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Flashback: Before Story-Telling Began

By Subir Ghosh
The shot, as the smallest unit in a film, developed in the pre-1907 period, also known in cinema history as Early Cinema. Film historians, in fact, break up even this period into two segments: 1894-1902/3, when the majority of films consisted of one shot and were what we would today call documentary films, known at that time as actualities (based on the way the French described them); and 1903-07, when the multi-shot, fiction film gradually emerged, with simple narratives structuring the temporal (related to time) and causal relationships between shots.

In this era, filmmakers were more concerned with the individual shot, and did not create temporal relations or story cuasality. They set the camera far away from the action to show the entire length of the human body as well as spaces above the head and that below the feet. The camera was stationary. These were later to be descibed as long shots. But not so, at that time.

This long style shot subsequently came to be described as the tableau or proscenium shot. These were still the days of the theatre, and, hence, the perspective was that of an audience member sitting the the centre front row of a theatre. Little wonder that the cinema of the time was more theatrical and less cinematic. The tableau was, of course, to take a different meaninging later.

Filmmakers at this stage were not interested in establishing a connection between shots i.e. the concept of editing was yet to evolve. There were no attempts to link two subsequent shots to keep the viewer oriented in time and space. In other words, there was no linear narrative yet.

Early Cinema also restricted the narrative to a single point of view – it was yet to learn from the contemporary literature of the time. Therefore, the relation between the spectator and the film was that of a person watching a spectacle, and not engaged in a story-telling exercise. The 1894-1907 period was seen as a ‘cinema of attractions’ compared to the Transitional Cinema period which was perceived as a ‘cinema of narrative integration’.

During this time it was entirely up to the viewer to make sense of what he or she saw on teh screen. And this too, not through the interpretation of cinematic conventions as we understand today, but through previously held information related to the pro-filmic event like the ideas of spatial coherence, the unity of an event with a recognisable beginning and end, and the knowledge of the subject matter. Cinematic conventions were to begin gradually.

The first film audiences did not demand to be told stories – they simply found enough fascination in the mere recording of events. They were terrified on seeing L`arrivée d`un train en gare de La Ciotat (translated from French into English as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) of the Lumière brothers. It was only a stationary shot that showed a traing pulling into a station and the passengers disembarking. It was still the Lumières who introduced the concept of story-telling through the 49-second Le Jardinier (l`Arroseur Arrosé) (“The Gardener,” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”). The story, essentially, was a staged event.

What the two French brothers had wanted was to film a practical joke. This they did in the spring of 1895 in Lyon. The film showed a gardener being hassled by a boy who steps on the hose that the gardener is using to water his plants, cutting off the water flow. When the gardener tilts the nozzle up to inspect it, the boy releases the hose, causing the water to spray him. The gardener is stunned and his hat is knocked off, but he soon catches on. A chase ensues, both on and off-screen (the camera never moves from its original position) until the gardener catches the boy and administers a spanking. The entire film lasts only 49 seconds, but this simple bit of slapstick was the forerunner of all subsequent film comedy. As also staged events.

Compatriot Georges Méliès, however, was different. He always shot in a studio and staged action for the camera. His films showed fantastical events that could never happen in real life. Méliès did heavy splicing and editing, yet his films remained theatrical exercies. Not only did the camera replicate the proscenium arch perspective, the films staged the action as if in a theatre where players exited or entered the stage.

Méliès even bragged once in an article that he wrote in 1907. He claimed that his studio’s shooting area essentially replicated a theatrical stage “constructed exactly like one in a theatre and fitted with trapdoors, scenery shots, and uprights.”

Genres slowly developed. Many of the early films dealt with travel, and took off from the Lumières. Every studio released its own version of the train film. The other popular genre was the public event – parades, fairs and funerals. Most of these took off from those created by Thomas Alva Edison’s Kinetoscope creations. Edison did few narratives, and there is only one that probably stands out – Elopement by Horseback (1891), where a young man seeking to elope with his sweetheart engages in a wrestling match with the girl’s father. Even this, you will notice, was more of a humourous staged event.

The film would soon be a story, in the second phase of Early Cinema with A Trip to the Moon (Méliès, 1902) and The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S Porter, 1903).

Subir Ghosh is a Delhi-based columnist and writer. He blogs at www.write2kill.in.



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