Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria

Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle in 1896 (public domain)

5. "Rip Van Winkle"(1896) Watch

It makes sense that cinema has deep and robust roots in live theater, from the Shakespearean to vaudeville and all betwixt. This series of eight short scenes was adapted from the play of the same name co-written by and starring Joseph Jefferson, who'd become famous in the 19th century for his on-stage portrayal of Rip Van Winkle and reprises the role here.
The presentation of these brief scenes, filmed in the woods, looks downright rudimentary and crude; most cellphone-shot videos of idiots hurting themselves in different hilarious ways display more nuance and understanding of the cinematic language than these bits of filmed theater. It actually reminds me of the first film I every made, which I shot on a camcorder in the 10th grade. The inclusion of "Rip Van Winkle" in the National Film Registry is a little baffling; I'm not sure what aesthetic, cultural, or historical significance it has to justify such a decision. What are your thoughts?

6. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight (1897)

This film is proving elusive; details can be found here.

7. "President McKinley Inauguration Footage" (1901)

The telegenic quality of a president is practically essential in the modern era, and has been for some time, but it was not always thus. This short collection of two films shot by Thomas Edison himself documenting various parts of the eponymous event lives at the beginning of the time when the relationship between the president and the media was about to go through monumental changes. Until the advent of cinema, these quadrennial events took place and then were finished, visually undocumented except for a few photographs; a president's inauguration, and indeed his entire term in office, passed through time safe from capture by the net of the moving image. These ceremonies happened in their own time and place and remained there forever. By contrast, the sight and sound of JFK's inauguration in 1961 for example has been replayed and broadcast at thousands of times and in thousands of places, not to mention the fact that it is carried in signals that tumble deeper and deeper into the cosmos with each passing moment.

8. "Star Theatre" (1901) Watch

One very popular trend in short-form filmmaking this decade is known as tilt-shift. It's a method of capturing urban scenes, usually shot from a high angle, which causes the people and vehicles going about their business to appear to be miniature, using either a special lens or applying the effect in post production. only a slice of the frame is in focus, and the action plays out faster than real time. The "Regatta Scene" from David Fincher's The Social Network takes advantage of this technique. Tilt-shift is a cousin of time-lapse, one of the earliest examples of which is "Star Theatre", a short piece filmed over the course of about 30 days showing the dismantling of the title building. It is as compelling as any tilt-shift video.
Naturally, the Star Theatre housed staged productions of plays. As mentioned earlier, cinema was born partially from live theater, so the nexus of the subject and medium of "Star Theatre" is fascinating to contemplate. Here, a movie camera observes the death of a house of its own forebear. The film is like a cinematic laser blasting the art of theater into oblivion; a rapidly growing child eating its mother. 

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