Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some Reflections on Visiting the Edison Factory

This past Saturday (August 13),  I took a trip to the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. I've visited here a number of times over the years, and each time I visit I am struck by the sense of wonder I feel at being the very spot where (depending on which version of the history you read) motion pictures were born.

This time, I visited the museum with my friend Jim Gisriel, a fellow film enthusiast who shares my interest in the early years of cinema. We arrived on a scorching hot Saturday morning, right before noon. After checking in at the visitors center, we made our way in to the small theater where a selection of early Edison films were playing on a monitor. After watching a couple minutes of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (we walked in just as the bandits were forcing the passengers to disembark from the train), Jim and I made our way out the back of the theater and over to the Black Maria.

Or rather, a replica of it. Originally built in 1893, the Black Maria is recognized as the world's first dedicated film studio, and although it was torn down only a decade later, this replica was constructed in 1954 by the U.S. National Park Service and stands as a tribute to the place where America's earliest films were made. The Black Maria is quite a striking building -- covered in tarpaper, it got its name from the knickname given to police paddy wagons, which it resembled.

With the scorching hot noonday sun beating down on us, Jim and I observed the Black Maria for about 20 minutes before heading inside for a presentation on Edison's contributions to the motion picture. While we were outside, we took in all the little details of the structure, from its wooden tracks that allowed the studio to turn and face the sun, to its hatch roof that could open to allow the sunlight to shine in. Several bees swarmed around, apparently having nested inside a pipe fixture on the side of the building.

Unfortunately, we were not able to actually go inside the Black Maria, but the side door was open, allowing us a look at a replica of the Chinese Laundry set from Edison's 1895 film of that same name, as well as what appeared to be a replica of an Edison camera, though it was difficult to tell from the angle that it was positioned at. What is most striking about this replica -- which is the same size as the original studio -- is how small it can look from the outside. And yet, the interior was large enough to house not only the performers, technical crew, and equipment, but also a small dressing room on the end for visiting talent. The studio was described by some of those who worked there as hot and cramped, the most uncomfortable building in which to work. On a hot day like this, it was easy to see why they might feel that way...

But imagine the larger-than-life personalities who set foot in this little studio more than a century ago! It gives me chills to stand out there at the site of the original studio, and think of the icons of late 19th/early 20th century American show business -- Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and Sandow, among them -- who stepped before Edison's camera one afternoon and achieved immortality on film. It's thrilling to stand in that spot where they once stood, and realize we are only separated by time.

With the lecture about to start, we headed inside and up to the second floor of the factory, where a tour guide gave a short talk on the invention of the movies. A small but appreciative audience was gathered, and it was fun watching the kids in the group as they looked at photos of the Kinetoscope and small strips of film that were passed around. I couldn't help thinking how excited I would have been, as a budding film enthusiast, to attend a presentation like this at their age!

The second floor of the Edison factory is where W.K.L. Dickson built his first motion picture camera, and also where the very earliest camera tests were shot. In the far corner of the second floor is a wall with a placard that designates it as the spot where Dickson's invention took place. To stand and look at this little corner of an industrial factory in suburban New Jersey, in the exact spot where the art form of motion pictures was born, is a humbling experience. Imagine being able to see the first cave wall where the first painting was created, or to stand in the exact spot where the first musical note was played. And think of all the dreams that sprang forth from Dickson's invention that day...

On display was an original Edison Kinetoscope, though it was not up and running. In a glass case was an early film repair kit consisting of a splicer and glue, used for patching up broken prints. As Jim observed, this little kit represents the birth of film editing. Next to it was a prototype cylinder viewer, one of the methods for playback of moving images that was abandoned early on. This method involved tiny individual frames that would be viewed on a turning cylinder to create the illusion of movement. I peered at the little frames and recognized the image to be from "Monkeyshines", one of the earliest surviving camera tests said to date from 1890, which features an Edison employee waving his arms about before the camera.

Jim and I proceeded to tour the rest of the museum, which includes rooms dedicated to music, sound recording, and photography, as well as Edison's impressive personal library (which takes up three floors). But the highlight of the visit was certainly the chance to spend some time in the place where the motion picture first came to light some 125 or more years ago. I think of those people who were there at the very moment of the birth of the art form, and wonder whether they had any idea of the power and the potential of the tool they had created. It is awe-inspiring to think of the artistic heights the cinema has reached in just its first century of existence, and what still lies ahead.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Jonas Mekas' "Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971"

Among the literature written on the subject of film, there are a few works that I would consider absolutely "essential". Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971, by Jonas Mekas, is certainly one of them. Representing nearly a third of the columns that Mekas wrote for the Village Voice over a period of about 15 years, it provides a vivid, first-hand account of the films and filmmakers of the New York avant garde cinema, written "as it happened" by the movement's most passionate champion.

It is really quite staggering to think about the scope of what Mekas' writings cover here -- really the entire rise and development of one the most creatively fertile movements in the history of cinema, offering impassioned defenses of some of its most notable participants including Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Gregory Markopolous, Harry Smith, and Marie Menken. Mekas traces not only the films and the people who made them, but also how they were distributed, exhibited, and received. He provides a vibrant portrait of the New York underground art scene in which these films were shown, and the increasingly ambitious ways in which they were presented, such as interactive, live "happenings". His descriptions of the challenges in dealing with New York's film licensing and censorship laws of the time reminds us of how courageous these artists were in fighting for the right to make the films they wanted. Most significant in this respect is Mekas' account of his arrest over the showing of Jack Smith's highly controversial Flaming Creatures, which was released in 1963 and found to be obscene.

Then there are the accounts of the development of the Filmmakers' Co-op, which served as a distribution network for avant garde cinema, and the Anthology Film Archives, created as a place to preserve and screen the films for future generations. The stories behind these two landmark cultural institutions deserve volumes of their own; their inclusion here reminds us how prolific (and tireless) Mekas has been in his quest to champion alternative forms of cinema.

Mekas is also a prescient visionary, particularly when it comes to his ideas about making cinema available in the home (to be collected and consumed like books), and in his idea of using 8mm (home movie) cameras in the service of social justice. The advent of home video, and the prevalence of consumer camcorders (as well as online video on which to share the footage) have proven him right with time.

Mekas has said that everything he did, he did because there was a real necessity for it. That is what comes through most strongly in his writing. One gets the sense that this is not a man with any time for trivia; his vision was (and remains) astoundingly clear and focused on the task at hand. The post-war American avant garde cinema flourished thanks to the critical context provided by Mekas, along with the institutions for distribution and exhibition that he was instrumental in creating. Mekas is an inspiration to anyone who cares about the possibility of cinema as a tool for personal expression rather than as a commercial business. This collection of his writings is a testament to that. As a critic, he has that most important of gifts: the ability to inspire his readers to seek out for themselves the films about which he wrote.

Movie Journal was originally published in 1972, and has been long out of print until this 2016 reissue by Columbia University Press. The new edition contains a foreword by Peter Bogdanovich.