Sunday, February 11, 2007

R. W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908 (dvd)

R. W. Paul's Time Machine

R. W. Paul was fascinated from the start by H. G. Wells' science fiction concept of The Time Machine. BFI Video's remarkable dvd of 147 minutes of the collected films of R. W. Paul pays respect to the time-transcending concept of the two visionaries.

The dvd on the most important pioneer of British cinema is curated by Ian Christie, whose monograph The Time Traveller: Robert Paul and the Early Moving Picture Business is forthcoming in 2007. Here is a case of a dvd which it is absolutely advisable to watch with the commentary and complete with the subtitles. Especially for the non-British viewer the reward is a wealth of new information, and subtitles help with strange names. From the some 1000 R. W. Paul films 62 are present on the dvd, and one of them is boring, Aberdeen University Quarter Centenary Celebrations (1906), at 50 minutes.

The first films such as Rough Sea at Dover (1895) were originally produced for Kinetoscopes. We see the earliest surviving film shot in Spain: two sisters perform the flamenco. Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897) is one of the films where the commentary is highly recommended. The evolution of cinema can be tracked during the course of the dvd: how expressions are beginning to be clearly shown (Cupid at the Wash Tub, 1897); the evolution from the single shot to two shots in Come Along, Do! (1898). Alas, the second shot has been lost, but it has been replaced with stills. The Boer War is covered both by authentic footage and by reproductions staged at the golf course next to the studio. The films got more elaborate as Paul established a new studio in Muswell Hill. The Countryman's First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901) is an early instance of meta-cinema in the same tradition as as Sherlock, Jr., Les Carabiniers, and The Purple Rose of Cairo much later. The tricks and special effects from this period are fascinating. Scrooge (1901) is according to Christie probably the most ambitious and innovative film made anywhere in the world up to this time; it is the highlight of the disc. The dvd ends with a beautiful contrast: The ? Motorist (1907), where the car defies laws of gravity in the spirit of Méliès, and Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908) with an epic documentary force anticipating Grierson.

Like Méliès, R. W. Paul destroyed his own films as he withdrew from production, although he had been maybe the first film producer to propose that films should archived! One can guess that the work of preservation, restoration and compilation has been formidable, and in the extensive notes one would welcome a preservation documentation.

As an ardent cinema screen buff I have to admit that the dvd is an excellent way to present this programme. We have the pleasure of Ian Christie's personal commentary. Films that survive in Filoscopes (flicker books) are charmingly re-photographed. All films have titles. The one boring film can be fast-forwarded with commentary subtitles on.

Stephen Horne plays the piano. The music blends well with the commentary, and the many contemporary repertory tunes are identified in the booklet.

R. W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908. Curated by Ian Christie. Produced and released by BFI Video, 20 November 2006, with an illustrated 24-page booklet with an introduction to each film.

For The Journal of Film Preservation, 11 Feb 2007
Antti Alanen