“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.

About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on November 17, 2021, in DOC NYC 2021 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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