Shorts #10

Today’s Shorts: A Dog’s Life (1918), Phyllis (2011), Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), Pas De Deux (1968), Serpico (1973), A Jihad For Love (2007), Hook (1991), You, The Living (2007), Sing (2016)

 

A fun Chaplin picture. Though it is not as emotionally charged as The Kid or City Lights, nor is it as action-packed as something such as Easy Street or The Great Dictator, this contains many of Chaplin’s signature narrative elements – all of which are applied well.

Time then flies by as The Tramp stumbles haphazardly through a romantic tale of serendipity, one that is focused on the divide between material worth and a human worth. We see this in the key scene in which Purviance’s character is introduced; though she can reduce a full bar to tears with her song, she only manages to keep her job through a promise of prostitution. This paradigm is reversed in the relationship between the dog and The Tramp – it is a simple friendship based off of camaraderie with no ulterior motive or plans. Because there is this pure sense of friendship, one founded on inner substance, they save each other’s lives and so, with the bar singer (who The Tramp sees the human side of), are seemingly granted a happy, humble life by the forgiving world of Chaplin’s romantic universe.

It is then the “dog’s life” that is a simple one, one that is not guided by self-serving motives and so seemingly deserves, at the least, that happy, humble living.

Phyllis is an experimental Nigerian film that critiques certain Nollywood movies (Nollywood being one of the most prolific film industries in the world). In such, it follows a vampire who is obsessed with Nigerian films and sells wigs to feed her powers(?) – that bit, I’m uncertain about.

This abstract narrative then comments on the terrible weaves and wigs that some Nollywood stars wear as a means of critiquing the manner in which women are portrayed in these films. In such, Phyllis utilises striking imagery to depict the artifice of bigger budget films and suggest then negative effects of this on audiences – namely, impressionable young girls.

Say what you will about the subtext, Phyllis is an undeniably surreal film that, though it is not made very well, is a very interesting watch.

Incomprehensibly chaotic.

It goes without saying that Gilliam goes above and beyond with every technical detail of this film. And for that, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a huge triumph and an indisputably remarkable film. It captures an altered reality both through its narrative and formal design in a manner that I’ve never seen brought to a cinematic screen before, leaving it an impressionistic masterclass.

I am torn, however, on the quality of the story. I never found myself locked into what was going on and so possibly need to re-watch it, maybe was subjected to a cluster of finely crafted anarchy, or just sat through empty nonsense. So, without really knowing what my opinion is on this film… I suppose that’s all I can really say.

Despite the unfortunately lacking soundtrack, Pas De Deux is a truly exquisite experimental short. It uses is a rippled stroboscopic effect with black and white cinematography to manipulate a couple’s dance into movements through a fractured spacetime to conjure a mesmerising dream of motion.

Building upon simpler shorts like Canon, which features a similar effect in its final phase, McLaren then demonstrates an immense skill to experiment with film form in an ingenious, yet instantaneously rewarding and aesthetically rich, capacity that, unlike many other experimental films, doesn’t simply rely on concept.

A tremendous neo-noir based on a true story, Serpico captures the nihilistic, the fatalistic and the futility of the policing milieu, one entirely embedded in corruption, in 60s/70s New York.

With an all-time-great performance by Pacino that sees him entirely disappear into his character, Serpico holds a plot and subject matter of astounding force. The only downfalls of this film are centred on elements of sound design and ADR performances which deteriorate elements of drama. But, beyond this, Serpico is a significant New Hollywood feature and undeniable classic.

Though it gets pretty repetitive and banal at points, this is a fascinating documentary that explores the divide/relationship between homosexuality and Islam. In such, it paints several portraits of gay and lesbian Muslims who either struggle with their faith or hold fast to it with alternate interpretations of holy texts.

Its strongest elements are those that delve into this confounding meeting point of religion and sexuality as well as those that depict the real struggles of homosexuals who have fled their country and gone into hiding. This would be a far more remarkable documentary if it managed to sustain these elements and push deeper into the controversial subject matter instead of jumping from figure to figure. Nonetheless, A Jihad For Love is a pretty well-made documentary with some technical draw backs that is quite absorbing.

The gold standard of the family fantasy film. Whilst it has faults and its fair share of cheese, Hook is a brilliant film. The script is perfect, Spielberg’s direction is on-point and the performances by Hoffman and Robinson (Hoffman in particular) are stellar

The main flaws with this movie are technological and have ties to Julia Roberts’, Tink. In short, the special effects (of which there aren’t too many) haven’t aged too well and there is an inescapable artificial aesthetic imbued into the sets through the flashy cinematography that is sometimes a little too vibrant and colourful for its own good. Added to this, the insertion of Tink into this narrative is pretty essential, but simply isn’t executed very well. Giving edge on the technical front, you can still criticise Roberts’ performance as well as the direction in her sequences – and let’s not forget the questionable plot beat that has her explode into a human-sized fairy.

With all of that said, the best family films will have an inevitable hint of cheese and artifice to them and the fact that Hook manages these elements so well to provide an enormous amount of joy and fun makes it one of the greatest ever made.

Absurdly brilliant and quite possibly a new personal favourite, You, The Living is a narrative City Symphony focused on the inhabitants of a Swedish city (Lethe). With silent films aesthetics – simply shot types and some strong mise en scene – this is a ridiculously immersive and subtle dark comedy that has no internal structuring that makes much sense, but pulls together to produce a surprisingly profound commentary on society. In such, You, The Living is focused on mundanity and dissatisfaction in the modern world.

My favourite aspect of the movie features a jaded psychologist who says (paraphrasing) that the people he deals with are mean, yet demand happiness, and so aren’t worth talking to, which is why he just prescribes them pills. And such, speaks to both the tone and sensibilities of this film’s commentary on humanity. It is equal parts beautiful and nihilistic, leaving it poetically inert and freakishly meaningful.

Bergman would sigh. Tarkovsky would groan. Kubrick would roll his eyes. But, this is a good pop blockbuster animated movie.

It executes its formulaic script and characters very well with some catchy tunes, good animation and a plot that does gain a lot of emotive momentum as it works its way towards a finale. To criticise this as anything other than a simple family movie would be pointless, so, for what it is, Sing is actually pretty great – and I’ve seen it about 10 times thanks to my family, so I can confidently stand by that claim. There are some huge plot holes and sequences that make no sense as well as a cliched subtextual drive, but it’s good fun that holds up.

 

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Monsters, Inc. – Inter-Narrative & Super-Narrative

Thoughts On: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

This post is not directly attached to the Disney Series, instead, we’ll be referencing a post from the series to discuss a bit of film theory.

Monster Inc 2

When watching a movie, there are often two levels at which you may perceive its narrative. You may watch a film for entertainment’s value, or you can analyse it, looking for a deeper meaning. This dichotomy in cinema is what, in my view, defines it; films must both entertain in some capacity as well as provide something of intellectual substance. What then inherently exists in films is both a degree of spectacle and a degree of higher art, and this manifests itself in a film through what we may come to call an ‘inter-narrative’ and a ‘super-narrative’.

To explore this concept, it is best to refer to a film we’ve recently covered, Monsters, Inc. Through this post we essentially teased out the “hidden meaning” of Monsters, Inc. And to explain this, we had to construct and conceptualise a new narrative that exists around the already existing one put to film. This is what you can call a ‘super-narrative’. A super-narrative, as implied by a narrative, exists beyond a film, often as a representative of greater meaning. In such, you may also refer to this as the subtext of a film. However, there is a difference between subtext and a super-narrative and it is defined by the fact that a single moment can have subtextual meaning. For example, two women sit down at a table, one bringing a tray with two drinks on it. The first woman reaches for a drink, but the second places the tray down on the table before she can take it and then hands her a cup whilst taking one herself.

What do these actions mean? That question will define the subtext of this scene. However, if this moment exists inside a wider narrative that does not have any subtextual relation to this one moment, then no super-narrative can be constructed. This implies that a super-narrative is the summation of all subtextual content in a story into a parallel, implied and ambiguous, narrative. For a more detailed explanation of such a phenomena, you’d only have to refer to the original Monsters, Inc. post in which the entirety of the super-narrative is briefly outlined.

A question we may ask, however, is: do all narratives have super-narratives? This is an intriguing question that can seemingly only be subjectively answered. What this question then translates into is, do all films have what is colloquially referred to as a “hidden meaning”? And the answer to this is: it depends on how you watch a film.

All films inherently have subtext as there is a degree of ambiguity in all actions. Evidence for this can be easily seen with the simple question “why?”. Why are you reading this? Why have I written this? There are multiple answers that could be provided – all because we do things without complete reasoning (which is often later assumed or attributed). You can take advantage of this phenomena to then give meaning to everything in a movie and construct a super-narrative or hidden meaning. However, by assuming that there is this infinitely wide spectrum of interpretation, we end up with a post-modern, entirely arbitrary and useless answer to our questions. What this then suggests is that interpretation and “hidden meanings” need validation, which in turn suggests that not all narratives can have super-narratives.

What we then have to do is more precisely define what a super-narrative is. Whilst it is the result of subtext that runs throughout a narrative, this subtext must have clear connections and a basis in the ‘inter-narrative’ – all so that it is obvious that a hidden meaning is found and not given to a narrative.

As we have touched on, all films have shades of spectacle and art within them. Not all films have a substantial amount of artistic content, instead, many contain a greater amount of spectacle. If we consider ‘art’ to be the projection of an intellectual purpose for a film, then ‘spectacle’ is the captivation of an emotional purpose within a film. In such, art films have meaning and attempt to communicate with their audience on an intellectual plane, whilst spectacular films have momentum and so mean to communicate with their audience through the emotions they may arouse in them. This spectacle can be incited through beauty in its many forms or some shade of awe – it is everything from a beautiful landscape to new technological innovations to a brutal fight sequence. And it’s exactly this communication through beauty and awe that creates an ‘inter-narrative’.

An inter-narrative is then akin to themes; it is the culmination of topics that arouse specific emotions. A narrative’s inter-narrative is then one made up of its subtext that does not come together to form a super-narrative. We see this through a film like Monsters Inc. with its themes of friendship. Mike and Sully’s relationship doesn’t have heavy links to the super-narrative, which is centred on ideas of parenting. And so, whilst this relationship has its own subtext meaning, this forms an inter-narrative – one that is contained within the film and doesn’t begin to transcend it, provide a complex, multi-faceted meaning or create a parallel implied super-narrative of its own.

So, what we can now understand is that all films have subtext – this is inescapable. However, this subtext can be merely fuelled by themes and so not build into a cohesive, complex commentary. We would then refer to this outcome, this thematic meaning, as a film’s inter-narrative as it is contained as the emotional spectacle of a film. On the other hand, some films utilise their subtext in a manner in which the ambiguous meaning seemingly stretches beyond the narrative as a form of commentary – one that, itself, builds a parallel and implied narrative that can be interpreted and perceived simultaneously to experiencing a film.

So, with these concepts and definitions at hand, we can all better understand how to interpret as well as construct stories of our liking. If you want to see or create a super-narrative, then you must learn how to see subtext as, or manipulate subtext into, a narrative of its own. However, if you want to be immersed in a film, or construct one which is emotionally immersive, then the inter-narrative – the manner in which subtext creates emotional substance and meaning – is what must be focused on. With that said, a caveat is of course implied; films can have both an inter-narrative and a super-narrative, high art and spectacle, and so will be weighted individually.

 

 

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Shorts #10

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The Shawshank Redemption – A Cage To Dream

Quick Thoughts: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Andy Dufresne is wrongly sentenced to two life sentences in prison.

Shawshank Redemption

An indisputable classic, The Shawshank Redemption is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Whilst I don’t agree with such an idea – in fact, I don’t think Shawshank Redemption even comes close – what makes this film so iconic and widely revered is very clear.

In short, it’s all about the strong thematic projection of catharsis and freedom. Shawshank Redemption is then all about imprisonment and its impact on the human mind. We see this through the journey of Andy and the constant looming presence of a very dismal fate that hangs about him. Through all kinds of abuse, violence and coincidence, Andy is seemingly dealt bad hand after bad hand, descending from a seemingly normal and perfect life into the depths of hell. And its here, in hell, where he learns what freedom and happiness truly is – the cold beer scene being a perfect symbolic representation of this. However, this is something that many people around Andy learn; most people in the prison system, by virtue of their predicament, understand better than most the joys and ecstasies of, say for instance, a cold beer on a hot summer’s day. However, this knowledge gained in hell is apart of its biggest trap; this understanding of the highest forms of pleasure makes you comfortable in your cage, it leaves you institutionalised. In such, the cage gives you incite into life’s blisses that can be gained nowhere else, but it keeps you from actually experiencing them – from enjoying that cold beer every hot summer weekend.

This idea is encapsulated by the character arc of Brooks. Because he is so deeply institutionalised by this cage, he doesn’t know what to do with freedom when he is given it. The greatest challenge presented by the walls of Shawshank is then stepping into this hell, consuming its lessons and then escaping with them; an age-old and archetypal story. And so it’s Andy who becomes our co-hero, the one who confronts his fate, steps into hell and emerges with a better life than any of us could ever possibly imagine thanks to his hard-earned perception of the world. The same opportunity is afforded to Red, and so it is us, who go on this journey into the depths of hell with these figures, that are granted a taste of their catharsis as they step out onto that beach to meet one another having been granted fatal redemption by a harsh and unforgiving world.

 

 

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Tron – Criticism & Context

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Tron – Criticism & Context

Thoughts On: Tron (1982)

When a computer engineer breaks into a company’s system to prove that his content was stolen, he is zapped into the virtual world.

Tron 1982

Tron is a pretty awesome movie on all fronts. Whilst this film is undeniably dated, it has aged incredibly well; the groundbreaking use of CGI a style, not just a primitive attempt at photorealism, leaving it a window into a different technological era. In fact, the only real criticism I’d give to Tron would be that the script, its dialogue and small bits of action, as well as the acting, is a little clunky. Beyond this, there is so much you could talk about with this film; the exploration of new technology and the existential questions it presented (and still does) to the world, the subtextual critique of a society moving into the digital era, the commentary on religion and, of course, the milestone application of computer generated imagery.

However, we won’t be discussing any of these things today – maybe at another time. What I want to talk about today is a phenomena that pervades all art and is particularly relevant to a film like Tron. This phenomena is attached to the idea of context and its impact on both the way a film is viewed and reviewed. So, when we now look back at Tron we are seeing a film that has passed a threshold that is defined by this phenomena. In short, when art gets to a certain age, it can’t be watched, nor critiqued, as a contemporary piece of work. Instead, its audience is dealt a task, or given the luxury, of viewing it at a distance. This means that, in a certain sense, you have to be a little more lenient and forgiving, but also more open and knowledgeable, when watch a movie like Tron. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticise old films, just that your approach has to be measured.

Such an idea implies that you actually have to learn how to watch certain movies. This is something I quickly figured out when I first started to push into film history, watching films that were made before the 80s and 70s as well as outside of the popular sphere – I was completely lost, though happily so. Admittedly, it sounds like an elitist and condescending notion to say that someone doesn’t know how to watch Citizen Kane or The Birth Of A Nation. But, I certainly don’t claim that I’m even slightly good at this. Moreover, the truth is, most people inherently have some sense of this phenomena. This is why most would be struck by awe when first watching a Lumière short that is probably older than they’ll ever come to be. Being given a window into the past leaves most people in a respectful state of amazement because they probably recognise that what they are seeing is a special artefact.

As said, this is an idea that exists in all forms of art consumption and criticism. So, for instance, when you’re told that this is one of the oldest pieces of art that we have so far found…

… you are probably as equally taken aback as when you watch a Lumière short. What you wouldn’t expect to hear, however, is someone saying that “Yeah… that’s actually really terrible. There’s no skill put on display here; the lines are in no way impressive at all. In fact, this seems misogynist to me – I just don’t like the objectification of the female form. She doesn’t even have a face.”

Whilst I’m sure that there are some people that would say something like that, and they of course can say whatever they want, this kind of criticism is pretty obviously ludicrous. Nonetheless, you can see this put on display on sites like Letterboxd when looking at reviews of old movies – even Lumière shorts. There are many who will react with criticism such as “it’s boring” or “pointless” and go as far as to harshly criticise old films with modern day values – though, there also just as many who will add a caveat of, “but, you gotta respect it”. This then brings up a debate on how you approach older films and how much you must incorporate an understanding of context into your viewing.

It’s a given that people can and should say whatever they like about movies, and I do understand the inclination to dismiss “boring” old films, but, I think this is something anyone who is serious about movies should consider further. This debate is then something that I often find myself questioning when I decide to spend a few hours researching old silent movies – often for the Every Year series. For instance, I often try to delve into the works of Méliès as he’s an early filmmaker that I truly admire. But, having seen around 75 of his films, I’ve gone through troughs and valleys of pure awe and utter disillusionment. In such, if you spend all day watching Méliès’ films, you’ll start completely taken aback by the novelty of his movies, but as you move into the 30th film, you’ll have probably recognised many of his patterns of work and will start to see through them. And by this point, it’s likely that you’ll start to become cynical. It’s here that I’ll stop watching his films because I know my perspective is probably shifted into the wrong direction.

There’s a few interesting ideas that I’ve come away with by getting this point. The primary one is that you begin to understand why cinema had to evolve and change; the old silent films, when they’re all you watch, do get boring – just as all films from a confined epoch do. And this begins to suggest that, by entirely immersing yourself in a period, you almost start to transcend the boundaries of context; you are given the illusion that you understand what it was like to have been in a theatre or nickelodeon during the early 1900s.

The truth is: unfortunately, you don’t fully understand and can’t transcend context. Whilst you have a much better incite into that cinematic period by reaching a point of exhaustion, you are still from a different era; you’re watching these silent shorts in a digital format – most probably on DVD or BluRay or on YouTube or Netflix after all. What this means is that you don’t have a full understanding of what it is like to be alive in that time, but also that you do have knowledge of the future – that which the the people living back then did not. In such, the people watching Méliès’ films as they came out didn’t know what D.W Griffith, Chaplin and Keaton would be doing 10 years down the line, what Eisenstein, Dulac, Vertov, Epstein and Buñuel would have achieved 10 years after that, what Hollywood would become another 10 years after that… the paradigm continues. This ultimately says that you have to respect context whether you like it or not because it acts as a bubble that you can’t penetrate without a time machine.

When we come to a film like Tron, we find ourselves with a movie that is probably right on the edge of this threshold that separates the contemporary film from those that are protected by context. This is of course because Tron came out in the early 80s; a period that, cinematically, is very clearly different from the modern day. This becomes all the more obvious when we realise that the likes of Jurassic Park and The Matrix still seem contemporary – they are on the edge of crossing over the threshold, but, I think they can still be considered to be in a different realm to Tron – which came out 10 years beforehand. What this ultimately means is that Tron is a movie that is now, arguably, protected by its context – and you can certainly sense this when watching the movie; you not only feel like you’re looking through a window into another time, but there is also a novelty of this apparent distance. As a result, to watch Tron ‘properly’ (or to at least get the best viewing experienced), you’d have to be forgiving of the aesthetics and style, but also understand how it is a significant landmark in film.

There is still an argument to be had here though. There are many people still alive today that of course saw Tron in the cinema when it first came out in 1982. Do these people have to respect Tron like those who did not see it when it first came out are obliged to? In my opinion, whilst they’d understand the film better than those who did not see originally see it, I think they’d have to – just like we’ll have to respect, things like Avatar and The Avengers in 30 years. This is because, whilst they certainly know what it is like to be alive in that era, they nonetheless have grown beyond it. In cinematic terms, this means that they have probably seen Terminator, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Avatar and The Avengers; they have seen cinema evolve and so don’t have a pure perspective when it concerns a retrospective look at a film such as Tron.

On a slight side-note, this line of inquiry leads us to consider the difference between ‘real-time criticism’ and ‘retrospective criticism’. Real-time criticism of the films that are from the era you are currently in has a certain bite, bias and impatience that retrospective criticism doesn’t. You can see this on this blog by going back and looking at my posts on films like Batman V Superman. I really didn’t like that film and probably ventured into absurdity when reviewing it – all because it was a film I had just seen in the cinema. What I can see when looking back on that review is a paradigm that exists in almost all real-time criticism; it lacks a measured perspective. Real-time criticism is biased because it is often influenced by consensus – either critics want to swim against the tide or go with it. However, it is also biased because there are seemingly stakes at hand. Again, I can see this in my review of Batman V Superman. With this review, I question the future of cinema and sci-fi, and so go so deep into the topic of this film because I seemingly felt that it was important to do so.

What such a reaction, that is common throughout all realms of criticism, makes clear is the purpose of real-time criticism. High-profile critics (which I certainly am not) and the common audience member (which I am), feel a responsibility to assess, monitor and reflect their era’s historical outputs. And because people feel this, subconsciously or not, they are seemingly more harsh on contemporary films – or at least, have to approach them differently to films that are no longer contemporary.

That said, there is another shade of this bias that can make people a lot more accepting of, to put it starkly, shit contemporary movies. Just like watching Méliès films all day can leave you with a sense that you better understand a cinematic epoch, watching contemporary films day-in, day-out can leave you blinded to a wider idea of cinema. This means that, by only watching new releases, you will probably grow to see films that are, considering the wider history of cinema, only mediocre, to be masterpieces. That is because your judgement of quality is defined by the parameters of the modern age – an age that doesn’t contain the films of Bergman, Tarkovsky, Welles, Kubrick and Ozu (amongst a plethora of other cinematic masters).

What this speaks to is the importance of film history to anyone that takes cinema seriously – as I’m sure that a few films by the mentioned masters will put into perspective the somewhat ludicrous, yet common, claim that Star Wars is the greatest film ever made. But, this also brings us back to the differences between real-time criticism and retrospective criticism. Whilst both forms will have their biases – all constructed by the idea of context – there isn’t a futile subjectivity looming over the practice of film criticism. By venturing further into film history, by seeing films from other countries, you will be constantly realising new sides of cinema, sides that will leave you feeling like you knew nothing last month (a feeling I’m always immersed in – one that is probably good for you). This will refine your perception of modern films and better validate real-time criticism. Added to this, there still remains the idea that watching old films, just as watching new films, is a skill. And a key aspect of the practice is certainly respecting the context of a film.

What ‘context’ then represents in respect to cinema is the relationship between the fragility and the preciousness of films. All films have their downfalls, which leaves them fragile. But, most films have redeeming factors, which can make them precious. By taking context away from a film and viewing it in a light that it wasn’t intended for, you will exploit the fragility of cinema and overlook its preciousness. This leaves your perception somewhat uneducated, but more so, overly biased. Moreover, without an understanding of context, whether it be of a film’s time or the place it was made, you’ll be left without the ability to appreciate a film for what it truly is. As said, this doesn’t then mean that you can’t say anything bad about a film made in 1940 – or 1980 likewise. Your criticism, however, should be rationalised by an understanding of the film in respect to those like it – certainly not in respect to the summer blockbuster you watched last weekend. And lastly, I think a disregard of context is completely fine if you just want to experience films. But, if you claim to take films seriously, this is something that should certainly be considered.

So, I’ll end by asking what your thoughts are on this subject. How do you think criticism should be approached with films like Tron – earlier films included? Does Tron count as a film that should be protected by its context yet? And, finally, how much does context matter; to what degree should it effect criticism?

 

 

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Every Year In Film #12 – Je Vous Aime

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Every Year In Film #12 – Je Vous Aime

Thoughts On: Je Vous Aime (I Love You, 1891)

Eyes closed, a man says, “I Love You” in French.

Je Vous Aime, or I Love You, is an early film made by Georges Demenÿ. It features a man, with his eyes closed, mouthing the words “I Love You” in French. Though this seems incredibly strange and creepy, this was a scientific film made for deaf-mute children who would use this to learn how to read lips and speak. Je Vous Aime is then significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is one of the earliest surviving examples of a close-up in cinema; Demenÿ had to use a close-up to better focus on the lips of his subject (there are multiple films like this with people saying different phrases, some featuring Demenÿ). The second reason why this film is a significant one is that it is a work of an important filmmaker and associate to Étienne-Jules Marey, the already mentioned, Georges Demenÿ.

Demenÿ was an inventor and gymnast that is most famous for his work in chronophotography. In the simplest terms, chronophotography is a form of photography uses several frames to capture a subject. In such, it is a precursor to cinema and a technology that Muybridge famously developed on, bringing it to the brink of a modern idea of motion pictures. Starting only a few decades after the invention of photography, chronograph pictures were first taken around the 1830s. This continues through the 1840s and 50s with daguerreotype photography that used metal plates. An example of this can be found through Antoine Claudet who developed a daguerreotype camera that could take multiple exposures on a plate at once…

Cameras like this would then produce ‘double portraits’ and were often needed as daguerreotype metal plate photographs could not be replicated.

Whilst this was a popular form of photography, all the way up to the 1870s this was never really considered a form of moving picture photography until Muybridge took the concept of taking multiple pictures (on glass, not metal) and brought them to life.

It was Étienne-Jules Marey that was inspired by Muybridge’s famous chronophotography and it was he who went on to study human motion with his own technology. Marey was then producing scientific works that mimicked the style of Muybridge’s…

… but, weren’t so questionable in regard to their scientific nature. Demenÿ worked with Marey in the Station Physiologique, the area and building which they built to study movement, where they shot hundreds of subjects.

In 1888, the pair would start working with celluloid which would allow them to progress past single plate or moving plate chronophotography. It was soon after this, in 1891, that Demenÿ was assigned to shoot Je Vous Aime for the French National Deaf-Mute Institute.

And around this time, he also filed a patent for a phonoscope…

This was a projector that functioned in a manner that was similar to both Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope as well as the phenakistoscope:

In such, the phonoscope featured a glass disc on which photographs would be printed that was inserted in a box with a shutter slit before being spun. With light shining through the shutter and lens, the image would be projected with the illusion of motion…

This is how Demenÿ would show his work – for example, to the deaf-mute subjects. However, this invention also signified a difference between Demenÿ and Marey. Whilst Marey was interested only in science and the study of movement, Demenÿ wanted to make chronophotography a commercial entity. In 1892, the phonoscope was presented at the Exposition Internationale de Photographie de Paris and, following its success, Demenÿ urged Marey to order the construction of more phonoscopes. However, after Demenÿ established the Société de Phonoscope, his relationship with Marey disintegrated as he refused to help him commercialised chronophotography and, 2 years later, would dismiss him from the Station Physiologique.

From this point, Demenÿ invented his own camera, pioneering a ‘beater mechanism’ (an element that would help stop and start a film strip as it passed a lens). Using this new camera, Demenÿ shot dozens of small scenes that would act as portraits or would even feature magic tricks and dances that would sometimes replicate the work of Edison’s manufacturing company. Some of these shorts can be viewed here. Later, in 1895, Léon Gaumont signed a contract with Demenÿ to rename the phonoscope the “bioscope” and sell it to the public. Though this device had the new ‘beater mechanism’, it used 60mm unperforated film, which by this time was not the standard. Because of this, the bioscope was a financial failure and Demenÿ sold the rights to his work to Gaumont.

Whilst Gaumont managed to exploit Demenÿ’s beater mechanism and made a lot of money off of it that fuelled his producing career, it was then at this point, around 1896, that Demenÿ walked away from the film industry, back to gymnastics and founded a school of sports and medical training. He would later write many papers – some of which recounted his time working with film – and went on to pass away in 1917 as an outsider, pushed away from all of those he had previously worked with.

Demenÿ is now looked back on as an important figure that attempted to commercialise chronophotgraphy and pioneered elements of camera technology.

 

 

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Every Year In Film #11 – Monkeyshines No.1

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Every Year In Film #11 – Monkeyshines No.1

Thoughts On: Monkeyshines No.1 (1890)

A blurred figure waves his arms for the camera.

Monkeyshines is an experiment, never meant to be shown in public, made by… Thomas Edison?

In the modern day, the name “Thomas Edison” often raises debate – sometimes frivolous argumentation. This is all because of the romantic legacy that Edison firstly constructed, and then the world around him propagated for decades to come – even to the modern day in many respects. In such, many people are made to believe that Edison was the greatest inventor of all time, an utter genius, the father of the light bulb, the telephone and the moving pictures (amongst other things). The truth is, such labels are fabrications of a more mundane reality. In short, Edison was an inventor and a business man, but more so a business man without the true focus of a real innovator. To then make a comparison to the modern day, Edison is kind of like Conor McGregor…

McGregor is probably in the top 2 or 3 of the world’s most famous fighters alive today, and it is undeniable that he is a great fighter that has gained monumentous accolades in the fighting world. However, is McGregor the greatest fighter of all time? No. He achieves great things but moves on before solidifying a legacy; he wins belts, never defends his titles and moves on to different weight classes and then other sports.

I apologise for the comparison if that was all nonsense to you, but, this is Edison. He ‘invents’ the phonograph, then moves onto the telegraph without improving the technology, then onto the telephone, the light bulb, electrical distribution, fluroscopy, back to the telegraphy, to motion pictures, to mining, back to motion pictures, onto batteries, later rubber. Edison dabbled and innovated to certain degrees in numerous fields, bringing with him ingenious business sensibilities, but he never did anything that lives up to his romantic legacy. So, though Edison is undeniably a significant figure in regards to American history and practical sciences, he and the world often sold him too highly – which has inevitably led to a tarnishing of his legacy. Such is the case with countless historical figures however; everyone from Columbus to Mother Teresa.

So, bringing this overview of his background into our exploration of his career in film, we will essentially have to see Edison as a business manager or producer of what will often be referred to as an “Edison film”. To then talk about Monkeyshines, we have to introduce William K.L Dickson.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson is essentially the inventor of Edison’s motion picture cameras, moreover, he was the director of almost all of his early films and the real force behind the innovation in early American cinema. It was in 1883 that Dickson was hired by Edison to work in his Menlo Park Laboratory in New Jersey. This was 5 years before Edison would file preliminary patents, a caveat, for a device that would do “for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear”. This claim included plans for some kind of motion picture device and would be elaborated on and given the name, “Kinetoscope”, in the following year with a second caveat. And it’s here, in 1889, that Edison assigns Dickson the task of bringing his plans into fruition.

A note we should touch on before delving into this is an extension of our introduction to Edison. It is incredibly rare to see pure originality and innovation – you may even argue that it is impossible as all things must be inspired by something that pre-exists it. As we have been exploring in the Every Year series, there is a ramp of progression that took us from paintings to early forms of projection, animation and later photography, which has been morphing into a modern concept of a motion picture camera. Edison was very aware of each point of progression and had in fact met Eadweard Muybridge in 1888. It is assumed that he saw a lecture of Muybridge’s featuring his zoopraxiscope with Dickson and later met with him in his lab – all of which served as inspiration to Edison. Whilst it isn’t known exactly what Edison and Muybridge discussed, it seems that Muybridge had ideas of combining his motion pictures with Edison’s phonograph – something that was never worked on (at least, not with Muybridge). But, beyond this, their conversation is unknown, the only remnants of it being Edison’s subsequent patent in 1888 and endeavour in the growing field of motion picture photography.

Added to this meeting with Muybridge, Edison also met Étienne-Jules Marey, an important figure that we will certainly be exploring soon. Edison met Marey and likely saw the works of Charles-Émile Reynaud, before his second patent during his trip to Paris for the Exposition Universelle (a world fair for technology). In such, Edison had come across three major innovators, Marey and Muybridge who used motion picture technology for scientific study and Reynaud who was the first to have perforated his film stock (which he painted on – another figure and subject we will delve into soon). These must have hugely contributed to Edison’s conception of motion pictures – which were all fed to Dickson.

So, what Dickson endeavoured to do, as guided by Edison, was wrap film around a cylindrical device, a phonograph drum…

… in a spiral. To manage this, the frames had to be very small…

… which mean that the rotating film would have to be seen through a microcope through a set-up like this:

And this is exactly how Dickson’s initial experiment would function. He shot, during 1889 or 1990 with the help of William Heise – another significant employee of Edison’s, a figure performing an indiscernible action with a kinetograph:

This would function with clockwork technology to pass film past a lens and high speed shutter. However, in its earliest carnations, much like the film strip technology, the results of this product were not satisfactory. We can understand why when we look at our subject of today:

As apart of 3 tests, the first experiment with this technology led to a blurred, indiscernible image. This is why the first 3 test, all of which were unsuccessful, were later given the name “Monkeyshines” – they were ‘monkey tricks’; both in the film and behind the camera was a display of unsophisticated and primitive trickery.

How Dickson and Edison’s company overcame this technological failure that was the first ever American film is going to be our subject for, not the next, but an up-and-coming post in the Every Year series.

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Lizzie Comes To Bridgetown/Bajan Heat/Auntie – 3 Barbadian Shorts

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Lizzie Comes To Bridgetown/Bajan Heat/Auntie – 3 Barbadian Shorts

Quick Thoughts: Lizzie Comes To Bridgetown (2007), Bajan Heat (2013), Auntie (2013)

Three short films from Barbados.

Because I couldn’t find a feature-length film, nor a short that I could talk extensively about, for the World Cinema Series I’ve pulled together 3 short reviews of films from Barbados.

A very strange introduction to Barbados.

This is a short animated film (quite possibly the first to have been made in Barbados) that is supposed to be apart of a series exploring Barbados’ history. This episode is centred on Lord Nelson and his statue in country’s capital.

With clunky writing and character animation, but some pretty impressive background work, Lizzie Comes to Bridgetown was weirdly enjoyable and maybe something worth checking out.

(The peculiar things I run into when looking through a country’s filmography never ceases to amaze).

An all-round ok film – well shot, the cinematography is good, the acting holds up and the narrative is quite immersive thanks to the dense script that, though it is cliched, gives a good incite into the main character’s perception. More than anything, however, this short film feels like a treatment, a teaser or an elongated trailer for a full feature-length movie – one that would be pretty uninteresting. In such, Bajan Heat is a run-of-the-mill crime thriller with one distinguishing element: it’s set in Barbados.

The main take away I got from this film was then the idea that a lot more filmmakers and studio entities should think about making these condensed kind of films before executing a feature – it’d hopefully save us from a whole lot of boring tripe that’s been dressed up by some flashy marketing.

With cinematic sensibilities that aren’t too strong, yet a script that has heart, Auntie is a pretty good short with an unfortunate made-for-tv aesthetic. It depicts a relationship between a middle-aged woman, who is seen as an aunt figure, and a young girl that has been abandoned by her mother. The young girl awaits her estranged mother’s package containing a ticket back home, but when it comes the aunt hides it – which results in conflict.

It would have been nice to better zoom in on themes of family and non-familial bonds as well as the irrationality of being drawn to a parental figure that is not present, but, because Auntie only touches on these ideas, it is clearly attempting to explore something it doesn’t have the focus to depict.

 

 

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