Thursday, February 15, 2007
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer * Thom Andersen * 1975
I'm fortunate enough to live within walking distance of the Jacob Burns Film Center, which might be just about the only thing in Westchester that makes it worth living there. The Burns Center recently screened a rare print of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, a documentary on the titular pioneer of moving pictures (if you're at all interested in film history, you've undoubtedly seen the series of photographs he shot of galloping horses), as part of a series they are currently running called "Frameworks: Art on Film." Lucy Oakley, head of Education and Programs at NYU's Grey Art Gallery, provided a brief lecture and Q & A.
This print, one of the filmmaker's two personal copies, has not been restored, deteriorating as one might expect over the last 30 years, with the predictable crackles and spots of dust, not to mention a slight lavender tint. (Both the lecturer and curator apologized for what they called the "purple haze," though I barely noticed it.)
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is a student film, albeit one that was worked on for ten years. While the subject matter is engrossing, the film itself is not particularly unique or noteworthy. Andersen's technique consists of filming still photographs and zooming in on a section to create the appearance of movement, and, at times, tension. The voiceover narration, provided by Dean Stockwell (who has acted in countless films and TV shows since the 1940s, his diverse oeuvre including Paris, Texas and Blue Velvet as well as episodes of Wagon Train and Quantum Leap), recalls the type of monotone narration one might stereotypically expect of dull science lectures and slide shows.
Muybridge moved to San Francisco from England and began his career in the 1860s as a nature photographer. Perhaps one of the most fascinating moments in these early stages (and one of the few aspects of his personal life that the film divulges) came when Muybridge discovered that his wife had a lover. He tracked the man down and shot him, and was tried for murder but exonerated because, incredibly, the crime was considered "justifiable homicide." A photograph of Muybridge at the time depicts a troubled, brooding man. Once the film arrives at the project that placed him in the annals of movie history, Muybridge himself is almost wholly removed from the story, perhaps insinuating that he devoted his life to his work. He appears once at the end in one of his own animations, an old, haggard-looking (and, yes, naked) man, his hair grizzled and wild, quietly walking across the screen—somewhat of a poetic, poignant moment.
Muybridge's most famous and ongoing project began as an attempt to prove that when horses galloped, all four feet were off the ground. He succeeded, and continued to record the movements of horses, using a series of fifty cameras arranged along a track, each of the camera shutters controlled by a trip wire that was triggered by the horse's hooves. Later on, as Muybridge became more and more consumed by this project—perhaps an obsession, even—the horses expanded into other animals, such as bison, boar, and elephants, and nude women, men, and children.
Judging from the breadth of images in Muybridge's body of work, he seems most interested in people on the margins of society: a contortonist, an amputee climbing into a chair, an obese woman trying to stand up. Nude women are portrayed leisurely reclining, smoking cigarettes, their hair cropped short; for a woman to pose naked was taboo enough (and still is), but Muybridge's models revel in their nudity, expressing a degree of contempt for the social mores of the day.
The second half of the film is the more engaging half, in which Andersen animates many of Muybridge's photographs by fading from one image to the next, or with a kind of strobe light effect. It was pointed out by Lucy Oakley in the lecture portion of the evening that we were not actually seeing what Muybridge's audiences saw when he originally screened his work; his zoopraxoscope, a projector-like device he created to animate his images, distorted the proportions of his photographs, so Muybridge used disproportionate color drawings based on his images. But Andersen's use of the actual photographs isn't really a factual error, because as far as I can tell, he never actually states that what the viewer is seeing is what Muybridge showed to his audiences.
Andersen concludes his film by saying that Muybridge is "in no sense" the father of modern cinema, that he really had no impact on film history. Admittedly, his animations were very short, only a few seconds long, whereas others were simultaneously creating films that lasted several minutes. But Muybridge's zoopraxoscope predates the first Lumiere camera by 18 years, and Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope by 10 years. In fact, it is said that the zoopraxiscope, while flawed, was a direct influence on Edison. Moreover, Muybridge's animations were, in effect, the first moving pictures ever recorded. So to say that Muybridge is "in no sense" responsible for today's cinema seems troublingly misguided, especially coming from the man who dedicated ten years of his life to create this film.
According to Oakley, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer is available at the New York Public Library's Donnell Media Center for in-house viewing only, and, most likely, a few other similar institutions. For now, it is essentially unavailable, and while Andersen's skillful animations of Muybridge's photographs are invaluable records of film history, I don't foresee its availability becoming more widespread.