Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 19, April 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marshall Deutelbaum

 

Studying Early Film History:

On Popple and Kember's _Early Cinema_

 

 

Simon Popple and Joe Kember

_Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004

ISBN 1-903364-58-2

136 pp.

 

Rather than a historical survey of the cinema's development over its first twenty years, Simon Popple and Joe Kember's _Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory_ is intended to introduce undergraduate students to early cinema as a field of study. The authors, both from the University of Teeside in England, have done a remarkable job of presenting a great deal of information within the restrictive format of Wallflower Press's Short Cuts series. After a first chapter that presents a time-line whose chronology of events more or less maps the field between 1895 and 1914, the second chapter summarizes the key methodological approaches that have been used in attempts to organize the field of study. Some of these, the authors explain, are insufficient because they are predicated upon the assumption that the history of film is simply a linear progression caused either by ever-finer technical perfection (technological determinism) or the inventive minds of exceptional filmmakers (The Great Man Theory). More productive approaches in the form of revisionist histories began to appear after 1978. The authors note that:

 

'the birth of early film history as a substantial academic discipline is often cited as a consequence of the 1978 Brighton FIAF conference . . . A subsequent process of re-evaluation, applying approaches derived largely from the modern discipline of film studies and textual analysis, generated a series of publications and conferences with ramifications both for the study of early film and for film studies in general' (30).

 

Throughout the remainder of their text the authors use a case study approach to illustrate how reception theory and formal analysis can reveal the significance of films that at first glance seem to be of little or no interest. The authors quote newspaper notices about one-shot films shot at factory gates, for example, to document the pleasure audiences expressed at seeing local sights and people with whom they worked. Another case study illustrates the intertextual influence of other media on the depictions of the Boers in films depicting the Boer War. Throughout the text they insist that meaning and significance are never self-evident, but must be discerned through contextualization.

 

Chapter 3 touches upon the beginnings of film censorship and swiftly surveys the non-narrative uses of film, particularly films for educational purposes, reconstructed actualities, and trick films. Curiously, even though they discuss Melies here, they wait until Chapter 4 to present a lengthy discussion of J. A. Maskelyne's use of film in his magic shows at London's Egyptian Hall. In the remainder of Chapter 4 they draw upon their considerable expertise in the history of fairground entertainments and itinerant showman to discuss changing exhibition practices and audience reception in the years before and after fixed cinemas became the norm.

 

With Chapter 5 (half again as long as any of the earlier chapters) the authors turn to a survey of the form and content of narrative film. They organize their discussion around Andre Gaudreault's distinction between films from the earlier part of the period like British Biograph's _He and She_ (1899), that show events but do not invite audience involvement, with films from the latter half of the period like _Rescued by Rover_ (1906), in which editing encourages the emotional involvement of viewers through identification and suspense. Not surprisingly, the authors offer _The Birth of a Nation_ (1915) as the period's crowning example of this type of film.

 

Unfortunately, exactly what happened stylistically in the years between _Rescued by Rover_ and _The Birth of a Nation_ is handled quite briefly, most likely because of the authors' decision to devote the chapter that might have surveyed these developments to exhibition and reception. Consequently, there's little discussion of the development of cross-cutting during those years, as well as almost no mention of how the realism of three-dimensional film sets came to replace painted backdrops. This weakness is underlined most glaringly by the absence from the otherwise excellent and extensive bibliography of a number of references related to these developments. Among the missing are both volumes of the _Biograph Bulletins_, the ongoing re-evaluation of D. W. Griffith's work in the multi-volume _The Griffith Project_, Charlie Keil's _Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907-1913_, and Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs's _Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film_.

 

Another serious omission -- at least for students -- is the absence of any mention of the most striking of re-evaluations in early cinema, pre-Soviet Russian film. Even though the authors declare their intention to restrict _Early Cinema_ to British films primarily, I wish they would have included some mention of Evgenii Bauer. Curiously enough, even though the authors include Yuri Tsivian's _Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception_ in the bibliography, neither _Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908-1919_, which lists the some 300 surviving films from the Czarist era with annotations from newspapers and filmmakers' diaries and memoirs, nor Tsivian's remarkable CD-ROM, 'Immaterial Bodies: A Cultural Anatomy of Early Russian Films' appear there. Also missing is the DVD of three of Bauer's films, _Mad Love_, with Tsivian's insightful commentary. The two discs offer students a remarkable introduction to the acting styles, set design, and cinematic aesthetics at the end of the early era.

 

Despite these omissions _Early Cinema_ is an impressive achievement. Indeed, a more troubling problem is the editorially imposed format which undoubtedly has limited the depth of the discussion and permitted only a half dozen illustrations. Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be crammed into prescribed space. The initial chronology illustrates the problems the authors faced in constructing their text: much of what is mentioned cannot be addressed in the following chapters. Consequently, for students new to the subject, the chronology will seem at times an opaque list of facts without consequence (e.g. the names of the various sound and color processes patented within the period) and events whose outcomes are left unexplained (e.g. the establishment of the Motion Pictures Patent Company is noted (19), but its demise is never mentioned). Perhaps the authors might have lessened the problem by integrating the chronology of events within the following chapters, which are themselves already ordered chronologically.

 

Indeed, students would benefit from a similar redistribution of at least some of the titles listed in the bibliography. Even though the authors divide the bibliography into a short group of titles headed 'Essential Reading' and a considerably longer list headed 'Secondary Reading', the lack of annotations means that for beginning students the bibliography may well be even more opaque than the chronology of events. Indeed, there would be a number of practical benefits from the integration of some bibliographic entries into the existing chapters.

 

I want to suggest the benefits to be gained from such a repositioning by citing titles *missing* from the bibliography whose incorporation within the text demonstrate the critical methodologies the authors encourage students to adopt. For example, even though the authors identify the 1978 FIAF conference as the impetus for the critical reexamination of early cinema, they do not include in their bibliography the two volume set that resulted from the conference, _Cinema 1900-1906: An Analytical Study_. How much more pedagogically effective it would be to apprise students of these essays and analytic filmography close to the mention of the conference in the text, rather than bury their existence in an un-annotated bibliography. The striking results of revisionist history deserve to be highlighted.

 

Incorporating some references within the text would also enable the authors to direct students to exemplary illustrations of contextualization. For example, in _Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography_, Charles Musser quotes extensively from newspapers of the era to explain the significance of actualities that without explanation might seem unimportant. The same is true of _La Production cinematographique des Freres Lumiere_, the standard reference for the Lumiere Films, which also quotes from travel guides of the era to suggest why some subjects were selected and camera positions chosen to match their verbal descriptions. Both of these reference works are extensively illustrated with frame enlargements from every one of their surviving films. (The frame enlargements in _La Production cinematographique des Freres Lumiere_ are on a CD-ROM which also includes several complete films.)

 

Bibliographic citations can direct students to other sorts of visual material that the authors have been unable to include in the text. This is particularly true in the case of early color processes. Two worthwhile texts missing from the bibliography that would serve this purpose are _'Disorderly Order': Colours in Silent Film_ and the bilingual _Tutti I Colori del Mundo: Il Colore nei Mass Media tra 1900 e 1930/All the Colours of the World: Colours in Early Mass Media 1900-1930_.

 

Annotated references within a chapter can also illustrate how the new insights of revisionist history have corrected erroneous, if firmly established, truths of received film history. While the authors briefly mention Melies's _A Trip to the Moon_ and its trick photography, how much more striking it would be if they also cited essays that corrected our understanding of both. In _Melies, Images et Illusions_, Jacques Malthete convincing demonstrates that even though Melies created his trick transformations, appearances, and disappearances by stopping his camera as received history tells us, when it came to printing his films he was much more concerned with editing than has generally been thought. He carefully trimmed and edited those transformational moments before printing to make their appearance perfect, something that was impossible to do solely within the camera. Received history also claims with certainty that _A Trip to the Moon_ was inspired by Jules Verne's speculative fiction. However, in an essay entitled 'Le Voyage dans la Lune, Film Composite', in _Melies: Magie et Cinema_, Thierry Lefebre demonstrates that Melies conceived the film especially for the US market in imitation of a cyclorama entitled _A Trip to the Moon_, the most successful attraction on the midway of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York. Moreover, on the basis of surviving stereopticon cards, Lefebre shows that much of the film's visual design, if not its narrative sequence, was based upon the 1877 staging of Jacques Offenbach's opera, _Le Voyage dans la Lune_.

 

Integrating such results of revisionist history as these would offer useful supplements to the authors' own case studies. Nevertheless, even without the degree of integration I have described, _Early Cinema_ remains an effective introduction for undergraduate students to the issues and potentialities of studying early film.

 

Purdue University

West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

 

 

Bibliography

 

Aubert, Michelle and Jean-Claude Seguin, eds, _La Production cinematographique des Freres Lumiere_ (Paris: Centre nationale de la Cinematographie (CNC), 1996).

 

Bowser, Eileen, ed., _Biograph Bulletins, 1908-1912_ (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973).

 

Brewster, Ben and Lea Jacobs, _Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

 

Cherci Usai, Paolo, ed., _The Griffith Project_ (London: British Film Institute, 1999-Present).

 

Cherchi Usai, Paolo, ed., _Silent Witnesses: Russian Films 1908-1919_ (London: British Film Institute, 1989).

 

Hertogs, Daan and Nico de Clerk, eds, _Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film_ (Amsterdam: Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1996).

 

Holman, Roger, ed., _Cinema 1900-1906: An Analytical Study_, 2 vols (Brussels: FIAF, 1982).

 

Keil, Charlie, _Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907-1913_ (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).

 

Lefebre, Thierry, 'Le Voyage dans la Lune, film composite', in Jacques Malthete, Jacques Mannoni, and Laurent Mannoni, eds, _Melies: Magie et Cinema_ (Paris: Paris-Musees, 2002).

 

Malthete, Jacques, _Melies, Images et Illusions_ (Paris: Association Exporegie, 1996).

 

Musser, Charles, _Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography_ (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).

 

Niver, Kemp, eds, _Biograph Bulletins, 1896-1908_ (Los Angeles: Locare Research Group, 1971).

 

Tsivian, Yuri, _Immaterial Bodies: A Cultural Analysis of Early Russian Films_ (Los Angeles: University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communication, 1999).

 

_Tutti I colori del mundo: il colore nei mass media tra 1900 e 1930/All the Colours of the World: Colours in early mass media 1900-1930_ (Reggio Emilia: Edizioni Diabasis, 1998).

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Marshall Deutelbaum, 'Studying Early Film History: On Popple and Kember's _Early Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 19, April 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n19deutelbaum>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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