Thursday, September 10, 2009

Caceido with Pole (1894)

On the excellent Kino/MoMA Thomas Edison set, there is a fascinating little film that I've been tempted to write briefly about for some time now.

Titled "Caceido with Pole", and dating from 1894, the film is remarkable for being the first Edison film shot outdoors of the Black Maria. There is something strangely enticing about the film for this reason alone. Without further research, I can't be sure where the film was photographed, precisely, though it was almost certainly either right outside of the Edison lab, or in a very nearby location to Orange, New Jersey.

In many ways, the subject matter and presentation are no different from the countless other early Edison shorts, depicting popular vaudeville and show business figures performing a condensed version of their act before the static Kinetograph. Yet there is something undeniably vibrant, fresh and even cinematic about the performance of Juan Caceido as he performs elaborate leaps and somersaults on a wire.

For some reason, I find this short strip of celluloid both very exciting and also hilariously funny. The "outdoor" location plays a part in both. It's exciting to watch the elaborate tricks of the performance, of course, but it's also fun to see W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise, the film makers, discover the cinematic qualities of shooting outdoors in a natural location. The location in the case appears to be someone's backyard, with a tall wooden fence and a neighboring house visible in the background. This brings me to the part which I find so utterly hilarious-the idea of such a fantastic performance being recorded by the cinematic medium, then in the earliest stages of its infancy, against such a seemingly "normal" backdrop.

Edison films like this one are, of course, also a great reminder of the tremendously diverse kinds of entertainment audiences had available to them at the turn of the last century. Watching Juan Caceido seemingly effortlessly bouncing off the wire, while keeping his balance with a pole, and performing complex somersaults, is a spectacle to see. One can only imagine what other spectators must have thought.

Above all, it's a fun reminder of the joy, energy and even cinematic fervor that can be found in even a little film like this. Dickson undoubtedly shot the film outdoors for purely practical reasons (the act was too complex to shoot inside the Black Maria's confined space). Yet, whether or not he fully realized it, he was tapping in to the same kind of effects that "real" locations provide which Louis Lumiere would really take to new heights the following year (the moving leaves in the background of "August Lumiere and Baby" from 1895 captured audiences' attention as much as any of the staged foreground action).

While "Caceido with Pole" is hardly a groundbreaking film in any real sense, it nevertheless presents, for perhaps the first time in the American cinema, the qualities of outdoor shooting that countless directors have explored since.

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