put his sign regarding the increase in the price of bread out where the customers can see it, so he doesn’t have to point to it with every transaction. It’s done in part because the shot had to be arranged so the audience could see the sign, but also because Griffith wanted to introduce the drama of the customers having to cough up the extra change. Awkward functionality is a hallmark of early filmmaking.
*. A lot of silent films emphasize dramatic, theatrical posing. But there’s a place for small gestures as well. I love when one of the Wheat King’s toadies approaches him and is contemptuously dismissed. Watch him back away, nodding his head. The perfect corporate flunky (another eternal type). Then, this is the same guy who immediately comes back into the room after the others have left. Presumably to kiss some more ass or tell the boss what a visionary he is.
*. The Wheat King (his name is given in the telegram as W. J. Hammond, but he’s usually referred to as the Wheat King) is played by Frank Powell, a noted silent film director in his own right.

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*. Another thing a lot of silent films do is borrow from the companion arts of painting and the theatre for their sense of composition and mise-en-scène. This only makes sense, as there was no visual tradition in film for new movies to be made out of. Millet’s The Sower is often referenced here as an influence, but I would add how the shots of the struggling mass of humanity in the trading pit suggest a Renaissance battle scene: a jumble of figures, each individualized, the whole composition having multiple centres of focus and action balancing out into a single, larger significant form that collapses and rearranges itself, with the arms and heads operating like the crystals in a kaleidoscope. Note how the Wheat King becomes one central figure in the scuffle, then the collapsing man.
*. As another example, look at the arrangement of the mourners of the Wheat King’s body into two parallel diagonals. It’s a powerful tableau, recalling the battlefield expiration of some military hero, like Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe.

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*. The movie is based on Frank Norris’s The Pit. The ending, however, with the Wheat King being buried in wheat, actually comes from that novel’s sequel, The Octopus (where the burial takes place in a ship’s hold, not an elevator). Was Carl Dreyer watching? It’s hard not to think of the end of Vampyr.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

*. What’s so “Great” about it? Why not just call it The Train Robbery?
*. Because it was only 1903 but the movies were already into the big sell. It wasn’t enough that you were looking at moving pictures. You had to be seeing something really special.
*. It’s sometimes said that the Western was America’s only native dramatic genre. The movies certainly weren’t American, at least in the early days, but they would be. It seems a good fit then that, in terms of narrative film, this is how it all began.
*. There’s a hell of a lot of plot for ten and a half minutes, isn’t there? You could make a feature out of as much today.
*. I don’t much mind the fact that the body thrown from the train is obviously a dummy, or that the dead guard can’t keep still. These are rookie mistakes. But why are the robbers so worried about getting their feet wet in that shallow stream? One of them slips and falls into it and the water barely rises above his ankles.
*. What did movie audiences want to see? Violence. People getting killed. People dying, in dramatic fashion. Just look at the poor engineer’s assistant getting his face beaten in with a rock! And don’t laugh at the conventions that had them expiring in such eloquently physical ways. Those gestures, in particular the dramatic reaching for the sky, were all they had before exploding packets of blood and CGI. Or sound.
*. Back projection was probably the key technical development here, and I think it works quite well even if the images don’t always seem to line up properly. The pans are also effective, demonstrating one of the ways you had to tell a story on film before a real grammar of editing had been formulated. The camera carries us along, for example, through the woods, across the stream, onto the horses. It’s a seamless narrative flow.
*. Filmmakers just love trains, don’t they? It’s like the tracks are a strip of film and the movie is a fairground ride.
*. An ending, or a beginning? Porter apparently didn’t care whether the cowboy shooting at the camera played before or after the little narrative that it has no real relation to. I think it’s better at the end (where it’s always put), even if it does seem enigmatic.
*. The cowboy at the end is Justus D. Barnes, who also plays the leader of the outlaws. Are we not meant to recognize him? Scorsese was right to resurrect Joe Pesci at the end of Goodfellas as an act of homage, as it has the same effect. Is he really dead, or was it all just a movie?
*. I get a bit of a kick out of the hand-coloured prints, but this was a dead end, an arts-and-crafts carryover into the industrial age that doesn’t quite fit. But also, it isn’t very good. There are other hand-coloured prints from this era that look much better. This was a rough job.