Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Muybridge and the Illusion of Motion

Michael Brown's sculpture, "Unsupported Transit (aka Ghost Horse"), is an interesting example of the ways in which art and new media can be used as critical tools.

The artist's website describes the project as follows: "Reverse cutouts of Muybridge's galloping horse overlaid on ten small mirrors; Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) aimed at each mirror produced a reflected image of a galloping horse onto a frosted glass dome. With sequenced flashing LED's and precise overlapping of the reflections an animation of the galloping horse is created" (

I first encountered Brown's sculpture when I contributed a video to the NPR Muybridge contest in the spring of 2010, held in conjunction with the "Helios" exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery. My entry, titled "24 Frames", examined the notion of the "frame" in the age of new media by breaking down a second of digital video footage, captured on an SD card in a Lumix camera, into 24 consecutive frames. The video image, of course, records at 30 fps (or, to be more precise, 29.97), and in fact, in digital video, there is no more "frame", only a series of zeroes and ones. By returning the digital image to the standard "24 frames" of the celluloid film stock, I hoped to reveal the amount of information that each frame can hold. This, of course, was directly inspired by Muybridge's notion of the individual images that he had to capture separately in order to create the illusion of movement.

But where my project involved a digital image, Brown's sculpture (which, incidentally, was the winning entry in the contest), returns the viewer to the pre-cinematic mode of spectatorship that was, of course, the only means of spectatorship available to audiences of the 1870s and 80s. Therefore, it might be more appropriate to term his work "non-cinematic", but even that is misleading, as his principles of motion provided the very foundation, along with other models, on which the cinema itself was built. As I argued in a recent paper on Muybridge's contribution to the project of documentary, his work as all too often been written about only as it relates to the cinema. Rather than thinking of him merely as a precursor to "real" movies, it's worth exploring the amazing contributions Muybridge made to the capturing of motion outsidethe cinema as we know it. As I noted in an earlier post about Muybridge’s contributions to the Panorama, his work presented ways of viewing images that are still not entirely possible within the cinema. Similarly, Brown’s “Unsupported Transit” offers, in its sculpture form, a unique experience that cannot be replicated by film.

Michael Brown's "Unsupported Transit" takes Muybridge's most famous motion study and turns it into a self-reflexive study of the medium itself. Significantly, the video that Brown posted to YouTube for the Muybridge contest is simply a recording of his sculpture. Like Muybridge's work, Brown's sculpture itself stands as a work of art. The beauty of the piece is that it re-creates the illusion of movement totally independent of the recorded moving image itself. A still image - that of a silhouette of Muybridge's horse photograph - is mounted in such a way that when the light from the diodes reflects off of it, it creates the illusion that it is in motion. By taking this approach, Brown forces the spectator to confront the very artificiality of the moving image itself. What is a movie, after all, but a series of still images that are granted the illusion of life when played back at a certain speed, just like the illusion created by the lights hitting the still image of Muybridge's horse.

Aside from providing a neat link between the 19th century series photography and new media, Brown’s sculpture also demonstrates the way in which these tools can be used, self-reflexively, to comment on the nature of the medium itself, and the properties inherent to each form (be it moving pictures, photography, sculpture, or light show) that are unique to each and provide a distinct experience in themselves.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Wrong Door (1904)

I’ve hesitated writing about this film for a long time, because ultimately, what can one say about a film that consists of little more than a single bathroom joke?

I had come across this film on Google Video as part of the collection (curated by Ira Gallen) while doing research on some area of early cinema. I was immediately struck by such sheer, joyful vulgarity in a film made in 1904! I’d never heard of the film before, and a quick search revealed that it was called The Wrong Door, that it dated from 1904, and that it had been directed by Ferdinand Zecca, one of the more creative and innovative pioneers working in France during the early period. Although it wasn’t relevant to the material I was researching at the moment, I filed it away as something I absolutely had to return to.

Flash forward to March 2010. I was preparing a paper on narrative in early cinema for the NYU Graduate English Organization conference. In the paper, I argued that there was a story element present in even the most “spectacle”-driven films. One of the film makers whose work I examined in the paper was Ferdinand Zecca.

In trying to come up with a video clip with which to illustrate an example of the kinds of films I was discussing in the paper, my mind suddenly returned to The Wrong Door. What better film to illustrate the idea of a simple story designed as a foundation on which to rest the film’s comic punchline? At just over a minute, it was also the perfect length for the conference presentation. My only question: how would the audience respond?

When I arrived at the conference, I asked my friend Yair Solan - who was one of the conference organizers and a fellow silent film historian himself – whether or not he thought the film would go over well with the academic English department crowd. By sheer coincidence, he knew the film, having seen it at the Slapsticon festival a couple years earlier. And he hadn’t forgotten it! With his encouragement, I showed the film at the end of my presentation, completely unsure how the audience would react.

The reaction was a mix of shock and uproarious laughter. It is a little shocking to see a film from this period that is so blatantly and cheerfully vulgar. Another person I showed it to recently described it as a kind of forerunner of the vulgarity of such contemporary filmmakers as the Farrelly Bros., who have turned shock into shtick. There’s little in The Wrong Door that leaves anything to the imagination.

The film consists of two camera angles: an exterior shot of what appears to be a train station, and an interior shot of the telephone booth. Interestingly, the signs are printed in English, and the labeling of the “Water Closets” suggest that the film is supposed to take place somewhere in England, with the lead character a rube of some kind, probably visiting from France (where the film was made).

The rube enters the frame, shuffling along and holding his grumbling stomach, before asking a porter where the restrooms are. The porter points toward the doors labeled “Water Closets”. Right next to them, however, is a door labeled “Telephone”. Guess which door the rube enters?

Once inside, he looks at the telephone confused, mistaking it for the toilet. He walks up to it, pulls down his pants, sits on the ledge, and relieves himself. Outside the telephone booth, a man is knocking on the door, waiting to use the phone. The rube opens the door of the booth, looking relieved, and makes his way offscreen. The man, who has entered the phone booth, backs out quickly, holding his nose.

There is relatively little information available on the film. The film takes place in front of a painted backdrop, suggesting the cheaper production values characteristic of its production company, Pathe, as opposed to the higher production values of Gaumont.

The character of the rube is dressed in checkered pants, ill-fitting jacket, bandana tied around his neck, and a derby, suggesting a sort of rural bumpkin, or even comic tramp. In my research on the film, I have been unable to determine whether or not this was a recognizable comic character that appeared in other Pathe comedies of the period. There was certainly an abundance of comic characters in the French cinema during this period – the Bout-de-Zan films by Louis Feuillade, the OnĂ©sime films by Jean Durand – so it is quite possible that this character that Zecca featured in The Wrong Door appeared in other films as well.

There has been speculation over the fact that the signs in the film are written in English. At first I considered the possibility that the film had been shot in an alternate version with English signs for English-speaking audiences, but then realized that the gag only makes sense if the rube character is unable to read the signs. The signs, then, are naturally in English because the French rube has arrived in England, presumably by train (hence the setting of the film in a train station). This seems the most plausible explanation.

What is especially unique about this subject is its extremely short length, suggesting it was made to be shown as a sort of “filler” on the program. The fact that it consists of just a single gag would support this, though it’s also a little difficult to imagine this film being shown alongside other comedies. Even something like Zecca’s The Inquisitive Janitor (1901), with its implications of voyeurism and sex farce, doesn’t even begin to approach the level of vulgarity of The Wrong Door.

The film certainly holds up as an example of the tendency in early cinema to emphasize the “effect” – in this case comic – using the story as a set-up for the final punchline. As one of my fellow panelists at the English conference commented after the film was shown, it was certainly an “edifying example”.