Strange and beautiful: LA FEE AU PIGEONS (THE PIGEON FAIRY) 1906, Gaston Velle with Segundo de Chomon. From the Corrick Collection.
Pordenone, Italy, early October.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, was looking forward to one event in particular at Pordenone — the screening of early cinema made using the Joly-Normandin system, which involved five sprocket holes per frame and did not catch on (my favourite early camera is the one Griffith used, which punched sprocket holes in the film as it went, and sounded like a machine gun in consequence). A whole programme of these films, drawn from several collections, was to be shown. As an expert on fairground attractions, freak shows, circuses, music hall and seaside entertainments, the movies she likes best are one shot and forty-five seconds long. Some of her colleagues would go even further, she said: for them, cinema lost everything the moment showmen started projecting it on a screen. “Mutoscope or nothing!” is the cry.
YouTube is the modern Mutoscope, in a way, and a lot of early cinema is available on it. The short duration of a Lumiere Bros film would seem nicely fitted to the medium… I’d also seen plenty of early cinema on VHS and DVD.
But seeing the Joly-Normandin films, and then a selection from the Corrick Collection, projected big, albeit mostly on digital, was revelatory. Of course, the films triumphed over the penny arcade stuff by virtue of scale, so it’s totally perverse to look at them on a little window on a little monitor — they need to be seen BIG. They are big short films, mostly framed in wide shot so as to cram in as much detail as possible. While I don’t usually enjoy processions and parades as a subject (pageantry is just shit, to me), but one simply view of crowds on a London street decorated for Victoria’s Jubilee revealed something curious and touching, bottom left of frame. As the throng on the pavement shuffled through the camera’s field of vision, each pedestrian glanced up, into its round glass eye, and the same expression flashed across each face. It was partly wariness and partly hope. What did they fear, and what did they hope for, these long-vanished anony-mites? To be shown as they are? To be immortalized, in a way that doesn’t benefit them, but only us?
Then they drift out of frame, to keep their appointments with Death.