writings

In the 1890’s, at a time when every film project amounted to a fresh creation under a new logos, everyone who made films did so not only under the renormalization of a genuinely new technology but one of which they were entirely possessed. [1]

The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison was typeset using metal type. We know this because of the slightly indented words on the paper—the physical remnant of the metal type and the action of the press—and by the publication date. Contemporary texts produced by digital means erase the traces that link the document to processes of mechanical reproduction.

In 2006 while working on Mr. Edison’s Ear, I became preoccupied with a commissioned film, In the Kingdom of Shadows that I made for the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto’s 25th Anniversary. This piece helped to consolidate my interests in typography and filmmaking and to inform and solidify similar themes within Mr. Edison’s Ear. In the Kingdom of Shadows documents the dissolution of Maxim Gorky’s 1896 review of the Lumiére brothers film Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat (1895). The text, cast on an early Ludlow Linecaster and typeset in Tempo typeface, returns the lead to a liquid, reconsidering historical and technological relationships between cinema, print and review. Making Kingdom provided me with the opportunity to work on 35mm. This project is an evolution of my work with found footage, my interest in early films, early sound recordings and the practices through which these are archived.

In the fall of 2006, I taught a typography course, and as part of that course I took my students to an old-style print shop. I became obsessed there with watching the discarded lead type melt back into the Linecaster, as occurs in my film. The melting process is a reference to Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia, where we watch photographs burn on a stove element. The melting is also a reference to Frampton’s theoretical work with early cinema and Frampton’s notion of the early filmmakers as inventers, artists, technicians, everything because “they owned the medium.” I came back to Frampton over and over again when considering the phonograph and Edison.

Kingdom’s working title, The First Thing Ever Filmed, was prompted by Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light and his desire to return to firsts:

At the beginning of life there was only the real thing. Now there is media that records, preserves, regurgitates and expresses. We know what is, by what is represented as much as by what we have seen for ourselves. The first thing that was ever filmed was a train. People ran out of the theatre for fear of being run over. [2]

This quotation refers to a first moment in film history: when Arrival of a Train at Ciotat was screened with other films at the Salon Indien Grand Café in Paris in 1895 and marks the first time projected moving images were shown to a paying public. A year later a screening of this series of Lumiére films was recorded by Maxim Gorky,

Under this guise he shoved his grotesque creation into a niche in the dark room of a restaurant. Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you – watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice. But this too is a train of shadows. [3]

To understand moving images we need to understand their past, and the past, like the future is not reachable. Mettler’s quotation (despite the irony), the unfulfilled desire to return to firsts, to represent an unrepresentable feeling or sensation is of interest to me. The impulse is difficult, if not impossible to satisfy. To establish the first thing ever… is to isolate as the inventor of the motion picture camera, projection system or any other significant advance in technologies of reproduction. These answers shift with the particular position you wish to take and with the inventor you wish to prioritize. We know that the first thing ever filmed—with a corresponding archival record—was not a train. It was William Kennedy Laurie Dickson waving hello, or possibly the enigmatic Edison camera tests (Monkey Shines 1) or Muybridge’s work or Marey’s (and Demeny’s) early experiments with chronophotography and so on… Even here an indexical correspondence of anecdotal and archival fact does not guarantee a claim to first.

Endnotes
1. Hollis Frampton, “The Invention Without a Future”, annotated and edited by Mike Zryd, October 109 (Summer 2004) 64-75.
2. Mettler, Picture of Light.
3. Maxim Gorky, “Appendix 2: Maxim Gorky,” ed. Leyda, J.,  Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983, c. 1973. pp. 407-9.