Wednesday, 8 October 2014

1899: A Kiss in the Tunnel

I'm going to review two versions of this film, both from 1899 - yes, we're into remakes already. They must have thought they were exhausting the possiblities of the medium.
The first is from George Albert Smith, he of "The X-Rays", and begins with a so-called 'phantom ride' shot, taken from a camera fastened to the front of a train as it goes into a tunnel.  Cut to the inside of a carriage, where a couple take advantage of the darkness to steal a kiss, then forty seconds later, back to the train as it emerges from the tunnel. The second, and I'm assuming this is the remake, is by Bamforth and Company, of Holmfirth, Yorkshire (home of 'Last of the summer Wine'). It's identical in structure but where the Smith film uses a painted backdrop to represent the train carriage, Bamforth uses a proper set, or more likely an actual carriage, and the external shots are objective views of the train.
These basic variations aside, the interpretations of the action are very different. In Bamforth's film, the man is a rakish young chap, looking very much the type who would impudently try to steal a kiss from a nice girl and then get slapped. Well, he doesn't get slapped, and the nice girl goes through the motions as if she's paying for a ticket. Maybe that's the idea.
The Smith film is more sophisticated. The couple are older, elegantly dressed, and ought to know better - only they're not a couple, I don't think. To judge by their rapport they've just met on that train maybe half a hour earlier, which if they're heading down to Brighton from London would put them at the tunnel just south of Three Bridges. They engage in a bit of coy flirting, exchange a few kisses, then propriety is resumed - she returns to her embroidery, he to his newspaper-  though not before sitting on his hat. It's as if the brief moment in the tunnel has given then a fleeting opportunity to escape the strict conventions of late Victorian society, which they must hastily re-adopt before the train emerges. If not exactly 'gentlemen's relish', it probably appeared quite racy and escapist at the time.
If you'd like another take on this film try this chap's review.      

Saturday, 27 September 2014

1898: Pack Train on Chilkoot Pass

Compared to other pioneers like Smith and Melies, Edison's films can look rather dull as they are mostly simple historical records with no attempt at cinematic technique or innovation, and on the face of it "Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass" is not a very remarkable film except that it records a mode of transport seldom seen today, a pack train of mules. It's a simple, single shot film of a few dozen mules and their drivers plodding along a dirt track beside a river in the mountains.  However the time and place is significant as it seems to be a film record of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, in which 40000 prospectors made their way over the Alaskan border into the Klondike goldfields. About one in ten struck gold - not the worst odds for such a high stakes game but still, the other 90 percent probably suffered gruelling hardship and lost everything they had in the venture.
Although the film might have been shot on the lower part of the Klondike trail it clearly isn't the pass itself. Many contemporary photos record the famous single-file trail of dogged prospectors climbing the 'golden stairs' - the ice-carved staircase up the snow-covered mountainside, which holds a famous place in silent movie history as it was faithfully recreated by Charlie Chaplin in his 1925 feature, "the Gold Rush".
(note: This YouTube version dates the film as 1901 but most sources place it at 1898.)    

Sunday, 24 August 2014

1897: The X Rays (G A Smith)

I was planning to use as many films from my own DVD collection as possible in these reviews, but the selection for 1897 was pretty limited. All I could find was the Lumiere brothers' "Niagara Falls" (one minute of footage of, well, Niagara Falls) and "President McKinley At Home", an equally uninventive record of the late president strolling in his garden and apparently signing a cheque.  So I've had to resort to YouTube again, and a quick search revealed this little gem from Brighton pioneer George Albert Smith, The X-Rays, in which an X-ray machine intrudes on a courting couple, and reveals more than the subjects might have wished at this delicate stage of their relationship.
As with the previous Melies film, it's delightful to see how quickly these early film makers were waking up to the possiblities. As well as its technical trickery it shows a wonderful playfulness that makes it funny to watch even today. Brighton comedian Tom Green plays the romantic lead to great effect - perhaps the earliest example of a professional comedian appearing in a comic role on film.      

Saturday, 16 August 2014

1896: The Nightmare (Georges Melies)

Only a year after the invention of cinema and the Lumiere brothers' work is already starting to look dull and old fashioned. who else could be responsible but Georges Melies?
His "Voyage to the Moon" from a few years later is of course an iconic film of the period, but I must admit I was surprised to find that he'd entered the game so early, and with his style already so well defined. After just a few months of filming Lumiere-style 'actualities', he's already discovered the trick of stopping the camera to substitute something or someone in the scene, making it appear that a sudden magical transformation has taken place. It's still clunky in this early effort, but the seeds of his later masterpieces are already starting to bear fruit.    
In The Nightmare, A man sleeps in an odd bath-shaped bed, in front of a backdrop that presumably is meant to represent his bedroom, but as he dreams the backdrop changes to a castle balcony, and he encounters, in quick succession, a seductive woman, a blacked-up minstrel and a clown, who take turns taunting and teasing him. In a moment that still feels weirdly creepy, and must have really put the wind up sensitive audience members in 1896, the moon come down to his balcony and tries to bite off his hand.  
Melies' impish wit is already much in evidence, and it looks like he's playing the lead himself here, as he often did - and enjoying himself immensely.    

Thursday, 14 August 2014

1895: L'Arroseur Arrosé

Director: Louis Lumiere
This is the earliest example of a fiction film I could find - possibly the first made, from the year of the invention of cinema.
As you'd expect, not a sophisticated story. A gardener is busy watering with a hose when some mischievous youngster sneaks up and stands on the hosepipe, blocking the flow. He removes his foot and the gardener ends up with a wet face.
It's actually rather well acted - the more so considering it's Lumiere's own gardener and not a professional actor - and that he must know full well he's going to get a blast of water in the face. He does a neat job of examining the nozzle and not flinching before getting soaked, and the young prankster plays along well when the gardener catchers him and administers a spanking, though he does glance at the camera on his way out.
It's a nice glimpse into a more no-nonsense age.  After getting soaked, the gardener chases the kid (though on closer examination he's probably about 30), tugs him along by the ear, gives him a good spanking then carries on with his work. Problem dealt with simply and efficiently. Today - well, what could you do? have a stiff word with his parents who would then restrict his X-Box privileges?  Just as well things weren't like that then or screen comedy would have got off to a weak start. Though perhaps it's not too late to arrest the gardener.      
Incidentally, while hunting for this on YouTube to provide a link, I found another film called "The Mechanical Butcher" - which is quite plausibly claimed to be the first science fiction film. It's hardly "Solaris" but check it out.