The Biter Bit (1899): The Remake Model

13biter_bit-bamforthIf you’re anything like me, you’ve grown a little weary of the glut of remakes, spinoffs and sequels currently saturating the movie industry. As I write this, the latest Star Wars sequel-prequel-spinoff has clasped the zeitgeist and is making all kinds of money worldwide. Within the last 10 years, 8 of the 10 highest grossing movies were sequels, spinoffs or additions to an extended cinematic universe. The current appetite is for familiarity over originality, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere yet.

And it seems like this has persisted for longer than we thought. This week we looked at our first remake; James Bamforth’s The Biter Bit from 1899. Bamforth’s film is a British take on the 1895 French comedy The Sprinkler SprinkledYou may remember that Sprinkler was something of a hit when it was released, and made tremendous progress towards advancing narrative film. The success of the movie attracted the attentions of fellow filmmakers, who exploited lax copyright laws to develop their own versions of the picture. The result was an avalanche of remakes, which were steadily pumped out over the next five years.

Bamforth’s iteration of Sprinkler Sprinkled isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t improve upon the original premise, nor does it advance the filmmaking medium in any significant way. Yet the movie deserves recognition as a successful remake. Imitation is the currency of filmmaking, and the artform is perhaps more susceptible to copying than any other. On the contrary, movie production encourages replication, not only as a money-making endeavour, but as a means to maintaining the status quo. Filmmaking is built upon a very specific grammar, and audiences subconsciously recognize and rely on this grammar to lead them through a story. Every once in a while an innovator will tamper with movie conventions and create something extraordinary, but movies remain stagnant for the most part. Even within the latest blockbuster smash, you find the DNA of filmmaking’s earliest productions.

Perhaps reproductionists like Bamforth recognized the stagnation of moviemaking before their contemporaries. Whether or not you agree with the remake ethos, you have to admit that Bamforth had the business-savy to survive in the early days of motion pictures.

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Come Along, Do! (1898): Lost and Forgotten

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Right off the bat, I have to apologize. Posting has been sparse as of late, as I quietly leave the ‘post-a-week’ format behind. I would love to be writing a weekly blog, but certain developments have prevented me from keeping the original schedule (laziness being the prime culprit). But have no fear, this blog project will continue, and I hope to get back on the intended schedule soon.

Part of the reason for the hiatus is the film we’re looking at in this blog post. Come Along, Do! (1898) is just -kind of boring. The movie is 1 minute and 38 seconds (too) long, and there just isn’t a lot to it. The film is essentially one shot of a couple talking (flirting?) outside of an art gallery, followed by a few shots of the gentleman admiring a nude statue while is wife looks away in shame. Melissa and I glanced at this thing a few weeks ago, and were equally confused. We immediately forgot about it, and moved on with our day.

It’s dull, even by 19th-century-film standards. But I think that I should offer a few words in defence of Robert W. Paul’s short. Come Along, Do! is considered a ‘lost film’, a movie that, for whatever reason, is no longer available for viewing. Reasons could include technological constraints, insufficient production numbers, or improper handling of the original edition. Lost films were common amongst the growing pains of film’s early years (1896 lists 20 lost films alone on the “Lost Films” Wikipedia page). Besides this, there are a large number of movies that are considered “partially lost”, such as Come Along, Do!. With this case, the first half of the movie is available for viewing in all its grainy glory, but the second half has been reduced to a series of still images. I couldn’t quite determine why this movie was partially lost, I guess these things tended to happen. Either way, not a terrible loss, right?

Well, actually, it is rather unfortunate. It may not look like much, but Come Along, Do! was rather significant for the development of cinema. Robert W. Paul’s movie is today considered one of the premier examples of a multi-scene structure in a narrative film (it may even be the first). As we’ve seen from previous examples, the early days of film consisted of a strict one scene rule (the Coronatation of Csar Nicholas was an exception, but I’m assuming the multi-shot depiction was a series of individual movies). Of course, the multi-scene structure seems kind of inevitable in hind-sight, but I think we need to give Paul a little more credit. After all, early filmmakers often based their work on the continuous nature of theatre performances, so suddenly ‘cutting’ to an entirely new setting is rather revolutionary. It’s quite an achievement, too bad the movie was a bit of a dud.

 

The X-Rays (1897): Another Piece of the Puzzle

11the_x-rays-smithWe’re back at it this week after more than a month off. With just three years left in the 19th century oeuvre, we’re seeing film exit its embryonic stage as directors experiment with the storytelling mechanisms of the medium. This week’s movie, The X-Rays, is another example of the artistic innovation sweeping across the moviemaking world.

Every art form benefits from certain aesthetic “tricks” that can only be established by that avenue. A novelist might rely on wordplay, a visual artist will return to reliable brushstroke patterns, and a musician understands which harmonies rile which emotions. Filmmaking is no different, it just took a bit of time to figure out. Some call this the “visual grammar” of a movie, others call it “special effects” (often pejoratively) and some prefer the even broader “style.” Whatever the term, there exists a reliable toolkit of visual techniques that, when deployed, stir our emotions and create magic on the screen. George Albert Smith’s 1897 short The X-Rays showcases one of the earliest of these techniques: the jump cut. This technique involves an abrupt change in visual information, either through editing technique or physical camera movement. The move is most often associated with the fantastical work of magician Georges Méliès (who we’ll be seeing soon) and the artsy New Wave movies of the 1960s.

The jump cut was a particular favorite of  primitive filmmakers because it was easy to execute and dazzled the eye. This tactic was really the first visual effect, and helped add a bit of zest to movie projects. In an era where directors were torn between documentary realism or simply filming stage plays, the jump cut injected an essence of magic for the viewer to behold. We have seen the magic of unreality before (specifically in Pauvre Pierrot) but that required painstaking hours of labour to create the effect. With the jump cut, any live action scene could be spliced with a disparate shot, opening the floodgates for all sorts of narrative tricks. Suddenly, directors started to consider what they could accomplish during the editing process, and set about staging their films entirely with editing in mind.

The X-Rays is focused around a single jump cut gag. A couple, sitting alone is subjected to an “X-Ray” camera that instantly exposes their skeletons to the viewer. Is it a metaphor for the necessary transparency of love? Is the director exploring the underlying human similarities despite gender roles? Are we shocked into disbelief at the thought of out eventual mortality? No, probably not. The movie is a simple comedy, likely composed to show off the nifty new jump cut more than anything else. But its important to note where special effects began, and movies like this are a good place to start. I hope that by now you are understanding the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up the history of film. We start with one piece; camera technology. Then we add ideas like fictional filmmaking, documentary, or animation. Next we add in visual techniques, like lighting, staging and camera angle. In 1897, special effects got thrown into the mix, and now we see a cavalcade of possibilities opening up for the next century.

 

Coronation of Nicolas II (1896): Politicizing an Art Form

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I consider that cinematography is an empty matter, which no one needs … only an abnormal person could place this farcical business on the level of art.” (1)

These were the words of Nicholas II of Russia, the last tsar of the Russian Empire. Despite his objections to filmmaking, Nicholas was himself the subject of one of the world’s first movies in 1896. In an effort to display the grandeur of his coronation, and perhaps to capitalize on the novelty of cinematography, the Russian leader employed France’s Lumière brothers to capture the ceremony. The Lumières sent cameraman Camille Cerf to the Kremlin in May of 1896 to record the occasion. The result was not only the first real documentary, but the first Russian movie as well.

Nicholas enjoyed Cerf’s depiction, and he would request several follow-up films over the remainder of his reign. With titles like “Tsar Inspects Warships” or “Tsar Drinking the Health of His Troops”, these movies can be understood as propaganda, enacted to indoctrinate the country with the majesty of their leader. According to IMDB, Nicholas appeared in some 23 of these films during his lifetime, usually dominating centre stage as a benevolent and wise presence.

Nicholas was also a dictator, a tyrannical presence that drew the ire of disadvantaged Russian workers. There had long been a tension between the upper and lower echelon’s of Russian society, but Nicholas’s disconnect with his subjects ignited the ire of the country’s labour-class. Whereas the coronation video shows a prosperous era, the majority of Russians knew only suffering and hard-labour. Likewise, the tsar showed little interest for the toils of the average peasant, and refused to give them a voice. Perhaps this is best depicted with the handling of the filmmaking boom, which was reserved strictly for the benefit of the regime. Nicholas discouraged movies by private citizens, and prohibited the filming of strikes, or other inflammatory material. But it was to no avail. The Russian Revolution exploded across the country in 1917, fueled by decades of domination by the aristocracy. By October, the country was under the control of the communist Bolshevik’s, and a purge was instituted against the imperial regime of the tsar. In 1918, Nicholas II and his family were executed by a group of Bolsheviks.

After the communist takeover, Russia experienced a renaissance of filmmaking prowess. Innovators such as Sergei Eisenstein captured the grit, confusion and hope of the newfound Soviet Union, while auteurs like Dziga Vertov redefined the very concept of art. The story of the Soviet Union is intertwined with the rise of cinema because the two are dependant on one another. So far we’ve seen movies create jobs, confront science and build industries. But now we look at the Soviet Union and we realize the full potential of moving images. We see a medium capable of crumbling nations, changing norms and creating ideology.

 

Sources:

(1) Neuman, Johanna. Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. Print.

The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895): What’s So Funny?

9sprinkler_sprinlked-lumiereA few years ago, the always-enlightening Cracked podcast discussed the changing landscape of American comedy. The hosts talked about “pop culture expiration dates,” and concluded that we decide what’s funny based on a myriad array of contextual features. The 1980s have a very specific “comedy agenda”, as do the 70s, 90s and ever era before or after. Even what we find funny today will go stale eventually, with future generations finding little joy in the comedy superstars of today. See for yourself. Go ahead and check out an episode of The Honeymooners, and then compare that to something more recent, like Seinfeld. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find more to laugh at with the latter. It’s more modern, relevant and engaging, whereas The Honeymooners may seem dated, or some of the jokes may not even apply to a contemporary audience. Both shows have their merits, and different people will have different interpretations, but I personally find the more recent Seinfeld to be funnier.

Moving even farther back from the Honeymooners, we find the 1895 Lumière film “L’Arroseur Arrosé” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled.” Here we have a farce that is almost infantile in its comedic portrayal. A man waters his garden, only to be interrupted when a prankster steps on the hose. The man is sprayed by the hose, a chase ensues, and the prankster is spanked (weird). That’s it. The movie is 45 seconds and the actual joke is, for lack of a better word, stupid. But this was the first comedy film ever. Out of this one joke erupted an endless possibility of humour. Moreover, this was regarded as the first narrative live-action film as well. The influence is vast; from the smallest indie flick to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

The filmmakers responsible for L’Arroseur Arrosé , Louis and Auguste Lumière, understood what Edison didn’t. While the American moviemaking crowd was busying themselves filming mundane, everyday events, the French Lumières devised a novel genre of stories to entertain their customers. They relied on classic vaudeville theatre to devise a simple bit of slapstick bliss, all while presenting a clear plot, character and theme. Audiences loved it, and the general moviemaking trend speedily shifted towards adapting theatre or fictional works.

It’s dumb by 2016 standards,  but this is the well from which The Honeymooners, Seinfeld, and all of our other favourite comedies sprung.

 

 

Falling Cat (1894): More Than the First Cat Video

8falling_cat-mareyMore than 100 years before YouTube and our collective obsession with viral cat videos, there was Étienne-Jules Marey and his falling cat.

Marey wasn’t necessarily a filmmaker, he was a scientist dedicated to studying physiology. More specifically, Marey was interested in how muscles movements and how animals conducted basic motions. Starting small, Marey photographed the flying patterns of insets before moving on to larger birds and mammals. Working at the close of the 19th century, Marey was exposed to a technological and scientific boom that produced innovative new means for composing experiments. Marey became an admirer of the European filmmaking movements, and paid particular attention to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic collages (he of the Horse in Motion filmstrip, 1878). While others looked at Muybridge’s work as a brave new world of artistic representation, Marey saw a long sought solution for advancing learning. Keeping insights from Muybridge in mind, the industrious Marey set to work completing his own camera.

Marey produced several camera prototypes over the next three decades, specializing in a process that captured a rapid series of photographs using a filmstrip spurred by an electromagnet. Marey’s preferred invention resembled a shotgun, and was thus unofficially dubbed the ‘photographic gun.’ It was on one of these models that the scientist captured his famous Falling Cat video in 1894. Common knowledge dictates that a cat always lands on its four feet, but scientists such as Marey were perplexed by just how these flexible felines achieved such a feat. Physicists and physiologists alike wondered at the seeming impossibility of the cat quickly contorting its body, a quandary thats been aptly labeled the falling cat problem. With his trusty photographic gun in hand, Marey set about to finally solve this problem, and unknowingly leave his mark on film history.

Marey’s still images on the cascading kitten were published in the scientific journal Nature in 1894. The scientific community finally possessed solid evidence for the cat conundrum, and Marey was able to prove that the falling body used the force of its own descent to power the rotation necessary to complete a successful landing.

Marey’s explanation wasn’t immediately recognized by the scientific community,  but his contribution to filmmaking started a conversation about how this technology could be utilised. We’ve already classified the war for the spirit of motion pictures as either art or documentary, but Marey’s insights introduce the new possibility of scientific discourse. Too bad today’s cat videos don’t have as much to offer as their great grandkitten.

Blacksmith Scene (1893): A Dramatic Approach

7Blacksmith_Scene-Dickson.pngThis week, the era of experimental filmmaking continues with another venture from William K.L. Dickson and the Edison labs. I’m beginning to realize that Dickson will be this project’s most productive director, with a total of four of his films exhibited thus far. Some of these films have been included out of necessity, but as we will see, Dickson’s insights were integral for shaping the modern movie industry.

To be perfectly honest, 1893 was a dull year for filmmaking. Sources indicate a meagre 3 films were made, all of which were exhibitory products of the Kinetoscope experiments. But while things were stagnant on the screen, a lot of exciting developments were going on behind the scenes. In this year, Thomas Edison’s Black Maria movie studio was built in New Jersey. Edison correctly understood the public demand for motion pictures, and put his resources to use in securing a monopoly over the industry. The Black Maria would take the Dickson experiments out of Edison’s labs and move them to a specialized studio for filmmaking conception. It wasn’t quite Hollywood, but the Black Maria production house was a necessary first step in establishing commercial movie making.

With their impressive new movie studio completed, the Edison team had to gauge public demand and figure out what product they were selling. If these movie things were to survive past pure novelty, the audience had to be engaged, and willing to come back again and again. Dickson’s  Monkeyshines series was a good tech demo, but the team had to step it up if they wanted to survive. Furthermore, should the company carry on with its documentary-style “slices of life”, or was fictional stories more in vogue? The solution was a bit of both. The group decided to produce three shorts that depicted everyday, working-class Americans on the job, but with actors playing the various roles.  The intent was to speak to the audience directly, by giving them a glimpse of the ‘real’ America through film. The scenes selected included a barbershop appointment, a man applying a horseshoe, and three blacksmiths working at their forge. The latter film, Blacksmith Scene, was the first Black Maria film to be presented to an audience.

Blacksmith Scene doesn’t look like much, but it actually represents a remarkable innovation in filmmaking style. In another crossroads moment, the Edison team created a new genre with the merging of reality and theatre. The result is a proto-mockumentary that uses actors to generate the illusion of real-life. Interestingly, this was seen as the winning formula by the Edison team; the type of movie that the public would want to see. It’s archaic and rough, but Blacksmith Scene successfully split from the vaudeville appeal of early American movies in favour of a more mature, theatrical approach.