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


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.



(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.


Pauvre Pierrot (1892): Ambitious Animations

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This week we leave the Edison experiments behind and return to European filmmaking. While American inventors were tinkering with grainy shorts, an amateur French filmmaker had ambitions of his own. His name was Charles-Émile Reynaud, and in 1892 his innovations would drag cinema from the stagnation of experimentation, and cement its legacy as a burgeoning artform.

Reynaud was born in a Parisian suburb in 1844, the son of a medal engraver and watercolour artist. He was a bright child, and soon took on an interest in science and literature. At fourteen, Reynaud took on an apprenticeship with an engineer, where he developed a fascination with newfound projection technologies. In 1877, ten years before Louis Le Prince’s first film, Reynaud had developed a proto-projection mechanism called the Praxinoscope. The device was more of an amusement, but the developments of other filmmaking breakthroughs pressured Reynaud to perfect the technology for commercial use. Experimenting with glass plates and hand-painted cards, Reynaud’s improved invention displayed moving  images by superimposing characters onto background scenes. Reynaud had created the world’s first animated cartoon, and as if this wasn’t incredible enough, he later displayed these shorts at the first motion picture exhibition show in history, the Théâtre Optique of 1892.

Of the three films displayed at the Théâtre Optique, only one survives today. Pauvre Pierrot (“Poor Pete” in English) tells the story of a young woman and her two suitors. At least, that’s what I think is going on here. Only 5 minutes of the original runtime remain today, and the lack of dialogue make the narrative difficult to discern. In any event, the movie is an ambitious effort to produce genuine drama on film. Le Prince and Dickson were clearly innovators, but they’re movies never reached the level of storytelling nuance that Reynaud found. Again, this would open up movie-making to new potentials, and alter the trajectory of the artform for the better.

Unfortunately, this will be the last Reynaud film we look at, because this innovator’s life was subject to the same level of drama he attempted to portray. By the 20th century, Reynaud was broke and largely forgotten. He had been thrown into obscurity because of more efficient projectors, and he was subject to bouts with depression. During one of these episodes, Reynaud destroyed his life’s work and tossed the remains into the river Seine. Only a Pauvre Pierrot and another short reel were left behind, and reconstructions of the former movie ensure that modern audiences can appreciate the genius of the world’s first animator.





Newark Athlete (1891): New Innovations, New Directions

5Newark_Athlete-DicksonIn the spring of 1891, the Edison company conducted its final batch of experimentation with the Kinetoscope. The device would make its debut that May, and movie-making would finally wander out of the experimentation era and into the public consciousness.

The Monkeyshines series had presented a few early successes at capturing motion, but the picture quality of these presentations were hardly suitable. The original projection concept included a cylinder-like system where film strips were rotated  horizontally. After visiting a film exposition in Europe, Edison conveniently filed another patent for a new process that used filmstrips rather than cylindrical sheets. The film was run through a series of sprockets (gears) that presented a smoother picture quality.

Progress on the Kinetoscope halted for the remainder of 1890 to make way for other innovative endeavours. After these undertakings fell through, the team pursued motion pictures again with a newfound vigour. Chief lab technician William K.L. Dickson made a crucial breakthrough in early 1891 with the creation of a new projection process. Relying on the insights of the European inventors, Dickson and his team perfected a series of loops and spindles that pulled a series of 19 mm filmstrip under a magnifying glass. The film was simultaneously lit underneath by a lamp, and the illuminated images were projected onto a glass peephole for viewing. This updated Kinetoscope was presented to a Women’s club in May 1891, where the unsuspecting filmgoers were treated to what was perhaps the first public screening.

The team assembled three experimental films for their updated model. These films: Dickson Greeting, Men Boxing and Newark Athlete, presented a new maturity in Dickson’s filmmaking ethos. The picture quality was a significant improvement over Monkeyshines, and the team seemed more imaginative in their depictions. In Dickson Greeting, the aforementioned technician beckons the audience, dramatically welcoming the viewer to a new era in communication. Men Boxing is another tongue-in-cheek production in the vein of Monkeyshines, but it is Newark Athlete that takes movie-making seriously. In this short film, a man stands stoically before the camera, twirling Indian clubs as part of an athletic routine. This was a popular sport at the turn of the century, a type of workout fad practiced across the world. Here we can see the team experimenting not only with technology, but also the possibilities of this format. Goofy presentations in front of the camera are a good start, but what do people really want to see? After all, this was a powerful new tool, and the team had to decide what future productions would entail. Would filmmakers strive for simple entertainment, or would presentations of reality be the goal. As we’ll come to find out, this debate dominated the first few decades of film production, and allowed for exciting innovations that are still felt today.

Monkeyshines No.2: The Patent Wars (1890)

4Monkeyshines_No2-DicksonIn mid-1889, Thomas Edison filed a patent with the United States Patent Office for a new invention. He would name it the Kinetoscope, a device for capturing and displaying motion pictures. After three years of testing, Edison’s invention was displayed for pubic consumption in 1891. Unsurprisingly, the Kinetoscope was a success, and another breakthrough was added to Edison’s impressive repertoire. On paper, Thomas Edison was hereafter known as the inventor of film.

Edison was inspired by European advancements in motion picture technology, as well as insights from photography experts. In 1888, Edison attended a lecture given by film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, whose famous series of galloping horse photographs introduced the concept of moving images. Muybridge had demonstrated his own motion picture device, the zoopraxiscope, but its reliance on manual effort by the participant made it more of a glorified flip-book. Edison theorized that moving images could be projected to an audience at high speeds with the assistance of an automated process, therefore eliminating the need for manual participation in the projection process. An early patent was filed in 1888, and lab technician William K.L. Dickson was assigned to the project. Edison himself acted as more of a supervisor, with most of the production and testing attributed to Dickson and his colleagues. Nonetheless, when the device was perfected, it was Thomas Edison that garnered the glory.

But as we know, Edison’s breakthrough came two years after Louis Le Prince developed the world’s first film in 1887. Despite this, Le Prince’s contribution was mostly forgotten, and Edison endured in popular culture as the father of film. There are several reasons why history favours Edison, primarily because the Kinetoscope was the first patented motion picture device in the United States. Le Prince applied for a patent in the U.S., but his request was denied (only to be given to Edison a few years later). Furthermore, Edison was already a near-mythical figure in the field of technological innovation, so his insights into filmmaking made for a better story. Finally, Le Prince never had the opportunity to contest Edison’s claim, since he died one year before the Kinetoscope’s debut.

Monkeyshines No.2 was another experiment devised by Edison’s labs in 1890. It’s similar to its predecessor, but the film quality has markedly improved. The films are getting better, and within a few short months the invention would be ready for prime time. But there’s something artificial here, almost cold. Filmed in the bowels of Edison’s labs, we see a worker standing in a pitch black room, cooly testing the capabilities of the camera. We understand filmmaking today as an artform, but it would be difficult to call this art. Rather, this is a technical document, a demo for a product in development. I can’t help but recall Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, a jovial celebration of a new innovation that displayed the emotions and culture of the era. You got the sense of a burgeoning auteur, an innovator whose true passion was art. Edison was not an artist, he was a businessman. Unfortunately, this business attitude would influence the remaining 19th century films, and continues to hold a domineering presence on the film industry to this day.