- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (12/8/2022)
(Reviews of Exposing Muybridge; All Light, Everywhere; and Blind Ambition)
With Covid levels dropping, it's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is once again a thing - even in uncivilised temperatures. Thankfully, however, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
Eadweard Muybridge is easily the most colourful character in cinema's pre-history. Consequently, he has been the subject of a number of films, including It Started With Muybridge (1964), which was produced under the auspices of the US Naval Ordnance Laboratory; Thom Andersen's student documentary, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975); and Jill Nicholls's BBC featurette, The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge (2010). There has even been a Canadian biopic, Kyle Rideout's Eadweard (2005), which stars Michael Eklund as the photographic pioneer literally got away with murder.
Naturally, the 1875 court case is explored in detail in Marc Shaffer's Exposing Muybridge. But this is also an in-depth appraisal of his achievements as both a visual artist and as a scientist and what his various projects with static and moving images say about Muybridge the man and the times in which he lived.
As the action commences, photographers Byron Wolfe and Mark Klett head into the Yosemite National Park that Eadweard Muybridge visited in 1868 and 1872. They comment on his unconventional style of composition and compare his view of Tanaya Lake with images taken by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. They commend the scope of his vision, the layered depth of his planes and the sheer risks he took to capture unique images with cumbersome equipment at a time when a single exposure on a glass plate could take up to a minute.
An ardent admirer of Muybridge, actor Gary Oldman is also the proud owner of a self-portrait depicting him leaning against a sequoia tree. He feels Muybridge's pose and expression are highly revealing of the man and would be a boon to anyone preparing to play him.
Biographer Marta Braun reveals the Edward James Muggeridge was born in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames, where his family operated coal and corn barges. Curator Philip Brookman claims that he was creative from an early age and couldn't wait to leave England. He sailed across the Atlantic at the age of 20 and arrived in San Francisco in 1855 under the name Muygridge. Here, he worked as a bookseller, among other professions, before he started taking photographs under the name Helios. His determination to succeed was evident from a line he wrote in a letter to his grandmother: `I am going to make a name for myself. If I fail, you will never hear of me again.'
Developing pictures in his Flying Studio, Muybridge specialised in stereoscopic views, in which he often included a figure looking into the far distance in order to allow the viewer to gauge scale. Braun and historian Richard White and Braun note that Muybridge stumbled into a changing world, in which photography was beginning to play an increasingly significant role. He was not against accepting government commissions to promote the West and the railroads that connected the frontier to the rest of the nation. During the Modoc War (1872-73), he was hired to photograph the terrain as a guide for the US Army and to provide images for publications like Harper's Weekly, which carried his famous portait of a Modoc brave. However, as Muybridge went nowhere near the frontline, this actually depicted one of the Warm Springs scouts led by Donald McKay and provides an early example of his readiness to let the camera lie.
In photographing indigenous tribes, however, Muybridge showed a respect that was not always shared by his contemporaries. Richard Jackson Kushakaak praises the picures of the Tlingit people that he encountered on Tongass Island when he visited Alaska in 1868. By this time, Muybridge was a successful photographer and hippophilic railroad tycoon Leland Stanford hired him to determine whether a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground at any one time.
Muybridge's first attempts to photograph a moving animal with a single camera were blurrily inconclusive. However, his chances of continuing the experiment were thrown into doubt when his private life started making headlines. In 1871, Muybridge had married Flora Shallcross Stone, who was almost half his age. As she was left alone when he went on assignments, she formed an attachment with Major Harry Larkyns after he started escorting her to the theatre. When Muybridge discovered that Larkyns was the father of his newborn son, Florado, he travelled to the Yellow Jacket Quicksilver Mine near Calistoga and killed his rival with a single shot to the heart.
Rebecca Gowers, who is Larkyns's great-great-niece, has little doubt that this was premeditated murder. However, Stanford had supplied Muybridge with a skilled attorney, lawyer W.W. Pendergast, who argued that his client's character had been dramatically changed by a stagecoach accident in Texas in 1860. He suggested that Muybridge became short-tempered as a result of his head injury and used `Contemplation Rock, Glacier Point', an 1872 photograph showing Muybridge perilously perched on a mountain ledge, to show that he had become a reckless risk taker.
Recognising that the plea of temporary insanity was not going to sway the jury, Pendergast changed tack. He claimed this had been a crime of passion and urged the jury to put themselves in the shoes of a man whose life and reputation would be besmirched by his cuckholding. Much to Gowers's dismay and Oldman's amusement, we learn that Muybridge was aquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. On hearing the verdict, he wailed in the dock and the court had been cleared by the time he was able to pull himself together.
Wisely deciding to make himself scarce, Muybridge spent several months in Guatemala and Panama, where he adopted the forenames Eduardo Santiago (he started styling himself Eadweard in 1882). He returned north to make grandiloquent promises to provide for Flora and her child. When she died after a stroke at the age of 24, however, Muybridge had the boy placed in an orphanage.
Fortunately, Leland Stanford, who was now the Governor of California, had a deeper understanding of loyalty and he invited Muybridge to resume his equine experiment. Esteemed film historian Thomas Gunning and photographer Luther Gerlach join Braun, Oldman, Brookman and White in relating how, in 1878, Muybridge used a battery of cameras to snap a passing horse named Sallie Gardner at the Palo Alto stud farm and, in the process, not only proved Stanford's contention, but also produced the first sequence photographs.
As Gunning avers, the camera now became more powerful than the human eye. But not everyone was convinced. Some thought that Muybridge had faked the images in his tome, The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, while sculptor Auguste Rodin declared that they possessed an ugly mechanical truth. When compatriot Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier saw the pictures, he was astonished and declared he would never touch another brush when Stanford assured him that the camera could never dissemble.
Recognising the commercial potential of his images and keen to bask in their reflected glory, Muybridge commissioned discs containing drawings based on his photographs of animals and humans, which he animated by revolving the discs in a projecting apparatus he named the zoopraxiscope. Braun notes that he beat Alfred Hitchcock to the punch by frequently inserting himself into the spinning images, which caused a sensation when he exhibited them in Europe. Even the Prince of Wales was said to be amused and rumours abounded that Muybridge was under consideration for membership of the Royal Society.
This adulation infuriated Stanford, who enlisted the help of J.D.B. Stillman in accusing Muybridge of being a charlatan who had stolen his patron's ideas. The publication of The Horse in Motion in 1882 proved calamitous, with Oldman and Braun concurring that it did Muybridge more harm than his murder trial. Yet scholar Amy Werbel reveals that he kept giving zoopraxiscope shows on the Eastern Seaboard.
Artist Thomas Eakins was sufficiently impressed to persuade William Pepper, the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, to give Muybridge the wherewithal to continue making studies of animal locomotion. Aware that he needed to find an academic justification for bankrolling Muybridge, Pepper created a committee of doctors, artists and zoologists to supervise his work.
Despite feeling constricted, Muybridge knuckled down and started using string-gridded backdrops to give the images a scientific feel. There was a more sinister side to this, however, as it was customary to make studies of non-Caucasian subjects against such grids to establish their place in the racial hierarchy. They can be seen in the picures of Muybridge's sole Black model, boxer Ben Bailey, although they are also present in his numerous self-portraits.
Braun explains that male figures were usually engaged in athletic pursuits, while the females were asked to deport themselves in a gentile or servile manner. The majority of the young men in naked poses were students from the upper echelons of American society. But women like Blanche Epler, Mamie Dayson and Nellie Ashland were often lower-class, with many being artistic models (a profession equated at the time with prostitution). Braun highlights how vulnerable these mostly single women appear in poses that sometimes feel closer to erotica than scientific evidence.
Exploitation was common, as women were coaxed into taking shower baths or attending naked tea parties. However, it's agreed that Muybridge saw these risqué poses as a way of rebelling against his overseers. In disapproving of such chauvinism, Braun points out that, among his 100,000+ images, Muybridge also staged slapstick gags and animal capers. Gunning reflects on the way such images accidentally anticipated Surrealism, while Braun commends the narrative content of sequences that presage motion picture storylines. Indeed, she declares Muybridge to be an innovative, rulebreaking genius, whose chronophotographs succeeded in combining art and science on his own terms.
Some of the images don't stand up to close scrutiny, however, as Muybridge wasn't above touching up shots or even faking sequences (such as the one of a woman dropping her handkerchief) by posing stills rather than photographing movement.
Wolfe claims he had a habit of creating `basic' and `deluxe' versions of the same photograph by adding clouds or tweaking details. Oldman goes so far as to declare his Modoc brave picture to be an early example of directing for the camera, as he was prepared to shape reality to achieve his ends.
In this regard, Gunning concludes that while the camera doesn't lie, forms of presentation can be manipulated. Braun avers that seeing is never believing when it comes to Muybridge. But his magnum opus, Animal Locomotion (1885), didn't sell well and he was forced to hit the road again in order to re-pay his backers. Times were changing, however, and his booth at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 did poor business beside a hoochie-coochie show. Two years later, Louis and Auguste Lumière stole his thunder with their Cinématographe and Muybridge sailed back to Britain.
Before his death in 1904, he destroyed pictures that he considered to be sub-standard in order to protect his legacy. Oldman visits his grave in Woking and discovers from a brass rubbing that his name had been misspelt on the headstone as `Maybridge'. As a closing caption reveals, however, that two of his later books, Animals in Motion (1899) and The Human Figure in Motion (1901), have never been out of print. Moreover, the credit sequence reveals his influence on artists like Francis Bacon and David Hockney and even Mark Neale's 1993 U2 video, `Lemon'.
All of which is fine and dandy. But, by opting to chronicle Muybridge's accomplishments in a vacuum, Shaffer presents only a fraction of the story. Where are the meetings with Étienne-Jules Marey, whose fusil photographique enabled him to take the multiple exposures that were such a considerable influence on Muybridge's later work? Why is there no mention of other pioneers labouring in the field to capture motion on camera - such as Ottomar Anschütz and his Electrotachyscope - especially as Muybridge is essentially a cinematic dead-end, as he used the wet-plate collodion process rather than celluloid?
And let's not forget that the zoopraxiscope projected reproductions of Muybridge's sequence photographs, which makes it no more revolutionary in itself than the rival persistence of vision devices like the phenakistoscope, zoetrope or Émile Reynaud's Théâtre Optique, which all used hand-drawn images to create the illusion of continuous motion.
There's no denying that Muybridge was a fascinating character and Shaffer and his talking heads capably explore his assets and his flaws. Marta Braun is particularly enlightening in her astute checking and balancing of Muybridge's career, although Gary Oldman (a keen collector who has long been trying to greenlight a biopic) might have been persuaded to curb his enthusiasm while larkily playing up to the camera. But who is going to tell an Oscar winner to dial down the luvviness when he so clearly cares and wants others to share in his passion?
ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE.
It's not often that two films referencing cinema's pre-history appear around the same time. Bertha DocHouse is currently showing Marc Shaffer's Exposing Muybridge, while The ICA has just been hosting Theo Anthony's All Light, Everywhere. This is more a tract on surveillance and the perils of misperception. But it also seeks to bind in some of the earliest photographic devices with weaponry (hence the shared use of the word `shoot'), in an effort to gauge whether cameras can be trusted to keep our streets safe.
A goodly proportion of this cine-essay is spent in the company of Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for the Axon technology company that supplies America's police forces with Tasers and bodycams. Something of a slick operator, Tuttle takes Anthony on a guided tour of the Axon headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. Whether purring with pleasure at the sound of a profitable production line or tooling up for a Taser demonstration in the desert, his patter is well polished, as it seeks to emphasise the benefits to society of equipping cops with cameras that record their encounters with the public to a quality that makes the footage admissable evidence in court.
What he doesn't discuss, however, proves to be a stumbling block for Ross McNutt, the CEO of Persistent Surveillance Systems, as he tries to persuade community leaders in Baltimore of the value of his plane-mounted `God's-eye view' surveillance system. Narrator Keaver Brenai points out the pitfalls of the elongating effect that the wide-angle lenses have on the Axon bodycam coverage and delves back over a century to explain why the `black drop effect' makes today's aerial images so unreliable.
Students of film history will probably be familiar with the work of Pierre-Jules-César Janssen and Julius Neubronner. But Anthony takes us back to 8 December 1874, when Janssen attempted to record the Transit of Venus from Japan using his `revolver photographique', a camera inspired by the Gatling Gun that employed a Maltese Cross-style clockwork mechanism to capture 48 exposures on a Daguerrotype plate over 72 seconds. Operated by Brazilian astronomer Francisco Antônio d'Almeida, these serial images have since been animated to give a six-second impression of Venus moving across the face of the Sun.
Suitably inspired, scientist Étienne-Jules Marey fashioned his own `fusil photographique' in 1882 in order to create chronophotographic images of flying birds (hence his nickname, `The Birdman of Beaune'). English photographer Eadweard Muybridge had been creating similar studies of motion since 1878. But it was 1907 when German apothecary Julius Neubronner attached a small, time-lapse camera to a homing pigeon in order to record aerial footage. His research attracted the interest of the Kaiser's High Command and efforts were made to train pigeons to make espionage flights over enemy territory in the run-up to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914.
All of which brings Anthony back to the sinister aspect of eyes in the sky keeping tabs on our every movement - even if the actual images are too indistinct to pick out recognisable individuals on the ground. A combination of these flaws and the various purposes to which the footage could be used involves McNutt in a heated debate. The Baltimore cop teaching some beat officers how to use their new bodycams has no truck with such negativity, as he thinks the cameras make the Thin Blue Line more effective, protective and accountable.
His blind faith conflates with the blind spot where the optic nerve connects to the brain. Anthony likens this to the world beyond the frame of an image in positing that the more we think we see, the less we actually do. Such is the need to complete the picture that the subjective and the objective are always on a collision course, with the result that either interpretation or judgement are required to apportion meaning to anything we're looking at. And the moment that happens, truth is necessarily diminished.
Such concepts need pondering, as does the contention that no matter how miraculous a piece of technology may be, someone will find a nefarious use for it. Dan Deacon's electronic score deftly highlights such disquieting realisations, while Brenai's narration is tinged with an air of world-weary disappointment at humanity's inability to be trusted. She's particularly scathing when recalling how eugenicists seized upon Alphonse Bertillon's anthropometric classification of police suspects and the composite portraits produced by Sir Francis Galton in his bid to demonstrate the link between physiognomy and criminality. Such dips into the murky past should make us apprehensive about the future, especially when artificial intelligence is factored into the equation. But one thing this laudably ambitious, fiendishly persuasive, troublingly provocative and disarmingly witty treatise teaches us is that - providing we avoid seeing solely what we want to see - nothing (including itself) is quite what it seems to the naked eye, even when it lays claim to being incontrovertible.
The number of wine documentaries continues to grow steadily. Since Jonathan Nossiter launched the sub-genre with Mondovino (2004), we've been treated to Jason Wise's Somm (2013), Pablo Casalis and Tiziano Gaia's Barolo Boys: The Story of a Revolution (2015), Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas's Sour Grapes (2016), Emily Railsback's Our Blood Is Wine (2018) and Frank Mannion's Sparkling: The Story of Champagne (2021). In 2015, Nossiter himself returned to the fray with Natural Resistance. Now, Australians, Warwick Ross and Robert Coe, have followed up Red Obsession (2013) with Blind Ambition.
Less to do with wine than with overcoming poverty, danger, adversity and prejudice, this genial odyssey shows how four Zimbabwean refugees became first-class sommeliers in Cape Town. Hailing from Chirumhanzu, Joseph Dhafana left for South Africa in 2008 to provide for his mother, Calista, and he was initially pleased to get a job tending the restaurant's vegetable patch. While Calista is proud of his efforts, Pardon Taguzu misses the mother who died shortly after his arrival. He now lives with his wife, Batsie. Marlvin Gwese is also married and his three daughters with his wife, Skoliwe. His parents, Clever and Marriam, are deeply religious and thank God that their son is doing so well, even though they still disapprove of alcohol.
Completing the quartet is Tinashe Nyamudoka, who hopes to return to Nyanga and see his grandfather and establish a vineyard on the rich slopes near his home. However, while the expats are doing well in restaurants across Cape Town, their best chance of raising their profile and fulfilling their dreams is to compete at the 2017 World Wine Tasting Championships. As they are still relatively inexperienced, however, they need a coach to help them refine their palates and become familiar with the more obscure wines that will be produced by the judges.
Jean-Vincent Ridon has the experience and the contacts and he offers his services while the foursome (who didn't know each other before forming the team) try to crowdfund their expenses for the trip. As their story spreads through the wine world, they receive the backing of Jancis Robinson, who is delighted to challenge the Caucasian dominance of the oenological establishment. But, as JV is already committed to coaching the South African team at the contest, Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon have to find an alternative.
Enter Denis Garret, an internationally respected French sommelier, who is, to put it mildly, quite a character. Having woken one morning and ended his marriage to pursue `la liberté', he zooms around on a motorbike and tries to make light of the fact he is deaf in one ear. The Zimbabweans are grateful to have such an experienced coach in their corner. But they aren't always convinced by his methods. Nevertheless, they join JV and the South Africans on a whistlestop tour of the major French and German wine-producing regions and try to imbibe as much information as possible.
Much to JV's annoyance and bafflement, Denis insists on taking his charges to a friend's vineyard on the last day of the tour. But Denis's eccentricities continue to make life interesting after the team arrives at the Château de Gilly in Burgundy. His hearing difficulties make it tricky for Joseph to whisper their answers for each of the 12 wines in the blind tasting test. Moreover, he refuses to conform to the rules for filling in the forms.
Despite such hindrances, the Zimbabweans manage to avoid coming last, as the Italian team brings up the rear. They return to South Africa with their competitive instincts honed and, as a closing insert reveals, their performance is much improved when they enter a later edition of the WWTCs. More importantly, such exposure boosts their career prospects.
There's no escaping the fact that Ross and Coe have couched this as the wine-tasting equivalent of the achievement of the Jamaican squad that competed in the two- and four-man bobsledding events at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. At times, they stray a bit too far into Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) territory, with Denis Garret being cast in the Irving Blitzer role that had been so memorably taken by John Candy. However, they treat Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon with the utmost respect and recognise the dedication that had enabled them to refine their skills in a remarkably short space of time in a field that is usually dominated by those from more privileged backgrounds.
Moreover, during the Cape Town segment, Coe and Ross discuss the plight of refugees who are not only exploited on the labour market, but who are also subjected to often brutal attacks by locals who resent their presence during perpetually hard times. Yet, while they provide adequate socio-political context, the co-directors struggle to limn the relationship between the sommeliers and fail to capture much sense of the team dynamic. They seem to rub along well enough and bond when singing traditional Shona songs. But the rapport is so blandly depicted that it becomes too easy for the tensions between Denis and RV to push Team Zimbabwe to the margins.