Outwardly, at least, nothing seemed to change. New York looked the same the day before; it would look the same the day after. But on May 11, 1896, something did change, something as profound as it was imperceptible. At two o'clock on that Monday afternoon, a man named William Heise initiated a whole new city–through the simple act of recording the existing one.
Heise began by setting up his new device–the latest marvel from America's wizard, Thomas Edison–in a window at the south end of Herald Square. Looking out at the bright spring scene, he could see the energetic heart of a great city, bursting with life. Well-dressed pedestrians mingled with the surging traffic along 34th Street. The elevated train roared periodically along tracks above Sixth Avenue, to the right. Straight ahead, the elegant Herald Building tried its best to inject a note of architectural grace into the square, but could hardly compete with the jumble of signs and marquees in what was still the heart of Manhattan's entertainment district (17).
From the street below, this man in the window could easily have been mistaken for a still photographer, trying to freeze all this lively motion onto a plate of silvered glass. But Heise was not a photographer; he was a cameraman–and by the time he was done, just a minute or two later, he had for the first time captured New York, in all its restlessness, onto a flexible strip of celluloid, for a moving picture to be projected the following week under the title Herald Square. So on this sunny May afternoon, Heise was also creating a new New York, one that would exist henceforth on film, in the darkened hush of a theater.
This new thing, moving pictures, was just being born–right here, around the corner, down the street. Herald Square itself was the center of a whirlwind of invention that was bringing a whole new medium into the world. Just three weeks before, Americans had seen their first projected motion pictures–their very first "movies"–on the evening of April 23, 1896, in a theater just a few steps from where Heise was now standing, Koster and Bial's Music Hall on 34th Street (the site of today's Macy's). Over the course of the remaining year, vaudeville houses up and down Broadway would present a bewildering variety of competing systems: the Lathams' "Eidoloscope" in May, the Lumi?re brothers' "Cin?matographe" in June, American Mutoscope's "Biograph" in October. The movies were arriving in a wondrous convergence of time and place, across a few short months and a few Manhattan blocks.
Nor was New York just a center of exhibition; the first commercial American films were actually being produced here, in small workshops on these same streets. Edison had taken over the top floor of a walk-up on West 28th Street, while his main rival, American Mutoscope and Biograph, located itself on the sixth floor of 841 Broadway, near 13th Street. In its first decade, most film production in America would concentrate in the heart of Manhattan, within a few blocks of Union and Madison Squares.
It made sense, of course. New York was new to movies but was hardly a stranger to show business. The city had long ago assumed its role as the undisputed center of American theater and in the meantime had become the central hub for the sprawling vaudeville "circuits" crisscrossing the country; it could offer the nascent film industry a huge pool of entertainment talent and a well-developed network for national distribution. No less important was late-nineteenth-century New York's reputation as a tinkerer's town, the kind of place where the complex and innovative hardware of making motion pictures could be developed within the city's industrial loft buildings, amidst a general spirit of ingenuity and invention.
Heise himself worked out of Edison's primitive 28th Street shop, which began to explain why he was filming nearby Herald Square that spring afternoon and why, later that day, he would visit Central Park, just a mile or two away, for some additional footage of Bethesda Fountain. Images of New York were entering the movies at their birth, in no small part, because film was being born in New York.
But there were other reasons, equally basic. Early film stock was so "slow," or insensitive to light (no more than ASA 10 by today's standards), that only by shooting in direct sunlight could a good exposure be assured. And many of the early movie cameras were so bulky and cumbersome–Biograph's weighed a quarter-ton–that filmmakers yearned for subjects that were easy to reach by horse-drawn wagon. New York's sights were thus ideal: close at hand and accessible by paved streets and, in most cases, located outdoors.
Still, the most important reasons were not, in the end, practical ones. It could hardly escape the filmmakers' notice that at their very doorstep was the greatest show on earth. By the turn of the twentieth century New York contained the world's tallest buildings and busiest harbor, the biggest ships and the longest bridges, the densest slums and some of the grandest mansions. It had a statue fifteen stories tall and a park more than 840 acres in size. It had trains that ran a hundred feet above the street and leapt across rivers. And it had people–millions and millions of them, celebrated and obscure, filling every inch of the place.
For a decade, the first cameramen carried their cameras all around this remarkable setting–from street corners to rooftops to boats in the river–making a special kind of documentarylike film that they called "actualities." Usually only a few minutes long, actualities were merely views of actual events, people, or places. They had no plots. They had no stories. They had no characters. Filmmakers still didn't know how to tell a story; they hadn't yet discovered editing, the bringing together of two pieces of film to contract time. So these actualities could last only as long as the real event they showed: the cameraman just pointed his camera at something interesting and started cranking. They were simply glimpses, in what today might be called "real time," of the city and its life.
Their deadpan titles suggested just that. Skating on Lake, Central Park, or Excavation for Subway, these films were called. East Side Urchins Bathing in a Fountain, or Panoramic View of Brooklyn Bridge, or New York City in a Blizzard. One was named At the Foot of the Flatiron, and that is exactly what it shows: a stretch of sidewalk in front of the Flatiron Building, on a very windy day (18). During the course of the film, only two minutes and nineteen seconds long, pedestrians–ordinary, turn-of-the-century New Yorkers–simply walk down the street and past the camera, unaware for the most part that they are being photographed. The men grapple with their coats. The women clutch their long skirts. A well-dressed black man stares into the lens with curiosity and suspicion–until his hat flies off. (He disappears offscreen to retrieve it; the camera never moves from its position.) A streetcar can be noticed on the far right, crossing 23rd Street. Then two young women pass by, struggling gleefully against the strong wind. One of them turns and breaks into a wide, joyful smile. The film ends.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of these primitive films. They haunt us with the knowledge that what they show is not a stage but an actual place; that the people in them are not actors, but real New Yorkers; that they offer no invented storyline, but ordinary, everyday life. They are, in the end, not about the city: they are the city–one or two minutes of it, transposed precisely, second by second, from then to now. Their touching attention to the smallest, most ephemeral details of urban life–a windy day, a passing streetcar, a woman's smile–capture, more than anything, how the city felt, what it was actually like to live there. Seeing them, we live there, too.
From Heise's first film to about 1906, Edison and Biograph made hundreds of New York—set actualities, and assembled together they form a stunning urban collage. Cameramen such as Edison's Edwin S. Porter and Biograph's G. W. "Billy" Bitzer were placed in charge of the filmmaking process (another thing that did not yet exist was the notion of a director), and they explored the city encyclopedically. They made films of street kids delivering newspapers, shoppers crowding bargain stores, immigrants first touching American soil at Ellis Island. There were parades of horses, of automobiles, of street sweepers. There were sleek yachts defending the America's Cup off New York Harbor
and the squalid "Ghetto" fish markets of the Lower East Side. There was Commander Peary departing for the North Pole and Admiral Dewey arriving from Manila, President Butler being installed at Columbia University and the last rites for Hiram Cronk, oldest veteran of the War of 1812.
The cameramen, in fact, shot just about everything. As fascinated by poverty as by wealth, they traveled as often to the poorest tenement streets as to the grand avenues of the rich. They moved comfortably from the bucolic scenery of the city's parks and rural outskirts to its dense, utterly industrialized core. They were naturally drawn to the bizarre and extraordinary (Edison once made a film at Coney Island called Electrocuting an Elephant), but no more so than to the sights of daily life. They were especially absorbed by the city's underlying municipal workings, from the heroic exploits of policemen and fireboat crews to the mundane yet indispensable operations of its health and sanitation departments. One of Porter's films was titled, quite accurately, Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, New York City.
Of course, the cameramen often left the city to shoot actualities elsewhere, from the battles of the Spanish-American War to the speeches of Teddy Ro... --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .
Revue de presse
--Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"To his great credit, [James Sanders] sees the dream city not as a myth in need of deconstruction but as a commentary in need of explication-a kind of parallel universe, neither more nor less fantastic than the subject it mimics and enlarges . . . He is subtle . . . and, to judge by the movies he praises . . . he is also sound."
--The New Yorker
"Fascinating . . . Ambitious . . . A magnificent book, a searching and intelligent account of how the city shaped the movies . . . [Sanders's] knowledge of movies and filmmaking is profound, and his approach to the movies through his professional discipline is unique and revelatory."
--Charles Matthews, New London Day
"Mr. Sanders's book [is] an invaluable tour guide to several cities, each going under the name New York."
--Tom Shone, New York Observer
"The perfect Valentine to . . . two of our greatest loves, the City of New York and the movies . . . Celluloid Skyline chronicles New York as seen in the movies and doesn't miss a single iconic beat."
"An opulent tribute to Hollywood's Big Apple . . . Sanders's valentine to New York provides a tonic reminder of the power of its mythic images to outlast their own roots in reality."
"Entertaining and educational . . . A delight throughout."
From the Hardcover edition. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .