Thursday, April 7, 2011

The NFR Project: "The Kiss"

The Kiss
Dir: William Heise
1896
18 sec.

Let’s talk about sex.

Why would a short sequence of two middle-aged, none-too-attractive people canoodling merit inclusion in the National Film Registry? This 50-foot strip of celluloid set off a firestorm of controversy, creating a wave of interest and condemnation that reinforced two facts for filmmakers – sex sells, and outrage doesn’t hurt the box office either.

The premise of the snippet is that it recreates a celebrated moment from John J. McNally’s hit 1895 Broadway musical comedy “The Widow Jones.” The performers, John C. Rice and May Irwin, play Billie Bilke and Beatrice Byke (or Jones, depending on the source consulted). The mainspring of the plot seems to have been Irwin pretending to be a widow to fend off unwanted suitors.
The scene, which is either from Act One or the play’s finale (again, sources differ – oh, to have a copy of the script!), shows the two touching heads, turned out toward the camera, and exchanging dialogue as they nuzzle. (If anyone can lip-read and send me the lines, I’d be happy to incorporate them in this piece.) Finally, Irwin seems to concede to Rice’s desire to pucker up. After a flourishing gesture with both hands that combs away his thick mustachios, Rice plants one on Irwin – or rather, he holds his lips to hers and makes several rapid moues before the film ends.

Daniel Eagan’s entry on this in his indispensable “America’s Film Legacy” states that the filming was sponsored by the newspaper the New York World, which promoted both the play and the film in a feature story. Irwin was a big star at the time. Four years earlier, she had introduced the song “After the Ball” from the stage during the show “A Trip to Chinatown” – a song that sold more than 5 million copies of its sheet music.

However, it’s not the connection to a stage hit that keeps the film in our collective memory. The two heads of the lovers fill the frame, and the focus is exclusively on their embrace. Movie patrons, editorialists and ministers all reacted with shock and dismay . . . as the revenues from the film piled ever higher. (Kissing in public, according to Tim Dirks’ “Greatest Films” website, was a prosecutable offense at the time.)

“They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time,” chirped the Edison catalog. Although France’s Eugene Pirou was creating a much more graphic striptease for pornographic satisfaction in “La Coucher de la Mariee” (Bedtime for the Bride) that same year, America’s Puritanical heritage rankled at even this chaste bout of osculation.

The in-your-face quality of the image has something to do with its impact as well. After the full-figure shots of film’s beginnings, the camera had begun to move in closer, as with shorts such as “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” (1894). The medium close-up made an impact through the viewing slit of the one-customer-at-a-time kinetoscope, and even more so when projected on a large screen to a communal audience (although the Lumieres had pioneered the public screening in late 1895, Vitascope Hall, the first movie theater, opened in the basement of the Ellicott Square Building in Buffalo, New York on June 26, 1896). Now the images were enormous, invasive, dominating a darkened auditorium in a way that no theatrical effort could match.

From this point on, a slow but steady push in the film industry against the boundaries of propriety, and a high-powered institutional battle to censor those efforts, would develop into a long-standing, symbiotic relationship. Likewise, an ever-more-savvy marketing industry would learn how to exploit the audience’s hunger for forbidden fruit while simultaneously decrying it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The NFR Project: "Dickson Experimental Sound Film"

Note: Today I finally found a copy of a book I had only become aware of a week or two ago, after I conceived and began this project – “America’s Film Legacy” by Daniel Eagan. This 2010 work beats me to the punch in terms of examining all the films in the National Film Registry in chronological order (although it is 50 films shy of the present total, due to the additions of the past two years). At over 800 pages, it looks to be a thorough, scholarly and fact-packed examination of the titles in question.

So why should I continue? Usually, when a viable approach to writing about a given topic is taken, the ground is ceded to the first person to explore the territory. I decided to move forward, not because of any deficiency in Eagan’s exhaustive achievement, but because inevitably I must bring other perspectives and emphases to my survey of the same landscape. I also feel this is a journey I must take.

So, my apologies to Mr. Eagan. I’m sure I will wind up duplicating some of his observations and evaluations and pray that I will do so only unintentionally. Please look to the texts that follow – I will cite him whenever I find myself using information he has so expertly collected. My work on this project is much more informal and subjective, and its flaws are entirely my own.

Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Dir: William K. Dickson
1894-1895
17 sec.

This entry in the National Film Registry is not distinguished by its aesthetics, but as an ambitious technological gamble that didn’t pay off. In fact, it would take more than 100 years before its significance really came to light. Only opportune discoveries, sleuthing and determined effort chained to modern technology made its full import known.

“Sometime between September 1894 and April 1895” (Eagan), Edison’s assistant William K. Dickson attempted to combine the kinetoscope with the phonograph, presumably under the direction of Edison himself. Dickson himself stands playing a violin air into the enormous, suspended recording cone to the left of the screen. To the right, two male assistants dance together to the tune. In the last moments, an older man walks into the scene, seemingly oblivious to what’s going on.

For decades, the snippet of film existed in mute form. Finally, in 1964 a wax cylinder was found in the Edison laboratory labeled “Dickson – Violin by W.K.L. Dickson with Kineto.” Unfortunately, the cylinder was broken.

It wasn’t until 1998 that the cylinder was repaired and its content recorded and digitized. The task of mating the soundtrack to the film was turned over to highly respected film editor Walter Murch. In 2000, the job was completed.
Once the sound is cleaned up, the recording has high fidelity. Film historian Vincent Russo posits this as being the first instance of “gay” film, but the dancers seem to have been chosen for their presence in the lab rather than for their terpsichorean talents or sexual proclivities.

The men awkwardly circle in the confined space – the clean-shaven dancer grimaces comically once as he turns, and muffs a backwards step. (The tune is “The Song of the Cabin Boy,” about being at sea with no women around, from the 1877 operetta “The Chimes of Normandy.”)

Edison’s impulse to marry sight and sound was surely profit-driven. Unfortunately, the single-viewer model of the kinetoscope (viewers were to hear the sound through rubber earphones as they stared through a viewing slot at the film) could not recoup the costs of production effectively enough. In addition, the belt-driven synchronicity drivers of the time were too unreliable. For another 33 years, sound and image on film would exist independently of each other. (In fact, explanatory and mood-making devices such as intertitles, live musical accompaniment and sound effects, and even people hired to read the intertitles to illiterate audiences or simply narrators – the benshi of Japan’s silent era – thrived in the countries to which movies made their way.)

It can be argued that this temporary technological impasse was integral to liberating the film image, enabling it to sweep the world. Filmmakers were forced to tell a story in strictly visual terms, and the resulting product, focused on universals of human behavior, could cross borders with ease.

During the silent span, film was the universal art form, and its popularity meant that stars such as Charlie Chaplin, William S. Hart, Lillian Gish and Theda Bara were instantly recognizable everywhere around the world. The archetypes created during this era still resonate in the cinemas of multiple cultures, their mutations informing and enriching the medium. What fragmentation might have taken place if the language barrier had intruded in 1894?