Brevity, Part 5: Roundhay Garden Scene

This is Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest surviving movie shot on film:

(The video quality is a little better here.)

It was made sometime in October 1888 by Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, using a single-lens camera of his own invention. The four actors are (from left to right) Le Prince’s son Alphonse, Harriet Hartley (a family friend), and Sarah Whitley and Joseph Whitely (Le Prince’s in-laws). The setting is the garden of the Whitley family house in Oakwood Grange Road, Roundhay (Leeds) West Riding of Yorkshire, England.

Le Prince is believed to have shot more footage than this, but only two seconds survive. (Today we no longer have the film itself, but rather a 1930 photocopy made of the twenty surviving frames.)

This film is so short, it’s practically over before it begins. I’ve found that the only way I can really see it is to loop it, clicking “replay” repeatedly, focusing on single elements with each viewing.

…Now it’s getting longer…

…and longer…

…So how many times did you watch it? And how many times can we watch it? And how long is this film?

Repeated viewing turns it into something else: a durational piece, perhaps, akin to later works like Bruce Nauman’s Violin Tuned D.E.A.D. (1968):

Time is passing, and yet time isn’t passing. A dance is developing.

The word “scene” implies a lot. It comes from the French word scéne, or stage, meaning the action of a play, as well as the place where that action occurs. Hence our idiom “to make a scene,” or the idea of a scene as a sphere of activity (such as a music or writing scene). (This is similar to how we can use theater to refer to a “theater of operations.”)

…Does that word imply too much here? Is this a scene? And in what sense?

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was a painter and an inventor. (You can see his single-lens camera here and here) He tried to invent a 3D camera that would capture images more like actual human vision (a goal that cinema, 122 years later, is still pursuing).

Roundhay Garden Scene marks the first and last time that any of its actors appeared on camera. Sarah Whitley died soon after this footage was made, on 24 October 1888. Le Prince himself made one more film, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge, then disappeared on 16 September 1890, while riding a train from Dijon to Paris. He never successfully patented his camera. In 1902, his son Alphonse was murdered in New York.

(My source for this post, by the way, is Christopher Rawlence’s wonderful book, The Missing Reel—which Rawlence himself adapted into a feature-length film, in 1989.)

Rawlence’s biographical work expands Roundhay Garden Scene into something much longer than its original two seconds. Other criticism expands the film yet further:

“A closer look at the procession opens a rich canvas establishing a story through the emotions expressed by the four protagonists. We notice a feeling of unease mingled with carelessness in the body language of John Whitley, and a quiet resignation in trying to keep the procession unbroken in Sarah Whitley’s turn – leaving the youth and following her husband; akin to Mrs Ramsey in Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse, too old to entertain the young ones, yet not ready to give it up. (Mrs Whitley died soon after the shooting of the film on 24 October 1888). Then there are Hartley and Adolphe Le Prince. Even though there is nothing to testify an amorous bond between the two, it is quite interesting to speculate on Adolphe’s enthusiasm at the sight of the young Harriet (Annie Hartley in Rawlence’s book). Miss Hartley, slightly modest and prim, is still waiting for the boy to approach, slightly ignoring Mrs Whitley’s call. The film thus appears less a historical document, but rather a home documentary, watching objectively, yet allowing us to intrude within a family bond, united by love, separated by the complex relationships among its members.” (Ion Martea, Essential Films)

And:

“Despite its historical significance, Le Prince’s film is also a beautiful documentary evidence on contemporary middle-class British family. The work does not only lay the path on a technological level, but also opens the discourse on genre or performance, as well as on the role of film in society. The elderly couple looks nostalgically towards the youth, while slowly fading out of the shot. The reserved mannerism vibrates with energy in the rawness of the palette. It is appealing to explore the extent to which the four characters were affected by the presence of the camera. This type of acting does not integrate within the theatrical tradition of the time, moreover, with Le Prince, the shooting of film has turned its subjects into self-conscious actors. A new tradition was to emerge, taking the actor away from the text and turning him towards oneself. Roundhay Garden Scene should not get the credit for this, yet it deserves commending for developing the discourse from the very start.” (Ibid)

With each viewing, with each reading, this little film continues to swell. We add to it ourselves, with our own experiences. I first came across it while doing research into early cinema, for a short film class I taught at DePaul University. And you? Where are you, as you’re reading this? And when are you? When will you next watch this film again, remember having watched it?

Celluloid cinema began in a garden, its own Eden. A young couple danced beside an older couple. Doom lay on the horizon—expulsion. But in those two timeless seconds in Roundhay—which repeat endlessly even now—those couples keep going round and round.

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10 thoughts on “Brevity, Part 5: Roundhay Garden Scene

  1. love this, especially what you refer to as Nauman’s “durational piece.”

    by facing away from the camera, and by de-emphasizing setting, he slowly allows us to forget our tendency to search for a narrative.

    • The Nauman piece is at least one hour long (I have a VHS copy somewhere with at least that much on it), and might be even longer. I have heard that it was meant to be displayed looped, but I can’t confirm that.

      Certainly other Nauman video works are installed looped—CLOWN TORTURE (1987), for instance, which is on endless display at the Art Institute of Chicago. (And the AIC has finally turned down the volume on it, which is good, as it was overwhelming the nearby pieces.)

      http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/nauman/card2.html

      http://www.artic.edu/artaccess/AA_Modern/pages/MOD_11.shtml

      • i like the idea of displaying the Nauman piece looped; it would allow it to become a different kind of artifact, the one i think it is meant to be. it reminds me of a clock that counts time but that doesn’t keep time, if that makes sense. it can calm or unnerve, depending on who is watching it.

        i like that ‘Clown Torture’ doesn’t clearly express the source of torment. the viewer is troubled by watching the clowns, and by trying to determine what exactly the clowns are yelling and screaming about, but you tend not to realize this for several moments, and by then the piece has had its effect on you.

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  8. The significance of this clip is more than celluloid. This is an English Country Dance where the couples are coming out of a hey for four. A procedure where the women start first passing each other by the left arm, continuing in a slight loop left to the opposite lady side, turning in a loop over her right shoulder coming back to center passing the other woman by left shoulder to her place waiting for return of partner. The men have followed the women into the hay pattern (called today a figure of eight – because if one were above looking down at the dancers, tracing there steps with a pencil, it appears as two eights. The men pass each other by right shoulders, cross to other side, loop over left shoulder, come back crossing over passing each other in center by right shoulders looping, and in this film, coming around partner by left shoulder to starting place. The partner is waiting, briefly, having finished her hay first.
    It appears the couples are beginning to meet each other by going forward and back a double. Four steps forward to opposite couple and back to place. By the movement of the men and the flapping jacket, this is a lively, quick stepped, dance.
    This moment of dance was filmed in 1888, almost a year before Edison’s first film and almost twenty years before Cecil Sharpe began the English Folk Revival Movement.

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