Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Baffled

The first screen presentation of Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated supersleuth, SHERLOCK HOLMES BAFFLED is a strange use of the Holmes character. Instead of presenting any kind of mystery, the film is instead standard trick fare from the period, with Holmes baffled by a crook who appears and disappears throughout the scene.

Interesting only as the earliest Sherlock Holmes film, it's really not even an "adaptation", since it bears absolutely no resemblance to any of Doyle's stories. There's no need for the character to be Sherlock Holmes, either, as there is no indication as to who he is, other than in the title.

Monday, April 02, 2012

As it is in Life (1910)

AS IT IS IN LIFE is one of the hundreds of films directed by D.W. Griffith in that incredibly rich and innovative period of his tenure at Biograph, from 1908 to 1913. It is also one of the most singularly beautiful works he created during this time, demonstrating his especially sophisticated use of depth and movement within the frame.

The story itself is unremarkable: a poor father finds work at a pigeon farm, after being forced to beg and explaining that he has a daughter to feed. He is reunited with an old sweetheart, whom he intends to marry. Upon realizing that he can't support both a wife and a child, he sacrifices the relationship in order to take care of his daughter.

Years later, the daughter returns home from school and greets her aging, worn father, vowing to care for him in his old age. However, when she falls in love with a young man, it tears her relationship with her father apart. Feeling broken and betrayed, the father goes away. Later the boy and girl are married, and the girl - now a mother - is reunited with her father, who rejoices over his new grandchild.

With its conventional plot, AS IT IS IN LIFE would not be held in particularly high regard today for its narrative advances or character development. It is, however, remarkable for its use of a location, in this case the California Pigeon Farm, which Griffith uses to visually breathtaking effect. Indeed, the film seems to have been built around the fact that Griffith and company had access to film at the pigeon farm. With its seemingly hundreds of birds flying and fluttering around in the background, Griffith achieves a total sense of movement within these shots.

Similar to reports that audiences at the first Lumiere screenings in 1895 were as impressed with the moving foliage in the background as they were with the foreground action, AS IT IS IN LIFE is most interesting for its use of background motion. The pigeons add a real sense of depth to each shot as well, as we see them grouped from the foreground all the way in to the background.

There is a recurring image that is particularly effective. It is repeated twice, to show the passage of time. It occurs for the first time when the father and his young daughter are walking together on the grounds of the pigeon farm, with the father pushing a wheelbarrow full of seed. The birds flutter and fly out of their way. This is repeated later in the film, when the daughter, now grown, has returned from school, and walks alongside her father as before. Both times, the relationship between the two actors and the pigeons takes on a strong sense of proportion, allowing them to interact rather than keeping the birds merely as background figures.

Given that it was released in 1910, which was the year that Griffith first took his company to film in Los Angeles, AS IT IS IN LIFE represents the almost immediate opportunity that Griffith and others spotted in Southern California as a filming location. Although using rural New York, New Jersey and Connecticut was still certainly a viable option in 1910, this film is evidence of the potential that Los Angeles offered to the fledgling medium.