Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Edwin S. Porter made a number of films that bridged both the “actualitie” and “narrative” approaches. Working for the Edison company, he is often recognized as the pioneer of narrative storytelling in American cinema, with films like “The Great Train Robbery” and “Life of an American Fireman” (both 1903) serving as the models from which longer, more complex narrative films emerged in the coming decade. The narrative approaches in these films, however, can be traced back to the work being done by the British filmmakers, particularly of the “Brighton school”, in films such as “Daring Daylight Burglary” and “Fire!”

One of Porter’s most interesting works, from a purely formal standpoint, is a film that borrows from another tradition-the trick films of Melies, de Chomon and Zecca. “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend”, from 1906, is a film that, in many ways, typifies the kind of borrowing that was taking place during this time in the development of new cinematic techniques and styles. Porter may have been borrowing, but he was certainly borrowing from the best. This film provides an interesting glimpse at a “road not taken” in the cinema, for within just a couple years, D.W. Griffith and other filmmakers would be shaping the medium to an even more narrative-centered approach that left films like “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” appearing to embrace a nearly surrealistic sensibility. It borrowed from the comic strip panels of Winsor McCay, and blended this with the narrative influence of the British, and the formal innovations of the trick film pioneered in France and Britain.

The film opens with an elegant, top-hatted gentleman (dressed all in white), sitting at a table in a restaurant and stuffing his mouth with large portions of Welsh rarebit. He drinks glass after glass of wine from the bottle sitting at the right of the table, and eventually takes a drink of water, which he promptly spits out. Taking another drink of wine, he helps himself to more rarebit, slopping it onto his plate then eventually lapping it up right off the serving ladle. He shovels the last of it into his mouth and takes one last drink of wine. The framing of the medium shot gives the viewer all the information they need, and avoids cutting in for close-ups or anything that would disrupt the flow of the action. Porter holds this medium shot for the duration of the scene, and it works effectively by focusing on the grotesque, exaggerated comic performance aspects.

The next shot finds the man leaving the restaurant at dark, and stumbling down the staircase, obviously a little the worse for wear. This shot gives way to a second shot, in which a lamppost is seen swinging back and forth like a pendulum. On top of this is superimposed a shot of the city streets spinning around. The gentleman stumbles into the frame, making his way to this swinging lamppost and trying to clutch on for dear life as he falls and stumbles about. He waves his handkerchief around frantically, calling for help. A passing policeman hauls him offscreen. This scene is remarkable for the amount of motion that Porter manages to suggest by having the superimposed elements working together. Although presented as a long shot of the lamppost (which allows the viewer to enjoy the physical humor and trick effects without interruption), the scene itself is made up of two separate composite elements which add greatly to the illusion of the hallucinations being experienced by the gentleman.

The next scene is again framed as a long shot of the room, although this time, the camera placement is at a diagonal that allows the corner of the room to serve as a focal point in the middle of the screen. The gentleman, arriving home, stumbles tipsily around his bedroom. The character leaves the shot twice during the course of this scene, with suggested action taking place off-screen. The first instance is when he exits, dressed in his top hat and tails, and returns, dressed in his pajamas. The second instance occurs right after he has gotten into bed and, unable to settle down, exits, and returns with a handkerchief tied around his face.

Porter continues holding this long shot as the next part of the scene begins. First, the man’s shoes are seen to move off-screen. He sits up, looking at this occurrence, perplexed. This is followed by even more unusual happenings-the furniture in the room moves about the frame and finally disappears, courtesy of trick photography. Puzzled, the man looks about the room, then lies back down to go to sleep.

Now, Porter cuts in for a closeup. The man is seen lying in bed, asleep, his head resting on the pillow. Above his head are superimposed different visions that are haunting him: a pot of Welsh rarebit, out of which pop three little demons carrying a pick-ax, a hammer, and a pitchfork, which they use to pound away at the head of the sleeping man, who reacts in pain. Awaking in panic, the vision disappears, but the man pulls the sheet over his head to try to escape the hallucinations. Porter very economically uses the framing of the close-up as a way to capture both the man’s pained physical reactions, and to allow for the use of double-exposure to create the illusion of the demons who are haunting his sleep.

The next shot reverts to the exact same set-up as before: the diagonal, long shot of the bed in the corner of the room. Now, the man lies under the bed covers, but almost immediately, it begins rocking and shaking about, as if he were possessed by some kind of demon (indeed, the shot is reminiscent of the scenes of the bed shaking and lurching about in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” from nearly 70 years later!) Finally, the bed lifts itself about a foot in the air and begins spinning around and around, before finally taking flight out the window.

In a brilliant double-exposure shot, Porter shows the bed flying above the city. The use of the moving scenery creates the illusion of a traveling shot. The bed, set against the dark night sky, is shown to be moving over a cityscape, with the man holding on to the bed after the sheets blow off. Sitting up in the bed, the man grabs at an invisible steering wheel, positioning himself as if he were driving a car, and proceeds to navigate this phantom bed through the air before lying back down. Eventually, he is lifted up off the bed by the wind, and holds onto the headboard as he is held adrift in a horizontal position. Losing his grip, he floats backward to the footboard, which he grabs on to at the last moment. He kicks his legs about in the air in panic, just as the bed is seen passing over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Next, Porter returns to a static, long shot of a building top, over which the bed is seen flying. The bed rises up out of the frame, but the man is seen falling toward the top of the building. Porter next cuts in for a closer medium shot of the building top, with the man, in his pajamas, caught on the weather vane, which turns around and around until he finally drops off. Returning to the long shot, Porter shows the man falling into the city streets. He returns to the diagonal, establishing shot of the bedroom as the man comes crashing through the ceiling and landing in his bed. The signs of destruction disappear as the man awakes, shooting out of bed. The man sits on the edge of his bed, panicked and trembling, as the film ends.

Formally, Porter uses a very economic shot sequence, only going in for close-ups, or changing angles, when necessary to introduce a better vantage point for the viewer, or to allow for the depiction of necessary visual information. As a trick film, the “dream structure” of its narrative places it in contrast to the films of Melies, Zecca and others who embraced the ability of film to depict the impossible. In this sense, Porter seems to be contextualizing (and justifying) his trick effects within the context of a dream world in which anything is possible. Even the scenes in which the man stumbles about the street are explained away as a hallucination. From a narrative standpoint, it’s much more simple than some of Porter’s earlier efforts, but at the same time, reflects the story’s origins in the cartoon panel strips of Winsor McCay. Indeed, the film can be seen as a kind of photographic comic strip in the way that it is structured both formally and in terms of narrative. As Lloyd Fonvielle has noted, "Because movies were a new form, novelties, they fell into story frames that audiences were already familiar with -- newspaper cartoons and comic strips, which could be read in less than a minute, and vaudeville skits, which lasted about ten minutes" (Fonvielle, "Visual MicroFiction"). It makes for an interesting comparison with the current vogue for films based on comic books, which also involve a narrative, but with an emphasis on the moments of spectacle that are integral to the visual nature of the comic strip. This borrowing from a the highly visual medium of the comic strip, which viewers of the day would have been familiar with, places this film (and others like it) as a kind of ancestor of the comic book films that currently draw on an existing audience, familiar with the techniques and narrative structure of that format. When viewed in this context, it makes clear that Porter was working with an eye toward capturing the formal qualities of that medium and integrating it into the narrative structures he had helped to develop earlier in the decade, while borrowing uniquely cinematic techniques from the European pioneers working at the same time. In this sense, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” stands as an example of the wide range of influences at work in early cinema.

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