Saturday, 28 February 2015

1904: Opening of the Drill Hall, Accrington, by General Baden-Powell

Opening of the Drill Hall, Accrington, by General Baden-Powell

OK - I admit it. I only did this film because of the catchy title. In terms of innovation or cinematic technique it has nothing to offer, but I mention it here because it's an example of a type of film-making I haven't touched on yet.
The Mitchell and Kenyon film company was active in the North of England from 1897 to about 1920, and specialised in making documentary films of local events, making sure to include as many faces as possible, then develop the films the same day and screen them at a local venue in the evening, hopefully making a profit from the sale of tickets. (One of their slogans was "Local films for local people".) Mitchell and Kenyon suddenly became famous again a hundred years later, after their film archive was rediscovered, long forgotten, in the basement of a shop in Blackburn, and subsequently restored by the British Film Institute.
This film is a fairly typical example. All the film makers have done is set up the camera in a prominent position and turned the handle. It's a living.
To a modern viewer, it's a glimpse into a long gone world in which everyone wore hats and the presence of a movie camera was a big event.
Even if you're from Accrington, you're hardly likely to recognise anyone, but watch out for a cameo from the bloke who drives the fire engine in "Trumpton".

1903: Desperate Poaching Affray

Desperate Poaching Affray

I'm spoilt for choice this year - 1903 gives us a whole bunch of groundbreaking early films including Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery", credited with creating much of the grammar of film narrative and editing, the Sheffield Photographic Company's "Daring Daylight Burglary", equally inventive and a few months older, George A Smith's  "Mary Jane's Mishap", in which the director's wife plays a ditzy housemaid and gets spectacularly blown up the chimney when trying to light the stove with paraffin, and Cecil Hepworth's "Alice in Wonderland", longest British film of its time at around 10 minutes.
The one I've picked, though, is William Haggar's "Desperate Poaching Affray". Perhaps I like this film because it's a lot like films I made as a teenager, but with a cast of more than three, who are less afraid of getting hurt.
Essentially it's a simple chase film in which two poachers are caught in the act and pursued through woods, fields and ponds by several policemen and (presumably) gamekeepers. The poachers shoot at the gamekeepers, the gamekeepers shoot at the poachers (never mind that the policemen are in the way), all of them get into a big fight first in the woods, then in the middle of a pond, before the poachers are captured and led off - all for the sake of a pheasant or two, presumably.
What makes this film stand out is the wholeheartedness with which the performers throw themselves into the action - often literally. The fighting is convincing and dynamic, even when the performers are waist-deep in muddy water.  None of the theatricals or over-emphasised gestures of "Scrooge" or the Melies films, these guys are doing it like they mean it.    

Saturday, 21 February 2015

1902: A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon

I don't know what I can add to the volumes that have been written about this, Georges Melies' most famous film and probably the first great science fiction film, except that it's a shame so many great film-makers of this period fell on hard times later. Melies, as you'll know if you've seen the excellent 'Hugo', ended up running a toy stall in a Paris railway station. If only they had known that their work wasn't, in the end, as ephemeral as it seemed at the time.
This film has recently seen a brilliant and painstaking new restoration by Serge Bromberg's Lobster Films, created from a badly decayed hand-coloured print that technology has only been able to rescue in the last few years.  Until recently you could find the Park Circus DVD of that version in Fopp for as little as £3 but some dealers on Amazon are now asking up to £150. Never mind, though, it's on YouTube in full HD - for the moment. (I've linked to one that's less likely to be removed.)
The style of acting and photography hasn't really moved on yet, but Melies' stop-camera effects become ever more effective, as the moon creatures who chase the heroes back to their ship vanish in puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas - hardly an effective survival mechanism, you'd have thought, but certainly spectacular.
Aside from the presence of breathable air and humanoid life on the Moon, one huge difference in the perception of the space-travel business in 1901 versus later years is that in those days it seems to  be so far removed from reality that it falls into the province of wizards and mystics, since the film opens with a meeting of pointy-hatted, robed gentlemen discussing the project with the aid of a blackboard.
On the other hand, the space capsule, remarkable similar to a Gemini or Apollo craft, splashes down in the sea and is retrieved by the Navy.        

1901: Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost

Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost

Or even "A Christmas Carol". We're starting to get into serious attempts at story-telling now, though sadly only three and a half minutes of this 11-minute epic survive. It's included on the BFI DVD, "Dickens Before Sound".
It's early days, so what passes for screen drama involves a locked-off camera pointed at a painted backdrop, with a company of actors mugging and gesticulating as if their myopic grannies were sitting right at the back of the cinema -it's not even acting so much as a catalogue of theatrical shorthand.
Technically, it's already conventional in comparison to Melies, with double-exposure effects telegraphed in advance by the presence of, say, a broad black curtain for the double-exposed characters to show up against. Nevertheless, though, it no doubt did the job for audiences of the time. It relies on knowledge of the story to communicate its full meaning, but since we still make films today for people who have already read the book we can't fault it for that, and its worth saluting just for pushing the boundaries and trying to get people to sit still through 11 minutes of film - something that seems to be more of a challenge now with each passing year.


1900: Explosion of a Motor Car

Explosion of a Motor Car

Ok, it would be a shame to give up on this without at least making it into the 20th century, so here's a fun little film from Walton on Thames's own Cecil Hepworth, soon to become one of Britain's most famous and prolific film makers.
Motor cars were just as new and as much a curiosity as moving pictures in 1900, and must have seemed a little ridiculous to some - a rich people's plaything, less practical than a horse, more dangerous and much more expensive - so when a car full of bright young things comes chugging down the road, its occupants cheerfully waving their hankies as working men go about their business, it must have raised a huge laugh in the cinema when the car explodes, blowing its occupants sky-high.
A passing policeman witnesses the incident and calmly notes it all down as body parts land around him.
The trick photography is simple but effective - just a few frames after a puff of smoke is released from the car, the camera is stopped and the car substituted for a pile of wreckage.
The playful tone of the film is again interesting - on one level it's a simple sight gag but one wonders if Hepworth was playing to his audience, and counting on a good response from punters of limited means, many of whom would have been hard-working servants to exactly the sort of people who get their come-uppance here.