Wednesday, 16 June 2010

1905 - Panorama from the Times Building, New York - Wallace McCutcheon




It is not an over-exaggeration to state that Panorama from the Times Building, New York provides the audience with a new way of seeing. Panorama is similar to some of the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘actualities’, except that it provides us with a breathtaking view of New York from the top of the Times Building. Within the space of a decade, film has gone from a still shot of workers outside the Lumiere Brothers’ factory to a daring aerial shot of a substantial part of New York. The film was shot by Wallace McCutcheon, who also directed the briefly discussed 1905 film Personal.



In 1905, in the world of art, Matisse and the Les Fauves were pushing beyond Post-Impressionism (See Matisse's Open Window above) and Picasso had left Barcelona for Paris a year earlier and was heading towards ‘inventing’ Cubism alongside Braque. Film, an artistic medium still in its infancy, was also providing its audience with fresh perspectives. We can only speculate as to what the reaction of the contemporary audience would have been to seeing this film, but there is little doubt that it would have had a startling effect on them (I apologise if I seem to make this point about most films but access to such information would enrich this blog). The depth of vision when at 0:29 is remarkable even to the contemporary audience and opens up an exciting amount of new possibilities for film. The motion picture camera is providing the audience with a perspective they would not be able to obtain from any other art form. It also raises the audience’s expectations in terms of what a single frame can contain.

People and transport are barely visible in this film: the city, specifically New York, becomes the protagonist of this film. The writer Thomas Wolfe once said, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years”. It can be argued that this is largely down to the city’s rich cinematic history – not only is the city familiar to many viewers, but it has a distinctive personality that usurps any other filmed city - Panorama begins our relationship with New York.  

The Library of Congress tells us exactly what can be seen in the film:

The view is from the top of the then newly-erected Times Building, at a height of approximately twenty stories. The film opens with a vertical pan, going from the street below up to the sky. The photographer then makes a pan to the north over the tops of the buildings from Bryant Park, south of 42nd Street (behind the New York Public Library) [Frame: 1078] up 6th Avenue to the Hippodrome Theatre at 43rd Street [1866]. A marquee on the theater reads "A Yankee Circus On Mars." The camera continues to rotate toward 44th and 45th Streets between 6th and 7th Avenues, until coming to rest looking directly north up Times Square to 46th Street, where Broadway (left) and 7th Avenue (right) diverge again [3676].
Can any New Yorkers tell us which of these buildings remain in place, and if the Times building is still standing?

 


New York Subway, directed by G.W. Bitzer, provides us with a viewpoint of the other end of New York: its subway. The Subway itself had only opened a year earlier; once again this film would have bedazzled the audience. Yet again, a comparison can be made with another Lumiere Brothers’ film. In Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat the stationary camera captured a train’s arrival, in this film we are given a tracking shot of a train’s journey from one station to another. The shot of the train as it passes through a tunnel is both hypnotic and claustrophobic; the gradually diminishing light in this shot is quite a sight.


It also gives us our first glimpse of the 'underworld' - it will be interesting to chronicle film's relation with this particular space.

6 comments:

  1. Panorama from the Times Building: I really like the simplicity of this film and the fact that you've actually chosen to write about it. Writers online don't write often about non-fiction but it's a major part of silent film production, there is so much of it, and this is a great example. There is something about the design of New York, the rigid shapes of the buildings, the layers of corners in the background and foreground, and the puncture-holes of windows that dot every building - that is endlessly fascinating, and it's in this period that modern New York we know was born. Clearly The Times Building was a key skyscraper in 1905 (the tallest building of the day?).

    I'm very interested in your ideas of new ways of seeing, because of course early cinema is filled with that idea. Parallels have been drawn between new ways of seeing on the railway, as the world started to rush past you and distance became shorter, and with the cinema: you're travelling instantly, seeing parts of the world you never could before, and in an unusual way. You hit on that with this film. It also appear so to be a kind of document, maybe filmed by the construction company, rather than an entertainment - but it may very well have been an attraction at the local cinema. Not everyone would have been able to get up there so this may well have played.

    New York Subway: It's a phantom ride! Amazing. This is a period I have researched in detail in the past, see a mini essay at Screenonline [http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1193042/index.html] and a longer one for Routledge [http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a913577460~db=all~jumptype=rss]. I had only seen glimpses of this film recently in a documentary on New York as research for the movie. It's an amazing film! Comparable to the Trip on the Metropolitan Railway made in London and is a good companion piece. And it was made by G.W. Bitzer who was a key phantom ride filmmaker who also went on to work for Griffith.

    What is it about transport systems in cities that is so appealing? Surely they are the key experience of modern life?

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  2. @ Christian - These comments are incredibly helpful and really enrich this post...for example, I had no idea that the second film was a phantom carriage...thanks for providing a link to your mini essay on the topic. It is a superb piece of writing which I recommend to all readers of this blog.

    I think part of the appeal of transport systems in cities on film is the synthesis between the movement of the video camera and the movement of transport, particularly trains. The video camera captures the movement of transport in a way which the other art forms cannot - and it is mesmerising - even to the modern viewer of older films. And this ties in with the idea of having new ways of seeing, which does indeed correlate with new means of travelling around a city.

    I think you are also right to suggest that not enough attention is paid to non-fiction film. These two films give us a glimpse of the New York of 1905 - and the artistic accomplishment lies in the way in which both films are shot. In one of the upcoming blogs, I will be looking at the footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake - and I think this film will amplify the importance of non-fiction film in this particular era.

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