Saturday, 10 September 2011


For the first few moments of its short duration, this early piece of genuine cinema history is no more adventurous or remarkable than the early experiments of the French-born pioneer Louis Le Prince. What we are seeing, in all actuality, is a basic one-take tableau vivant observation of a single scene, devised as a work of fiction, but no less indebted to the presentational - or, what would eventually be termed 'cinematic' - approach established by Le Prince in the films Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) and Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888).

In wide-shot, a little girl feeds her ailing kitty cat some medicine from a spoon. As an action, this is adorable, but alone, the presentation suggests only the intention to record, on film, for commercial purposes, an action to melt the heart's of the kindest old ladies. So far so-so... Then something extraordinary happens. A connection is created between two images. A jump, literally, from far-away to close-up.

The Sick Kitten directed by G.A. Smith, 1903:

The English filmmaker George Albert Smith had pioneered the use of the close-up shot in his previous films, As Seen Through a Telescope (1900) and Grandma's Reading Glass (1900). There the technique was more of a novelty; a way of presenting a new perspective: one of exaggeration. However, in this film, it is practicality that dictates the use of this new technique. The director wants to emphasise a moment that would have been missed had the camera remained at a distance. The kitten's face as it gladly laps up the medicine can now be seen by the audience, allowing us to follow the action more directly.

At this precise moment, cinema finally breaks free from the influence of the stage and establishes something that is unique to the language of film. From this point on, the camera would be able to offer the audience new perspectives; emphasising details and showing the emotion of actors in a way that would have been unfeasible without the benefit of this new innovation. It was now possible for the audience to go from this... this...

...without having to physically bring ourselves closer to the work. A revolutionary moment in the development of the medium and one that indirectly makes possible the extraordinary montages in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, or the expressive, detailed shots of eyes, mouths, hands and iconography in the films of Sergio Leone. This single moment would change the way future film were produced; opening up a new world of creative possibilities, as well as bringing with it the potential for a more intimate form of cinema. Less broad, less theatrical; a cinema of small gestures.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Phantom Ride

The camera shunts along the tracks, headlong into darkness, into the unknown. This is innovation, the movement of the camera giving the audience the feeling of a journey. As an event in the development of cinema's history, this film is as important as Auguste and Louis Lumière's The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, 1895), which suggested, through a single moment, the possibility of cinema as spectacle. In George Albert Smith's The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), the opening and closing shots represent the reverse-angle to the Lumière's remarkable film. Now the audience could experience not only the arrival, but the journey as well.

All of a sudden the cinema was no longer a medium for static observations, but something that could move between worlds.

The Kiss in the Tunnel directed by G.A. Smith, 1899:

The kiss that occurs in-between represents the embrace of the new, this kingdom of shadows called cinema. An artistic medium somewhere beyond the influence of literature, theatre or still photography; instead, a magic act of movement and emotion, where the light at the end of the tunnel becomes a premonition to the light from a film projector as it burns against the darkness of the screen. As the camera continues along the track, out of the darkness, into the bright future of this new world of artistic expression, the movement, eloquently described by Mark Cousins as a "phantom ride", suggests the possibility for future films to transport the audience, both figuratively and literally, into the unfamiliar territories of the heart and mind.