Monday, October 8, 2012
A lovely find from the BFI, also known as 'The X-Ray Fiend', this comedy by G.A. Smith combines two very recent innovations: Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in 1895, and Georges Méliès' realisation of the special-effects potential of the jump-cut in 1896. The couple is played by the Brighton comedian Tom Green and Smith's wife Laura Bayley. I like the way the x-ray even turns the woman's umbrella skeletal. That's attention to detail right there.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Georges Melies' place in the history of early cinema is secure, of course, as a pioneer of clever trick photography. But he's not really considered a filmmaker as such, a key innovator of film technique. He's more a curiosity, a novelty unto himself. And sure, that camera is resolutely static in all his films, plonked in the stalls like the faithful audience in a Parisienne theatre, but that doesn't mean his mise en scene was primitive. The story of early cinema is usually seen as one of growing narrative sophistication, progress through editing and montage, an evolving visual grammer allowing greater complexity of storytelling. Which is true but has the unfortunate side-effect of marginalising or undervaluing those who don't fit this arc. Melies brought his own talents, obsessions and experience to the medium in the same way Orson Welles utilised radio techniques in Citizen Kane. Melies teeming, inexhaustible imagination, his trickster delight in creating wonder in an audience is the well-spring of cinema every bit as much as Edwin S. Porter's parallel editing in The Great Train Robbery (1903). When the frame is this filled with business, with perspective-stylised scenery, with clever tricks and visual jokes, it seems churlish to ask for movement from the camera too. In this sense he could be seen as a precurser of fellow Frenchman Jacques Tati who similarly loved to fill the static frame with off-centre comic business. (Melies was assuredly comic. Those doddery old scientists with their funny walks and pratfalls have a pantomime charm to them). And yet there is movement of sorts. Check out those dissolves as we travel from earth towards the moon, first seen as a distant orb, then closer with vaguely face-like shadows, and finally that iconic moon-face about to be assaulted by the incoming rocket. There are earlier dissolves too, from the astronomical meeting to the workers making the rocket. But even so, the film doesn't need to justify itself in these terms. The imagination makes the real possible, it's the crucible of the future. Without Melies or HG Wells there wouldn't have been any Neil Armstrong. Which isn't to say he was just a bag of tricks, this is still a narrative film, a story told with breezy economy and impish invention.
'A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image) an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask'
- Susan Sontag, On Photography
In the 21st century we take it for granted that images exist, that we can just record the world around us at will. We've long since lost contact with the spooky magic of this, the unlikely fact that hidden in the chemical world was a process that could capture likenesses, snatch moments out of the flow of time. Do any of us really know how this works? Why it works? Even stranger, that waiting within us all this time was a process called persistence of vision, holding after-images for a fraction of a second on the retina like it knew all along that cinema was coming, that one day we would create our own parallel universe. We hardly think about these things now, or even feel the faintest tremor of dislocation as we move through an image-saturated world, a matrix of visual stimuli from phones, laptops, televisions, internet pages, games consoles, etc. But maybe we should. Maybe we should watch Frederick S. Armitage's pioneering short Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theatre, made in 1901, to give us an inkling of the strangeness we've forgotten. It consists of time-lapse footage of the demolition of the Star Theater at Thirteenth Street and Broadway in New York, filmed from the Biograph Studios office across the street, with exposures taken every four minutes during the course of the thirty day demolition. It was then reversed to create the building-up effect. Theaters were given the option of setting the film order to either Demolish then Build Up or, as in the version above, Build Up then Demolish. Time-lapse is nothing new to any of us, and films like this are ten-a-penny, but this is the first known example and it maintains an eerie air of first disovery, a trace of what it must have been like to see it then, the sheer unprecedented sorcery of it. In the process it brings us back to that sense of wonder, the implications for who we are implicit in the medium, for what we are, what film is, what it does to time, what it tells us about time. The people walking by in the film are dead, yet there they are, caught in a loop of time, forever alive on this day. In this sense, the film is a portal into 1901, into that corner of New York, at Thirteenth Street and Broadway. Except they're walking backwards, the traffic travelling in reverse. It's a premonition. Something strange is about to happen. And then it does, time speeds up. A whirlwind descends on the empty lot across the street and a building starts to take shape, rising out of the ground like an apparition, window arches and connective walls forming through dark pulsating patches of scratchy film-stock, sudden waves of sunlight peeling backwards like a restorative wash. In no time the Star Theatre stands on the corner in all its glory. Calm is restored, but only briefly. The whirlwind descends again. Now the imposing building begins to disappear, whittled away like ants devouring a piece of food. To the left the windows and canopy of the Biograph building flutter in and out, shadows pass through like ominous waves, the traffic a blur, see-through, ghostly. And then it's gone as if it had never been there. The scene reverts to real time, people walk by normally, traffic passes as it should, as if nothing has happened. But it has. We've been shown our place in the universe. Time has been atomised. At this very moment, 1901, Albert Einstein is sitting in a Swiss patent office, surrounded by clocks, formulating his ideas on relativity. Time speeds up and slows down. In fact it bends, dilates, contracts depending on where we are and how fast we're going. Velocity changes time. He's going to write a whole paper on it, his special theory of relativity. With Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theatre Frederick Armitage had beaten him to it. If film was directly stencilled off the real, if it was part of us in some mysterious way, then what happened to it should also happen to us. If film can be sped up, slowed down, reversed, then so can we. Cinema was already proving it. Science just needed to find the mathematics.