The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912)

My 1912 selection is spectacularly strange, but I won’t spoil the surprise just yet.  First, a plot summary:

A restless husband and wife are bored with their day-to-day lives.  The husband ventures out to his favorite city bar to visit a dancer who ‘understands him.’  He vies for her attention as she dances, competing with a rival suitor, who happens to be a cameraman.  The husband ultimately prevails through forcibly removing his rival, then proceeds to escort the dancer to a nearby hotel.  The cameraman, now seeking vengeance, follows them to the hotel with his camera and captures their dalliances through a keyhole.  Meanwhile, back home, the wife is entertaining her own male suitor, an artist.  The husband returns unexpectedly, chases the escaping suitor, and scuffles with him outside the house.  Despite his anger, the husband forgives the wife (how noble!) and decides to take her out to the movies.  Lo and behold, the vengeful cameraman is operating the projector and broadcasts the adulterous footage for everyone to see.  The husband and wife fight, destroy the projection screen, and ultimately hunt down the projectionist.  In the final scene, they are seen in in prison, sharing their provisions while bickering.

It’s a fairly clever, self-referential revenge tale for its time, as it portrays the potential power of the camera in the hands of a scorned filmmaker.  The bizarre twist is that it’s filmed completely in stop-motion animation, starring dead insects.  By that, I don’t mean that the film’s subject is zombie anthropods; rather, the character models are literally dead bugs: grasshoppers, dragonflys, beetles, and so on.  Thus the married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, are precisely that.

It’s a remarkable work of animation, created by Vladislav Starevich, a Polish animator who made many such works throughout his career. But I don’t want to have an in-depth genre discussion, since I’ve covered animation and stop-motion in previous posts.  (Just know that Starevich’s techniques have held up surprisingly well–the settings are meticulously crafted, there are no visible signs of puppetry or armature, and the expression he draws out of his unlikely subjects is entertaining and impressive.)  Instead, I want to talk about the film’s subtext: the camera as a subject that captures other subjects.

It’s an interesting moment, at least for critics, when an art form becomes self-reflexive.  I want to be careful about the language I use here, since it’s easy to slip into vocabulary denoting art’s autonomous desires.  That’s not what I mean to imply.  Paintings don’t paint themselves.  When I say ‘self-reflexive’, I mean that artists in a particular medium begin to produce works that refer to the characteristics of the medium itself. Though I’m certain this isn’t the first example in the history of cinema, we know that at least by 1912, filmmakers were already making films about making films–or more simply, placing cameras in front of cameras.

If that is the case, what exactly is Starevich trying to say about the act of capturing events with a movie camera?  Or, if his methods were less intentional, what does his film’s content reveal about the camera as a subject?  I want to offer a few propositions, but they’re certainly not exhaustive. Bear in mind that each is related in some way to the others.

  1. The camera has the potential for power. Or at least manipulation.  If anything, Starevich shows that the camera, in the hands of the right person, has the potential to affect the subjects that it films.  Mr. Beetle’s secret affair is revealed due to the cameraman’s actions.  The camera bears witness and subsequently possesses the power to ruin or redeem lives.  In this case, the example is humorous and benign, but the implications are more radical when we consider propaganda films, wartime news footage, hidden camera shows, or documentaries.
  2. The camera is ‘truthful.’ The recorded image possesses veracity because it captures (some version of) reality.  Mrs. Beetle accepts the images of her husband’s adultery unequivocally because the camera has shown her the truth.  ‘The camera doesn’t lie’ has become a cliche, but it’s still a common maxim. Though the ubiquitous use of special effects, camera tricks, Photoshop, and artful editing have eroded our trust, many of us still maintain a certain faith in photographic or filmic images.  Thus, ‘truthful’ must remain suspended in quotes, since we believe (or hope?) it to be possible in theory, but understand that it is never really so.
  3. The camera is voyeuristic. The camera sees but is not seen.  Starevich portrays this in a literal sense, when the cameraman places his camera against the hotel keyhole and films Mr. Beetle’s affair.  Yet there is a more subtle assumption about the camera’s status as a subject that is both always present and never present simultaneously.  The entire premise of fictional filmmaking hinges upon the disappearance of the filming apparatus.  Actors must not address the camera, nor look it in the eye.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and genres that play with this convention, but the majority of filmmaking keeps the camera hidden in plain sight.
  4. The camera is recursive. This characteristic is a bit harder to articulate, but it’s helpful to borrow the art historical term mise en abyme, whose literal translation is something like ‘placed in the abyss.’  This term refers most commonly to the effect produced when two mirrors are placed in front of one another.  Each contains progressively smaller copies of itself, in an infinite regression.  When the cameraman films Mr. Beetle at the hotel, we are witnessing the filming of a scene which is itself being filmed.  Later, when Mr. Beetle’s infidelity is played back at the theater, we see the screen within the screen, and witness the characters witnessing themselves.  The filmed image is always available for further recursion, since it can be filmed again by another camera, which itself can be filmed, and so on.
  5. The camera is spectral. Cinema is always inhabited by ghosts, since it is necessarily temporal.  The further back we reach into the history of cinema, the more apparent this becomes.  Most everyone we see in early 20th century film is now dead, but their apparitions still inhabit our screen. Starevich has quite literally ‘raised the dead’, by using insects that were once living and are now re-animated.

    French philosopher Jacques Derrida once addressed this peculiar characteristic of cinema in the film Ghost Dance (1983).  In one scene, a young woman asks him if he believes in ghosts.  Derrida, ‘playing’ himself, replies:

    That’s a difficult question.  Firstly, you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts.  Here, the ghost is me.  Since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film which is more or less improvised, I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me.  Curiously, instead of playing myself, without knowing it, I let a ghost ventriloquize my words, or play my role, which is even more amusing.

    The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms.  That’s what I think the cinema’s about, when it’s not boring.  It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back.  That’s what we’re doing now.  Therefore, if I’m a ghost, but believe I’m speaking with my own voice, it’s precisely because I believe it’s my own voice that I allow it to be taken over by another’s voice.  Not just any other voice, but that of my own ghosts.  So ghosts do exist.  And it’s the ghosts who will answer you.  Perhaps they already have.

Perhaps I’m asking too much of a animated short starring dead bugs; entomology and philosophy do make peculiar bedfellows, after all.  But I’m convinced that cinema is a strange and wonderful thing, and often taken for granted.  Sometimes we need to look a bit deeper in order to remind ourselves of its peculiarity.  The camera allows us to see the world with this fascinating ‘monocular objectivity.’  It captures whatever we point it toward, including ourselves and itself.  Yet this remarkable gift of vision has filled our world with ghosts–and those ghosts are us.


The Lonedale Operator (1911)

Gaining a ‘literacy’ in film, both for viewers and creators, involves the recognition (or invention) of certain conventions that apply to the medium.  Over time, as a medium is recognized, developed, and matured, more and more of these conventions begin to fall in place.  They range from the level of genre (e.g. horror films will have a certain type of music, lighting, etc.) to more subtle aspects of composition, structure, and so forth.  The latter types often become so ingrained that we fail to recognize them anymore. We understand, through years of film ‘training’, that a shot of a girl looking downward, followed by a shot of a ball sitting on the ground, most likely means that these two images are linked–the girl is looking at the ball. Artful editing routinely traverses great gaps in time and space with little resultant confusion in the viewer.

In 1911, most movie producers and consumers didn’t have the same lifelong exposure to film (or television) that we now enjoy.  D.W. Griffith, the director of ‘The Lonedale Operator’, was in a unique position at this time.  His first film job came in 1908, when he was hired by the Biograph Company to take over as principal director, in hopes that he could produce a successful film (his predecessor had no such luck).  In the five years that Griffith worked there, he made a massive amount of films, often several per week, and covered a wide range of genres, from drama and historical reenactment to cautionary drug tales and humorous shorts.  In that brief time, Griffith not only honed his technical chops, but had the means to experiment with a wide variety of techniques.  And despite Griffith’s questionable personal beliefs (which I’ll address in a later post), most film historians agree that he was widely influential in establishing many of the conventions of filmmaking.  Even if he’d been a complete hack when he started, the sheer volume of work he produced would’ve led to at least one creative breakthrough.  There’s no need to call someone a genius when they get that much practice.

‘The Lonedale Operator’ was shot during Griffith’s Biograph tenure and it exhibits several of the key conventions that he and his contemporaries helped establish.  It’s an odd hybrid of genres packed into a relatively taut seventeen minutes.  There are elements of romance, drama, suspense, Western, and even a bit of comedy near the end.  The plot proceeds in four distinct sections:

  • A young engineer courts his romantic interest, actress Blanche Sweet (impressive even at age 15)
  • Her father is ill, so she covers for him at the Lonedale train station
  • A pair of tramp robbers attempt to intercept a payroll delivery deposited at the Lonedale station
  • The operator’s daughter thwarts the thieves by pretending to have a gun (actually a wrench)

It’s a fairly straightforward plot progression, but Griffith’s skill lies in the tension he creates through editing.  In the final third of the film, there’s a slick sequence of cuts that volley quickly between several different locations. We see the robbers working furiously trying to break down the station’s door, the daughter’s frenzied attempts to relay a telegraph message, the receiving telegraph operator’s response to that message, and its final transmission to the engineer love interest, who races frantically toward Lonedale to save her.  In contrast to the first two-thirds of the film, which uses more leisurely cuts to establish character and deliver ‘dialogue’, this particular scene lingers only a few seconds on each shot.  We witness four concurrent actions, three of which are converging toward a single location.  Rapid montage reinforces the dramatic and temporal tension–will the robbers arrive before the engineer?  Will the sleeping telegraph operator wake up in time to receive the message?  It’s textbook thriller style and we see it time and again in modern filmmaking.

Griffith’s compositional technique is also noteworthy.  He frequently places his actors at the left or right edge of the frame, which creates a sense of imbalance and (again) tension.  In images above, this effect is heightened when we see the robbers at the extreme right edge of their frame, while the young woman stands at the extreme left.  Griffith is creating a visual distance that mimics the daughter’s fear of capture and her wish to pull away from the robbers.  Similarly, he pushes in closer with the camera when the young woman makes her frantic telegraph.  Griffith draws us in so we can share her emotional plight.

The close-up, which wasn’t common at this time, marks an interesting distinction between film and theater.  The theater audience rarely moves closer to the stage, thus actors have to convey emotion through easily visible actions, so even the cheap seats understand their emotional state.  This over-stylized form of acting inhabits most early cinema (partly exacerbated by the lack of audible dialogue), but the movement of the camera eventually afforded (even demanded) more nuanced performances.  When the audience can examine the subtlest facial expression, dramatic pantomime is no longer necessary, nor realistic.  The camera can often inhabit a space more intimate than those possible in real life.  Not only can the camera push closer than our own bodies (at least by social standards), the projection of the cinematic image on a large scale amplifies even the smallest facial movements.

Griffith plays to this advantage not only for emotional effect, but for the purposes of narrative as well.  The young lady ultimately usurps the robbers with a visual trick–she turns out the lights (indicated by the strange blue tint you see in the example frames) and holds a wrench like a gun, threatening her assailants.  The robbers and the audience are  fooled because they are both held at a distance.  When Griffith uses a close-up to reveal the visual trick, the viewer plays a part in the narrative surprise.

I want to emphasize that conventions in a medium don’t necessary mean steadfast rules.  Neuroscientists tell us that the brain craves recognizable patterns, but demands surprise and novelty as well.  Either extreme is either too mundane or too frustrating.  A song comprised of a single note playing at a predictable, unchanging rhythm for twenty minutes doesn’t interest our brains, nor does an undecipherable mess of noise that breaks all convention of musical structure.  Cinema operates in the same fashion.  Most modern viewers don’t like early films because they no longer possess the sense of novelty that early viewers experienced.  I’m sure any image on the screen was interesting when cinema was new.  Today, our sense of convention has developed to the point that we expect, consciously or not, both a consistent, recognizable viewing experience and some measure of surprise.  Effective directors play against our expectations to create novel experiences, while maintaining a number of conventional practices in order to make films understandable.  Avant-garde / experimental films often lead the way in breaking convention, while mainstream blockbusters frequently cling closely to it.

Even ‘The Lonedale Operator’ flirts with the unconventional.  There are a handful of scenes where a character will walk across the frame, exiting on the right, only to emerge again from the right, yet walking in the opposite direction.  This breaks our assumed spatial orientation with the characters and challenges our brain to reprocess our relative position to the characters.  It’s not clear whether Griffith was doing this intentionally, or still working out that particular sense of spatial relationships, but it’s funny to think that, nearly a century later, our own sense of convention may make that movement stranger than it appeared in 1911.

Wizard of Oz (1910)

I chose Wizard of Oz for the specific purpose of comparing it to the much-beloved musical from 1939. Then, while watching the elder version, I realized I didn’t remember enough detail from the re-make to contribute any thoughtful or educated comparisons. I’d call my recollection of the Judy Garland classic a bit more iconic and nostalgic than ‘accurate’, so you’ll have to bear with me, since I don’t feel like renting and watching it just for the sake of comparison.

Up to this point, I haven’t paid much attention to the narrative content of early 20th-century films, and I think I’ve done so for a number of reasons. The most prominent and (perhaps) most conceited is the relative simplicity of these early films. It’s impossible to ‘de-contextualize’ yourself from the cultural viewing habits established from a lifelong diet of television and film. The ‘language’ (for lack of a better word) of cinema is taken for granted by modern eyes. While this is a shame in that we can never see a film as it was seen by the early 20th century viewer, it’s also a blessing in that a shared ‘language’ allows filmmakers and audiences alike to experiment with, manipulate, and subvert these assumptions to make ever better and more challenging cinema.

So, yes, this early version of Oz is simplistic by modern standards (and even those of the 1930s), but it also provides some insight into early cinematic viewership. As I mentioned in my post on the Teddy Bears, these early reels relied heavily upon known stories, either from shared folklore or popular culture. Oz is no exception, as it excises significant chunks of the story in favor of elaborate set pieces and whimsical ‘musical’ numbers (a strange designation for silent films, but remember that they were accompanied by live or recorded musicians at the theater). Those decisions play to the film’s strengths, as the setting and costuming are magnificent, even by today’s standards. The scene at the witch’s cottage involves no less than twenty actors dressed in an array of animal and monster costumes, all fighting amongst themselves, while the witch ascends toward the roof above. Likewise, the cyclone scene has a really excellent scrolling backdrop, which pops even in black-and-white. See below:

Wizard of Oz stillWizard of Oz still #2

Still, this and other scenes betray a kinship between cinema and theater that I rarely see discussed (though that’s probably due to my lack of research rather than a lack of relevant scholarship). The framing of each scene in Oz is clearly theatrical, as the actors play to a defined audience space, where an unmoving camera is substituted for actual people. It’s no surprise that Oz began its life as a stage musical and it’s clear that much of the film’s narrative is adapted from that source. Certainly, cinema hadn’t yet embraced its unique ability to convey narrative expression through montage and camera movement, but I believe part of that had to be a concession to an audience more familiar with theater than film.

So how, then, do we make a distinction between these two art forms? It’s a moot point now, but I’m sure the argument of film vs. theater was a little more difficult to manage a century ago. I’ll offer three of my own thoughts:

1. Economics. A stage musical the size and scale of Oz would be extravagant by any standard. Plus, you have the employment of actors, stage hands, producers, etc. for a stretch of weeks or months. Cinema may not defray the cost of sets and costuming, but it does capture a single performance that can easily be distributed, copied, and replayed. (Note: Digital reproduction magnifies this advantage by the order of millions. It’s never been easier to see a movie in so many places and formats.)

2. Flexibility. Set and costume changes takes time in a theatrical production. With cinema, these changes are instantaneous and interchangeable. Continuity is malleable in cinema.

3. Spatial relationships. In ‘traditional’ theater, the stage’s location stays constant. That means the audience’s proximity to the actors remains constant as well. Cinema introduces a new set of spatial relationships between actors and audience. This isn’t utilized effectively in Wizard of Oz, since we never get a proper close-up on the actors, but it’s at least hinted at when we’re shown the Wizard’s written proclamation. To share a similar written article in a play, an actor would need to read it (or project it somehow). Cinema allows us to ‘see with our own eyes.’ Or, more accurately, the camera’s eye.

I’m sure we’ll continue to see an even greater set of distinctions as we continue through the century.

Princess Nicotine (1909)

While we’re still in the realm of public domain, I’ll embed the film below:

(If you find youtube’s quality unbearable [I did], try the Internet Archive instead.)

I’m sure you’ll agree upon first viewing that the Library of Congress was correct to deem this film ‘significant’ and preserve it in the National Film Registry. As Wikipedia notes, there’s an impressive display of special effects, including the forced perspective technique achieved using a combination of trick mirrors and deep focus, as well as some stop-motion animation. Likewise, we see our first instance of tobacco product placement, as sponsored by Sweet Corporal (perhaps this was recognizable by its distinct packaging, as I don’t see any discernible product name).

Though these are important distinctions, they aren’t groundbreaking, even at this early date. We’ve already seen this level of animation in previous shorts, and Méliès had pretty much written the book on special effects with A Trip to the Moon in 1902. What’s more interesting in Princess Nicotine is its psychoanalytic subtext.

In the early 20th century, Freud’s pioneering work in the science of psychiatry was quickly gaining momentum. Much of the psychoanalytic vocabulary we take for granted today was beginning to capture the public consciousness (<– see?), especially in work concerning the interpretation of dreams, the unconscious, and sexuality. Since many of these ideas would really pick up steam with the Surrealist movement in art and literature during the 1920s, it’s reasonable to assume that their influence could filter into film as well.

In Princess Nicotine, we are led to believe that the bulk of the film takes place in a dream or a dream-like state. After the smoker nods off, the fairies appear, objects move on their own, and the scenery changes (although I’m not quite certain why this happens approximately halfway through the film, rather than directly after he falls asleep — perhaps to accommodate a change in special effects?).

As many of the film’s images were intended to be whimsical, I won’t attempt to unpack any significant meaning or symbolism from them, but I will say that there’s at least some psychosexual imagery at play. The most significant, I think, is the animation sequence, which shows the metamorphosis of the flower into a cigar. These are typical masculine/feminine symbols, made more apparent by the fairy’s concealment in the flower and the male protagonist’s identity as ‘the smoker.’ This theme of female entrapment or titillation (the bottle, the cigar box, the lifting of the skirt, the difference in scale) and male frustration (continually trying to unveil or transform the elusive feminine) finally comes to fruition in a fitting final scene: the smoker quells the flames with a spray of his seltzer bottle, which eventually bursts forth uncontrollably.

It’s the end of the dream; the nocturnal emission. Freud would approve.

A Slight Delay

Due to the holiday weekend, some shipping problems with Blockbuster, and the general difficulty in finding films before 1915, it may be a few more days before my next post.  Sit tight.

Fantasmagorie (1908)

Fantasmagorie was the world’s first fully animated film. Emile Cohl, a Frenchman, constructed the short over several months by hand-drawing and photographing each frame of animation, eventually assembling around 700 individual drawings. Capitalizing on the popular Vaudeville trend of white-on-black chalk drawings, Cohl drew with black lines on white paper, then reversed the negative of each photographic frame to achieve the desired effect.

Even today, it’s a brilliant little bit of animation that benefits greatly from its improvisational creation. Eschewing any set script or storyline, Cohl opted rather to generate the animation on the fly. The result is the free-flowing, one-line-leads-to-another feel that’s pretty remarkable for the very first cartoon. And, since the short is readily available on youtube (and seemingly nowhere else), have a look before reading further:

Although incredibly brief, there are two interesting bits of content worth noting. First, the artist’s hand appears in the frame twice–once to begin the animation and later on to re-assemble the main character. Although this is a common animation trope today, it may have served a more subtle point of reference for early film audiences. It very clearly demarcates the film space as material that is literally ‘hand-drawn’. The artist’s hand conjures the animation into being and then later intervenes to keep it moving smoothly. For a viewer unaccustomed to animation and its blatant disregard for conventional laws of physics, time, space, or even the coherence of the body (lessons most of us now learn through a childhood immersion in Looney Toons and Nickelodeon), it may have made the transition less jarring. Keeping in mind that early cinema-goers were fooled by shots of oncoming trains and cowboys firing guns into the camera, featuring the artisan’s hand could help ground the fantastic in the realm of the ‘real’.

Second, around ten seconds in, we see two characters seat themselves in some sort of theater. Of course, the front row occupant is a lady with an enormous hat (glad to know some things never change, right?). It’s not clear whether they’re watching a stage show or a movie, but I’d like to think that it’s the latter. If so, it would be a clever self-referential trick for the theater viewer to watch a film with another set of viewers watching their own film. A minor detail, but fun nonetheless.

The “Teddy” Bears (1907)

This bizarre silent reel, helmed by Edwin S. Porter (photographer of the technically impressive Great Train Robbery) and produced by the Edison Mfg. Co., was a contemporary re-imagining of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though only thirteen minutes in length, Porter manages to pack in a fairy tale narrative, an oddball political satire, and even an impressive bit of stop-animation. The bulk of the reel is a straight-forward re-telling of the Goldilocks tale, interrupted by a short animated section with acrobatic, Exorcist-esque teddy bears, and finishing up with a Teddy Roosevelt-impersonating hunter ‘saving’ the day by massacring Ma and Pa Bear. Fortunately, the cub is spared, alluding to Teddy Roosevelt’s real-life compassion toward a bear cub that led to the ‘teddy’ bear craze of the early 1900s.

The reel is obviously crude, with its few highlights including nice costuming and set pieces, the painstaking animation process (apparently shot frame by frame during a grueling week-long filming session), and a set of exterior shots in the snow. The real point of interest, I think, is the compelling amalgam of genres and narratives at play within such a short film. Such bold dismissal of coherence rarely exists today, nor did it exist much further into the subsequent decades, as films became longer and more complex. Part of this is due to technological limitations; the short reel format didn’t have a lot of room for storytelling, and therefore relied heavily upon an audience’s understanding of the narrative. Thus, we have the odd mixture of fairy tale, marketing, and politics.

This is also important to keep in mind when we consider the emergence of film as its own unique art form. As with any new media, there are initial struggles to be taken seriously as ‘art’ and also to distinguish itself with unique contributions independent of other media. We see similar experiences throughout the 20th century: photography’s effort to find a footing within the art world, then eventually supplanting painting in the realist genre, instigating painting’s move toward abstraction; the gradual acceptance of Internet art into the museum system; and even the current debates questioning whether video games can be art (Ebert says no, in case you haven’t heard).

Each genre reaches a certain critical tipping point or threshold, often represented by a landmark media event (e.g. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, etc.). In 1907, film hadn’t quite reached that point. However, many critical indices were falling into place, and some of the most important of these were the ability for mainstream capitalism, politics, and popular culture to appropriate the new art form for its own uses. All are present in The ‘Teddy’ Bears: Teddy bears were a popular fad and a clever marketing device (no surprise, coming from Edison’s studio) and New York department stores featured the reel after its initial theatrical run. And, though its satirical potency is difficult to gauge now, we do have some form of commentary on President Roosevelt as well. This, and other shorts like it, showed that the emerging media of film was available for use as advertising, popular culture, and propoganda, and therefore taken seriously by an increasingly mainstream audience. These are all important milestones in the transition from novelty to art.