A special program by Carlo Montanaro - Archivio Carlo Montanaro
It is thanks to photography that the reality of the human body is revealed. Making it absolutely realistic and malleable right from the start: some grossly pornographic photomontages soon started to circulate clandestinely, involving, and actually making fun of, the powerful, including the clergy. However, the coding of the body has also allowed advancing from a scientific point of view, demanding technology to offer the indisputable demonstration of the dynamics of movement, of the logic of the various components of physiology. First (with Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey) fixing the succession of poses necessarily assumed over time, and then merging these fixed shots one inside the other to obtain the perception of gestures. Thus, inventing “cinematography”, a movement written with light. With Edison in America and the Lumière brothers in Europe. Even approaching man and woman to better grasp their features (The Kiss and Le repas de bébé). Then, after making the inside of the body mass spectacular (John MacIntyre, Fist X-Ray Shot), with Georges Méliès we ridicule the surgical operations (Une indigestion), as well as the magic of composing and decomposing (Un homme de tête, Nouvelles luttes extravagantes, Dislocation mysterieuse). A body that initially resists exploitation (Apres le bal, the body covered with a corset and sand instead of water) but which is then discovered more and more maliciously, recovering the cheeky theatrical tradition of “vaudeville” (Le coucher de la marié , Mondaine au bain) and engaging it in the technological specifics of the new way of entertaining that defies the laws of physics, up to the point of appropriating the rules of “surrealism” in freedom. With a woman so beautiful that, albeit being very dressed, she sends all members of the opposite sex into raptures (Une dame vraiment bien), or with a thief who, with some trivial indications and a “do-it-yourself” chemical laboratory, even disappears (Le voleur invisible). A sort of abecedary, in the end, of ways and systems that become the grammar of communication through images and that will become syntax at the end of the First World War.
Eadweard Muybridge (1884/87) 1 57’’
Of English origin, Eadward Muybridge was one of the pioneers of motion photography. He began his career as a bookseller and editor before shifting his attention to photography and becoming famous for his panoramic landscape images. When Leland Stanford hired him he had to invent a way to take a photograph “in motion” to show that during the galloping of a horse there is a moment when all the four legs are raised from the ground, and he did so using the chronophotography technique, which allowed him to study in detail the movement of animals and people. His method, which consisted in photographing the moving subject with successive shots thanks to a series of cameras arranged along the path, allowed to restore a sense of dynamism to the images, and the subsequent invention of the zoopraxinoscope gave him the possibility to project these images, anticipating the technique adopted by the Lumière brothers.
Etienne-Jules Marey con Georges Demeny (1892) 30’’
Marey, a French physiologist, cardiologist and inventor, had already been studying movement for two decades when the work of the American photographer Eadweard Muybridge prompted him to try photography in 1881. Unlike Muybridge, who used a set of cameras to make a sequence of separate frames as the ones of a film, Marey initially recorded the successive phases of movement on a single plate, simultaneously analysing the movement and presenting a virtual image of its course. Subsequently helped by Demeny who collaborated with Marey for twelve years, working as his assistant, he first adopted paper and then emulsified celluloid, managing to impress images in sequence without being able to project them. The real problem was the register in positioning the successive shots that the non-perforated support could not maintain. Meanwhile, assistant Demeny invented two fundamental devices for the birth of cinema: the phonoscope and the eccentric cam chronophotographer, whose rights were transferred to Léon Gaumont.
W.K.L Dikson con William Heise, Sandow (1894) 30’’
William K.L Dikson directed Sandow inside the Black Maria, the first American film studio. The film was only part of the show consisting of three films that would portray the famous bodybuilder Eugen Sandow flexing his muscles. Rather than depicting feats of physical strength, the film’s content reflects the attention of the audience mainly focused on his appearance, which is shown in detail with slow, calculated movements. These very short films made with the Kinetograph were intended for the Kinetoscope, a single viewer operated by a coin.
William Heise, The John C. Rise, May Irwin Kiss (1896) 26’’
Denounced as shocking and obscene by early viewers and censored by the Catholic Church for its scandalous content, May Irwin Kiss (also known as The Kiss) was one of the first films ever shown to the public with commercial purposes. Dedicated to the single visions of the Kinetoscope, like all Edison’s initial productions, and lasting about 26 seconds, the short film depicts a re-enactment of the film shot at the Black Maria. In fact, a very audacious close-up re-proposes the kiss between May Irwin and John Rice in the final scene of the theatrical musical The Widow Jones by John J. McNally.
Luis e Antoine Lumiére, Repas de Bébé (1895) 35’’
Le Repas de bébé (translated as The Child’s Breakfast) is a short film made by the Lumiére brothers, known as the first filmmakers aware of history. It was screened along with 9 other films on the evening of December 28, 1895, when it was presented for the first time in a fee-paying screening (33 spectators) of the Cinématographe. The short film portrays Auguste Lumiére and his wife Marguerite Winkler Lumière together with their daughter Andrée in a common scene of family life, which immediately became very popular.
William Heise, Annabelle, Serpentine Dance (1895) 35’’
Serpentine Dance is a short film shot by Heise and Dickson for Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope. The film shows actress Annabelle Moore, who emulates Loie Fuller, performing a whirlwind dance, clutching the fabric of her fluffy skirt in her hands and shaking it with circular movements. At the time, many similar films were made, as they were very popular with the public, and several copies were coloured by hand.
William Heise con James White, Fatima, Muscle Dancer 1’00”
Of all the short dance films produced by the Edison company, this has a strange visual feature that raises issues of censorship in the 19th century. In an amusement park a dancer, Fatima, performs a “muscular dance” that appears to be a classic belly dance. About forty seconds after the start of the film and in a replica of the film pasted later on in an archive, strategically superimposed marks on her figure make the agitation of the presumed scandalous body parts less obvious (see-not-see effect). However, this increases in the viewer the expectation compared to what one could have seen… Two strange gate-like objects appear on the film, blocking our vision of the dancer, who continues her dance until the end of the film.
John MacIntyre, First X-Ray Shot (1897) 50’’
John MacIntyre was a doctor of Scottish origins, famous for setting up the world’s first radiology department. With this short film we witness the first X-Ray documentation ever made: the first related images show the knee joint of a frog, while the following show the heart and digestive tract of an adult..
Georges Méliès, Aprés le bal – Le tub (1897) 1’10’’
Georges Méliès, French director, actor and illusionist, is known to be the inventor of fantastic and science fiction cinema thanks to his innovative and very particular use of editing. The “substitution” obtained by blocking the shot and shooting it with changed elements serves as a tool to create magical metamorphoses and special effects that revolutionize cinema. Aprés le bal (translated as After the dance) is the first film to show a nudity scene on the screen: a woman, helped by her maid, undresses to take a bath. She actually remains dressed in a tight corset while sand is poured over her, as if it were water, as this could not have been visible on screen. After being dried, she exits the scene. The need to amaze the viewer helps the incessant improvement, in the origins, of language.
Georges Méliès, La tentation de Saint Antoine (1898) 50’’
The particular use of editing to create special effects is evident in La tentation de Saint Antoine, where stopping the shot allows characters to appear and disappear. The film sees Méliès play the role of Saint Anthony the Abbot, who during his prayer is tempted by maidens who almost magically appear out of nowhere before him.
Pathé Frères, Flagrant délit d’adultère (1899) 50’’
Future pioneers and main actors of the newborn film industry, the Pathé brothers; as well as amazing, documenting and making people smile with their production, they challenge censorship with this short inspired by the famous canvas by Garnier. A woman goes to a secret appointment when she gets caught by her husband who reports the crime to the superintendent and his officers. The superintendent discovers the woman completely naked in the bathroom, the furious lover rushes to her husband but is detained by the officers.
American Mutoscope & Biograph, Living pictures (1903) 1’00”
An anthology that boldly re-proposes the motionless nude as if already on stage. Four films already released, set up by artists, which represent famous works of art. Each film, made up of two “living pictures“, is shown just as it would have appeared live in the vaudeville theatres of the time. At the beginning of each “painting”, the Sipario opens and the curtains are pulled apart by two pages. The models remain totally at rest for a brief length of time and then close the curtains again.
Pathé Frères, Le coucher de la mariée (1907) 3’00”
Remake of the scandalous short film made in 1896 by Albert Kirchner under the pseudonym of Léar, Le coucher de la mariée was shot and remodelled by the production house of the Pathé brothers eleven years later. The content remains the same: the wedding night of two newlyweds who are getting ready to go to sleep and the undressing of the bride who, under the curious and impatient gaze of her husband, slowly takes off her clothes.
Georges Méliès, Une indigestion (1902) 3’00”
Une indigestion (also known as Up-to-date surgery) is a film that combines two recurring themes in Méliès’ work: the parodies of medical science and parts of the body that separate from the bodies themselves. The famous charlatan doctor Giuseppe Barbenmacaroni is visiting John Patt de Cok and the entire visit is followed step by step, enriched by a series of grotesque misadventures that will result in the explosion of the patient into pieces.
James Williamson, The big swallow (1901) 1’00”
Belonging to the famous Brighton school, James Williamson was one of the masters to whom we owe the development of effects and cinematographic solutions during the first important period of the birth of English cinema language. With The big swallow, Williamson creates the first close-up, breaking the “fourth wall” that separates the viewer from the film and revealing the cinematic fiction; not having found the possibility of carting yet, he still manages to make the body get close to the viewer showing the slightest detail. A man makes broad signs of wanting to be left alone, as opposed to the idea of being filmed, but despite this, the frame enlarges more and more, until the man’s mouth covers the whole screen. With a gap that covers the entire lens, the man “swallows” the camera and the camera operators, before taking a step back and smiling.
Georges Méliès, Nouvelles luttes extravagantes (1900) 2’00”
Once again, Georges Méliès uses his magic tricks into a film thanks to his extraordinary way of replacing editing, but in Nouvelles luttes extravagantes everything seems to blend with the main characteristics of slapsticks comedies. Performing in a series of physical gags, two attractive and feminine women turn into professional wrestlers who begin a wrestling-like match without excluding bangs, blows, and explosions: pure surrealism for the eyes of contemporaries.
Georges Méliès, Dislocation mysterieuse (1901) 1’30”
With Dislocation mysterieuse, Méliès plays again with the idea of separating body parts. A man, dressed as Pierrot, tries to carry out normal actions but is hindered by his own body, which dismembers and rebels. The individual parts of the body move independently before attaching themselves again to the figure of Pierrot, who with his head under his arm makes a bow and exits the frame: a technological tour-de-force of double exposures and replacements whose perfection still leaves you amazed.
Georges Méliès, Un homme de tête (1898) 1’00”
A man removes three times his own head, which then reappears on his shoulders. Placed on tables, the severed heads celebrate and sing to the rhythm of the banjo played by the multiple-head man. This funny sketch is the ancestor of cinematographic scenes in which the same character or the same actor appears in several replicas at the same time.
Pathé frères, Le bain des Dames de la cour (1904) 1’00”
Malice once again proposed by Pathé Frères: at the court of Louis XIV five women, half-dressed in camisoles that sometimes slip down to their waist, take a swim in a pool, a typical luxurious possession for the gentry dedicated to pleasures, while other women, wearing Louis XIV style garments, observe them.
Pathé frères, Mondaine au bain (1904) 2’00”
Another of Pathé’s mischievous piece of work… A prostitute is getting ready to enter a tub with the help of her maid. The servant lets a client in but he is not satisfied with waiting behind a screen that turns out to be too fragile… The blatant portrayal of the life of a woman that gives pleasure is indeed astonishing, even if represented with irony and lightness.
Romeo Bosetti, Luis Feuillade, Une dame vraiment bien 3’20”
A “truly beautiful” woman charms all men who turn around as she passes by. The police officers ask her to cover her face to avoid causing further disasters and takes her back home. Luis Feuillade, soon director of serials dedicated to suspense, paired with Romeo Bosetti, expert in a speedy and comic storytelling technique, builds a comedy out of nothing.
Segundo de Chomon, Le voleur invisible (1909) 5’30’’
A strange person buys a tiny edition of the novel “The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells, which also contains the recipe for the magic potion “for the invisibility of bodies”. By testing the recipe, he incredibly becomes invisible. He then takes off his clothes and begins to carry out some thefts, until some police officers realize that something is wrong. Segundo De Chomon is the Catalan anti-Méliès of Pathè who will soon come to work in Italy. He is the technician who tries to challenge the true inventor of the brilliant “on the field” film make-up. In some cases, he actually succeeds, as if he wanted to recreate, with a multiplicity of special effects, the life of a body that … disappears.