Thursday, January 3, 2013

Welcome to the Black Maria

Thomas Edison's Black Maria (Library of Congress)

In 2013 I am giving myself the task of watching all 600 films in the National Film Registry. These are the movies that the United States National Film Preservation Board has deemed worthy of inclusion in the Library of Congress. Each year since 1989, around 25 films from all throughout cinema history are chosen based on standards of cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. I'll be watching them chronologically based on when each was made.
600 films in a year may seem like a giant commitment, but its really not as immense an undertaking as it sounds; it averages out to about 11 films a week, which is one per weeknight and 3 on each day of the weekend, and is really no more film-viewing than I'm already accustomed to. Considering many of the early films are quite short, some less than a minute, I should be able to get way ahead of schedule within the first two weeks of the year.
Now, it'd be a shame to go on a cinematic adventure like this and not document the experience, so here begins my journal of a year in the National Film Registry.

1. "Newark Athlete" (1891) Watch
This now-visibly damaged, 10 second clip of a young man swinging Indian clubs around was made by William Kennedy Dickson, a movie camera inventor who worked for Thomas Edison; he filmed the piece in Edison's Black Maria, a little eccentric-looking building used to produce many of the inventor's kinetoscope films (including the four earliest entries on our list), and which is widely considered one of the first movie studios. To my hopelessly modern eye "Newark Athlete" is unremarkable, but remembering the historical context helps me to ponder what a citizen of the day must have thought, unburdened by a lifetime of acclimation to cinema. What in my era is an analog to this brief strip of boring film? What modern wonders amaze and confound me by their mere existence?

2. "Blacksmith Scene" (1893) Watch
Not only was this piece the first Kinetoscope film to be publicly shown, but is also infamously the very first example of actors performing a scene in a motion picture; three blacksmiths take turns hammering a piece of metal, breaking momentarily to share a drink before getting back to work. The action is simple, mechanical, and dull, but nothing had done what "Blacksmith Scene" does before then, and it is a universal truth that once a thing is shown to be possible, it becomes ever more so in the minds of all who witness it. Every scene played out on the screen since owes its being to this piece.

3. "Dickson Experimental Sound Film" (1894 or 1895) Watch
This is a bizarre little clip. It shows a violinist playing into a phonograph, and it constitutes the first time the sound and movement of a thing were recorded simultaneously. Perhaps to avoid boring the viewer, the director, again the afore mentioned Dickson, chose to feature two men dancing to the music. Such an image begs the question - was it a social norm of the time for men to dance together in this way, or could no women be found to take part? Another strange detail is that, though this is technically a sound film, no method (such as a slate) was used to sync the picture and corresponding wax record, and it would be over 30 years until, with the release of The Jazz Singer, the talkies would reach public awareness. For the intervening decades cinema would gestate in silence, and the art is better for it. 

4. "The Kiss" (1896) Watch
The two-shot has become a perhaps over-used part of the cinematic language over the decade, and can be found in nearly every movie. This early example shows a couple chatting jovially and sharing a silly and awkward kiss. The action is simple and ordinary yet this snippet is fascinating nonetheless. Seeing these living faces, watching them interact, I am intrigued to know what they are saying and who they are to each other. It has been said that all films are simply documentaries about people's faces, and "The Kiss" certainly supports that assertion. Having only observed these two folks for roughly 45 seconds, I am already finding myself invested in their lives. Cinema gets at not only the look of people but how they act and relate to each other; its an art that captures us as we move relentlessly through time. 

Thus concludes the part of our journey that took us into Edison's Black Maria. Next we move beyond 19th century New Jersey to find theater in the woods, the great-grandfather of tilt-shift, and the beginning of the long marriage between cinema and the boxing ring. 

1 comment:

Donna Ross said...

Congratulations and good luck on your New Year's resolution to watch all 600 National Film Registry titles. That's some undertaking, but I see from your blog that you've already seen a number of them (ie "Paths of Glory," "Night of the Hunter" and dozens more from your "Favorite Films" list). Hope you enjoy your journey, and I look forward to reading about your progress. Thanks for embracing the work of the National Film Preservation Board and the National Film Registry.