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Return to the Kingdom of Shadows: Collected Writings On Film

Return to the Kingdom of Shadows: Collected Writings On Film

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Return to the Kingdom of Shadows: Collected Writings On Film

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388 pagine
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Apr 14, 2019
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9780359591695
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Libro

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A collection of writings on film by Matt Barry, this book is a celebration of cinema, from the earliest experiments of Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, to the independent cinema of today.

Among the pieces collected in this book are selected film reviews, essays and articles he has written for various online outlets over the years, as well as his personal blog, The Art and Culture of Movies.

With an eye toward both film history and the new directions in which the art of cinema is continually evolving, this book is a tribute to some of the author's favorite films -- movies that continue to inspire and entertain.
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Apr 14, 2019
ISBN:
9780359591695
Formato:
Libro

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Return to the Kingdom of Shadows - Matt Barry

Return to the Kingdom of Shadows: Collected Writings On Film

RETURN TO THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON FILM

by Matt Barry

Copyright © 2019 by Matt Barry

All rights reserved.

Articles originally published at Forces of Geek, The Age of Comedy, Rogue Cinema, and Not Coming to a Theater Near You are reprinted with permission.

Cover Design by Brooke Hendrickson

Image: DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND (Edwin S. Porter, 1906). Public Domain.

First Printing: 2019

ISBN 978-0-359-59169-5

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank Stefan Blitz, Forces of Geek; John V. Brennan, The Age of Comedy; Duane L. Martin, Rogue Cinema; and Rumsey Taylor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, for their permission to republish articles here that I originally wrote for their respective publications.

I would also like to thank Cullen Gallagher for his support and encouragement of this project.

INTRODUCTION

This book is a celebration of cinema, from the earliest experiments of Edison and the Lumiere brothers, to the independent cinema of today.

The idea for this book began to take shape several years ago, when I'd started compiling some of my favorite articles that I'd written for my blog, The Art and Culture of Movies, around the time of its tenth anniversary. I'd begun blogging in 2005, using it as a platform to self-publish my writings on film.

After a few years, in 2010, I started writing a film column, The Bad and the Beautiful, for the pop culture website Forces of Geek, which I contributed for over two years. Around the same time, I began writing reviews of new indie films for Rogue Cinema, a website dedicated to cult and independent film. Writing for these outlets gave me a chance to share both my love of film history, and my interest in the new directions in which the art of cinema is continually evolving.

Among the pieces collected in this book are selected columns I wrote for Forces of Geek, my film reviews for Rogue Cinema, as well as articles I contributed to the online film journal Not Coming to a Theater Near You and the website The Age of Comedy.

I've also selected some of the essays and reviews, originally published on my own blog, of which I am most proud. Through these, I hope to share some of my favorite films, movies that have inspired me and provided endless hours of enjoyment over the years.

PART 1: EARLY CINEMA

RETURN TO THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS

During a recent trip to MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, I came across an interesting exhibit that reminded me that the basic principles that first enchanted audiences with early cinema more than a century ago are still at work today.

The work was Peter Campus’ Shadow Projections (1974), and it brings contemporary spectators back to the Kingdom of Shadows that audiences first entered at the end of the 19th century. The work features a kind of shadow projector: a white screen, with a light on one side, and a projector shining light onto the other. Standing in front of it, the spectator not only sees his own shadow, but a detailed projection of themselves with visible features. It’s quite uncanny, really, how detailed the shadows appear when projected on to the screen.

As I was at looking at the exhibit, a child ran right up to the little screen, absolutely fascinated by what he was seeing. He was taken with the way his movements were replicated on the screen by his shadow! I couldn’t help thinking that this is a child who has only known a world with HDTV, CGI movies, digital photography, video games with 3-D graphics, various electronic devices for viewing online video, and so on. And yet, he was positively fascinated with the pure motion of a shadow against the screen. During my time at the exhibit, children and adults alike expressed a similar fascination – something so simple, yet with an undeniable ability to captivate.

It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to imagine the same kind of fascination that spectators at the first film screenings would have felt. Upon seeing his first movie in 1896, Maxim Gorky wrote:

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without color. Everything there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life, but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless specter.[1]

The desire to depict motion can be traced back as long as mankind has set out to depict the human experience through art. Cave paintings depicting animals with multiple legs are said to represent the illusion of motion. The shadow play, of course, has a long history, dating back to ancient China, with shadow puppetry emerging during the Han Dynasty.

It is only a short technological leap to the Zoetrope and the Magic Lantern, both of which enchanted audiences in the 19th century. Shadows remain an essential part of the cinematic experience – from animated works like Lotte Reiniger’s THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED to the celebrated sword fight sequence in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.

Peter Campus’ Shadow Projector returns the moving image to that soundless specter by reducing the image to its bare essentials. Stripped of the bells and whistles of computer graphics, 3-D imagery, color, sound, and other artificial enhancements, the shadow reminds us what first drew audiences to early cinema in the first place, and indeed, why we still refer to them, after all, as movies.

When I see - even in the media-saturated visual culture of the 21st century - the fascination that just watching the movement of one’s own shadow projected on a screen can still provide, as it did for that child at PS1, it demonstrates that the study of early cinema is more relevant than ever.


[1]Maxim Gorky, Nijegorodskilistok (July 4, 1896), reprinted in Emmanuelle Toulet, Birth of the Motion Picture, (New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), 132.

SCREEN SPACE IN THE FILMS OF EDISON AND LUMIERE

In formal terms, one of the most striking differences between the films of the Edison Company and the Lumiere brothers is in their approaches to screen space and depth of field. Although films from both companies initially restricted themselves to a single camera set-up, lasting for the entire duration of a roll of film, their approaches to the compositions within the shot could not be more different from each other.

The difference in approach is largely a result of their respective filming conditions: Edison shot his films inside a specially-built studio, dubbed The Black Maria, which was constructed on a rotating platform with a retractable roof that could be re-positioned at all times for optimal sunlight. The studio was a small, tarpaper-covered affair that allowed just enough room for performers and camera. Characteristic of the Edison company's films was an emphasis on the performer or subject, illuminated by bright sunlight against the black backdrop of this studio. The effect of the sunlight resembles a spotlight being shone on the performer, as in a theatrical setting.

Conversely, the Lumieres shot outdoors, in natural lighting, which likewise gave their films a naturalistic style that differed from Edison's more theatrical arrangements. In the Lumiere films, the subject is often life itself -- the daily routines of workers leaving the factory, for example, or the family feeding their baby. In the latter film, for instance, the fascination for early audiences was as much with the foliage moving about in the breeze in the background, as it was with the subject in the foreground of the shot.

Where the difference is most striking, however, is in the use of depth of field. Edison's films, at least those shot inside the studio, are flat, lacking any sense of the space between foreground and background. By eliminating the background completely and replacing it with a black void, Edison ensured that the focus would be on the performer. The Lumieres, in contrast, not only provided distinctive backgrounds with their own details, but even allowed their subjects to interact with those backgrounds.

Take one of their most famous films, ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT (1896). The shot is set up so that the train station is visible on the left of the screen, the platform is on the right, and the track runs roughly down the middle of the shot. The track serves as the linking visual element that brings the subject (the train) from the background into the foreground, and right past the camera as it comes to a stop. The film's first audiences reportedly reacted with panic at the sight of the train rushing toward them -- a testament to the power of the Lumieres' use of the screen space.

Then, there are the little background details that make the film so vital and rich: the crowds milling about on the platform, the conductor running from the background to the foreground to catch up with the slowing train, and the disembarking passengers who exit the train. Throughout the entirety of the shot, there is no unused or dead space within the frame; the Lumieres find all of the details and film the scene so that they are all visible.

Within a couple years of the development of cinema, these techniques would become more commonplace among producers. Edison, for example, made his own train film, BLACK DIAMOND EXPRESS, later in the same year that the Lumieres had made ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT. Eventually, the distinctions become blurred as filmmakers learned from and copied each other's techniques, while other approaches became outmoded or discarded entirely. But the fundamental difference between the Edison and Lumiere approaches to composition is exemplified by their respective uses of screen space in their earliest experimental films.

GEORGES MÉLIÈS AND THE FANTASY FILM

The fantasy film has proven to be one of the most durable of all genres. It started in full at the end of the 19th century, maintained itself throughout the 20th century, and continues to prove one of the most popular forms entering the 21st century. Key works over the past 120 years of cinema fall squarely within the fantasy genre: Fritz Lang’s epic METROPOLIS, the musical fantasy THE WIZARD OF OZ, Alexander Korda’s majestic and enthralling production of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, right up through to George Lucas’ STAR WARS films and the successful HARRY POTTER franchise.

As with any genre, it’s interesting to go back to its cinematic roots, to look at what it grew out of. Unquestionably, the fantasy film owes its origin to one film maker: Georges Méliès.

Méliès came from a background in theater, where he performed as a magician. His transition to the cinema began on the night of the Lumieres’ landmark first show, on December 28, 1895 at the Grand Café. Méliès was in the audience that night when the scenes of WORKERS LEAVING THE FACTORY and other Lumiere actualities were first unveiled before a captivated audience. Méliès was immediately entranced by this new medium and the opportunities it afforded. When the Lumieres refused to sell him one of their cameras, Méliès went out and acquired one of his own, and his career as a film maker was born.

Before he began making the kind of fantastic trick films for which he is best remembered today, Méliès photographed any number of subjects, ranging from actualities – recordings of every day events and life – similar to those of the Lumieres, to short sketches, such as men playing cards, and other fairly routine and even mundane subject matter. When watching the films of other early pioneers, such as Lumiere or Alice Guy, it is interesting to note the degree to which they borrowed subjects from one another. Méliès worked in this tradition until, as legend has it, his camera jammed while recording a street scene of passing traffic. By the time he got his camera working again, the traffic had changed, and the result, when viewed, gave the illusion of an instant transformation. This would become the technique that Méliès would perfect in the development of the fantasy film.

Starting as early as 1896, Méliès would make a number of trick films based around the idea of a transformation. Many of these films justified the complicated illusions by presenting them as part of a dream. One of Méliès’ favorite recurring motifs was that of the moon and outer space, which featured prominently in AN ASTRONOMER’S DREAM. In this subject, an astronomer falls asleep while observing the moon, and has a series of nightmarish dreams involving the moon appearing at his window, complete with gnashing teeth!

It was with A TRIP TO THE MOON, in 1902, that Méliès created his most iconic, lasting work. In this incredibly extravagant and elaborate (for its time) production, Méliès adapted material borrowed from novels by both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to create an unprecedented work of cinematic fantasy. A group of astronomers embark on a journey to the moon, where they find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape. After taking a nap, during which they dream of various celestial icons, the astronomers descend underground when they are awaken by snowfall. Once beneath the surface of the moon, they encounter a group of inhabitants – the Selenites – who capture the astronomers and take them to their king. Professor Barbenfoullis, the leader of the expedition (played by Méliès), finds that by striking the Selenites with his umbrella, they burst into smoke. After getting rid of their king, the astronomers beat a hasty retreat to their spaceship, and quickly return to Earth, with the rocket landing in the sea. They are then given a heroes’ welcome upon their return.

Though he continued working in all genres, Méliès forever became associated with the fantasy film as a result of this production. Its elaborate painted sets, incredible special effects, and above all, its sense of wonder in discovery and exploration, would make A TRIP TO THE MOON one of the really key works in the history of the fantasy film.

Méliès worked extensively in fantasy during the coming years. While it’s impossible to go into detail of all his fantasy films here, it is worth looking at a couple of his other major, touchstones in the development of the genre. THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, from 1904, is in many ways an advancement on A TRIP TO THE MOON. In this film, a group of travelers are given passage across a series of locations, including outer space, in a magical train that takes them to every conceivable destination. With incredibly detailed hand-painted color, the film achieves a sense of pure wonder as Méliès unveils one whimsical trick after another. The pacing of this film differs from that of A TRIP TO THE MOON in that Méliès allows more time for little bits of business, such as one of the travelers just missing the departing train at the station. It showcases not only his love of magic and trickery, but also his wonderful sense of humor.

Finally, no discussion of Méliès and the fantasy genre would be complete with what is almost certainly his most elaborate production. THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912) tells the story of a group of travelers who embark on an expedition to the North Pole. By 1912, the types of trick films that Méliès had specialized in already seemed out of touch with the fuller narratives that directors like Griffith had developed. Indeed, compared to the cross-cutting and action of the films of directors like Griffith, Thomas Ince or Lois Weber, Méliès still-largely theatrical style seems almost out of place. However, to view his approach as outdated is to miss the point. Méliès, an old veteran of the theater, reveled in the artifice of the theatrical experience. Far from being outdated, his work instead represents another approach entirely from the Griffith-narrative forms.

Unfortunately, after attempts to operate a US-based extension of his Star Film production company in San Antonio, Texas, Méliès was forced to close up shop. By the 1920s, Méliès was reduced to working in a subway kiosk, selling toys. Thankfully, his work was re-discovered, which resulted in rejuvenated interest in Méliès himself. He would pass away in 1938, but his iconic work lives on.

Méliès once claimed to be disappointed that students of film only knew of his fantasy work, when he had in fact worked in nearly every conceivable genre. While it’s understandable that he regretted being pigeonholed for only one genre, it is undeniable that it is within the fantasy film that Méliès made his most indelible impression. His image of the rocket landing in the eye of the man in the moon has become one of cinema’s most iconic moments. The music video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight was inspired by several of Méliès’ works, including A TRIP TO THE MOON and THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE.

Méliès’ films continue to breathe with excitement and the sense of discovery of the new medium that Méliès felt himself, and that is why they will continue to inspire joy and wonder as long as there are people interested in the possibilities held by emerging art forms.

Originally published at Forces of Geek, April 22, 2011.

GEORGES MÉLIÈS AND TONIGHT, TONIGHT" (1996)

It often seems that the most inventive film and video work being done today can be found in music videos. With their brash displays of techniques, often exhibiting a very wide range of influences, music videos can be an exciting conglomeration of stylistic flourishes borrowed and pieced together into a Post-Modern pastiche.

Tonight, Tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins is a good example of pastiche at its most effective. The video combines visual elements from several films by early French cinema pioneer and magician Georges Méliès. Despite obvious references to Méliès' most famous film, A TRIP TO THE MOON, the video actually appears to have been most strongly influenced by his 1904 film, THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, with its lead characters traveling across a celestial sky in a large, futuristic aircraft. Two of the passengers jump from the aircraft and fall gracefully to the surface of the moon using their open umbrellas. The umbrellas prove to be useful when they are attacked by the Selenites, the moon's inhabitants who can be vanquished by the blow of an umbrella. After taking off in a rocket, the two land in the sea, where they encounter animated fish that recall the undersea creatures of Méliès' TUNNELING THE ENGLISH CHANNEL.

Remarkably, the Victorian fantasy of Méliès blends almost seamlessly with the MTV-era music of the Smashing Pumpkins. The visual motifs (the man in the moon, a fantastic lunar surface, comets and crescent moons) are not only inspired by Méliès' films, but also manage the impressive task of capturing the spirit of his work, conveying a real sense of wonder and discovery that is wholly appropriate to the song. The video's designers do a credible job of matching the tones of the hand-coloring process used on a number of Méliès' films. The music and visuals of the piece are completely of a whole. Though separated by nearly a century, the imagery and stylistic flourishes of Georges Méliès and the music of the Smashing Pumpkins synthesize very effectively.

SELECTED FILMS BY GEORGES MÉLIÈS

PLAYING CARDS

Méliès’ first film, this is shot in the tradition of similar subjects taken by both Lumiere and Guy. Méliès appears in the film himself, hinting at the central acting roles he would play in future projects. The film exhibits none of the tricks that Méliès would introduce and perfect in his later work. The film is shot from a static position, as with Méliès’ other films, but lacks the kind of dynamic action and fantastic set design that defines his later work.

THE TERRIBLE NIGHT

A comedy short, this depicts a comic character trying to sleep while his bed is infested with bugs. It opens with a comically-exaggerated insect climbing up the bed and then up the wall, suggesting that Méliès was already interested in exploring the fantastic elements of cinema. The exaggerated makeup of the character, as well as the simple set, suggest the stage origins of sketches like this one.

VANISHING LADY

An early film in the style with which Méliès became best known, here he plays a magician performing a vanishing act with his female assistant. Where Méliès deviates from the usual stage origins of this act is in his use of stop-motion, which becomes his trademark technique in his later work, in creating special effects (the vanishing lady not only disappears under the sheet, but also re-appears at one point as a skeleton). Both performers directly address the audience at the end of the film. In this subject, we see that Méliès was interested in not just re-creating magic acts that could be performed on stage, but also in enhancing them with effects only possible through the camera.

A NIGHTMARE

Another comedy short, this one is staged with an emphasis on special effects humor, as a sleeping man envisions a woman seated at the foot of his bed, who transforms in to a blackface banjo player and a clown. Méliès cuts between these different transformations with stop-motion effects. He also plays with spatial perspective by bringing the small figure of the moon closer to the screen so that it appears to have giant proportions as it gets closer.

THE HAUNTED CASTLE

Another stop-motion trick film, this one (taken from a hand-colored print) features a man in a haunted castle, with various transformations taking place around him (the chair disappears out from under him, and he encounters various spectral presences). It is interesting here how much movement Méliès creates within the frame. Even though the camera itself is completely static, there is so much going on in the frame that it creates a strong illusion of rhythm and movement.

SURRENDER OF TOURNAVOS

A departure from the trick films, this is a staged, newsreel-style piece depicting a shoot out between soldiers. It is shot in a very straightforward manner, with understated performances. It is an interesting example of the diversity of Méliès’ work from this period.

BETWEEN CALAIS AND DOVER

This film depicts a rough sea voyage, with a tilting stage to create the illusion of a rocking boat. The action itself is somewhat exaggerated, with Méliès exploring the comic potential of such a set-up. At the same time, its presentation is very straightforward, which suggests Méliès was trying to depict the situation without exploiting the tricks for any kind of comic effect.

AFTER THE BALL

This film belongs to the peepshow tradition of blue movies so popular in this period. We see a woman undress and stand in a tub, where her maid proceeds to pour water on her, then dry her off. Clearly intended for its erotic qualities, the film is yet another departure from Méliès’ usual trick films. While Méliès’ films are often filled with sexual elements, few are as explicit in their intention than this one.

DIVERS AT WORK ON THE WRECK OF THE MAINE

Here is an interesting example of Méliès using special effects to create a kind of documentary short. We see divers pulling bodies out of the sunken ship (actually using dummies to stand in for the bodies), while Méliès has used double-exposure to print images of the fish over top of the original image. This creates an unsettling effect, in that the grim and gruesome subject matter is played out on a painted backdrop, with clear special effects in use to help create the overall effect, reminding the viewer that what they are seeing is only a re-creation of the actual event. It becomes difficult, however, to separate that knowledge from the gruesomeness of the subject matter.

PANORAMA FROM TOP OF MOVING TRAIN

One of the few cases of a moving camera in Méliès’ work, the camera is here mounted on a moving train and takes a straight-ahead view of the journey. An interesting effect is achieved by having the train pass under low bridges, which creates an interesting spatial effect.

THE MAGICIAN

A great example of a Méliès trick film, we see here a magician with a magic box. As he leaps in to the box, disappearing, he is transformed into a small clown, which then transforms into a taller one after jumping down from the table. There are also playful hints of sexuality as a statue is transformed into various women. Despite a static camera, the image is never a dull one, as frenetic action and constant cutting within the frame provide a continuous sense of movement.

THE FAMOUS BOX TRICK

A trick film with some moments of gruesome humor (a boy is split into two separate bodies with an ax), Méliès performs the lead role, focusing the audiences’ attention on his different movements, which provide a remarkable sense of visual rhythm. Working with the box as his center prop, he presents an interesting transformation between the human form and objects, such as transforming one of the boys into a piece of paper, which he then tears up.

ADVENTURES OF WILLIAM TELL

A fascinating use of stop-motion, in this film a clown puts together a human figure, which comes to life to torment the clown, who plans to perform a William Tell routine. The figure beats the clown, whose form disappears underneath his costume, then – after the figure has left – reappears, gathers himself, and exits the scene. It is a rough film, filled with roughhouse and knockabout physical business, and playing with audience expectation about how the routine will play out.

THE ASTRONOMER'S DREAM

Anticipating the kind of lunar fantasy he would explore in A TRIP TO THE MOON, Méliès here presents an astronomer who falls asleep while observing the moon through a telescope. It comes dangerously close to his observatory window, even devouring him at one point. There are other various transformations that take place, including the window being replaced by a stone wall. This

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