Early “Time-Bending” Film

I’m currently reading Mary Ann Doane’s impressive 2002 book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, which focuses on the relationship of the emerging technology of cinema and various constrcutions of time at the beginning of the twentieth century. I’ll have a lot more to say about this book in the days ahead, but so far, I’ve read her discussions of cinema’s capacity as an archive in relationship to Freud’s theories of the unconscious; her consideration of the impossibility of capturing the present; and–most relevant here–the apparent irreversibility of time’s arrow.

In her discussion of temporal irreversibility, Doane mentions a 1901 Edison film, The Artist’s Dilemma (directed by Edwin Porter), which takes place in an artist’s studio, consisting of a stage for models, a grandfather clock, and an easel. A model steps into the studio from inside the clock, and the artist begins to paint her portrait, when a second figure emerges from the clock. This “ghostly figure” removes a paint can from the clock and takes over for the artist, and begins to swiftly paint the portrait. As Doane points out:

It is clear that this section of the film is reverse motion: a film strip in which the clown/demon had painted black over an already existing picture of the model is simply run backwards so that it appears as if an impressive likeness of the model emerges magically from the broad, careless strokes of the demon’s brush

Once the portrait is complete, the “demon” invites his representation down from the painting, essentially bringing her to life. Notably, throughout the film, the grandfather clock remains set at four o’clock. As Doane points out, “reversible time” is subordinated to the narrative–painting the portrait–but in my reading, The Artist’s Dilemma is not quite time travel, but might be considered a “time bending” film, one that works against the linear, chronological time of cinema (especially the early “actualities”).

Even cooler, you can view the film (type in the search term “The Artist’s Dilemma”) through the Library of Congress’ “American Memory National Digital Library” project, using Real Player or Quick Time. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly check out the holdings at the digital library, but it strikes me as a valuable tool for retaining some semblance of our cinematic past, especially as celluloid begins to deteriorate. Of course as Matthew and Kari point out, “preservation also always entails loss.” There was something unsettling about viewing this old film on my computer–the loss here, in part, the flicker of the projector, and perhaps the experience of viewing the film with an audience. Matt also addresses several key concerns about digital preservation in his entry on the e(X)literature conference, specifically Stewart Brand’s observation that presevation is a social–not technological–problem (Matt’s also absolutely right to reflect on the relationship between preservation and mortality). More about digital preservation here.

It’s interesting to think about how the questions raised by the cinema about the archive are being revisited–in strikingly similar language–with the emergence of digital technologies.

4 Comments »

  1. Matt K. Said,

    July 29, 2003 @ 10:37 am

    Very interesting stuff, Chuck. And thanks for the link to the film–I’m looking forward to viewing it. The number I’ve heard on more than one occassion is that something like 50% of the films produced before 1950 are no longer sceenable.

  2. chuck Said,

    July 29, 2003 @ 11:14 am

    I’ve heard a similar figure. I’m having to read the screenplay of at least one relatively early (1930s) time-travel film. What’s amazing is that it was a relatively respected film–Leslie Howard was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor.

  3. chris Said,

    April 19, 2004 @ 8:15 am

    good to hear someone is interested in early cinema Edison and Porter. I am writing my MA thesis on filmcomedy and include ‘The Artist’s Dilemma’. If you think of Woody Allen’s ‘Purple Rose of Cairo’…

  4. chuck Said,

    April 21, 2004 @ 2:39 pm

    Chris, that’s an interesting comparison. Not sure I have much else to add, but good luck on your thesis.

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