Sunday, 24 August 2014

1897: The X Rays (G A Smith)

I was planning to use as many films from my own DVD collection as possible in these reviews, but the selection for 1897 was pretty limited. All I could find was the Lumiere brothers' "Niagara Falls" (one minute of footage of, well, Niagara Falls) and "President McKinley At Home", an equally uninventive record of the late president strolling in his garden and apparently signing a cheque.  So I've had to resort to YouTube again, and a quick search revealed this little gem from Brighton pioneer George Albert Smith, The X-Rays, in which an X-ray machine intrudes on a courting couple, and reveals more than the subjects might have wished at this delicate stage of their relationship.
As with the previous Melies film, it's delightful to see how quickly these early film makers were waking up to the possiblities. As well as its technical trickery it shows a wonderful playfulness that makes it funny to watch even today. Brighton comedian Tom Green plays the romantic lead to great effect - perhaps the earliest example of a professional comedian appearing in a comic role on film.      

Saturday, 16 August 2014

1896: The Nightmare (Georges Melies)

Only a year after the invention of cinema and the Lumiere brothers' work is already starting to look dull and old fashioned. who else could be responsible but Georges Melies?
His "Voyage to the Moon" from a few years later is of course an iconic film of the period, but I must admit I was surprised to find that he'd entered the game so early, and with his style already so well defined. After just a few months of filming Lumiere-style 'actualities', he's already discovered the trick of stopping the camera to substitute something or someone in the scene, making it appear that a sudden magical transformation has taken place. It's still clunky in this early effort, but the seeds of his later masterpieces are already starting to bear fruit.    
In The Nightmare, A man sleeps in an odd bath-shaped bed, in front of a backdrop that presumably is meant to represent his bedroom, but as he dreams the backdrop changes to a castle balcony, and he encounters, in quick succession, a seductive woman, a blacked-up minstrel and a clown, who take turns taunting and teasing him. In a moment that still feels weirdly creepy, and must have really put the wind up sensitive audience members in 1896, the moon come down to his balcony and tries to bite off his hand.  
Melies' impish wit is already much in evidence, and it looks like he's playing the lead himself here, as he often did - and enjoying himself immensely.    

Thursday, 14 August 2014

1895: L'Arroseur Arrosé

Director: Louis Lumiere
This is the earliest example of a fiction film I could find - possibly the first made, from the year of the invention of cinema.
As you'd expect, not a sophisticated story. A gardener is busy watering with a hose when some mischievous youngster sneaks up and stands on the hosepipe, blocking the flow. He removes his foot and the gardener ends up with a wet face.
It's actually rather well acted - the more so considering it's Lumiere's own gardener and not a professional actor - and that he must know full well he's going to get a blast of water in the face. He does a neat job of examining the nozzle and not flinching before getting soaked, and the young prankster plays along well when the gardener catchers him and administers a spanking, though he does glance at the camera on his way out.
It's a nice glimpse into a more no-nonsense age.  After getting soaked, the gardener chases the kid (though on closer examination he's probably about 30), tugs him along by the ear, gives him a good spanking then carries on with his work. Problem dealt with simply and efficiently. Today - well, what could you do? have a stiff word with his parents who would then restrict his X-Box privileges?  Just as well things weren't like that then or screen comedy would have got off to a weak start. Though perhaps it's not too late to arrest the gardener.      
Incidentally, while hunting for this on YouTube to provide a link, I found another film called "The Mechanical Butcher" - which is quite plausibly claimed to be the first science fiction film. It's hardly "Solaris" but check it out.