1897: 14 movies

posted 2012 June 30

Départ de Jérusalem en chemin de fer
Directed and Produced by Louis Lumière.
Cinematography by Alexandre Promio.

   There's a unique sadness in this one. As the train pulls away from the warm and crumbly Jerusalem setting, we watch the people we're leaving behind, people of different ethnic backgrounds. By filming as the train is leaving, the thought comes to mind that these people might not have ever seen the finished product. The last shot is of the disparate people now clumped together as one group in our hindsight. The mystery of where the train is headed adds to the rich flavor of this piece.
   The title translates from French as "Leaving Jerusalem by railway".

Cupid and Psyche 
Directed by James H. White; Camera-work by W. Bleckyrden 
for the Edison Manufacturing Company

   Shot at the Sutro Baths in San Francisco, California, USA. Apparently, the baths put on live performances for its bathers. The angle from behind the Leander sisters towards the audience is priceless, and so is the gaze the two sisters give to the camera. With this angle, we simultaneously get a close-up personal presentation of the performance, and the buzz of the crowd.

The Miller and the Sweep
Directed by George Albert Smith,
For the Warwick Trading Company

   George Albert Smith was one of the most artistic and funny movie-makers at the turn of the twentieth century. What is admirable about this piece, is that it already shows his attention to detail and masterly vistas even though it was the first year he worked in the medium. The vaudeville gag of having a miller, all in white, and a chimney-sweep, all in black, exchange blows until their colors become swapped is given a layer of visual poetry here by being staged in front of an actual windmill. Smith clearly points out that this isn't a painted backdrop since the scene opens with the miller exiting the windmill and walking right up to the frame where the fight begins. And what a fight! The whole thing is beautifully choreographed, even with the surprise extra flourish at the end.

Baignade dans le torrent 
Directed by Alice Guy

   With all the fascination this year with female beauty, it's refreshing that this movie focuses on bathing males. Go figure, it's a female director who has brought us this gem. But the even more fascinating aspect is the photographic composition which fills the screen from top to bottom with jutting rocks and a virile river rushing down and towards the screen. This movie is an eternal spring of beauty, and careless fun.
   The title translates from French as "Swimming in the stream".

Place du Pont 
Directed by Louis Lumière

   Shot at Place du Pont in Lyon, France. The year before saw the Lumieres panning sideways across cityscapes with the aid of a train. Now, Louis mounts a camera on the front of a street-trolley. The motion forward is still exhilarating after all these years, possibly the first zoom-in. It's clear from this one that movies were on the right track. Haha!

Bataille de neige 
Directed by Louis & Auguste Lumière

   Again, the Lumieres show their knack for finding great places to set down their camera, and great subjects to shoot. This time, viewers find themselves in the middle of a battle waged not between two sides, but among everyone on this particular street in Lyon, France. There is no loyalty at all, but complete mayhem. Luckily, it's only balls of snow that they're hurling, and it's all in good fun, especially when the cyclist rides through! The snowballs create moving arcs of white across the screen which adds to the vivid depth that was already quite rich by virtue of the trees that line the street all the way to the vanishing point.
   The title translates from French as "Snowball fight".

Entrée d'une noce à l'église
Directed by Louis and Auguste Lumière

   It's amazing to think that by 1897 the Lumiere brothers had already done so much for movies that they could have quit and still rested on their laurels for the rest of eternity. But what's even more amazing is that they continued to stretch themselves creatively beyond that poing, and by extension they continued to stretch the medium itself. In this particular piece, the Lumieres focused closely on a social ceremony, namely a wedding. We see the bride and groom, we see the complete wedding party. Everyone, including the children, is dressed up in their finest attire. It's all quite charming and the photography is especially crisp. But the touch of genius comes from the positioning of the camera. We don't see the church, but we feel it there behind us. We are staring out from it towards the street as the celebrants file inside. The mood evoked is a thrilling one because of what we don't see and because of how it communicates an immediacy, the brink of an action.
   The title translates from French as "Entrance to a wedding in church".

Sur les toits
Directed by Georges Méliès

   Detailed studio sets against expressive painted backdrops with an emphasis on jagged angles and shadows is a complex style that has largely been known as the German Expressionist look, but it actually started here. The action of the characters going up the stairs and down, and the woman thrown off the terrace adds nicely to the reality of the rooftop setting. The violence is portrayed with a masterly comic touch that simultaneously horrifies and amuses. Truly ahead of its time.
   The title translates from French as "On the roofs".

Après le bal 
Directed by Georges Méliès

   This movie walks the line between sweetly intimate portraiture and pornography. That the woman is not completely nude but wears a flesh-colored bathing suit highlights the fact that nudity is taboo. I include it because it's interesting to see how censorship, art, and eroticism were balanced so early in movie history. It's also neat to see Melies make a movie that is a little calmer than his usual frenetic fare, though he still pulls a couple tricks with the bathing suit and by substituting black powder in place of water so that it would show up clearly during projection time. The performances are pretty good as well. The maid is played by Jane Brady, while her mistress is played by Jeanne d’Alcy, who played in several other Méliès films before marrying him in 1926.
   The title translates from French as "After the ball".

The Bowery Waltz
Direction, production, and camera by William Heise of the Edison company. Filmed at the Black Maria studio, New Jersey, USA.

   This movie is all about attitude. The dancers are James T. Kelly and Dorothy Kent, of Waite’s Comedy Company. They are probably not drunk but they act it as part of the dance. It's a dance that's rarely seen these days, and so this movie is the closest thing we have to footage of a dingy afterhours dancehall in 1897. Kelly and Kent are so funny and natural in front of the camera, it feels as if movies had been around a lot longer than the nineteen since The Horse in Motion.

The Peeping Tom
Unknown cast and crew

   American Mutoscope which produced and distributed this movie was a company started by William K.L. Dickson, but we currently have no other info on its making. We can deduce that this movie wasn't directed by Dickson since it shares nothing in common with any of his movies before or after. Of course, the greatest thing about this movie is the cutting to the shot through a key-shaped frame in which we are given brilliant performances of oblivious intimacy. It's almost too advanced to have come so early in movie history. I'm half-expecting a revelation to come out letting us know that it's actually three or four years newer than we currently think. But it's well done regardless of the year. It's funny, sexy, and it sheds light on the peepshow aspect of the movie-viewing experience. Moving from Room 5, to Room 6, to 7, to 8 builds a quirky erotic tension, which is made great use of. At one fantastic part, we're peeping on Tom peeping on a young woman peeping in a mirror through which she's peeping back at herself!

Le squelette joyeux 
Directed by Louis & Auguste Lumière

   A human skeleton dances in front of a black curtain. The skeleton falls apart but continues to dance in pieces, then it reassembles and keeps dancing all the way off camera. There doesn't seem to be any stop-motion animation, rather every bone seems to be suspended by its own string. In other words, it's all puppetry, and possibly the first instance of puppetry in movies. It's the great rhythm that has kept the bouncing entertaining for more than a century. The exact year of filming is somewhat disputed, so I'm waiting for more proof to be certain. For the moment, however, it seems like it fits best in 1897.
   The title translates from French as "The joyful skeleton".

Danse fleur de lotus 
Directed by Alice Guy

   I just couldn't leave this movie out, because it's pure bliss. The dancer is so clearly joyful and she makes the flaps of her dress match her mood perfectly. Her mood fills the screen, and it spills through onto us. Director Guy is wise to let her subject rule. The achievement is made more profound by the fact that Alice Guy actually has three movies included for this year.
   The title translates from French as "Lotus-flower dance".

Ballet libella 
Directed by Alice Guy

   The consistent color washes, the flickering lights, the spirited dance, and crisp photography are all wonderful in this movie. On top of that, we are given an extra character in addition to the central one. Maybe she is a fellow dancer, maybe an admirer or possibly a rival. Either way, it's someone who is entranced by the dancing. And so, through her, we find our focus too. She is a reflection of the audience. It's an excellent compositional touch.

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