Friday, July 27, 2007
The Movies Begin part three
The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Three: Experimentation and Discovery, 1898-1910
The oldest extant piece of writing contains a recipe for beer. No surprise, then, the very first advertisement ever put on film was for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey (1898). It is on this disc. Also on this disc are two serious contender’s for my favorite works in this entire 5-DVD anthology: A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works (1906), made by the Cricks and Sharp company, and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910), made by Charles Urban for the Kineto company. These two films constitute a crucial link between the “actualities” of the Lumière Brothers and others, and modern documentary film.
Featuring the use of indoor arc lighting, Peak Frean is a very plain film, twelve minutes long, showing people at work in a biscuit (cookie) factory. It is totally fascinating. This is a direction that film might have taken, simple documentation, showing the lives of men, women and children in their everyday endeavors.
The world of my childhood was closer to the realm of Charles Dickens than it was to the world I live in now; it was chronologically closer, too. I believe that documentary details of daily life back then would make very compelling viewing today. Just showing what people did and how they did it. The value of many period movies is based in recreating such details, such as the endless flow of movies set in the 1940s and 1950s, for example. I don’t believe that the hook of sociopolitical commentary is necessary to make such material compelling.
At least, we have everyday life of today covered: endless car chases, massive explosions, people turning into spiders, zombies roaming the streets. But I digress. Peak Frean and Coal Miner are sufficient evidence that minimal staging (people doing what they actually do, although inevitably conscious of being filmed), is more than enough. There’s an excellent account of and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner by Ion Martea at Culture Wars, here:
There is a lot more on this disc, including short films by Cecil Hepworth and Ferdinand Zecca, the Edison Manufacturing Company’s ads, and Albert Capellani’s Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse / Aladin, or the Wonderful Lamp (1906), with hand-painted color film and twelve minutes worth of vaudevillian antics. And there is the pièce de résistance, Edwin S. Porter's The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), accurately described as, “…a stunning visual fantasy adapted from the comics of Winsor McCay.”
There’s a lot of experimentation and innovation in the films on this disc, and it does give credence to the claim that mainstream movies have been limited to particular narrative focus, but I would argue again that many of the possibilities indicted on this disc have been subsumed in that process, rather than eliminated. Watching these old movies really does give a fresh perspective to our views of film in our own time. It’s a journey worth taking.