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Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show

Uncle Josh, at left, rushes up to help the lady in the movie

Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show

1902. Edison. Directed by Edwin S. Porter


How long did it take until someone figured out you could take a moving picture of a moving picture? By 1902 the future of "process" shots was laid out, in this comedy about a country rube attending his first movie.

The rube was a familiar 19th-century theatrical character, eternally baffled by big-city customs and modern technology. (The same video on which I saw Uncle Josh has a contemporaneous film about a bumpkin swept up by the cow-catcher of a passing trolley.) Uncle Josh, up from the country, thinks that what he sees on the movie screen is really happening. He jumps up on the stage to dance along with a projected hootchy-kootchy dancer. When the scene shifts to an uncoming train, he leaps for the safety of his seat. At the end he tries to rescue a pretty lady from a man's unwanted attentions and ends up pulling down the screen and stopping the show.

This short (no more than 3 minutes) film consists of a single set-up and a single shot. The frame is divided almost exactly in half, the right- hand side occupied by the moving picture, the left-hand side, where Uncle Josh cavorts, by a bit of the ornate theater—a box seat, some drapery. Though the moving picture Uncle Josh watches is all exteriors, it's still sometimes hard to tell where the theater stops and the screen begins. The people in the moving picture are about the same size as Uncle Josh. This probably reflects the way moving pictures were shot in 1902—everyone full-figure from a sort of third-row-center point of view—and it gives Uncle Josh and the people he's watching a certain equivalency. In fact, when Uncle Josh strips off his jacket as he prepares to fight the masher on screen, he wears the identical shirt- sleeves and vest as the guy in the moving picture. The quality of their respective images doesn't indicate that the movie people and Uncle Josh are of different photographic generations (this may be due to a poor print and a poor video transfer). All in all, the joke—that Uncle Josh is "real" and the people in the moving picture are just shadows—is an intellectual rather than a visual one: they all look pretty much the same to us.

Here again—I should say, here for the first time—we see a popular gambit of the movie-about-movies, the innocent who can't tell the difference between artifice and real life. Uncle Josh is the prototype for all those dopes who stumble onto movie sets and mistake staged mayhem for the real thing. We seasoned movie-goers get to feel superior to them, and yet we understand something of their confusion, for what would be the fun of going to movies unless we too occasionally forgot that we were only watching shadows on a screen?

In fact, even a modern viewer who perfectly understands the premise of this short film feels a little wrench when Uncle Josh punches the screen, the actors disappear, the sheet on which they were projected falls away, and the angry projectionist is revealed. We'd become interested in that pretty lady and that annoying man—how could they have vanished so quickly?

Charles Musser, in his book The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, the first volume in the University of California Press's "History of the American Cinema" series (it's a fascinating book, by the way), describes a 1900 film called A Visit to the Spiritualist: "Using double exposures and stop-action techniques, the film showed a country rube who is mesmerized by a spiritualist and 'sees funny things.' A handkerchief turns into a ghost. The rube tries to shed his clothes, but they jump back only his body. The naive farmer is once again a victim of the sophisticated city and modern technology, in this case the motion-picture camera."

(7/8/1995)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein