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Men at Work

4/10
Author: boblipton from New York City
21 August 2010

This 1901 actuality was shot by Robert K. Bonine, a now-obscure cameraman for Biograph whose career petered out in 1906. The set-up and composition are just fine, but for a 53-second piece, its repetitive action is obvious, even though briskly performed -- or perhaps it was just a trifle undercranked by Bonine.

American Mutoscope & Biograph shot a lot of these men at work items. Among the most famous were Billy Bitzer's innovative series at the Westinghouse factory three years after this. As a record of how they did things at the turn of the 20th century they are of some historical interest, but it's best to view them as items in the transition from photography composition to more dynamic film methods; with a still camera, they don't quite work for the modern viewer.

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actuality and documentary

Author: kekseksa from France
4 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Myth no 1. documentary films became unpopular and were therefore replaced by 'story films". (the term "actualities" is wrongly used in English to lump together newsreel films, which were, and are. "actualités" in French, and composed views or "scènes", which, as films got longer, developed naturally into travelogue and documentary) Fact: Documentary films never ceased to be popular. Entire cinemas continued to be devoted to them until the 1950s when television began to take over the job. The majority of film-companies ceased to make documentary films not because people had got fed up with them but because they were expensive to make and required a major back-up organisation. Which is why only a company as large and international as Pathé could continue to make them.

Myth no 2. "actualities" were one-minute films which were replaced by much longer "story films" Fact: Of course it is true that it became more practicable and therefore more popular to make photoplays as film-companies became willing to make longer films. On the other hand, it was the documentary film-makers who were the real pioneers of longer films, because, although the individual films they made were only a minute-long, they were made in series, unlike most of the contemporary "gag" films, and these films therefore formed part of a programme of anything up to half an hour. To look at these films in isolation is inevitably to misjudge their worth.

There was nothing new about this. The Lumières were already making both actualités and composed views in series as early as 1896. Both Mutoscope and Edison followed suit as best they could but on the whole it was Mutoscope led the field in the US because Edison was generally content to just copy whatever they did.

The other reviewer has heard of Bitzer and is aware of the Westinghouse films because they are frequently grouped together but Robert Bonine was in fact a pioneer of such film-series made more independently and shot in rather more exotic locales. In 1897 he had made a series of films set in the Klondike for Edison but for Mutoscope in 1901 he made a much more elaborate series advertised as its "Eastern series" of which this film is just one very small part.

The series involved a trip that included Honolulu, Japan (Kyoto, Tokyo and Kobe), China (where another Mutoscope correspondent, Raymond Ackerman, was already producing extensive coverage of the Boxer War) and Hong Kong. The series consisted of at least twenty-five films so, together, they virtually add up to a reasonably substantial travelogue. And this is a much more useful way to think of these films. If in practice they were often just, as here, a few seconds long, this was because they were intended to be joined up when projected. The Honolulu films are interesting as a glimpse of the distinctly colonial status of Hawaii (illegally seized by the US in 1898).

Bitzer's Westinghouse films were a commissioned series (effectively promotional films) but most documentary film-makers became involved in such projects at this time. Bonine made a series of at least fourteen films for Mutoscope in 1902 illustrating the work of the St. John's Guild and anther series of some thirty films in 1903 for National Cash Register. When the film-companies were too mean to finance documentary film-making, commercial sponsorship offered a work-round of sorts, as it has virtually throughout the history of documentary film-making.

All of these series laid the ground for the stand-alone documentary feature which only waited, just like the feature photoplay, for the moment when the film companies had sufficient control over distribution to feel able or willing to produce longer films. The 1920s would be a mini olden-age for the documentary film, particularly in Europe, just as it was for the drama-film. The two were not in some kind of opposition to each other (except in some respect for resources) but were in fact two equally important and equally "cinematic" aspects of cinema. In fact arguably it was the documentary that provided the real "motor", where the cameramen learned their skills and where the camera-techniques were developed.

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