"It's a time machine." ~ Rod Taylor in The Time Machine.
Chirgwin the White-Eyed Kaffir. Cupid at the Washtub. A Wayfarer Compelled to Disrobe Partially. Come Along, Dot. Upside Down, or The Human Flies. The Cheese Mites, or Lilliputians in a London Restaurant. The Over-Incubated Baby. Buy Your Own Cherries. The ? Motorist.
Never mind The Films of R.W. Paul, available on a DVD of that title from the BFI, and visible online at the BFI's Screen Online here; let us pause for a moment to rejoice in the titles of R.W. Paul, a form of poetic expression in themselves. The above paragraph may look like afterbirth from a random word generator, or the stuff William Burroughs left on the side of his plate, but those mad sentences can also conjure up entire worlds: meditate upon them and create your own stories, or try and picture the deranged civilisation in which such titles would serve as box-office draws. It's a beautiful way to pass a winter's hour.
And when that work of dreaming is done, open the box and put the disc in the player and sample the delights therein, for delights they are.
"Picture this." ~ Debbie Harry.
I would have preferred the disc to be called The Animated Pictures of R.W. Paul, since there's good evidence that's what he himself called them: his 1901 minute-long comedy skit, The Countryman's First Sight of the Animated Pictures recreates the fabled moment where footage of a train approaching a station panics the audience, in this case a capering bumpkin in a smock (now there's a satisfying word: smock.) Also, a title like that would have confused everybody, since while Paul's films are certainly animated in the sense of containing a lot of running about, they are live action all the way, even when they venture into Georges Melies territory, with flying cars and Lilliputians and dancing skeletons. Once confused, purchasers of the disc would be in a perfect frame of mind to enjoy it.
Robert W. Paul began his career by inventing his own kinetoscope, taking advantage of the fact that gangster-in-a-stovepipe Thomas Edison hadn't patented the contraption in Europe. Moving from the Nickelodeon to the big screen, Paul began providing content for cinema-shows with Lumiere-inspired snippets of actuality: gradually escalating budgets and ambitions saw him capturing Royal Occasions (Royal Carriages Passing Westminster, 1897), reproducing incidents of the Boer War and capturing real ones (Cronje's Surrender to Lord Roberts, 1900) and traveling the Empire in search of spectacles to record (Coronation Durbar at Delhi, 1903).
Parallel with these developments, Paul experimented with magic-show blackout sketches in the manner of Melies, as in 1901's The Waif and the Wizard, in which a stage magician employs a ragged urchin as part of his act, but rather than pay him, transmogrifies him into an umbrella. Already quite satisfying as a "shit happens" kind of conte cruelle, the film apologises for this somewhat brutal first act by having the prestidigitator carry the umbrella-boy home, restore him to his natural form, and conjure up a lavish dinner for the lad's family.
"Get him!" ~ What everybody would be saying in R.W. Paul's chase films if only they had intertitles.
It's the chase films I particularly like. Time capsules of a vanished age, their amateurism is part of their genius. The real joy of The Unfortunate Policeman (1905) is not in the escalating slapstick chaos, although one can well imagine audiences of the day soiling themselves with mirth as gradually more and more irate pedestrians join the pursuit of a jealous house-painter who's emptied a bucket of white over the constable who was flirting with his sweetheart. The incidental details of reality that insert themselves into the film are what make it so endearing:
1) Although the first set-up is played out in the studio against a transparently fake shop front (Moses Isacson Watchmaker & Jeweller), the action soon shifts to the real suburbs of London (Britain's first studio was built by Paul in Muswell Hill, but the exteriors here look like some kind of idyllic village) where the frame at any instant is vulnerable to invasion by a legion of smiling dogs. Although we are reminded of the happy strays bounding through Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle (real, untrained rescue dogs bought by Tati and re-homed after the shoot) we are in fact quite wrong: these canine intruders are not part of some careful mise-en-scene, they are unruly visitors from a world beyond cinema. The critic Leo Braudy may speak of open and closed frame films, but Paul seems to offer something different: the unsuccessfully closed frame film. Aiming for tightness and control, he is defeated by the intransigent materials of Creation. The world crashes in: it's either like a drama unfolding in the midst of a documentary, or like a documentary deliberately crashing the set of a drama.
2) The washerwomen angrily chasing the titular unlucky cop are also smiling. It's all a game, this picture-making lark!
3) In Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906, a late work), Paul boldly grafts the trick-film onto the chase-film. This early experiment in genre-bending follows séance-room special effects shenanigans with the lengthy cross-country abuse of the fake medium. As a group of respectable ladies and gents transport the medium, imprisoned in a trick divan, from his house, Paul reprises the best bits from The Unfortunate Policeman, or rather, the universe reprises them for him. First, a cartman, obviously a paid background artiste, deposits his vehicle where it can be stolen and used by the comedians, grinning broadly at something offscreen (Paul, brandishing a shilling?). Then a dog runs through shot, looking straight into the lens.
But then the forces of providence conspire to give Paul an even more magical cameo appearance, in the form of a character I shall call The Boy. First glimpsed in the background, carrying a basket (making a delivery? transporting a sibling?), The Boy disappears behind the garden wall, apparently just passing through the shot while going about his business. Up until now, he could even be an authentically choreographed extra, paid to cross the frame adding business and verisimilitude to the empty street.
But then he returns, having ditched his basket, watching with idle curiosity as the main plot unfolds before him: the divan is bundled from the house, loaded on the cart; the merry clowns depart with it. As this goes on, The Boy leans stylishly against the wall, resplendent in his jodhpurs (with the solemnity and poise of the two lads in Ozu's I Was Born, But...) and watches the theatrical antics. He is thinking (even in long-shot the ectoplasmic thought bubble over his head can be read by the sensitive), "Hullo, somebody's making one of those animated pictures." He is a star, perhaps British cinema's first true charismatic figure.
3) As the cart is ruthlessly crashed in a vacant lot/field (the blurring of rural and urban is complete), what catches the eye is a piece of paper shaped like a bone (?) performing a strange tumbling stroll. Then the cartman and a policeman arrive, and rescue the medium from the ruptured couch, but he's still tied to a chair, so they mount him on the cart and parade him in shame down the high street, as the celluloid bubbles and dances with pointillistic globules of light and dark, apparently seconds from total disintegration. The hailstorm of nitrate decomposition makes the whole scene resemble a ticker tape parade.
4) The real invader in these films, the uncontrollable intruder that breaks into the shot and runs riot, doing just as it pleases, graciously permitting Paul to make his little movie but paying him no heed, is the light of a bygone day.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.