101 Imaginary Nights At The Movies

Third in a series of 101 imaginary movies, Cinema of Forgotten Dreams is my attempt to dramatize film history by creating and commenting on a repository of imaginative film viewing. From the earliest days of cinema to the era of blockbusters, my century (plus one) of Movies I Made Up will proceed chronologically through an alternate dimension of films. Will it be allowed? Will anyone read? Though I have no answer to either question, I’m doing it anyway: fortunately, there are no rules in the land of dreams.

American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. of New York (later shortened to Biograph Co.); late 1890s

MAIN STREET

1899, Biograph Co.

“Actualities” became the favored term of motion picture short subjects in the early days of American cinema, and these documentary views of staged performances, marching soldiers, famous people, and simple street scenes flooded early exhibition centers – peep shows, tent fairs, dance halls, bar backrooms, and the like – with images directly reflecting the interests and daily lives of early cinema audiences. Filling 65 to 75 feet of rolled film, or about 1 to 2 minutes of screen time, the mid-decade switch from stationary box-viewed images to mechanically projected scenes allowed a wider vista upon which to capture “attractions” of beauty, joy, humor, and even terror. With each visual marvel presented to audiences, however, the wearing novelty of the medium in the last years of the nineteenth century inspired a growing sophistication directly proportionate to the amount of film used; so much so that films of 3 or even 4 minutes in length became largely incomprehensible without explanatory notes or text.

image from Bioscope’s INAUGURATION OF PRESIDENT MCKINLEY (1897)

Cue the cue card. Unheralded in the development of films as “films”, the written word was instrumental in the development of silent movie storytelling as movies actually began to tell stories. As such, one of the earliest and charming examples of a story told on film, complete with words appearing onscreen, came with a circa 1899 slice of American life produced, distributed, and exhibited by the earliest competitor to the medium-monopolizing Edison Manufacturing Company. Evading Edison’s complicated patent claims on motion picture film, and indeed the motion picture camera, the fledgling New York City movie firm of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company – later shortened to the Biograph Co.; and actually shooting most of their films in rural New Jersey – took advantage of an even then growing (and mostly unspoken) demand for structured stories complemented by visual artistry.

empty frame cue card (AKA silent film intertitle)

While both of the latter qualities went unrealized until at least a decade into the future, the turn-of-the-century innovation of the silent movie intertitle provided a compensating literary grammar of screen storytelling that would quickly develop through such innovations as light-sensitive photographic stock, greater focal control of the camera lens, and eventually film editing itself. The simple power of words to provide a descriptive equivalent to these as yet uninvented visual storytelling tools was the infant medium’s first faltering steps towards making 5 ½ minutes of screen time – or approximately 1,000 feet of film – comprehensible to those English-reading audiences who first viewed it. Universal film grammar would extend these visual stories more readily (and democratically) to broader non-reading and non-English-speaking audiences, but for the next decade smalltown American audiences found the collective stories of their individual lives advantageously reflected in the combined words and images found in movies like the Biograph Co.’s 1899 paean to Anywhere, USA of Main Street.

early Biograph Co. production; 1905

With the clean spacing and rounded script of a hand-stitched volume, the Biograph logo – at that point, the full name of the company in looping italics – “PRESENTS” the Americana blend of the title’s specific location, along with its general destination. “Upstate New York, Southern California, the Midlands of Indiana, the canyon depths of desert Arizona.” The farflung invocation cuts directly to a bustling thoroughfare. “Liveries, banks, general stores, engravers.” The left and right edges of the image framed by two- and three-story brick buildings, the glare of midday both reflects and illuminates dustclouds trailing sober-dressed pedestrians crisscrossing the unpaved pathway.

Several minutes pass. “Fall, Spring, Summer, Winter.” The soft light quality of the deep focal view imparts a reflective glow to the motion visuals indistinguishable from glass plate and tin type images of the period; the leaves might be changing, snow may have melted or is just about to fall, or the heat of day could be breaking. “Commerce, recreation, industry, leisure.” Visually intersecting and dispersing with unhurried grace, women, men, children, and the elderly meet, separate, and re-join with the persistent rhythm of the passing day.

Cyanotype view of “Main Street”; 1895 (Wisconsin Historical Society image #30947; photographer unattributed)

“My town, your town, our town, every town.” The cameo vision of 118 years ago dimly recedes with the 528th frame passing the camera lens. A small child holding a mother’s hand turns to regard a clicking, whirring, alien presence to the immediate right – leaving us to only imagine the squinting, crouching, possibly mustachioed man furiously cranking the unwieldy machine behind – as filmic grain, gate hairs, and chemical blotches overtake the slow fading image.

On one level, the sequence evokes a purely visual record of time and place entirely unique to the medium. From its fixed position and neutral imagery, we are witness to an early example of what over half a century later would call cinema verité: the printed shades between off-white and deep brown – or the sepia tones of this early generation of Eastman film stock – recording the captured light directly in front of its lens with a documentary precision untempered (and unchanged) by the “reality” intrinsic to its subject matter.

While the very act of filming may in some ways change the nature of what is being filmed – as would be evident from the kid who can’t help but notice the camera and its operator – viewers mainly see the “truth” of what their own eyes would perceive if they were standing in the camera’s position, in real time, on a mid-size American town’s square over a century ago. The men in their dark vests and squarish ties, the women in their bright frocks and flowered hats, the old person hobbling gingerly upon creaking wooden boards; all become our contemporaries in the act of viewing. Indeed, he or she could be our great-, great-great-, or even great-great-great-grandparent – meaning the kid caught by the camera’s eye, who so catches our own – but in this viewing moment is in a very real sense the child of everyone seeing him or her.

“Scene on Main Street”; 1900 (Wisconsin Historical Society image# 31396, photographer unattributed)

On a deeper level, the five white-on-black, sloping title cards, box-bordered and logo-credited to the film strip’s producer, imbue the images with a meaning they might not otherwise have had; thus immediately contradicting any attempt at classifying the film as impartial documentary. In a cadence of rolling quartets, the town’s square, its central thoroughfare, and their clapboard frames of dwellings and businesses invest the people bustling through them with a daily sense of purpose literally in line and symbolically in keeping with the circular, repetitious nature of rolling, projected film.

Stepping off these main-traveled roads for an hour’s and nickel’s worth of entertainment – stopping off to witness, say, the latest flickering wonders of the local cinematograph – audiences all over the country undoubtedly recognized the past few minutes of their own day magnified by words investing those cameo views with a force equal to their projection. Lacking the sophisticated visual grammar later filmmakers would have at their effortless disposal, these dedicated though practical teams of technicians more concerned with effective exposure levels than making a grand sociological statement, an unknown title card writer nonetheless managed to make one powerful point about a random moment in a community’s continually unfolding history: this was a day like any other, but that is exactly what made it important.

“Main Street” view; early twentieth century (Wisconsin Historical Society image# 40467, photographer: Edward D. Frautschy)