“Exposing Muybridge” at DOC NYC November 10-28, 2021 (Wendy Moscow)
Actor Gary Oldman, Muybridge enthusiast
Adventurer, scientist, photographer, artist and someone who literally gets away with murder, Eadweard Muybridge (b.1830), best known for his revolutionary stop-motion studies of galloping horses, had a rambunctious life of mythic proportions. “Exposing Muybridge” engages historians and Muybridge enthusiasts (including the actor Gary Oldman), interviewed in what looks like an abandoned barn (an effective atmospheric nod to the past), to tell the tale with rollicking enthusiasm and obvious affection. Archival photos and beautifully executed recreations of the subject’s zoopraxiscope animations nicely move the story along. Director Marc Shaffer painstakingly created contemporary sequences emulating Muybridge’s motion studies work that give the film an immediacy that pulls the viewer into that time and place (by now, the 1870s). We relive the “magic” of what he accomplished.
From the time of his childhood, Muybridge was afflicted with delusions of grandeur – which would be laughable, except that he did achieve greatness. His invention of a way to take lightening-quick sequential images, ostensibly for the exclusive use of scientists studying movement, has implications that still echo today. (“Ostensibly” because, as the film brings out, there was some prurience involved, and the compilation was rather chaotic and not in any sort of scientific order.) He paved the way for the development of movies and enabled artists to accurately depict frozen motion. Special effects, such as the “bullet-time” shots in “The Matrix” showing one moment in time from different angles, would have been inconceivable without his pioneering work. And how many people have that iconic image on their walls of the horse caught mid-air, legs folded beneath him, proving that all four legs leave the ground during a gallop?
Before his famous breakthrough, Muybridge began his career as a photographer in the U.S. national parks. Migrating across the ocean from a working class family of barge operators in England, he sought his fortune in the States, becoming well known for his stereo 3D pictures of Yosemite, pictures in which he often appeared – precariously close to precipitous cliff drops. Ahead of his time, he was a risk-taker who was constantly reinventing himself, like Madonna or Lady Gaga. During this period, he called himself Helios, for the god of the sun, and his photos flew out of his “Flying Studio.”
I love the way the director simulates depth when we “view” the stereoscopic images on the big screen. As conventional cinema is a 2D medium, the filmmaker doesn’t have the ability to combine two images taken from slightly different perspectives, as he would have using 3D projection technology (to which the stereoscope is arguably the predecessor). Instead, he generates digital 3D animation in which objects in the foreground appear to move through space against the background.
Editor Elisabeth Haviland James does an amazing job of interweaving archival material with animation and interviews. As the story of the murder builds, it’s as if each teller is in the room, building deliciously on what had been already said, although they were all interviewed separately. Muybridge experts Marta Braun, Amy Werbel, Philip Brookman, Rebecca Gowers, Thomas Gunning and Richard White are all terrific, as are the insights of photographers Luther Gerlach, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe. Especially moving was Richard Jackson, an Indigenous Tlingit man, who speaks to the deep connection he feels to a photograph he proudly holds of his recent ancestors, made by Muybridge. Muybridge took other, more problematic photographs of Native people that he negatively manipulated in the service of the U.S. government.
“Exposing Muybridge” is an important cinematic addition to the body of documentaries about early photographers, and lets us know that, with all his flaws, volatility and genius, the subject was more than a man who took a picture of a horse.
Posted on November 17, 2021, in DOC NYC 2021 and tagged Amy Werbel, bullet time, Byron Wolfe, Eadweard Muybridge, Elisabeth Haviland James, Exposing Muybridge, Galloping horse motion study, Gary Oldman, Luther Gerlach, Marc Shaffer, Mark Klett, Marta Braun, Philip Brookman, Rebecca Gowers, Richard Jackson, Richard White, The Matrix, Thomas Gunning, zoopraxiscope. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.