What does it mean for a film to be “before its time?” This program revisits some early but largely forgotten works in which comedy functions as an impetus for the technological and conventional innovations of what film can do as a medium. Many of these films hover around the limits of mass culture and the avant-garde. They catered to popular tastes when first exhibited, drawing extensively on pre-established conventions of vaudeville and music hall variety shows, the circus, amusement parks, magic lantern, theater, and photography, which they innovate by experimenting with cinema’s unique set of aesthetic and political possibilities. Deemed lost for years, many of these films have been recently rediscovered and restored from decomposing nitrate prints unearthed in international film archives. They all foreground crucial cinematic possibilities that have been made “invisible” by a mainstream visual film grammar: undercranking, trick splices, comically motivated jump cuts, exhibitionist frontality, direct address, and an ambivalent approach to the film frame as an absolute limit of representability. Here, these techniques are harnessed through what Sigmund Freud describes as the “illuminating and bewildering” experience of comedy—a form that provokes us to laugh out loud and wriggle in our seats as the only possible response to our profound (and potentially terrifying) rediscovery of what cinema once believed it could have been.
“Fantasmagorie,” Emile Cohl, Gaumont, France, 1908, 35mm on video, 1:30 mins
Using J. Stuart Blackton’s technique of stop-motion photography, Cohl’s stream-of-consciousness sequences effectively blur the boundaries between image and body, flatness and depth, and live action and animation. Like animation figures, bodies in film comedies are rarely constrained by the physical laws of everyday reality. A 16mm print of this short film was recently discovered in the private collection of Francis Doublier and restored to 35mm using frame-by-frame scanning.
“Arthème Swallows His Clarinet,” Eclipse, France, 1912, 35mm on video, 3:54 mins
In this recent restoration of a film by the short-lived Eclipse company, an unsuspecting musician accidentally ingests his clarinet so that it juts out from behind his head! Everyone from firemen to passersby gather together to help Arthème eject his clarinet. Eclipse’s comic film camera exhibits our persistent but repressed confusion about the limits between human bodies and cinematic manipulation.
“The Monkey Race,” Italia Film, Italy, 1909, 35mm on video, 4:03 mins
An Italian chase film about a monkey that escapes from the circus. A nitrate print of this film, long deemed lost, was recently salvaged and restored from a private collector—who had apparently been screening it regularly using extremely flammable high-heat arc lamps. It is a wonder that the collector survived, let alone the film!
“How It Feels to Be Run Over,” Hepworth, UK, 1900, 35mm on video, 0:49 mins
Can cinema stage a collision between the image and its own embodied experience? A mostly static shot of an approaching automobile erupts in a nonsensical translation of the camera’s own encounter with the profilmic. This Hepworth short explores the duality of comedy, probing film comedy’s fundamental ambivalence about the relation between illusory images and physical embodiment.
“Explosion of a Motor Car,” Hepworth, UK, 1900, 35mm on video, 1:30 mins
Hepworth stages another gleeful automobile disaster for the camera. Human and machine parts rain down from the sky, signaling the catastrophic unrepresentability of what happens to subjects and objects beyond the limits of the film frame.
“That Fatal Sneeze,” Hepworth, UK, 1907, 35mm on video, 5:40 mins
A prankster douses an elderly gentleman in sneezing powder. The unsuspecting victim sets off about the city wreaking havoc with the violence of his escalating sneezes while an angry mob pursues him.
“The India Rubber Head,” Méliès, France, 1901, 35mm on video, 2:30 mins
Even before Ben Kingsley dramatized the “magic” of Méliès in Martin Scorcese’s Hugo, Georges Méliès the magician-filmmaker toyed with the sheer exhibitionism of what have now become standardized film conventions. In this trick film, a mad scientist “experiments” with early possibilities of the closeup.
“The Thieving Hand,” Vitagraph, USA, 1908, 35mm on video, 5:27 mins
A man missing an arm gets a real prosthesis: “the thieving hand” removed from a notorious pick-pocket and jailed convict. The thieving hand has a mind of its own, eventually resulting in the incarceration of its woebegone limb recipient who witnesses the reunion of “the hand” and its original host.
“Onésime, Clockmaker,” Pathé, France, 1912, 35mm on video, 8 mins
Pathé experiments with the comic possibilities of undercranking the camera in a chase film that sets its protagonist against twenty years of calendrical time. A French heir races ahead through the future in order to claim a large inheritance. The comic camera here reveals the temporal irrationality that drives both bourgeois capitalism and narrative cinema.
“Tilly and the Fire Engines,” Lewis Fitzhamon, UK, 1911, 35mm on video, 2 mins
Part of the British series “Tilly the Tombody” (1910-1915). Tilly (Alma Taylor) and Sally (Chrissie White) hijack a fire engine and use the water hoses to ward off their male pursuers, at the end rewarding themselves with medals. An alternative vision of gender politics in modern society.
“Cunégonde Has Visitors,” France, Lux, 1912, 35mm on video, 5:38 mins
In this vision of domestic calamity, French housemaid Cunégonde enlists the help of her family from the countryside in order to “tidy up” for her bourgeois employers. Arming themselves with zeal and rustic technologies, the family wreaks havoc and upturns every object in their path. The identity of the actress who plays Cunégonde is still unknown, although she appeared in over 24 films for the Lux Studios (1911-1913), often in the role of an “unruly domestic.”
“Miracle Water,” Eleuterio Rodolfi, Italy, 1914, 35mm on video, 11 mins
This “refined” Italian situation comedy about adultery integrates comic cinema’s increasing demand for narrative storytelling. A childless couple is persuaded by their doctor to send the wife to a spa where she will bathe in “miracle water.” She goes, encounters the doctor there, and shortly after becomes pregnant with twins. Some doctor!
“A Chess Dispute,” Robert W. Paul, US, 1903, 35mm on video, 1:05 mins
A heated chess match escalates into a physical brawl, most of which takes place just below the camera’s eyeline. Here, the drama of off-screen space is pure spectacle.
“Chess Fever,” Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky, USSR, 1925, 35mm on video, 28mins
A formalist satire about the Soviet obsession with chess that threatens the love of a young couple and nearly drives a young woman to suicide. The geometric iconography of chess provides a visual backdrop for this film’s biting satire, re-imagining cinema through the impulses of chess competition. This film ridicules everything from Russian “chess fever” to the rationalization of cinema’s profoundly irrational techniques and devices.
CHASER: “Ain’t She Sweet,” with Lillian Roth, Fleischer Studio, USA, 1932, sound, 35mm on video, 7:30 mins
This is in honor of the long accepted “chaser myth” of film history that early films had become so unpopular after their novelty wore off (before the 1906 Nickelodeon boom) that they played at the end of vaudeville programs in order to “chase” patrons out of the theater. Even though “the chaser myth” has been debunked—the last spot of the vaudeville program had always been reserved for primarily “visual attractions”—we top off this Silent Slapstick program with our own “chaser” of sorts: an early animation sound film from 1932 that climaxes with a live action musical performance by Lillian “The Inimitable” Roth. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, sound films attempted to make their novel conventions legible by reminding audiences of the longstanding relation between cinema and vaudeville; early sound screenings frequently included live performers who elicited the audience’s vocal participation.