Friday, October 10, 2008


Stolen by Gypsies
US 1905. PC: Edison. D: Edwin S. Porter. Print: LoC, 16mm, 340 ft /16 fps/ 13 min, English intertitles
A Mid-Winter Night's Dream; Or, Little Joe's Luck
US 1906. PC: Vitagraph. Print: GEH, 551 ft /16 fps/ 9 min, English intertitles
Jon Gartenberg: "My experience of the conference in Brighton, England, was, in retrospect, a heady one, comprising marathon screenings, intense intellectual engagement, pioneering discoveries, and the challenging at every turn of conventional notions about film history. Several years earlier, I had begun working as a film archivist in The Museum of Modern Art. In this capacity, I assisted Eileen Bowser on the Museum’s 1975 D.W. Griffith tribute. More than 100 of Griffith’s Biograph films (1908-1913) were shown in Part I of the retrospective, and it was nothing less than thrilling for me to watch these emotionally powerful short films unfold, in all their compositional beauty, economic construction, sophisticated editing structures, and restrained acting. (See my article “Griffith at MoMA”, Films in Review, February 1981.)
By the time I participated in the Brighton marathon pre-screenings at MOMA, I was already well immersed in Griffith’s well-honed stylistic devices. What struck me profoundly when watching the Biograph and Edison films from 1900 to 1906 (especially in contradistinction to my experience of viewing the Griffith Biograph films) was the extraordinary extent to which camera movement was utilized. I began tracking and dissecting this visual strategy, especially across the format of the chase film, and in particular, how camera movement was employed to suggest or articulate simultaneous action. One such paradigmatic film in this regard was Stolen by Gypsies (Edison, 1905), which (as I described it in my original Brighton Project article) through panning “creates a more sophisticated narrative with two autonomous stories: on the one hand, the chase, and on the other, the recovery of the baby, unrelated to the apprehension of the supposed culprits”
In preparation for the original Brighton Project, we had viewed a fragment of a trick effects scene from A Mid-winter Night’s Dream; or, Little Joe’s Luck (Vitagraph’s final production of 1906). As a follow-up to the Brighton Project, we subsequently screened films from 1907 and 1908, up to the moment of Griffith’s debut as a director at Biograph. I traced in these screenings the further developments in camera movement during this period.
At the same time, I was struck by the sophisticated structure of a number of the Vitagraph films on display. I noticed pans in interior shots, better control over lighting, composition in depth, and the incorporation of trick effects within a larger narrative. Perhaps most significantly, I saw conflicting strategies at work within the same film to establish temporally parallel events through staging within the mise-en-scène as well as through the editing together of discrete shots. This curiosity led me to further research and publication of an article (in Studies in Visual Communication, Fall 1984) concentrating on the emergence of the Vitagraph studio to the forefront of the American film industry in the Nickelodeon era.
In the complete version of A Mid-winter Night’s Dream, a social drama involving doing good deeds at holiday time, an extended object-animation sequence occurs in the children’s bedroom. The preceding scene, comprising an interior pan from the dining room to the living room, across the invisible fourth wall, returned me squarely to my original focus on camera movement in early cinema, but now with a much deeper appreciation of the complex crosscurrents at work in this formative period of the development of film narrative." - Jon Gartenberg. - Stolen by Gypsies: a blend of drama and comedy, but the comedy is not funny. - A Mid-Winter Night's Dream: a variation on the little match girl, with a boy and a happy ending. Animation in the dream-within-the-dream.

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