1896: 11 movies

posted 2012 June 16

The Kiss
Directed by William Heise
Starring May Irwin and John Rice
Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio

   The movies had shown us a couple of embraces before, plenty of fights, people working, playing, and dozens of people dancing, but a kiss? We never had one on-screen until this movie. And what a kiss! It's such a funny build-up, and the guy can't seem to ever stop talking. By the end of the movie it looks like he might end up chewing her lips off! 
   The actors are May Irwin and John Rice, and this is a re-enactment from the final scene of their stage musical: The Widow Jones. This movie is said to have caused great excitement and controversy during every screening, as actors touching lips emblazoned so largely on a wall was considered shocking.
   It's also neat to see cinematographer Heise take the helm of a movie. In short, this is a glorious movie, symbolically, artistically, historically, and in every other possible way.


Le cauchemar
Directed by Georges Méliès

   This is one of Melies' first movies, and what a movie it is! A paranoid nightmare, characters changing forms, personification of the moon, cutting-edge special effects, and masterful editing are all couched inside a simple story of a man trying to get some rest. The movies never seemed more promising and exciting as the first time this was screened. It's also great to see Melies' touching on the perception of distance when the moon appears so close as to bite the main character. The three imagined characters that haunt the sleeping man are a young woman, a minstrel, and a clown.
   The title translates from French as "The nightmare".


Panorama de l'arrivée à Aix-les-Bains pris du train

Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   The Lumieres certainly had a busy and artistically successful year, directing seven movies we've listed for this year, and producing another. The great thing about this movie is the fact that the camera has been set on a moving train. Thus, we have one of the earliest examples of a moving shot, and panning shot, although  there were others in this year by the brothers, including one on a gondola. Technically, Muybridge's multiple-camera movies were the very first instance of panning in a movie, but 1896 was the first year for single-camera panning. The reason we chose this particular movie is because the photography is particularly crisp, and the snow-covered ground presents a lovely frame for the lovely town with its cosy planning and architecture.
   The title translates from French as "Panorama of arrival at Aix-les-Bains, taken by train".


A Sea Cave Near Lisbon
Directed by Henry Short
Produced by Robert W. Paul

   Shot at the mouth of the Boca do inferno cave in Portugal, this movie features one of the first examples of compositional framing. Like Rough Sea at Dover (1895), which was also by Robert W. Paul, it features the mighty sea rushing towards the camera. The thing that makes it especially gorgeous and ground-breaking is the silhouetted cave wall which covers three, and sometimes all four sides of the screen. This framing is filmed in a way that suggests we are seeing from behind our own eyes.  The daylight streaming into the cave is thus intensified, the shapes of the rocks become ancient characters, and when the water swells in, it's as if it comes right up to our eyes, and, in a way, right into them. 
   R.W. Paul allegedly commissioned his friend Henry Short to film a series of movies with a unique smaller camera. This movie is one part of the resulting fourteen-part series, titled Tour in Spain and Portugal.


Querelle enfantine 

Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   In the couple of years previous, there had already been other movies featuring babies, but none of them held the conflict, drama, and naturalism of this one. It's the essence of humanity as performed by two babies. The direction of the babies is undetectable. It probably stopped after divying up the props. Once the camera is rolling the "actors" appear to be free to improvise, or to steal, stab, yell and scream, feel guilt, really whatever the situation calls on them to do, without interference from anyone else on the planet. It may seem a little cruel to steal such a scene especially without breaking up the fight, but the movie functions as a moment in the regular life of these two, and a document of the beginning of what may become a long and fruitful friendship. At times, it is a reflection of our own material desires and frustrations. Fantastic cinema!
   The title translates from French as "Childish quarrel".


Danse Serpentine - Loie Fuller
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière
Starring Loie Fuller

   At first glance, it may seem like the Lumieres took this idea from Edison's Dickson and Heise, just as they had taken other ideas, like they had done when they filmed blacksmiths. But with a little more background, this movie is revealed as a work of stunning originality. Though the serpentine dance had been filmed the previous year with Annabelle Whitford, this version is danced by the person who popularized it. Loie Fuller's version has none of the cuteness that Annabelle's version had. Instead, Fuller shows us how the dance is really done. Sometimes she completely disappears, seeming to be taken over by the enraged dress. The Lumieres also hand-colored the film, just like Annabelle's movie had been, but this can be understood as the Lumieres' effort to replicate Fuller's stage show which often featured inventive lighting techniques. All in all, it's a hypnotic and astounding piece.


Bataille de femmes 

Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   This movie starts as a very intense and realistic fight and then quickly shows itself to be a carefully arranged movie scene. The interesting thing is that the humor is still intact. The actors, costumers, and camera operators were playing for our benefit, and that fact is made transparent. Whether their original intention was to keep us forever out of the loop, the finished product doesn't and so we join in with their laughter, the piece becoming an interactive one. Quite bold, this style would be used several times in the several years afterwards, and then with spotty appearances such as in Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (1915). Breaking character would also show up in the goofy end-credits of Being There in 1979, setting a trend that has been followed in many popular comedies ever since. But this is one of the first instances, if not the first, and still quite enjoyable for its democratic and theatre-styled construction, Like the Lumieres' earlier Chapeaux à transformations (1895), this movie further highlights the difference in style to Melies' which was about keeping the illusion forever hidden.
   The title translates from French as "Battle of women".


Lancement d'un navire 
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   The production was shot on location at naval docks in southern France, this movie still has to be seen to be believed, and even then the action seems eerily like back-screen projection. A massive ship is yanked across the docks by pulleys behind a crowd of onlookers, simple enough, but the angle makes the movement quite an epic and thrilling visual treat.
   The title translates from French as "Launching a ship".

Pompiers à Lyon
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   A wagon clears out of a city intersection to reveal four horse-drawn fire-wagons rushing diagonally past the camera's vantage point. We see on-looking pedestrians, and then when the train is gone, life returns a bit to its normality. During this year and subsequent years, there were actually a handful of movies made about fires and firefighters by the Lumieres and others, but of the dozen or so I've seen this is the best shot and the one with the most artistic setting. Though a brilliant staged version of firefighters saving children from a burning house was filmed at Edison's studio in Fire Rescue Scene (1894), what makes this scene special is that it was shot on location, and was most likely not staged.
   The Lumieres' desire to document human life in its totality, including work, is admirable. They had captured less dangerous work the year before, such as with the workers leaving the factory in La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895), but this time they found a bit of spectacle which still holds up well after all these years, especially with that dramatic angle and the artful composition.
   The title translates from French as "Fire-fighters in Lyon".


Entrée du cinématographe

Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière


   Shot outside the Empire Theatre in London, England, this movie gives us a glimpse of what movie theaters were like in their infancy. It was quickly blooming as we can tell from the billboard, which boasts: "Lumiere Cinematographe - Every Evening". It's interesting to see the prominence that viewing motion pictures held on bustling city streets, especially those pictures created by foreign artists. Additionally, it must have been a great trip for the people viewing inside the theatre, to see a shot of the building-front in which they were sitting. All in all, it's a cheerful, exciting piece.
   The title translates from French as "Entrance of the cinema". 

Lions, Jardin zoologique, Londres
Directed by Alexandre Promio. 
Produced by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   After their ground-breaking work in multiple genres during the previous year, the Lumieres sent their colleague Alexandre Promio off to different locales in 1896 including Spain and England to collect scenes from around the world. The result can be dismissed as being a series of gimicky motion-picture-postcards, or as a product of the infectious idea that movies make the whole world interesting. But beyond this duality, the bars that separate the lion from the zoo-keeper carry a deep meaning about the nature of movies and the directions it would go in after this point. After all, a camera-operator and movie-actors can only come so close to danger until it becomes life-threatening and the question arises of whether this one project is worth the ending of a life, and whether it would still be worthwhile to show it and for people to see it if such a sacrifice went into it. Certainly, the issue had come up previously with other media, like war correspondents, nature photographers, bull-fighters, travel journalists, but danger as a component of an artist's work was never before so vivid as it is in this movie. 
   This issue of danger continues over from when the Lumieres may have first conceived of it, during the making of Barque sortant du port (1895). Yes, the bars are cruel to the lion by contemporary standards, and the feeding might be unnecessary teasing, but besides documenting animal cruelty in zoos pre-1900, this movie shows us the fork in the road as far as the amount of danger that humans can really and actually face in movies. This movie certainly didn't put an end to daredevils in the wild, as people have been wrestling with lions, snakes, sharks and alligators ever since, but they add little more to the thrill that we already see here. It must have been clear to the Lumieres and to many movie-goers that movies would need to think of going in other directions if they were to continue being relevant, specifically the direction that would look inwardly into humanity's deeper and more complex emotions and ideas, as well as one direction that would incorporate special effects as a way to transcend the risks found in real life while still delivering its primal thrill, such as that exemplified by Dickson and Heise's 1894 movie Fire Rescue Scene.
   By the way, the title translates from French as "Lions, Zoological Garden, London".


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