1895: 8 movies

(posted 2012 June 8)

Barque sortant du port
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière
Made in France.

   As wonderful and ground-breaking as the other movies from this year are, this movie represents the apex. Instead of keeping us in a cramped studio, or a small yard, this movie takes us out into the world, but this time even beyond the city streets. Facing the endless sea, the bottom of the screen is as watery as the far distance, and so we have the feeling that we are also on water. We are presented with several actors, but this time they are separated into two groups: women and men, and those standing on the pier and those in the rowboat. The title which translates from French as "Boat leaving port" tells us that the camera through which we gaze out is probably on the boardwalk, and so we also have the feeling that we are on solid surface, as the women are. The dichotomies are subtle enough to be unstaged, as are the performances, but they are palpable dichotomies that make the scene an engaging one, even more than a century later.
   The deliciously crisp photography which makes excellent use of silhouettes, also contrasts humanity against the sea, and the calm waves against the rough ones. The wave that almost topples the boat at the end removes all doubt from modern viewers who have been saturated with staging and back-screens, and ushers in the era when cinema became dangerous.
   This is a work of humbling perfection, made even moreso given the fact that, in 1895, the Lumiere brothers created six movies that are included on this list, and more than a dozen besides those.

Annabelle Serpentine Dance

Directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise
For the Edison Company. 
Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio

   Annabelle Whitford had starred the year before in Annabelle Butterfly Dance, but this dance is more exuberant, and, most importantly, features the second hand-coloring process. The first was Imperial Japanese Dance (1894) of the year before, but only a few prints of that movie were colored, while all known prints of this one are in color. The results are gorgeous as the color emphasizes every flap and billow of Annabelle's gown. In essence, this movie represents the next growth-stage of the idea behind Muybridge's Horse in Motion (1878). That movie catalogued life in motion, and this one does too, but it also highlights the contours and beauty of its subject, and it adds greater and more artful contrast between the subject and its dull background. In meaning and purpose, we haven't grown much away from this idea. We possibly never shall, and we possibly will never should. It's that gorgeous.

Chapeaux à transformations
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière
Made in France.

   Felcien Trewey, a music-hall comic, is the star of this movie. He was a friend of the Lumieres, and was featured in other Lumiere movies including Photographe (also in 1895). His split-second shift of character is impressive even today. But the thing that makes this movie important one to the history of movies, is that the camera catches the transformation. We see the trick, and we are still amazed. This effect is quite opposite to a great deal of what movie-makers would start to do in the next year and ever after: leaving us on the outside and playing a trick on us. It's the difference between magic and magic tricks. The difference between having the audience learn about humanity and life, and having us remain always stupefied in the dark. And for this difference we are forever grateful. 
   The title translates from French as "Hats with transformations".

Bocal aux poissons-rouges
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière
Made in France.

   No people are featured in this movie, except indirectly through the human invention, the fishbowl. This is not the first movie that focuses solely on animal life, as Muybridge had covered that ground with his running buffalo movie, and possibly others, but this is considered the first movie to feature water-dwelling animals. The camera doesn't catch the top of the fish-bowl, so we are presented with a perfectly round image, and a strikingly clear and beautiful moving composition. It takes a certain amount of genius to let a camera run on a good subject without any tampering or cloying for attention. And the brothers certainly demonstrated that genius with their focus on the graceful, albeit cramped, swimming of these beautiful fishes.
   The title translates from French as "Jar of red fish".

Rough Sea at Dover
Directed by Birt Acres & Robert W. Paul
Made in England.

   Like the Lumiére brothers' train arrival movies from the same year, this one also scared the audience, and allegedly they moved away from the screen to avoid getting wet. But besides the historically strong reaction it has had, this movie is admirable for its strong composition: the wall, the sea, the smacking of the surf where they meet. This movie makes it clear that movies could contain the power and wild forces of our world. The history and poetry associated with the location, Dover, also adds to the watching experience. 
   Acres and Paul were important innovators who improved on the primitive movie-cameras of the time and were the first commercial movie-makers from England.

Bonne d'enfants et soldat
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière
Made in France.

   Reynaud's animated cartoons from 1894 and 1892 were funny, and Chinese Laundry Scene from 1894 was a great pre-Chaplin vaudeville farce, but this 1895 movie by the Lumiere brothers is the first photographic comedy that was independent from the stage. They made several in the same year, along with several serious movies.  Each of the comedies is a short live-action sketch, shot on location, which mostly focus on a single theme: a person frustrates another by not behaving as expected. It can be a dull theme for today's audiences so we've stuck with only the funniest and best-acted. In fact this one might be misunderstood as unacted, it's that convincing. A soldier plays a trick on a nanny by posing as the little boy she is taking care of. The humor arises since she is so focused on her book that she is unaware of the switch. The role-play of the soldier as a little boy is hysterically funny, and also sets this project apart from the Lumieres movies of the same period which seem to have been developed for live audiences, and then transposed in front of a movie-camera. This one was clearly made just for the screen. The title translates from French as "Nanny and Soldier".

La mer
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière 
Made in France.

   The first public movie-screening, at which admission was charged, was held on December 28, 1895 at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. La mer was the tenth and last movie shown. We include it for this reason and others, including the unique and direct angle of the swimmers' running board. It juts out from behind the camera, extending across most of the screen, while people take turns leaping into the water without any other discernable care. A loveable early documentary which not only display the camera's versatility but also succeeds in finding endlessly fascinating subjects, namely the sea and the people at play. Like all of the brothers' movies, it was filmed with their invented movie-camera which they called the Cinématographe, an all-in-one deal, which also served as the film projector and developer. The title of the movie translates from French as "The Sea".

Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière
Made in France.

   Another short comedy by the Lumieres. The acting again is superb and easily mistaken for one of their documentaries. The actors are Felicien Trewey, as the photographer, and Auguste Lumiere as the restless subject. This one is also interesting since we get to see another camera being filmed, even though it's not a movie-camera. Already, it's becoming apparent that comedy has always had a central part in the history of the medium. The title translates from French as "Photographer".

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