Sunday, 26 September 2010

1910 - King Edward VII's Funeral

King Edward VII’s funeral, which took place on Friday 20 May 1910, was a one of the 20th Century’s first ‘global events’. Royalty from all over Europe (for a full list of the funeral’s royal attendees, click here) attended the event, in what would be one of the final flourishes of the European monarchical system before it was devoured by the cataclysmic events of the First World War.

It is also important to remember the global reach of the British Empire in 1910 (see map below for the territories (they are coloured in red on the map) the Empire contained in 1910). When King Edward VII died he was not only the King of England and the British Dominions, he was also the Emperor of India. The news of his death would have therefore been global news, and we must speculate whether this footage from his funeral would have made its way to the various corners of the globe. 

The first impression I gathered from watching this brief film was just how much information there is on screen to digest. Even in the lavish production of early Italian films such La Presa Di Roma (1905) and Nerone (1909), a fiction film had not come close to portraying the sheer number of (mostly military) people who are visible throughout this film. As the screen becomes populated almost exclusively by military figures, I could not help but shudder at this unintentional cinematic prophesy of the forthcoming century. 

The lavish opulence of the ceremony interweaves with its militaristic uniformity. Whereas the contemporary audience would have been immersed in national mourning, I could not help thinking of the forthcoming war – the relentless march of the various military men reminded of the historian A.J.P. Taylor’s ‘timetable theory’:

In his 1969 book War by Timetable, Taylor examined the origins of World War I. He concluded that though all of the great powers wished to increase their own power relative to the others, none consciously sought war before 1914. Instead, he argued that all of the great powers believed that if they possessed the ability to mobilise their armed forces faster than any of the others, this would serve as a sufficient deterrent to avoid war and allow them to achieve their foreign policy. Thus, the general staffs of the great powers developed elaborate timetables to mobilise faster than any of their rivals. When the crisis broke in 1914, though none of the statesmen of Europe wanted a world war, the need to mobilise faster than potential rivals created an inexorable movement towards war. Thus Taylor claimed that the leaders of 1914 became prisoners of the logic of the mobilisation timetables and the timetables that were meant to serve as deterrent to war instead relentlessly brought war.

In my over imaginative mind, as the troops march off screen they are walking towards the trenches of the Somme and Champagne. 

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A most unusual film - 1910 - The Acrobatic Fly

The Acrobatic Fly is one of the more peculiar films I have encountered. Although it only lasts for three minutes, it is a film that has consistently perplexed me for the last week.

On its surface, The Acrobatic Fly is a simple trick film involving a housefly that balances various objects on its body. However, it appears that the ingenuity of the film is that there is no trickery involved (it is a real housefly balancing the various objects); although one wonders how Percy Stow managed to ‘convince’ the housefly to perform the various tricks it pulls off.

As the film begins, the viewer’s initial reaction is to delight at the gimmick of a fly lying on its back, juggling what appears to be a blade of grass. As the first few objects change, even 100 years later, the sense of novelty is tempered by an impression of disposability. It seems as though the film will be like many a gimmicky Youtube video that fascinates for a few seconds before drifting to the most distant backwaters of our memories.

But as the film transitions from the fly spinning a web around a plastic white cup to a fly lying at a different angle juggling a smaller fly, the film becomes both grotesque and deeply fascinating. The lighting of the initial shot allows us to see the fly’s transparent wings as well as suggesting its body is comprised of several colours. As the lighting and positioning of the fly shifts for the first time, the uniform blackness of both flies is accentuated. A few shots later, the two large flies weave a large black ball that the larger fly struggled to balance him/herself (see image below), and the allegorical nature of these images deepens.

It is a fruitless exercise speculating whether this was the directors’ intention, but there is no denying the effect this transition has a potent effect on the viewer; whereas before, the fly’s repugnant exterior was offset by how it was lit and the action it was partaking in, now its repulsiveness is accentuated by the fact that it is balancing another fly. Involuntarily, it is an image that has resonated and replayed in my mind for the last few days, as I could not shake the unerring feeling that this symbolism had significant depth and may in fact function as mirror for its audience.  

Unable to word this scene’s effect on my mind, the best inclination I can give my reader of this sense of apprehension is to say that I feel there is a significant overlap between this scene in the film and the following short story by Borges (which can be found in this collection):

Inferno, I, 3
From the half-light of dawn to the half-light of evening, the eyes of a leopard, in the last few years of the twelfth century, looked upon a few wooden boards, some vertical iron bars, some varying men and women, a blank wall, and perhaps a stone gutter littered with dry leaves. The leopard did not know, could not know, that it yearned for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing flesh and a breeze with the scent of deer, but something inside it was suffocating and howling in rebellion, and God spoke to it in a dream: You shall live and die in this prison, so that a man that I have knowledge of may see you a certain number of times and never forget you and put your figure and symbol in a poem, which has its exact place in the weft of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you shall have given a word to the poem. In the dream, God illuminated the animal’s rude understanding and the animal grasped the reasons and accepted its fate, but when it awoke there was only an obscure resignation in it, a powerful ignorance, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of a savage beast.
Years later, Dante was to die in Ravenna, as unjustified and alone as any other man. God told him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, astonished, learnt at last who he was and what he was, and he blessed the bitterness of his life. Legend has it that when he awoke, he sensed that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would never be able to recover, or even to descry from afar, because the machine of the world is exceedingly complex for the simplicity of men.   

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

1910 - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Otis Turner

The early silent film era (which I would classify as running from 1895-1914) is a grossly neglected era of filmmaking. As this blog has pointed out on a numerous occasions, not only were some of film’s most important technical advances made during these years, but many of the film’s are of outstanding quality and remain relevant to the modern audience. However, as with any era, there are bound to be some poorly made films.


The first surviving cinematic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel is perhaps the weakest film that we have observed on the Film: Ab Initio list so far. Given the great strides that filmmaking has made in 1909 and 1910, with films shifting from novel ‘trick’ films to tackling more complex and ambitious stories, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz looks and feels as though the film is at least five years older. Even if a better print of this was available, it would still look slightly primitive.

In fact, one of the main set pieces of the film, the wizard’ court, looks quite similar to the astronomer’s room in Melies’ 1902 film La Voyage Dans La Lune. Rather than paying homage to the earlier film, this scene only highlights how outdated this film seems.   

                                                       The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

                                                       La Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

And although the film manages to incorporate a number of impressive sets, the overtly simple cinematography makes the film seem theatrical rather than cinematic. Given some of the brilliant camerawork that we have seen in films such as Afgrunden and La fée des grèves, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz cannot claim that such techniques were not possible in 1910.

Yet there does appear to be a significant gap between the quality of the films being produced in Europe and the U.S.A. in 1910. As was mentioned in a previous post, it is important to remember that up until 1914, France was the dominant force in global filmmaking.  

The 1910 version of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz was loosely based on a popular 1903 stage musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel. This is why several sections of the film involved choreographed dancing; however, much of the dancing onscreen seems amateurish and unnecessarily acrobatic. As with the musical, a new character is added to the cast, Imogene the cow. In the musical Imogene replaces Toto, in the film though, they both make an appearance.

The one scene which stands out in this film is where the characters are not the focal point of a scene; it is when a cyclone hits Kansas and transports Dorothy to Oz. The rolling clouds steal the scene, and for a brief moment, the film’s set does not feel clustered or claustrophobic.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this film is the speed with which it manages cover a great degree of the novel’s plotting. As with the earlier literary adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Ben Hur, this film adopts an episodic approach to its source material in order to allow the film to focus on several key scenes from the text.  

I have not mentioned the film’s plotting or any character in any detail, because neither stood out. The 1910 version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a messy piece of film making which seems out of place when compared to the other films we have looked at from the previous few years.  

Thursday, 9 September 2010

1910 - An Animated Masterpiece - The Hasher's Delirium - Emile Cohl

The most surprising aspect of early animation is how wildly inventive and playful it can be; both qualities can be found in abundance in the pioneering work of Emile Cohl. As with his first film Fantasmagorie, the main image in The Hasher’s Delirium undertakes a series of transformations.

Unlike his first film, however, there is an image onscreen which remains constant for the majority of the film: an inebriated man. The large white bubble in the middle of the screen represents his drunken thought dreams. As the images within the bubble become more disturbing, the bubble disappears and the man’s body takes centre stage as his body bends like Mr. Fantastic and he kicks himself on his own behind.

By focusing on the inebriated man’s ‘delirium’, Cohl is able to focus his transformations on a specific but broad theme. Furthermore, by experimenting with the effects of alcohol (the words ‘wine’ and ‘absinthe’ both appear within the white bubble) and showing the audience several images which are meant to provoke fear within the inebriated man, Cohl is touching on certain elemental fears which will be exploited routinely in the great horror films of the forthcoming decade. And by having an ‘everyman’ onscreen, Cohl is ensuring that this figure serves as a symbol for our own drunken fears.

The Hasher’s Delirium is not the first film to deal with issues of chemical excess; similar issues were dealt with in the 1906 live action film Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. Film’s interest in exploring this subject matter is unsurprising.

The hallucinatory effects of such activities is a strange blend of what we visualise, think and dream. In Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, this allows Edwin S. Porter to apply Méliès- esque visual trickery to a ‘normal’ scenario (i.e. a man walking home after eating and drinking too much). However, even with modern day films, there are limitations to the rapidity of this particular thought process being examined in a live action film.

In an animated film like The Hasher’s Delirium there is no such problem, and the constant shape-shifting of a man’s ‘delirium’ can be explored with more accuracy. And when the bubble disappears and the inebriated man’s body starts to bend, Cohl manages to capture the moment at which the man’s drunken imagination consumes any semblance of his rational mind and takes complete control of his senses.       

The film has a hypnotic effect on its viewer, as each image transforms seamlessly and at breathtaking pace. As with Fantasmagorie, I found myself watching the film several times to fully digest the range of images that the film presents in less than ninety seconds.

The film has also aged remarkably well, it is the perfect film to introduce your friends to this period of film. Its breadth of imagination and dark humour make it a remarkably modern film.

Monday, 6 September 2010

1910 - Film's first sex symbol - Afgrunden (The Woman Always Pays) - Urban Gad

Silent film’s greatest strength is the universal language of the visual image. When this is combined with the fact that a global economic framework was beginning to develop and thrive for a brief few years before the calamitous events of 1914, the rapidity of the developing artistic maturity of the medium of film on a global scale becomes more comprehensible.

In 1909, we saw film’s from Italy, France and the USA begin to harness the dramatic consciousness of film. Yet only a year later, a Danish film called Afgrunden becomes the first film to flourish and exponentially expand this dramatic consciousness (please click on the video above to watch the other three parts of the film on Youtube).

Afgrunden explores and dissects the themes of desire and female sexuality. The film concerns a young piano teacher (Magda) who goes to meet her fiancé and her parents. When she goes to visit a circus with her fiancé, she is drawn to an artist working there and runs away with him.

At more than twice the running time of any film we have watched so far on the Film: Ab Initio list (the film’s running time is just under forty minutes), the ability to interrogate a broader range of ideas is expected. But the subtlety of action and complexity of emotions conveyed marks a quantum leap from anything we have witnessed so far.

The first five minutes of the film serves as a tribute to the Lumiere Brothers. The opening shot of the film, where Magda walks towards the tram, is reminiscent of an early Lumiere actuality film. And the scene where her train arrives at her fiance’s train station is almost identical to the Lumiere masterpiece, ‘Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat’. This homage serves the film well, as it is exquisitely shot. The growing confidence of director’s in selecting certain angles and unique ways of transitioning between scenes is a delight to see.

From the opening moments of the film, where Magda climbs onto a tram and meets her fiancé for the first time, it becomes clear that silent film may in fact be a more effective medium for exploring ideas about relationships and desires than talkies are. An overemphasis on body language and the removal of any verbal language heightens the visceral nature of the lovers’ bond. The deliberately misplaced glances and awkward physical movement of the two characters possesses a delicious ambiguity that would not be allowed to exist if the two characters could converse with one another.

Later in the film, Magda’s fiancé attempts to persuade her join him and his parents on a walk. As she refuses and watches them walk away, the screen is engulfed with the void of loneliness.  For now this sense of despair is silent, but as the film continues, this despair will be expressed in a far more physical manner.

Therefore, the film can divided in to three acts, with each act culminating in Magda’s reaction to a certain situation. If gazing onwards at her fiancé and his parents was her reaction at the end of the first act, at the end of the second act she attacks a girl on stage when she believes that her lover is making amorous glances towards that girl. And finally, when her lover tears her dress and physically confronts her after she is caught talking to her ex-fiancé, she stabs and murders him.

On each occasion, Magda refuses to either conform to or accept society’s pre-ordained role for her. Furthermore, the violent intensity of her indomitable spirit increases on each occasion. Magda repels each cage she is placed in: first the country house, then the circus until the film ends with her being led away by policeman to prison.  It is important to note that in 1910, Danish women would not receive universal suffrage for another five years. Magda’s irrepressible nature must surely have resonated with its contemporary audience, and the film’s English title ‘The Woman Always Pays’, is misleading. Despite the majority of the film involving her affections oscillating between the two male leads, she ends up with neither party. And although we have to assume she will spend the rest of her life in prison, it is the heavy price she ends up paying for her independence.  

Magda is quite comfortably the most complex and intriguing character we have encountered to date, and this is largely due to the fact that she is played by the magnificent Asta Nielsen – film’s first siren and sex symbol. During the first half of this decade, only Max Linder would rival her in terms of popularity. The excellent Bright Lights Film Journal highlights the scope of her influence as well as discussing her role in Afgrunden:
Some of the most memorable images from films of the 1930s are based on the idea of strong women who resist, even dissolve, gender boundaries: Dietrich, dressed in a man's suit, offering a rare lesbian kiss in Blonde Venus; Hepburn convincing us she's a boy in Sylvia Scarlett; Garbo as a mannish ruler, staring into the camera at the end of Queen Christina. If audiences were not entirely unprepared for such imagery, it was probably because of another star with a single name who was doing the same thing more than two decades earlier. This is not mere speculation; Garbo herself acknowledged the woman who co-starred with her in The Joyless Street, saying "she taught me everything I know."...
Afgrunden was important in establishing from the beginning key components of her legend: scandalous eroticism and a uniquely minimalist acting style... In a startling sequence of sexual intensity, she lassos her boyfriend and does a lewd dance, bumping and grinding against him. This vulgar "gaucho-dance" was what most viewers remembered, but critics of the time also applauded Asta's naturalistic acting, unknown in a silent cinema noted for its wild theatrical gesturing and overwrought grimacing. In her autobiography, the actress commented on this: "I realized that one had to detach oneself completely from one's surroundings in order to be able to perform an important scene in a dramatic film. The opportunity to develop character and mood gradually, something denied the film actor, can only be replaced by a kind of 'auto-suggestion." Throughout her career she used this trance state at key moments to force the viewer to respond imaginatively to what was happening — an effect that, combined with her masklike face and minimal gestures, gives the strange feeling of watching a present-day actress who has dropped suddenly into silent movies.

Much has been made of her ‘lewd dance’, but there is a moment of equally daring eroticism earlier in the film, where the artist breaks into her bedroom. After appearing to reject his advances, they then share a passionate kiss (see image above). It is a moment of forbidden passion where the viewer very much plays the part of the voyeur. 

Although it is not as risqué as the latter dance is, it is equally dazzling. Sensuality and desire are deconstructed and stripped bare in a manner that is unique to film. There is nothing suggestive or over-pronounced about such a moment, the carnal desire on display is electrifying.

Interestingly, Nielsen’s ‘lewd dance’ (see image below) was cut from both the British and American films, in what must have been one of the earliest examples of censorship in the film industry. But it would be a great shame for such a brilliant film to be remembered only for its most erotically charged moment. However, there is no denying that this dance is the most important moment of the film. Through the medium of dance, Magda is finally able to unleash her sensuality in a manner independent of either man. The potent symbolism of her lassoing her lover is undeniable.

The highest praise I can bestow on Afgrunden is that I can think of few films from any era that deal with its subject matter as well as it does. What a fantastic way to kick off a seminal decade in film history.