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While quite simple both in concept and in execution, this early short
feature is rather amusing. The self-referential idea that it explores
is interesting, both as one of the earlier examples of its kind, and
also for the way that it is handled. Whereas so many present-day movies
handle references to themselves and to other movies in such a labored
and often pretentious manner, the idea here is carried off not only
with some skill, but also with an appropriately light touch.
Unlike many of the characters in these earliest films, who are sometimes too indistinct to have any real presence on the screen, in this feature the actor playing the main character, whose responses to being filmed form the basis for the story, does a pretty good job of carrying the movie with his mannerisms and facial expressions. He has a slight hammy touch that works pretty well here, and it helps in making a very simple feature turn out rather well.
A delightful experiment in self-reflexivity from the days of early cinema,
when enquiry about this new form was still encouraged before the
standardisation of production and genre. A man finds he's being filmed;
angered at this intrusion of his privacy, he approaches the camera and its
operator, and eats them both!
The slow, looming mouth is a parody avant la lettre of horror films, an ordinary person turned into a monster, a giant by the cinema, in the same way ordinary people suddenly became huge when projected on a screen. Here we see that film doesn't just record things, it can enlarge, focus in close-up, distort, simply by magnifying a familiar feature. Maybe this is what the Indians meant in decrying soul-destroying photography; here, this ordinary man's soul becomes, punningly, negative.
Of course, the conceit isn't fully worked out - while it's lovely seeing the munching satisfaction of the avenging diner, especially as the shrunken cameraman was slurped up like so much spaghetti, it would be impossible for a camera in a man's belly to film the man from outside. There is always a second camera, filming silently on. This is the concerted power of cinema - you can do what you like, even eat its minions, but it'll still be there, like a Gothic doppelganger, immovable, watching your every move.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Like Hepworth's film "How It Feels to Be Run Over", made the previous
year, James Williamson's "The Big Swallow" is self-referential in its
parody of film-making. (The third early self-reflexive film I discuss,
"The Countryman and the Cinematograph", reverses this and parodies
cinema viewing.) Both are about the camera and the cameraman (and, in a
way, through their point of view, the spectator) coming to a violent
collision with their filmed subject. That Williamson's film seems more
likely to involve a still photographer rather than a cinematographer
doesn't matter. In Hepworth's film, a motorist drives his automobile
into the camera. In this film, the person being photographed swallows
the camera and cameraman. Another notable difference between these two
scenes is that Hepworth's film ends with the collision, as the screen
goes blank and only intertitles end the film. In Williamson's film, the
film (or point of view) we are watching (or were watching) is shown
from another perspective, which shows the swallowing and the satisfied
munching afterwards by the subject. It would seem more logical if the
film ended as a single shot film with the subject's mouth taking up the
entire frame, and thus blackening the entire frame in the way of
Hepworth's film. Yet, it would be less clear in that way and would lack
the added self-reflexive moment of showing the film we're watching
being shot. This is likely the first movie to show, in a sense, itself
being filmed--a self-referential device later used, for example, in
François Truffaut's "Day for Night" (La Nuit américaine) (1973).
A similarity between "The Big Swallow" and R.W. Paul's film "The Countryman and the Cinematograph" is that they were both part of the early cinema genre of trick films. Although their special effects seem of rather secondary interest now, they were still novel for 1901. Positioned within the trick film also adds further layers of self-reference to these films because the special effects (the swallowing shot here and the superimposed films within Paul's film) show the films' main self-reflexive devices. Additionally, cinema itself is a kind of trick. On a note of technique, Williamson's refocusing of the image as the subject approaches the camera was very rare for 1901.
"The Big Swallow" was also part of the facial expression genre, which tended to be one-scene films framed in a close-up of a person's face. There were quite a few of these films, but none that I know of were nearly as interesting as this. Most of them were merely curios of the newfound close-up.
Furthermore, the scene being photographed within "The Big Swallow" reminds me of actualitiés, which was still the most popular motion picture genre in 1901. "The Big Swallow" seems to parody this type of documentary. In it, a man is merely reading something until disturbed by a cameraman photographing him--recording the image of the man that we see, which is the film proper. Michael Brooke, for the BFI website, however, suggests that "The Big Swallow" was inspired by Williamson's experience with "savvy" passers-by while filming his actuality films.
"The Big Swallow" is the beginning of a thread of films that goes through "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (1914) to "The Truman Show" (1998).
This is a pretty clever little film made during the very early days of motion pictures. A guy is being filmed and he doesn't seem to like it. So, as the camera approaches, he opens his mouth and seems to swallow the camera,...followed by the entire camera crew as well! The film certainly deserves credit for being different and amusing! While the special effect isn't exactly perfect by today's standards, for the time it was pretty amazing stuff. And, unlike many of the films of the era, this one is still pretty entertaining if viewed today. This film would probably be of most interest to kids and film historians. Adults, however, probably will think it's all pretty silly--and that's exactly why I like it.
I watched this film on a DVD that was rammed with short films from the
period. I didn't watch all of them as the main problem with these type
of things that their value is more in their historical novelty value
rather than entertainment. So to watch them you do need to be put in
the correct context so that you can keep this in mind and not watch it
with modern eyes. With the Primitives & Pioneers DVD collection though
you get nothing to help you out, literally the films are played one
after the other (the main menu option is "play all") for several hours.
With this it is hard to understand their relevance and as an
educational tool it falls down as it leaves the viewer to fend for
themselves, which I'm sure is fine for some viewers but certainly not
the majority. What it means is that the DVD saves you searching the web
for the films individually by putting them all in one place but
that's about it.
A man sees he is being filmed and starts to remonstrate with the camera crew about it. Finally losing his temper the man closes in the camera and, well, eats it. This sounds simple and it is but I had assumed that the film would merely end on the darkness of the man's mouth as the punchline. Instead the delivery is cleverer than that and we step back to see the camera and the cameraman falling into the "mouth" before we then cut back to the man walking backwards chewing. It is a clever combination of camera shots to create the gag and invention work from Williams. Not brilliant but quite clever when you look at it in context.
The Big Swallow (1901)
**** (out of 4)
The "story" here is pretty simple as a man is standing in front of the movie camera arguing with someone. He keeps walking towards the camera until he swallows the entire thing and even the man operating it. I'm sorry but I really, really loved this little film. At just a minute the entire thing is basically being sold on the "effect" of the man swallowing the camera and when this happen it's quite funny. I'm sure this was meant to compete with the work of Georges Melies and while I've seen many rips, this one here actually manages to capture the type of magic that the French master did with his films. The special effect of how the trick was done is quite obvious today but I can just imagine the laughter and sense of wonder that this thing must have caused back in 1901. At just a minute there's really no reason why someone who loves films shouldn't check this out.
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