Wednesday 18 April 2018

The Narrative Paintings of Thomas Cole

In the decades prior to the creation of film, the unveiling of large-scale paintings took the place of mass entertainment media events. Landscape subjects were the most popular, so when someone like Frederic Edwin Church premiered a new painting of South America, it was with the requisite fanfare in salons fully bedecked in potted palms, velvet drapes, complimentary artifacts, live musical performances and special effects lighting, all to provide a sense of a window into a world far away from that of attendees. Church was a member of the Hudson River School of painters and only student of school founder Thomas Cole. Born in England, Cole moved to the United States and was further moved by the beauty of the Hudson River. In response he formed an artistic collective based in representational naturalism, Romanticism and luminism, or the manipulation of lighting effects.

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church (1859)

Cole did revel in landscape work, but he also sought to combine these epic paintings with narrative and metaphorical themes. The foremost of these is a five-painting series entitled The Course of Empire. Created between 1833 and 1836, these masterworks chart the course of a classical civilization from it's birth to its decay, reflecting the philosophical ideals of the Hudson River School, Romanticism, and the still-young American nation.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Thomas Edison's A Trip to Mars

Today's special post appears as part of the Outer Space On Film Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Click on the banner above to see more adventures in the great beyond!

Over a century ago, Thomas Edison's studio produced what is regarded by many scholars as the first American Science Fiction movie and certainly the first film about Mars. It wasn't the famed American inventor's first visit to the Red Planet, but A Trip to Mars was a seminal journey in the history of cinema.  

Edison's first trip to Mars was an act of retribution for the infamous Martian invasion of 1898. Copyright law being ambivalent at the turn of the century, an unlicensed, unauthorized version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds appeared in American newspapers as Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds In and Near Boston. Names and locations were changed to reflect the war's progress on the New England front. As soon as it ended, Garrett P. Serviss was commissioned to write Edison's Conquest of Mars: a sequel in which an army of Earth's best scientists, lead by Thomas Edison, take the fight back to the Martians. Serviss was already well-known as a popularizer of astronomy - the Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Gay Nineties - and Edison's Conquest of Mars was the first in a string of Scientific Romances of fair to middling quality. Reading the two books back-to-back is a fascinating exercise in contrasting the skepticism of tired imperial hubris with the can-do attitude of an economically, politically, and culturally ascendant nation. 

Copyright law was no kinder to Georges Méliès. Despite being a Steve Jobs-like figure in his time, Edison did not become as successful as he did through generousity of spirit. When the French filmmaker had a smash hit on his hands with Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902, Edison's agents smuggled prints to the United States. The film became hugely popular in the US without a single dime going to Méliès, frustrating his efforts at overseas distribution. 

A Trip to Mars, released in 1910, is a short trick film very much in the Méliès mold, though not nearly as creative. H.G. Wells pops up again, this time to supply the motivating force that compels the protagonist to the angry planet. Drawing from The First Men in the Moon (1900), a scientist develops a chemical powder that reverses the force of gravity. Sprinkling some on himself, he shoots out the window and lands forthwith on Mars. He encounters some strange Martian flora and has a chilly run-in with a giant who eventually sends him falling back to Earth.       

Directed by Ashley Miller, A Trip to Mars was intended for the Kinetoscope market and existing versions may be reconstructions from paper prints. The vagaries of copyright law negatively impacted Edison as well... Though his full Kinetoscope films could not be copyrighted, individual photos could. Therefore, the most logical thing was to copyright each individual frame of the film as a separate photo. Thankfully for everyone from Edison to modern restorers, the short is only five minutes long and not overly sophisticated. It's mainly just a fun little jaunt that was never really meant to pass the test of time. 

Edison's A Trip to Mars (1910)

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Capt. H.G. Bishop's Congealing the Ice Trust

The romance of the Gay Nineties has its automatic signifiers. Ladies with bustles and feathered hats, men in dapper suits and handlebar moustaches, barbershop quartets, penny-farthing bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, gingerbread architecture, gaslight, and other such "Main Street USA" accoutrements immediately identify a setting in the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. Another ubiquitous image is the iceman, hocking blocks of ice from the back of his wagon, destined for the iceboxes of home and restaurant.

The ice man visits Washington D.C.'s first public school for
African American children, c. 1899. Photo: Library of Congress.

Iceboxes were, for all intents and purposes, like modern refrigerators without the machinery. In place of the freezer unit at the top of refrigerator would be a box for holding a block of ice. Those blocks of ice were harvested from lakes and ponds and stored in insulated ice houses through the year. The iceman would then collect blocks of ice into his cart and truck around town. It's all very quaint and nostalgic... But how would this industry be transformed in a world where inventors are regularly firing themselves into outer space, disintegrating and shrinking each other, and voyaging across the planet by airship and submarine?

Captain H.G. Bishop's 1907 short story Congealing the Ice Trust attempts to address this question.