12/09/2017

Every Year In Film #23 - Dance Of Ouléd-Naïd

Thoughts On: Dance Of Ouléd-Naïd (Danses Algériennes 1. Danse des Ouléd-Naïd, 1902)

A note before we start. This is another very long post for the series, but hopefully this only reflects the magnitude and breadth of the slice of film history that we're going to try and bite into.


Today we explore the films of Segundo de Chomòn.

  

Spain had a humble start with cinema. The first contact that the country is thought to have had with film came in 1895 and, unsurprisingly, involved the Lumiéres. As with numerous other countries, the Lumiéres exhibited their films in Spain to showcase their technology and develop business roots. Some of the first countries that the Lumiéres would visit would, of course, be their bordering neighbours - of which France has many: Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Spain.

A little over a month after the Lumiéres privately screened their films for the first time in Paris, a set of movies were being exhibited in Barcelona on May 5th, 1895. Around a year later, the first films were being made in the country; films by Promio (who worked for the Lumiéres), Eduardo Jimeno (a Spanish filmmaker and producer), Fructuós Gelabert (inventor and prolific filmmaker), and other unknown people. The first Spanish film is thought to be a somewhat contentious topic. One of the earliest surviving films to have been made in Spain is a street scene of Madrid from Promio, made in 1896:


One of the very first films to be shot by a Spaniard, Eduardo Jimeno, would be Salida de la Misa de Doce de la Iglesia del Pilar de Zaragoza, Exit of the Twelve O'Clock Mass from the Church of El Pilar of Zaragoza, also from 1896...


Whilst there are a few other candidates, the Spanish film industry took about 2 decades to reach significant heights with Barcelona becoming Spain's film capital in the mid-nineteen-teens. This saw Spanish silent cinema flourish and the industry develop throughout the ages. In the early years of the industry, it was not uncommon for Spanish filmmakers to find their way into other countries and to support other national cinemas. This is the case with one of the first truly important Spanish filmmakers, Segundo de Chomòn. But, before we go any further, let us introduce the subject we're going to delve into.

The story that shall be told today is one that repeats itself throughout the ages and across the epochs of any art form. This is a story built upon the conflict between originality, imitation and evolution; who done it first and who did it better. This is an important story because, in the early 1900s, we are still very close to the realm of the cinematic pioneers. However, the only way in which people could transition out of this period was for filmmakers to begin climbing upon the shoulders of those that came before them. This results in a pretty grisly image of contemporary cinema, one in which filmmakers stand upon a mountain of dead has-beens' corpses. But, it seems that we only ever establish pioneering matriarchs and patriarchs to one day kill them. However, to begin on a lighter note, it is probably better not to imply that the great filmmakers and pioneers of the past are has-beens, instead only recognise that their place and importance resides in, and comes from, the past. This assures that they are still recognisably important and that their place in history represents the foundations for the present and the future. With that said, let us begin our exploration of the "The Spanish Méliès", Segundo de Chomòn.

Chomòn was born Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz in 1871 in Teruel (eastern Spain). Little, that I have found, is noted about his upbringing and childhood. Chomòn's story then often starts with his wife, Julienne Mathieu. She and Chomón met in 1895. Soon after they met, however, conflict again brewed between Spain and Cuba in the form of Cuba's third and last liberation war for independence from the Spaniards. With the explosion of the USS ship, Maine - a subject we in fact touched on when we looked at a film of Méliès' -  the Americans joined the Cubans, and the Spanish-American War was in the making. From 1897-1899 Chomón was in and out of Spain, enlisted in the Spanish army. During this period his wife, Mathieu, who was French, was working for film companies such as Pathé and Star Film. Very little has been written about Mathieu, but she was an actress. Though she likely appeared in earlier Pathé Frères (brothers) films, one of her earliest known surviving films was made by Pathé in 1906 and was called Lilliputian Dance...


In this film, she serves a similar role to that which she would in a plethora of Chomón's films: a presenter of a cinematic magic show whose primary magician was editing. The actual magician that Mathieu assisted, however, was often beside the camera, and we can tell this from moments like this, which weren't very uncommon:


This is Mathieu likely taking direction or asking a question about the next oncoming cut. Unlike the cine-magician himself, Méliès, this implies that many directors of trick films weren't the presenters of them - and this is certainly the case for Chomón as, though you can find one or two examples, you almost never see him in acting roles. Chomón's place was almost always behind the camera.

To come back to Chomón, and to take a step back in time, when he leaves the Spanish army to return home in 1899, his wife introduces him to the emerging cinematic industry that she is apart of. We are still in a haze of history here as it is not known precisely how or when Chomón started working on films. It is likely, however, that his wife put him into contact with those at Star Film - Méliès' company - or Pathé, as around 1900-1901, he began hand-colouring films. The first film that he is credited to - and this was done through Spanish newspapers at the time (a rarity) - was Méliès' Bluebeard:


Not only is this film the first known picture that Segundo de Chomón worked on as a colourist, but, as a side-note, it is also considered one of the first films to contain product placement  - which was of Mercier champagne - within. That said, very few copies of this colourised film exist today, and it would be hard to confirm if any were worked on by Chomón himself. After all, colourisation was often meticulous, difficult, though anonymous, work, largely done by women - a tradition that would last a long time in animation industries across the world. Moreover, the Spanish publication that credited Chomón as the artist that colour tinted this film, cites him as a 'reputable colorist'. This implies that this was not Chomón's first product, and, in turn, leads us to assume that he started working on colourisation with Pathé at an earlier date.

Chomón started his incredibly long partnership with Pathé around 1900. He initially distributed and publicised films from Barcelona, adding Spanish subtitles to them. He also independently made street scenes, or actualities, that he would get distributed through Pathé. One of the earliest surviving examples of this would be, Barcelona Park At Twilight:


With this 1904 film, we can see that Chomón was not a pioneer in the same respect that, for example, Dickson, Porter, the Lumiéres, Promio, Guy-Blaché and Méliès were. Within Barcelona Park At Twilight, we see camera movement that had been initially pioneered by Promio. In all likelihood Chomón learned from the films that he was distributing and editing and so wasn't necessarily making a pioneer's haphazard footsteps. This ultimately meant that Chomón can be considered to come from a new 'generation' or 'era' of filmmaker. Whilst he comes from an age in which much about cinema still had to be learned, established and developed, he is quite far removed from the age of initial invention, trial and error (which came to its end around 1895). Chomón was then a key player in, and a product of, the early development age of cinema.

Without jumping ahead of ourselves, however, let us take a look at our subject for today, Danse des Ouléd-Naïd:


This is one of the first known films to have been directed by Segundo de Chomón and it is nothing particularly original or new. In such, the dance film, as well as hand-colouring, or tinting, began more than half a decade before Chomón made this film. One of the first hand-tinted films came from William K.L Dickson and the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1895, and it was even a dance short:


The subject of colour in film is a large topic that we won't yet delve into, but, suffice to say that, whilst Chomón wasn't the first to utilise colouration in film, he was one of the early, significant filmmakers that would predominantly be making colour films. In such, it is somewhat irregular to see a black and white print of a Chomón short film from any stage of his career. Chomón was so immersed in this technology for many reasons. Not only was colouration his way into the industry, and so it was, in large part, what he was known for, but it was also a symbol of his approach to cinema, one that meant to develop and out-do the spectacles that other significant filmmakers at the time were making. It was this that then lead him to aid in the development Pathécolor, later called Pathéchrome, which was a form of colouration that utilised a stencil process.

However, we now reach a subject that is seemingly inevitable when talking about Chomón: Méliès. In certain respects, the comparison of Chomón to Méliès is a tired and low-shelf topic, and an endeavour that is one of the main reasons for Chomón being a relatively (relative to Méliès) unknown figure. This is nonetheless going to be the basis for our discussion today because, as we have already outlined, we are exploring one of the first, major instances of evolution in the cinema through one filmmaker learning from another.

As is very well-quoted, Pablo Picasso once said that "good artists borrow, great artists steal". What this means is ambiguous. It may just be a way of Picasso accepting the fact that his work often bordered on plagiarism, sometimes plain theft. However, what this in turn suggests is that Picasso is Picasso only because this was accepted not only by his culture and time, but also by the history books. Why, then, is Picasso's arguably plagiarised work accepted and even held as a marker of some of the most significant artistic works of the 20th century? Maybe he cheated the world and we still make ourselves victims of his ruse. Maybe he is the chosen representative of something that ultimately transcends himself. Maybe he did it better than those he stole from. Whatever the answer, Segundo de Chomón was a great artist of the cinema, one of the finest of the 1900s, and he 'stole'.

When comparisons are made between Chomón and Méliès, they aren't trivial. As we already know, he broke into the early filmmaking industry through connections that his wife had with Pathé and Star Film. Moreover, he worked on Méliès' films. However, though Chomón worked on films such as Bluebeard, this may have been at the request of other Spanish distributors, not the Star Film company. This means that, whilst the two filmmakers probably never came into contact, Chomón certainly knew of Méliès' films before making his own trick films. How well Chomón knew Méliès' films can only be reflected by his own films. Take, for instance, The Troubadour:


Made in 1906, this film undeniably shares a lot in common The One Man Band From 1900:


Whilst Chomón 'stole' this film, it seems that he made his own technical improvements with colourisation. Nonetheless, One Man Band is the better film, in my view, thanks to the way in which Méliès sets up the replication of himself as well as the integration of the six new bodies into the original.

We find another example of 'theft' with Chomón's 1907 film, Music, Forward!:


Music, Forward! is essentially a re-working of Méliès' 1903 film, The Melomaniac:


Here, however, Chomón outdoes his tutor. Merely with the famous final shot...


... Chomón demonstrates a heightened sense of spectacle that Méliès didn't achieve five years before. There is the caveat, however: five years before. And this is what Méliès' work will always have: it predates Chomón's - which is something that shouldn't be forgotten. What seals this idea is certainly the most infamous act of 'theft' that Chomón, with Pathé, committed. In 1908, Excursion To The Moon is made...


This is, of course, an unauthorised remake of one of the most iconic films to come out of the early cinematic period, A Trip To The Moon from 1902:


Excursion To The Moon is, in my view, not even close to being a better film than A Trip To The Moon, instead, a symbol of a battle won. Pathé, with Chomón as one of their key filmmakers since 1905, had been competing with Méliès' Star Film company. As we explored in a recent post in the Every Year series, Méliès had some ties to those at Pathé, but was primarily thought of - and thought of himself - as an independent filmmaker that had his own company. So, though they had their ties, Pathé and Méliès were business competitors--which is made no clearer than by the fact that Pathé was the fire that threatened to consume Méliès' career from 1910. It was in this year that he signed a contract with Pathé that put his home and studio at stake. Having failed to fulfil his contract, Pathé cut ties with Méliès and attempted to take what was now theirs. However, because of WWI, Pathé could not take Méliès' livelihood away until 1923. Nonetheless, it was Excursion To The Moon that was a preemptive step in Pathé destroying their competition. After all, Méliès' decline began around 1905, the same year in which Pathé moved Chomón from Barcelona to Paris. By 1908, Méliès had been deconstructed and, in many respects, bettered by Chomón. Whilst Chomón could not out-do Méliès' most iconic and (at that time) internationally renowned film, Excursion To The Moon is seemingly a symbol of the fact that, by this point, he was the better filmmaker and that Pathé had won over their competition with Star Film.

Beyond anything that we are about to talk about on the topic of what separates and joins Chomón's work from Méliès' is, in my view, Chomón's capacity for evolution. Chomón could only surpass Méliès' mode of filmmaking because Méliès forever remained many years behind Chomón whilst he moved with the tides in a way that only figures such as Alice Guy-Blaché would transcend. Méliès' stagnation leaves his first year of film production, 1896, one of his most impressive. It was in this year that he developed his most spectacular tricks that he would primarily refine and then integrate into longer, more elaborate narratives until his last year of film production, 1912. Conversely, Chomón would evolve steadily so that the kinds of films he made in 1902 looked nothing like they did in 1912; he would have new tricks and a new approach. And so this is something to hold onto when we get to the end of this post and the last of Chomón's films.

To start in the beginning, let us now look to one of Chomón's first trick films, The Spring Fairy from 1902:


Here, we don't just see an example of Chomón's use of colour, but also reverse motion (which Méliès very rarely utilised). There are more significant details about The Spring Fairy, however. The first is the fact that Chomón co-directed this film alongside Ferdinand Zecca, another important filmmaker who worked at Pathé. This collaboration says a lot about our characterisation of Chomón as a new generation of filmmaker. The most significant pioneers - Dickson, Guy-Blaché, the Lumiéres and Méliès - were all, at some stage, independent artists or businessmen (women, too). Though Chomón would attempt, and quickly fail, to start his own film production company in 1910, he always maintained strong ties with Pathé and film industries bigger than himself. This is a career path that becomes ever more common from the 1900s.

With the rise of Hollywood and the solidification of other film industries across the rest of the world in the nineteen-teens, it became ever more rare for new companies and threatening competitors to emerge. And this has remained the case ever since (unless you consider the threat of television and now the internet as it keeps evolving). If we look to Hollywood in the modern day, we have the "Big 6": Disney, Sony (Columbia), Fox, Warner Bros, Paramount and Universal. Fox is the newest of these companies as it was founded in 1935. Sony (Columbia), Disney and Warner Bros were founded between 1923 and 1924. Paramount and Universal were apart of the birth of Hollywood itself in 1912. The only film companies that are older than these two are Gaumont (started in 1895), Pathé (1896) and Nordisk Film (1906). All of these film companies, as you may know, are still around today; they fought for their place at the top of their industries and they have retained it with few (less than you'd imagine) real threats.

What this says about Chomón is that he represented what would come to be seen as the new standard kind of filmmaker. He was then not only tied to a studio for the entirety of his production career, but would go on to work in other industries when he stopped directing films as a cinematographer and visual effects artist for movies such as Cabiria and Napoleon. And so, it is looking at The Spring Fairy that we find a symbol of this, and maybe a reason as to why Chomón could evolve. He, after all, was a cog in a much bigger system, a system that he could learn from and could use as a kind of safety net. With Méliès and other independent artists, the case seems to be that, when you start losing, you begin to lose all by yourself - and there's also no support network around you when the going is good, at least, not one that isn't constructed by yourself. Because he had a constant network around him, Chomón was able to, later in his career, move to Italy and work on Pastrone's epic, and even later than that, work on Gance's masterpiece. Whilst it cannot really been confirmed, this is one of the more subtle, yet very pertinent, ways in which Chomón and Méliès were different

Coming back to The Spring Fairy, within this film are also markers of Chomón's style and approach to film form and narrative. Starting with the use of reverse action, this is a staple of Chomón's work that he would reprise in a plethora of his films. One of the most impressive examples that is seemingly a study, or exploitation, of this trick is The Fantastic Diver from 1905:


The first film to demonstrate reverse action was the Lumiéres' Demolition Of A Wall from 1896:


Reverse action in its time, as represented by this actuality, was one of the most expressive symbols of the control cinema had. Whilst Muybridge's work is the archetype of the control that a moving picture camera system gives a person over space and time, reverse motion was more than the capturing of space and time in a bottle; it was the manipulation of the magic bottled within. Chomón, whilst he was not the first to do this, took this sentiment beyond the actuality. With The Fantastic Diver, we see reverse motion combined with trick cuts being used as a subtle commentary on the metamorphic 'reality' of the cinematic realm. To continue this line of thought, it would be important to recognise other motifs that would be present throughout Chomón's work that were established with The Spring Fairy.

In a select few of Chomón's films, there was this concept of a baby being born from a fairy (not just in The Spring Fairy, but also Easter Eggs) that mimicked the tale that Guy-Blaché told in her first film, The Cabbage Fairy, and later in Midwife To The Upper Classes. This set the foundations for the phantasmagorias (a dream like narrative) and morality tales that both of these filmmakers would make, with Chomón specialising in phantasmagorias and Guy-Blaché morality tales. Added to this, however, in most of Chomón's films there are aesthetic elements of flowers, insects and nature. This is true of many French films of this period, but Chomón's films are the most expressive examples of this. Look, for example, to The Magic Roses:


In this film, we see Chomón's use of colour, costumes and sets all centred on the use of natural, floral imagery. What is deeply embedded into Chomón's films is then the Art Nouveau movement. With its origins in the designs of British designer, William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau was an international reaction to academic arts of the 1800s. The 'new art' was then a kind of decorative art that merged with the flourishing industrialisation of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Art Nouveau was, in some respects, mass produced art for the home and public that, much like the Arts and Crafts movement, refined and brought craftsmanship and natural simplicity to public and personal structures. If we then look to elements of the Paris Métro, which was constructed between 1898 and 1900, we see an example of public infrastructure made in the Art Nouveau era (which lasted between 1895 and 1910).

  

There is much to see in the floral designs of these facades and signs that is reflected in Chomón's films. Thus, in many respects, Chomón was Art Nouveau.


As an extension of this, the manner in which cinema, too, was a mass produced product from a newly industrialised age that was given personal creative and artistic treatment, further resonates with the sentiments of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Craft movement. Thus, in many respects, early cinema is very Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts. Or, at least, this is a way of thinking about early cinema commercially and, in some cases, aesthetically.

If we take a moment to return to trick films and the Chomón-Méliès comparison, we have to touch on what is probably the best self-deconstructing pieces of work that Chomón ever made, A Hundred Tricks from 1906:


In many ways, Chomón was Méliès, Méliès, Méliès, Méliès and then some. Whilst he refined his work and technologically and formally evolved past him, Chomón spends much of his time out-doing Méliès through the quantity of his effects. In such, the structure of a Méliès trick film is often much like The Living Playing Cards from 1905:


Méliès often has one big trick that he sets up and establishes with many smaller tricks that warm up to, for example, a card coming to life. Chomón on the other hands starts high, a magician materialising from a disc, and attempts to maintain a great intensity, often with repetitive tricks that show variation and, possibly, an escalation of complexity. However, the fault that you can find in Chomón's trick films is that they can sometimes become a little monotonous or a little too reliant on ceaseless spectacle. Two further examples of this would be The Golden Beetle...


... in which Chomón seemingly throws all the colours and flashing lights that he can manage at us, as well as The Cigar Box:


With The Cigar Box, Chomón also demonstrates a greater sense of choreography and mise en scéne than that which Méliès, whose staging was often layered, yet linear and static, would demonstrate...


... with the utilisation of swirling crowds of players instead of theatric lines of them. (A better example of Chomón's choreography can be seen in The Charmer). There is nonetheless a lot of repetition meeting a rather hotchpotch 'plot' in Chomón's films that demonstrates his lacking capabilities in the field of narrative that he would have to develop over time - which we would certainly see later on in his career.

Before transitioning to Chomón's latter years as a director, we have to touch on a few more of his technical and formal achievements.


With The Bewitched Shepard, we have a comedy film that is somewhat similar to Los Guapos del Parque (which is a brilliant example of a chase film by Chomón). What strikes me most with this film, however, is the final shot: the medium close-up.


This is something that you'd have a hard time finding in Méliès' films, and so is a demonstration of one of the key ways in which Chomón considered the form of his films seriously. In such, it is clear that Méliès thought predominately of the internals of his films and how they reacted with post-production (the editing), whilst Chomón managed all stages and levels of his production with greater dexterity; his narratives were often more complex, his tricks came in greater numbers and they were not just predicated on a cut or transition of some kind. A brilliant example of the way in which Chomón used his camera not just for cinematic language, but also trickery, can be seen in Kiri-Kis:


Here, Chomón shoots, looking down upon his characters, so that they can perform seemingly impossible feats with ease. What is demonstrated here is then an understanding that a camera is not just a special effects box, but something which can be used to manipulate perception without editing. Combining his trick film sensibilities with his developing understanding of cinematic language, Chomón would create more articulate and intricate films such as The Enchanted Glasses from 1907:


It is with tricks like this...


... that Chomón then left Méliès farther and father behind. However, there is still so much more to be found in Chomón's seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of films, which is, in fact, just over a third of what Méliès' is, with just over 80 of Chomón's films having survived to this day to Méliès' 220+ .

Chomón, as we have touched on, demonstrated an interest in metamorphosis. We see this in films such as The Express Sculptor:


Just as the sculptor slaps his finished products in the face to show their malleability as well as his control, Chomón seems to use his tricks to construct narrative films. In such, the control he has is very evident for the way in which he tangibly impacts a cinematic space. One of his most iconic and individual tricks of this kind was certainly his stop-motion animation:


Bob's Electric Theatre is one of Chomón most impressive films that separate him from other cinematic tricksters quite clearly. But, he wouldn't just use animation to put on a show that resembles a vaudeville act or a magic trick show. In The Gold Spider, Chomón integrates animation into a narrative:


As he did in The King Of Dollars and The Gold Obsession, Chomón constructs a narrative around money here, one that wasn't confined to a studio shot in wide angles. This film then marked some of the greatest evolutionary steps that Chomón made. But, this wasn't a one-and-done achievement. It is with The Gold Spider alongside The Electric Hotel, Slippery Jim, Traveller's Nightmare, Scullion's Dream and The Haunted House, that Chomón's puts to screen some of his best and most iconic work, all of which was born out of a steady evolution over half of a decade. And it's with this final point that we can maybe put to rest the conflict which we have built up between Chomón and Méliès.

To reconcile with these two figures, it is best to see that Chomón ultimately moved away from the kind of films that Méliès is known for. Whilst he was still making trick films, Méliès' best works were his fantasy epics such as A Trip To The Moon, The Impossible Voyage and The Kingdom Of The Fairies. Similar, but distinct from this body of work, the likes of Traveller's Nightmare, Electric Hotel and The Haunted House are a variation on the narrative trick film that, instead of representing the heights of special effects filmmaking in the early 1900s, come to represent the height of this form of filmmaking in the latter half of the 1900s. In this sense, though their career's overlapped and even ended around the same time (Chomón would stay in the industry and even direct again in 1923, but, you can infer what I mean), Méliès and Chomón can co-exist quite comfortably with Chomón being a descendent of Méliès in a similar way in which, for example, Fincher can be seen as a descendent of Kubrick.

To bring things towards an end, we'll pick up on Chomón's most sophisticated and intriguing film in terms of film history, Andalusian Superstition from 1912:


Thomas Gunning, who we have mentioned in regards to his term "the cinema of attractions" before, suggests that this film was seen by Salvador Dalí and/or Luis Buñuel before they made Un Chien Andalou - which is ground zero for many film buffs and one of the most iconic experimental films ever made. This is not at all surprising as both Chomón and Méliès seem to inadvertently represent a pre-Buñuelian, or pre-Dulacian, kind of cinematic surrealism. Not only do they contort and play with cinematic spaces in a way that really doesn't have much to do with reality, but their films are very dream-like; with A Trip To The Moon we seemingly have a fantasy pulled straight from the unconscious mind of a child and with The Haunted Castle, a comedic nightmare.

Whilst the term 'art' most likely meant something very different to Chomón and Méliès and Dalí and Buñuel, their films have similar elements in them that all seemingly concern cinema as an outlet for the unconscious mind. It is then not entirely correct to bunch the films of Chomón and Méliès under the umbrella of "Surrealism". However, it maybe makes sense to put a capital "P" on "Phantasmagoria" as we use this word to describe Chomón and Méliès' films. Thus: Dalí and Buñuel, the cinematic Surrealists; Chomón and Méliès the cinematic Phantasmagorians.

Having now dived deep into the career of Segundo de Chomón and the place in cinematic history that he holds, we should brings things towards a conclusion. Chomón in many respects was "The Spanish Méliès". However, the conflict that this suggests isn't simple; Chomón was a distinguished, ultimately better, filmmaker who symbolised cinema beginning to evolve across different generations of artists. With his death in 1929, and after a long career as a colourist and director and then cinematographer and visual effects artist, Chomón was quickly forgotten whilst Méliès was being re-discovered by the world. His legacy has gained traction over the years, especially in regions such as Spain and in film history books, but, he remains immersed in shadow (which is partly cast by Méliès). Nonetheless, the importance of his films is quite easy to recognise when they are allowed to speak for themselves. This is a testament to his artistry and an honour of his contributions to cinema that is quite irrefutable.

Before leaving you, I highly recommend finding as many of Chomón's films as you can (many of which I have already linked to). Here is an archive site which has collected around 80 of them. Added to this, you may find this article, which was one of the most useful piece of material on Chomón that I could find, interesting.

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