Friday, June 09, 2006

Edison: The Invention of the Movies (1889-1918) (4-dvd)

Edison: The Invention of the Movies (USA 1889-1918). A four dvd box set curated by Steven Higgins and Charles Musser, produced for video by Bret Wood. The Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with The Library of Congress presents, special contents of the dvd edition © 2005 Kino International. 147 films and two hours of interviews, totalling 14 hours and 52 minutes of moving images, plus 200 documents from MoMA's Edison Collection.

The dvd phenomenon has brought us already the mightiest selection of film historical treasures ever available for home viewing. Amongst the dvd highlights available by now, the four-disk Edison box set published by the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress and Kino International deserves a place of honour. Although many of the Edison films have been accessible in several ways, including from the web, this is the first time that this full a selection is made available for the general audience.

Even for the experts, exhibiting Edison has always been challenging, and even in professional circumstances the performance has not always been quite satisfactory. To start with, the projection speeds vary from 15 to 40 fps. The often very short films often lack any titles, requiring commentary. The Edison films that survive via paper prints have previously circulated in less than enjoyable prints (the new restored prints have a much better quality). In this dvd edition, all films have specially designed titles, they are presented with a full image and proper speed, they are mastered carefully from the best surviving materials, and the original colours are reproduced whenever possible. Incomplete films have been reconstructed by Charles Musser with MoMA.

The dvd interface is stylish. A good approach is to first watch all moving image content continuously, and then return to single films via the film notes, where even bonus tracks can be accessed.

Curated by Steven Higgins and Charles Musser, both the well-known and the little known sides of the Edison story are presented with loving care.

Never before has a viewer had the opportunity to experience in a full range of moving images the Edison story, 30 years of cinema history from 1889 until 1918. The dvd starts with the Monkeyshines experiments of 1889-1890, animated from a sheet of microscopic images. Those fuzzy but already living images have the same kind of fascination as watching Lennart Nilsson's pioneering photographs of the embryo in its mother's womb. We then see the famous early images of the blacksmiths, the barber and the sneeze, and the first filmed stars such as Sandow, Carmencita and Annabelle. Gentleman Jim fights Courtney in his daring pants. From Buffalo Bill's Wild West show we see the Sioux dance and Annie Oakley shoot glass balls. Roberta and Doretto perform the scene that probably gave Josef von Sternberg the title of his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. John C. Rice and May Irwin kiss. Year by year we can follow the development of early cinema via one major company. The elaborate art of the fairy-tale film is in evidence in Jack and the Beanstalk (1902). Titles and intertitles are established by Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), the development of the close-up is evident by The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903), cinema's power of storytelling by The Great Train Robbery (1903), and the art of fantasy by The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906). The Edison company lost its position as the creative leader of the film art but continued as a major mainstream player to the end. Included in the box set is probably the last Edison film, the feature-length The Unbeliever (1918), directed by Alan Crosland and co-starring Erich von Stroheim in a prototypical hateful Hun role, crushing a sensitive soldier's violin for starters.

The great artists of the Edison company are properly introduced: W.K.L. Dickson, the first movie director, and Edwin S. Porter, Edison's most important house director. Other major film personalities start their careers with Edison, such as the pioneer of the Western, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, and Wallace McCutcheon, who hired the eagle-nosed actor, D.W. Griffith, from whom we see an early appearance as the lumberjack in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908).

There are many firsts here: the first movie studio (Black Maria), the first stars, the first commercials, many first instances of film ideas that bloomed into genres and cycles.

The Edison film story covers also 30 years of history and society, including the war in Cuba and the Boer War, the First World War, personalities such as Theodore Roosevelt, and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. There are instances of social consciousness both conservative, in The Public and Private Care of Infants (1912), and critical of social injustice, in The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1904). The drama of vigilante "justice", The White Caps (1905), is highly disturbing because of its ambivalence.

The editors are not hiding embarrassing sides of the Edison legacy, and the most painful is the racist attitude to black Americans in films such as Watermelon Eating Contest (1896) and A Morning Bath (1896). Since Edison also produced Uncle Tom's Cabin, one cannot blame them for an anti-Negro agenda, even though the Harriet Beecher Stowe subject is also patronizing. Cohen's Fire Sale (1907), where fire is "our friend" and the fire brigade "our enemy", is a display of anti-Semitism, although the subject is the same as in a Jewish tradition of self-irony ranging from Max Davidson's Jewish Prudence to Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie.

A wonderful feature of the dvd is that a number of films from ca 1894 can be experienced as Kinetophone simulations. Edison was the pioneer of sound recording as well as of cinema, and to me these simulations are the heart of the publication. Included is also the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-1895), which was famously restored by Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin a few years ago. The other films have accompaniment with piano or organ, some also with other instruments, by Philip Carli, Jon C. Mirsalis, Ben Model, Donald Sosin, and Clark Wilson.

The video introductions are by Steven Higgins, Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser, Paul Israel, Richard Koszarski, Patrick Loughney, and Michele Wallace.

The extremely informative film notes by Charles Musser can be accessed on the dvd. At best, the viewer can print out his own programme booklet from the dvd-rom function or from the dvd's website. In the later films, the extras include Kinetograms (with full synopsis and stills) and full script material. The documents include photographs and cartoons that served as inspiration for films. For an even more complete experience, it's a good idea to have Charles Musser's Edison books at hand!

The mosaic of material grows into an epic survey into the foundation era of the cinema. A national treasure for the Americans, equally rewarding for a world audience, the dvd set meets high scientific and archival standards. The films have still great entertainment value for a general public, as well.

Written for The Journal of Film Preservation
9 June 2006