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The Launch of H.M.S. Albion (1898)

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accident and disasters in some early compose views and topicalities
6 August 2017 | by (France) – See all my reviews

One cannot overestimate the importance of "accidents" in so-called actuality films. They were always intended as drama but also quite often acted as comic relief. So the Lumières were already aware of the importance of bicycles colliding (in all but they very first version of Sortie de l'Usine) or crashing (Bataille de neige). They are actually a good gauge of the development of th use of narrative in such films. A marvelous example is Elfelt's Kørsel med Grønlandske Hunde (1897) which is generally referred to rather absurdly as an "actuality" simply because the character in it is a real-life factor but which is very very clearly a fiction - an arranged gag (and a beautifully arranged one too).

Elfelt, who was also court photographer, had quite a cheeky sense of humour (there is a film of his showing naughty ombres chinoises of women getting into their bathing costumes, a shot that became a standard in later US comic shorts) and there is a marvellous little film of the King of Denmark and his entourage cycling where again - the viewer is waiting for it - there is an accident. Whether or not Elfelt arranged this or simply waited for it, he has in effect rendered the King of Denmark the star of an early slapstick comedy.

Fire and other non-trivial disasters occur in films but are rarely genuine, although Elfelt also in 1897 shot what is quite clearly genuine footage of a fire. The train collision in the 1904 Edison film Railroad Smashup was on the other hand a completely staged event (by arrangement with the railroad company)while Booth' 1900 A Railroad Wreck made use of a model.

These are all composed views (the last only being on the borderline) not genuine actualities. Capturing a genuine disaster at a real event was something rather different. Such films are genuine actualities (they were accurately called "topicalities" in English before the French term was borrowed by some pretentious idiot of a critic and misapplied to any non-fictional film). One can see from this the absurdity of applying the term "actuality" to both kinds of film. One (the composed view) can be made at any time and in any place and can involve whatever manipulation the film-maker pleases; the other (the topicality) is necessarily made at one particular time and in one particular place and the film-maker's options are more limited (although he or she can of course to some extent choose placement and angling). Unlike in a composed view, the film-maker is here reliant on pure chance to provide a dramatic scoop.

This did however occur with some regularity. In 1896 while filming the coronation of Tsar Nicholas of Russia, the Lumière team (in full strength for the event - the first really major actualities ever to be filmed) apparently caught the disastrous collapse of one of the stands but they were not allowed to use the film which was confiscated. An interesting later example is Portuguese film-maker Alfredo Nunes de Matos' O Naufrágio do 'Veronese' (1913) where he happened to be on hand at the time when the liner was wrecked off the Spanish coast although. like the film here, his film concentrated on the efforts to save the survivors. Since audiences - rightly or wrongly - love disasters, the short film was a major international success and it was on the strength of it that De Matos expanded his Invicta Films to produce some of the first Portuguese feature films.


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