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The Cabbage Fairy

Une naissance de cinéma?

A barely sixty second theatrical stylisation, which, by virtue of being recorded by a motion picture camera, becomes cinema. Here a woman, the "fairy" of the title, dances a magical dance among the cabbage patch. The early cinema was full of dances. Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894) and the related Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) both by William Kennedy Dickson, A Serpentine Dance (1896), this time by Georges Méliès, and Au bal de flore (1900), also by Alice Guy-Blaché. Perhaps this was merely a convenience on the part of these early filmmakers desperate to find a particular subject matter that would lend itself to the specific selling points of the moving image? However, I like to think it was an effort to dramatise something of the dance of light that occurred when a strip of celluloid passed through the projector.

As the story continues, the "fairy" begins plucking newborn babies from the behind the cabbage leaves and placing them surreptitiously on the cold hard ground. Robbed of its specific context and this description sounds especially horrifying; like a kind of proto-Lynchian nightmare befitting a film like Eraserhead (1977). However, if we were to read the subject-matter on a more metaphorical and less presentational level, then it becomes difficult to see the film as anything other than a work that seeks to find a connection between the fantasy of childbirth (as depicted here) and the birth of the cinema itself a nascent innovation.

The Fairy of the Cabbages [Alice Guy-Blaché, 1896/1900]:

The Fairy of the Cabbages has frequently been called the first narrative feature. I think the term is interesting because it points to a possible origin of how the distinction between "fiction" and "reality" in regards to film classification first came to be. Why is The Fairy of the Cabbages considered a work of narrative, but a film like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (1895) isn't? Because the latter was an actuality and as such exists only as a historical document, while the former had theatrical effects, costumes and make-up? I don't think so. If we adhere to the notion that "every picture tells a story" then the film by the brothers Lumière is no less a narrative than the one by Guy-Blaché. Both films tell a story.

Nonetheless, the distinction between a "film" (meaning fiction) and a "documentary" (which is often approached by the arbiters of cinematic culture as somehow separate to "films"; like, as if it's fine to place Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972] alongside Fitzcarraldo [1982], but hardly ever alongside Grizzly Man [2005]) continues to this day. However, between the influence of the Lumière's and the influence of Guy-Blaché, we can see that the ideological struggle between the cinema of social realism and the cinema of escapism is not merely reserved for contemporary considerations on the disparity between Ken Loach and the Walt Disney studios, but is something that has existed from the very origins of the medium itself. The Fairy of the Cabbages, both as a metaphorical study and as a piece of surviving history, represents a birth of cinema, but maybe not thebirth of it.


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