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The man in the foreground views scenes from his past in his fireplace


Fireplace Reminiscences

1908. Edison Manufacturing Company. Directed by Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. With Edward Bolder, Miss Acton, Mr. Sullivan, Miss Abbott

Here, for possibly the first time, a movie shows a character's memories in the form of a little film embedded within the larger one. It's a piece of unusually sophisticated narrative for the time and it uses dissolves between scenes in a way that became a standard piece of movie-flashback syntax.

The surrounding story is ho-hum: a wealthy man discovers his wife embracing another man. Despite her pleas, he raises an imperious arm, points to the door, and turns her out of the house. (Unlike us, he has not seen the intertitle "Parted by a brother."). Three years later, after a lonely dinner, he sits ruminating in front of the parlor fire. The large rectangular fireplace becomes a sort of movie screen, with images of his past life with his wife fading in and out. He remembers—sees!—their courtship, marriage, and happy days with their child. Then he sees the very footage we have just seen: the discovery, confrontation and expulsion. Finally, the scene in the fireplace shifts to the present: his wife in rags, stumbling through a snow storm and collapsing outside the gates of their house.

At this point the man jumps up and goes outside. Sure enough—there's the crumpled body of his wife, just as he imagined it (it's the same setup as shown in the fireplace). He brings her inside and they reconcile.

The melodrama and contrivance of this short film are laughable, even for 1908 (you'd think that amidst all that weeping, the wife would find a moment to say "He's my brother, you moron!"). But the technique could be called avant-garde. Movies were by that time cross-cutting between different locations, but going backward and forward in time looks like an innovation. Additionally, someone had the insight that the footage of an event could be reused in a different context to represent a memory, a literal vision of the past. With that replayed scene of husband-wife confrontation as the fulcrum, the fireplace movie can freely fill in what came before and speculate about (or report on?) what ensued. It's a strangely satisfying moment when the husband rushes outside and we see that his fireplace movie had become some sort of clairvoyant gadget (like George Burns's TV) that let him see what was going on at that moment in another place.

The notes to the DVD (Kino's "Edison: The Invention of the Movies," volume 3) compare Firelight Reminiscences to the 1892 popular song "After the Ball" (where another hot-tempered man mistakes a brother for a lover), but it reminds me of A Christmas Carol, moving backward and forward in time via ghostly scenes. "You will be shown things that were and things that will be," say Dickens's ghosts. By 1908, the new medium of the cinema had figured out how to do that, literally.

(Thanks to Kyle Westphal for recommending this movie).


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein