Tag Archives: Early Cinema

In the Beginning There Were Documentaries

A Man with a Movie CameraWith certain fanfare and a headline interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sight & Sound today announced the results of their poll for the greatest documentary ever made. And as lists go it quickly set the wires of social media humming with outrage and consternation, as Dviga Vertov’s masterful Man with a Movie Camera was noted as comfortably taking the top spot. Should we even call it a documentary, is it just an art film, and what are documentaries even good for. So the debate ever was, it made for good reading for those with a real passion for the genre, if genre should even be considered the right word.

And so the occasion was taken by at least one commentator to take a pop at the eight ‘unimaginative’ souls who had picked out the Lumière’s first publicly screened film, the presumptively titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Much merriment was had at such a boring choice, and well, it sure as shit isn’t as exciting as that other classic of the Train Pulling Into the Station. As someone who so gladly proselytises for the occasionally put upon subject of Early Cinema, of course my heart sank.

Almost any Lumière film taken out of context is probably going to appear a bit dumb, and I’d certainly not question anyone who found them tedious, because I’ve slept through more than a few early films. And that considering most are under five minutes long. And sure, anyone idly picking the film for the sake of posterity should certainly be singled out as being unimaginative, but I doubt that’s the case. There’s far more to it than that.

On the walls of Chauvet CaveThe crude analogy that comes readily to mind, would be showing someone the 32000 year old paintings in the Chauvet Cave, so wonderfully captured in 3D documentary form by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and to have them turn and say “well they’re a bit shit, aren’t they?” Now you can’t argue that they’re masterpieces by the standards of modern or contemporary art, but then that is to quite colossally miss the forest for the trees. The analogy touches on the whole world of misguided discourse which would frame Early Cinema in terms of being ‘primitive’ and ‘unevolved’, where old cinema is ultimately a stepping stone before cinema could realise it’s all-singing, all-dancing, widescreen Technicolor 3D razzmatazz true self, which it was always MEANT to be. Which is so historically chauvinistic I struggle to know where to even begin.

But what is there to say for the Factory Gate? Context is of course king, and what excites me about considering such an unsupposing title as documentary is that it captures the first moment anyone thought to film life just as it was. No staging, no performance as with Edison’s Kinetoscope films, just working life as it was in that moment in time. That we should imbue film with such meaning and significance is completely ridiculous, and Louis Lumière sensed no occasion in capturing movement on a technical novelty he saw absolutely no future for. Yet in the beginning there was documentary, and still the form became secondary from the off all the same.

Discussing the matter with Pam Hutchinson of the brilliant blog Silent London, she conceded that the film is just a tech demo, but that “it takes imagination to see that it’s more than [that]. But once you see that… boom.” Which is as fine a case as could be made for appreciating Early Cinema, but it’s not easy to convince the sceptics.

Those looking for a supporting arguement in this debate would do well to take the uninitiated to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914, a special programme of Early Cinema programmed by the BFI and currently doing a tour round the UK. Picked out by the archivist Bryony Dixon, and with a score from the brilliant accompanist Stephen Horne, early reviews of the programme are positive, and it’s far better a defence of Early Cinema than I could ever state.

Complete dates for the nationwide tour of A Night at the CInema in 1914 can be found on the BFI’s website.

[My thoughts on what constitutes an unimaginative choice for greatest documentary ever made, and what films I’d put on my own list might however have to wait for another day!]

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Kill Switch and Hollywood Editing

his girl friday requiem for a dream kill switch montageYou could argue endlessly about the most overlooked job in the film industry, but I’d make a strong case for that of the editor. Many would say that their role falls into the realm of striving for seamlessness; unnoticed if done well. But that’s doing these crafty cutters a great disservice, as continuity and the impact of the edit can be tremendously powerful devices. As proof were needed of the fact, seeing my friends stumble out of the living room absolutely shell-shocked after seeing Requiem for a Dream was a timely reminder of the combined power of music + cutting to wholly traumatise the hapless moviegoer.

In my own misadventures I remember getting into an argument with one of my tutors about a scene in His Girl Friday, and the power of straightforward continuity. The scene in question comes seven minutes into the clip below.

It’s a blink and you’ll miss it cut, but just as Cary Grant picks up and then drops Rosalind’s be-ringed hand, the next shot shows him holding the hand again. I spent a good five minutes arguing that it must be a mistake in the edit, but it turns out it was the classic ‘Cary Grant Double Take’ which pops up in countless other films. I’ve only spotted it in North by Northwest, but still, lesson learnt:

– Hollywood Does Not Make Mistakes. Everything is Deliberate –


kill switch windowSo taking this lesson and applying it to later work in the oeuvre of Steven Seagal, the repercussions become quite serious. It’s all fine and well having a chuckle at things stumbling along, but there comes a point when the mistakes are writ so large that they just can’t be mistakes. Unfortunately we cannot discount the whole of Kill Switch as a grand mistake, for in its opening scene there comes a challenge to conventions of Hollywood continuity, a challenge so bold that it posits a complete tabula rasa of editing as we know it. Not quite a jump back to year zero, but rather a jump to the year 1903.

With moving pictures barely a few years old, the visual grammar of continuity we understand today had only just been embarked upon. Narratives were mostly limited to single scenes, much like the theatre, with action entering from the sides. Other early films kept to the school of what Tom Gunning has defined as the Cinema of Attractions* borrowing heavily from the worlds of the fairground and the vaudeville theatre, with one-act spectacles of wonder or contortion. Moving pictures were a spectacle in and of themselves, and the first film subject tended to be equally spectacular.

The change towards film with a more straightforward narrative came in the first decade of the century, and plenty has been said critically on that matter. The path to Hollywood continuity as we know it today was long, but even at this earliest stage can be noted some attempts to create a different visual discourse, less conventionally linear and with greater focus on repetition. A prime surviving example of this is to be found in the Edison company’s Life of an American Fireman. Stories of fire, imperilled women/children and daring rescue were all the rage in the early 1900s, and Life of plays straight to this early genre.

While the film itself might not strangle the attention of the average modern viewer, it is important to note the peculiar repetition of action. The sequence inside the burning house is played out in full before the action cuts to outdoors, and the viewer is then treated to seeing the complete action from a wholly separate perspective. The multiplicity of angles is primary above the linearity of continuity, and while jarring to the modern eye, this approach made a lot of sense to early audiences still open to the as yet undefined grammar of film. To borrow a term from Charles Musser** there is a ‘malleablility of temporality’ wholly lacking in most modern cinema. It flies in the face of anyone who might see these films and consider them primitive or simple.

Full respect then to the director Jeff King and his editor Jamie Alain with their work on Steven Seagal’s Kill Switch, a film which in one scene pays both homage to Life of an American Fireman while simultaneously challenging all modern understandings of continuity in Hollywood cinema.

another kill switch windowIn the sequence of one man getting kicked out of a window there are seventeen separate cuts, seven different perspectives and a complete recasting of temporality. It would take a matter of seconds for a body to hit the ground after being thrown out of a third storey building, yet in this sequence the action takes close to half a minute, stretching the horror of falling into an absurd, almost hovering sensation of crushing inevitability. The guilt of Seagal’s corrupt character is given no space to hide in the brevity of his decisions, his actions, its consequences are played out again and again, challenging the viewers ingrained positive disposition towards Seagal as an actor and transmutable character. The jarring punctuation of the scene with the clichéd one-liners typical of the action genre establishes an unease which fails to let up at any point in the film.

There is something bizarrely uncompromising about this film, and its debt to early cinema is astonishing. Almost more astonishing is role Seagal himself played in the writing, producing and selling of the film, and there’s more to come on that.

* For more by Tom Gunning on the Cinema of Attractions, check out Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative (edited by Thomas Elsaesser)

** Musser has written extensively on this film plus Edison’s early film history in History of the American Cinema to 1907: The Emergence of Cinema. His extensive history of early Edison director/cameraman Edwin S. Porter can be found online in Before the Nickelodeon.

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