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Roundhay Garden Scene

A Mystery?

To talk about the cinema's present, one must first acknowledge its past. Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), one of the oldest surviving fragments of motion picture history, could be called, at its most dismissive, a camera test; a two-second recording that captures four individuals wandering around the gardens at Oakwood Grange in the suburb of Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire. Obviously intended as an experiment in recording movement, the few seconds of surviving footage have, with the passage of time, become possessed with a feeling of mystery, if not anxiety. Scratch beneath the surface of its seemingly benign exterior and Roundhay Garden Scene becomes a precursor to the subconscious cinema of filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Jacques Rivette, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and others. Films that are charged with an air of conspiracy, or obscurity; of dream-worlds and paranoia, controlled and manipulated by an unseen system of influences.

Like the aforementioned Kubrick's final masterwork Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Roundhay Garden Scene is a film so suggestive and enigmatic that it lends itself to the kind of Rorschach-like approach to film criticism that I've indulged in here. It becomes a black mirror, so void of deeper meaning that we're compelled to project our own meanings onto it; inventing a narrative where none exists; enlivening its minimal presentation with our own thoughts, fears and concerns. Like the way the metaphorical noose tightens around the lives of the protagonists in Kubrick's last film, the observation of the participants here has an undercurrent of something more sinister. It's as if the events unfolding are being manipulated by an unseen organisation; shadowy forces again at work. It suggests something of the private made public; a kind of open doll's house or glasshouse facade that the audience is invited to peer into; becoming witness to some recreation of "normal" behaviour that's too stylised, mechanical or forced to be considered real.

Roundhay Garden Scene [Louis Le Prince, 1888]:

Much of this particular reading of the film - as something more ominous or insidious than its no doubt innocent intentions - has been undoubtedly coloured by the strange events surrounding its production. Firstly, the death of one of its on-screen participants, Sarah Whitley, ten days after the filming was complete. More significantly, the mysterious disappearance of its 'author' - the early cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince - two years later. The body of Le Prince was never discovered, and several conspiracy theories exist that attempt to explain the course of events. Lastly, Le Prince's son, Adolphe Le Prince, another participant in the film, was discovered shot dead around two years after he testified in court against Thomas Edison about his father's inventions. Such tragedies become like black clouds that hover over the legacy of this film and lead the mind to wander about its conception. While I'm no great conspiracy theorist, I do think it's interesting to speculate.

With its matter of fact title and the mysterious system of circumstances surrounding its release, Roundhay Garden Scene is a film that gives the audience room to dream and to project onto its surface their own subjective and subconscious narrative. It transcends categorisation, being at once a documentary - a recording of an actual scene that captures people long-dead and preserves them forever in this prison of celluloid - and a dramatisation; a recreation of something real turned fiction. The presentation of its participants as they move through the space becomes a dance like the planets in orbit. Like the investigation into the photograph in Michelangelo Antonioni's great masterpiece Blow-Up (1966) I feel like I need to go deeper into this film, to scrutinise the shadows in the window, the gaps between the bushes, the suggestions at the corners of the frame; to unlock the mysteries that surround the film and define its legacy. Another time perhaps.


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