Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #11 - Monkeyshines No.1


Every Year In Film #11 - Monkeyshines No.1

Thoughts On: Monkeyshines No.1 (1890)

A blurred figure waves his arms for the camera.

Monkeyshines is an experiment, never meant to be shown in public, made by... Thomas Edison?

In the modern day, the name "Thomas Edison" often raises debate - sometimes frivolous argumentation. This is all because of the romantic legacy that Edison firstly constructed, and then the world around him propagated for decades to come - even to the modern day in many respects. In such, many people are made to believe that Edison was the greatest inventor of all time, an utter genius, the father of the light bulb, the telephone and the moving pictures (amongst other things). The truth is, such labels are fabrications of a more mundane reality. In short, Edison was an inventor and a business man, but more so a business man without the true focus of a real innovator. To then make a comparison to the modern day, Edison is kind of like Conor McGregor...

McGregor is probably in the top 2 or 3 of the world's most famous fighters alive today, and it is undeniable that he is a great fighter that has gained monumentous accolades in the fighting world. However, is McGregor the greatest fighter of all time? No. He achieves great things but moves on before solidifying a legacy; he wins belts, never defends his titles and moves on to different weight classes and then other sports.

I apologise for the comparison if that was all nonsense to you, but, this is Edison. He 'invents' the phonograph, then moves onto the telegraph without improving the technology, then onto the telephone, the light bulb, electrical distribution, fluroscopy, back to the telegraphy, to motion pictures, to mining, back to motion pictures, onto batteries, later rubber. Edison dabbled and innovated to certain degrees in numerous fields, bringing with him ingenious business sensibilities, but he never did anything that lives up to his romantic legacy. So, though Edison is undeniably a significant figure in regards to American history and practical sciences, he and the world often sold him too highly - which has inevitably led to a tarnishing of his legacy. Such is the case with countless historical figures however; everyone from Columbus to Mother Teresa.

So, bringing this overview of his background into our exploration of his career in film, we will essentially have to see Edison as a business manager or producer of what will often be referred to as an "Edison film". To then talk about Monkeyshines, we have to introduce William K.L Dickson.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson is essentially the inventor of Edison's motion picture cameras, moreover, he was the director of almost all of his early films and the real force behind the innovation in early American cinema. It was in 1883 that Dickson was hired by Edison to work in his Menlo Park Laboratory in New Jersey. This was 5 years before Edison would file preliminary patents, a caveat, for a device that would do "for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear". This claim included plans for some kind of motion picture device and would be elaborated on and given the name, "Kinetoscope", in the following year with a second caveat. And it's here, in 1889, that Edison assigns Dickson the task of bringing his plans into fruition.

A note we should touch on before delving into this is an extension of our introduction to Edison. It is incredibly rare to see pure originality and innovation - you may even argue that it is impossible as all things must be inspired by something that pre-exists it. As we have been exploring in the Every Year series, there is a ramp of progression that took us from paintings to early forms of projection, animation and later photography, which has been morphing into a modern concept of a motion picture camera. Edison was very aware of each point of progression and had in fact met Eadweard Muybridge in 1888. It is assumed that he saw a lecture of Muybridge's featuring his zoopraxiscope with Dickson and later met with him in his lab - all of which served as inspiration to Edison. Whilst it isn't known exactly what Edison and Muybridge discussed, it seems that Muybridge had ideas of combining his motion pictures with Edison's phonograph - something that was never worked on (at least, not with Muybridge). But, beyond this, their conversation is unknown, the only remnants of it being Edison's subsequent patent in 1888 and endeavour in the growing field of motion picture photography.

Added to this meeting with Muybridge, Edison also met Étienne-Jules Marey, an important figure that we will certainly be exploring soon. Edison met Marey and likely saw the works of Charles-Émile Reynaud, before his second patent during his trip to Paris for the Exposition Universelle (a world fair for technology). In such, Edison had come across three major innovators, Marey and Muybridge who used motion picture technology for scientific study and Reynaud who was the first to have perforated his film stock (which he painted on - another figure and subject we will delve into soon). These must have hugely contributed to Edison's conception of motion pictures - which were all fed to Dickson.

So, what Dickson endeavoured to do, as guided by Edison, was wrap film around a cylindrical device, a phonograph drum...

... in a spiral. To manage this, the frames had to be very small...

... which mean that the rotating film would have to be seen through a microcope through a set-up like this:

And this is exactly how Dickson's initial experiment would function. He shot, during 1889 or 1990 with the help of William Heise - another significant employee of Edison's, a figure performing an indiscernible action with a kinetograph:

This would function with clockwork technology to pass film past a lens and high speed shutter. However, in its earliest carnations, much like the film strip technology, the results of this product were not satisfactory. We can understand why when we look at our subject of today:

As apart of 3 tests, the first experiment with this technology led to a blurred, indiscernible image. This is why the first 3 test, all of which were unsuccessful, were later given the name "Monkeyshines" - they were 'monkey tricks'; both in the film and behind the camera was a display of unsophisticated and primitive trickery.

How Dickson and Edison's company overcame this technological failure that was the first ever American film is going to be our subject for, not the next, but an up-and-coming post in the Every Year series. (UPDATE: You can find this here).

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