Friday, September 9, 2016

Who really originated the "moving picture"? David Wilkinson's THE FIRST FILM hits VOD

Garnering in Britain an actual theatrical release and some very nice critical praise, THE FIRST FILM -- by British filmmaker David Nicholas Wilkinson, who directed, co-wrote (with Irfan Shah) and co-produced -- appears to be going straight-to-digital on this side of the pond. This is a shame, I think, because the movie, in many respects, deserves the kind of coverage that a theatrical release would entail. It posits that so much of what we think we know about who was responsible for the beginnings of cinema -- Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès -- is nothing like the entire picture, especially as concerns a French fellow by the name of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (henceforth to be known in this post as simply Louis Le Prince).

Filmmaker Wilkinson (shown at right) is convinced -- and does an awfully good job of convincing us, in turn -- that it was Louis Le Prince who actually made what can be considered the first motion picture, even though only a tiny portion of same (a shot from which can be seen on the computer below) still exists. The raison d'être of the film can be traced to a public relations flub in which a book on film that mentioned Le Prince and his contribution was rejected for review by a couple of important media outlets because of its theory about Le Prince's contribution to the history of film. So pissed-off was Wilkinson that he set about making this film as a kind of proof of his thesis. Sometimes, it seems, a little righteous anger can lead us to positive ends.

As interesting and worthwhile as is The First Film, I would not call it an unqualified success, as it is a little bit too long and a tad repetitive. But so thorough and technically proficient is Wilkinson (shown below, right, with Daniel Martin of the Leeds Industrial Museum) in his research and investigation that we come away convinced that Le Prince was at least as important, if not more so, than any of the other names generally associated with the "birth of film." For this reason his movie becomes an instant must-see for anyone genuinely interested in and/or involved with film history.

The tagline on the poster at top -- The Greatest Mystery in Cinema History -- is no marketing ploy. A deep and still unresolved mystery lies at the heart of the film and its story: the complete disappearance of Le Prince just days before he was to unveil his moving picture. So, in addition to what we learn about the man's contribution to the birth of cinema (and there's plenty), Wilkinson also investigates that disappearance, with the help of everyone from an actual relative (Laurie Snyder, shown below, Le Prince's great-great-granddaughter, located here in Memphis, Tennessee), to an ex-policeman, and various film historians and technicians.

We get a good number of the usual talking heads, but as these include the likes of actor Tom Courtenay, who will complain? At the film's beginning, Wilkinson asks several people involved in film about Le Prince, and no one, it seems, has heard of the man. At the finale, he corners a few of them again and -- in the movie's most embarrassing moment (for the filmmaker) -- rather forces them to own up as to whether or not Wilkinson has proven his theory. Any intelligent viewer will by now have formed his own opinion, and so certainly does not need to be further prodded and cajoled by the filmmaker badgering his interviewees.

To my mind Wilkinson has indeed proven his point, and done so via good research, a technical understanding of the earliest cameras, smart investigation, and the ability to put some puzzle pieces together with flair and intelligence. And then, finally, to have made a movie about all this which, if not great, is good enough to pass muster.

There are a couple of fun, ah-ha! moments along the way -- one at a grave site (above) that helps seal the deal -- along with a genuine understanding of how difficult it can be to lay precise attribution to the idea of "being first," when so many people in so many places were simultaneously striving for the same results. Still, the reputation of certain "great men" are reduced a notch or two here. (What TrustMovies learned back in grade school about Thomas Alva Edison was certainly nothing like what he found here: Mr. Edison now seems less an inventor and more of a smart marketer and "patent thief.")

Overall the filmmaker has made a fine case for his findings that place Le Prince front and center in the history of film. We learn a lot about this unusual man and by film's end quite appreciate him and his efforts. It remains to be seen how willing the "film community" -- all those critics and historians and the rest who've accepted down the decades the conventional wisdom regarding who got there first -- will be to fully accept the Le Prince possibility, too.

Meanwhile, The First Film -- from Guerilla Films and running 106 minutes -- makes its U.S. debut this coming Monday, September 12, online via all major platforms. I would hope that a DVD will also appear at some point. We shall see. 

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