Monday, August 22, 2011

The NFR Project #9: Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre

Star Theatre (Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theatre, Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre)
Dir: Frederick C. Armitage
1:46, in its original form

Magic tricks, a game in which time is confounded. A gimmick piled atop another.

“Star Theatre” is the first popular example of American camera play. Frenchman Georges Melies had pioneered the use of stop-trick and time-lapse effects in his special-effects films, beginning in 1896. Armitage, an employee of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, took advantage of the company’s office position at Broadway and 13th in New York to document the demolition of the title building.

He came up with the idea of bolting the camera down and exposing a bit of film every four minutes during daylight hours while the work progressed. When finished, the film shows the structure coming apart and disappearing with magical rapidity. Meanwhile, a nearby awning snaps up and down like a clockwork toy; pedestrians skitter like thrown jacks along the sidewalks, while traffic shoots past the camera at jet speed. Short establishing shots at the beginning and end of the sequence revert to normal-time, giving the viewer a satisfying sense of completion.
Technology has dissected an event by divorcing it from consensual time and compressing it. Suddenly, the potential for movies to give the viewer a godlike, or at least para-human, perspective, is glimpsed. This technique would later be used extensively by the Disney studios in their True-Life Adventures documentary series; many will remember the rapidly-opening blossoms from “The Living Desert.” George Pal, no stranger to the possibilities of fantastic cinema, also made memorable use in a sequence from his 1960 feature-film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”
Although the original sequence simply tracks the demolition, another level of novelty, and an explanation for the film’s extended titles, is introduced by the company’s recommendation to exhibitors that the film be run backward through the projector. “When this view is shown in reverse, the effect is very extraordinary,” the directions state.

Louis Lumiere had first come up with the idea of running film backward for novelty effect almost immediately, in 1895. Lave it to the imaginations of the filmmakers to double the potential fun here. And why demolish it first, then build it back up? Why not the other way round? The plastic possibilities of the medium were to be rapidly engaged, exploited and expanded upon.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The NFR Project #10: President McKinley Inauguration Footage

President McKinley Inauguration Footage
Dir: prob. Edwin S. Porter, James H. White
2:42 (two sequences)

First question: who are these people? Second: why do we care?

My cynical response to this selection has much to do with my political orientation, although the footage is aesthetically painful as well. People file into a grandstand that is draped in flags and patriotic bunting. Someone on a platform speaks down to the crowd. A befeathered, helmeted troop of horsemen, brandishing ceremonial weapons, trots by. Here come some carriages. A balding man orates, gesticulating with sweeping Victorian-era rhetorical emphasis.

It takes documentation to tell us what we are seeing – scenes from the second inauguration of William McKinley on March 1, 1901. These vague, static frames have no meaning unless they are contextualized. The only inherent interest in the event is the fact that is was the first presidential inauguration to be captured on film – the act of recording endows the event with significance.

McKinley, an advocate of corporate consolidation and empowerment, and an architect of American empire, was perhaps the first media-savvy president. His campaign manager, Mark Hanna, spent tons of money on all forms of media support and promotion for his candidate, blanketing the electorate with pro-McKinley messages. Ironically, McKinley’s high visibility may have made him a more appealing target for his assassin, who shot him during McKinley’s well-publicized visit to the Pan-American Exhibition on Sept. 6, 1901.

The urge to record significant moments isn’t new. The new technology of film simply invests the moments recorded with vividness. The hunger for “reality” means that McKinley’s assassination was later restaged for the cameras and presented as “real,” as were the execution of McKinley’s assassin, scenes from the Spanish-American War, and countless pseudo-documentary moments thereafter. Our hunger for verifiable, true-life entertainment continues today, with countless title cards that proclaim a hit movie is “based on a true story,” although the dull everyday facts are transmogrified into dramatic beats and inspirational or sensational plot lines.

From now on, the camera ennobles the mundane, and politicos and other fame-seekers begin to strut and preen for a chance at celluloid immortality.