Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter Review

Hot on the heels of their Silent Britain release, the BFI are now issuing another documentary glimpse at the pre-sound era. It comes courtesy of Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon, a 1982 look at the early work of American pioneer Edwin S. Porter and a film which its director followed up nine years later with his well regarded book of the same name. It’s therefore safe to say that Musser knows his subject well, indeed to such an extant that he recognises Porter’s relevance as being only a single chapter in cinema’s vast history. Before the Nickelodeon effectively comes with two narratives as result: one which details the developments which occurred in American cinema during its early years (Thomas Edison, etc; international names are almost wholly ignored – only Méliès gets a mention); and one which details Porter’s progression from an inventor of “electric devices for the US Navy” to the maker of that major cinematic text, The Great Train Robbery.

Such an approach means a strict chronology: US cinema develops, Porter’s techniques and practices develop and a multitude of clips abound. In fact this proves to be one of Before the Nickelodeon’s major strengths. Their sheer abundance and the fact that Musser shows the majority in their entirety (their average length being only a few minutes of course) makes for a consistently fascinating work. Our director has clearly gone to great efforts in tracking down and securing the rights to these pieces and as such there’s really no doubting of the passion behind this project. Furthermore, the fact that so many are effectively little seen means that their presence – the likes of The Capture of the Biddle Brothers, Sampson-Schley Controversy or the superbly titled Elephants Shooting the Chutes, Luna Park Coney Island, No 2 - can only add to the overall fascination.

In breaking down Porter’s importance Musser locates two key areas: his influences and his techniques. Porter is seen as a forerunner during this turbulent era for filmmaking, a time when cinema was taking on myriad forms as it attempted to find its feet. In Porter’s case this meant attuning himself to the events of the day, turning out mock reportage and political satire, whilst also noting the relevance of Méliès’ own techniques and ideas. In this area Musser is particularly strong; the fact that he’s gotten his hands on so much material allows him highlight the correlations between the two filmmakers whilst also detailing the progresses made from the early one-shot efforts to the more elaborate editing techniques which would come into play later on.

All of which makes for a solid piece of documentary filmmaking, one which should satisfy both the cineaste and the newcomer. And yet it’s tempting to read it all as mere groundwork upon which Musser has then added his own idiosyncratic touches. As narrator, for example, we have the ageing Blanche Sweet (87 years old at the time of recording), one time leading lady for DW Griffith and as such an authentic voice from the past. Her wide-eyed tones make for a quaint, intriguing choice and indeed are backed up by further interestingly cast voices. Strangely enough the likes of Robert Altman, Milos Forman, DA Pennebaker and Louis Malle have also been employed for voice-over duties and whilst you’d be hard pressed to recognise any of them, the fact that they are present goes to show Musser’s eye – and ear – for something a little different, a little off-the-beaten-track.

His other choices, however, may very well divide audiences, especially those of a purist bent. Alongside the clips Musser has interjected various famous photographs from the era (most notably that well known image of Edison posing with his kinetoscope) in a richly colourised form. The sleeves notes denounce the results as “garish” (plenty of golds and greens) yet the effect isn’t that of kitsch. Rather they make the era somehow more alien, rendering any familiarity a little strange. Similarly voice-overs have been added to some of the clips, to make them appear almost as sound pictures, and sound effects too. Of course, it is this decision which will no doubt offend the purists, but again it makes us watch these films through different eyes. Certainly, you could bewail such a move as cynical crowd chasing or an attempt at “mainstreaming” the movies – and the voice-over narration for Jack and the Beanstalk may very well be a step too far. And yet it’s also hard not to see the overall effect as also being quite charming in its own quirky way. Effectively we’re getting a little signature of Musser’s stamped on proceedings and as such more of a personal expression. As said Before the Nickelodeon is a strong enough documentary anyhow, only with these additions it becomes a more distinctive one.

The Disc

Despite having the customary fine presentation and accompanying booklet, it’s hard not to feel as though the BFI’s handling of Before the Nickelodeon is something of a missed opportunity. Certainly, we find the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (not 1.66:1 as the sleeve falsely claims) and mono soundtrack – both in as good a condition as we should expect from a reasonably budgeted early 80s documentary – and the booklet includes some interesting pieces, but this release really should have created a worthwhile reason for giving Porter a more definitive showing in the UK. The disc could have followed the example of that for the Méliès the Magician release, in other words the various films included within the documentary could have been accessed individually and perhaps without their newfound sound effects and voice-overs attached. Indeed, a number of Porter films have already been issued by the BFI as part of their Early Cinema two-disc collection. As it is we find a noteworthy documentary serviced well by a perfectly acceptable presentation – sadly it needed to built upon in order to make this a more essential release.

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