Just as I did with Flicker Alley’s Georges Melies boxset, I need to pay my respects to another magnificent collection, Edison: The Invention of the Movies, from Kino Video. It took a long time to arrive in our university library, but I finally got to crack it open today. It’s going to take a long time to get through it. Including documents and commentaries and interviews with historians, there must be over 20 hours of things and stuff spread across these four discs. You can either watch the films in isolation, or have them embedded in a series of sharp and detailed commentaries by the likes of Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser, Michael Wallace, Paul Israel and others.
From say-what-you-see titles such as Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze and Mr. Edison at Work in his Chemical Laboratory, to spectacular fictions such as Jack and the Beanstalk and The Teddy Bears, this is essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in early cinema, and I look forward to forcing it on anyone who isn’t remotely interested.
The images above are from the earliest serviving camera tests made by Edison and W.K.L. Dickson. It’s called Monkey-Shines no.1. If a monkeyshine is a kind of naughty practical joke, I can’t really see one in here. Instead, we get a ghostly figure flickering in and out of focus, threatening to sputter out at any moment, and struggling to break into imagistic life. It is completely beguiling to look at, amongst the most riveting ten seconds of film you could hope to see. It’s as though this long-dead being is trying to force its presence out of another time and into ours, fighting against the ever-increasing temporal gulf. Of course, this effect is not part of the art, but a side-effect of the camera’s in-progress design. The imperfections, scratches and age-damage of these artefacts are signs of their historical distance from the present time, but they can take on a kind of beauty all of their own, as in the way Carmencita’s dance seems to be showered with fireflies.
I can’t wait to plough through the rest of this set. It feels important, edifying and educational. There’s not many times you can say that about a bunch of movies, especially one that includes boxing cats…