Today’s post is the first in a series about some of the most significant and entertaining films from the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, an era of which I am quite fond.
In the earliest days of cinema, each movie consisted of a single unedited shot. The early filmmakers would put a small roll of film inside of a 35mm camera, point the camera at a subject and let it roll until the film simply ran out. The result was a lot of wonderful one minute movies, like the immortal films of the Lumiere brothers, that function today as invaluable documents of what life in the late 19th century was like. It wasn’t until years later that it was discovered that a film could be edited, by literally gluing two or more shots together, to create a more complex and elaborate motion picture experience.
The earliest edited films from around the turn of the 20th century typically consist of only two shots. Fascinatingly, a lot of these movies take dreaming as their subject; having two shots of roughly equal length apparently caused the early filmmakers to think of each shot as a different state of consciousness. Therefore, a typical “two shot” film from this time began with a shot of a character falling asleep and concluded with a second shot of what that person was dreaming about. Or, conversely, the film began with a shot of what the audience assumed was “reality,” only to conclude with a second shot of a character waking up from what turned out to be only a dream. A good example of the latter type of film is George Albert Smith’s Let Me Dream Again from 1900.
Smith, an important English director who unfortunately isn’t well known today, made a series of incredible films around this time that tackled such enduringly popular movie themes as dreaming, voyeurism and the chasm between subjectivity and objectivity. Let Me Dream Again is a short, comical film that begins with an overhead shot of a man in an amorous encounter with an attractive young woman in bed. (In another pioneering move destined to be imitated by countless male filmmakers since, Smith cast his real life wife as the attractive woman.) Then, the camera goes out of focus, partially to mask a forthcoming “straight cut” and partially to signal a shift in the man’s consciousness. When Smith cuts to the second shot, also out of focus, we see two characters lying in bed in a graphic match of the previous shot. Smith then racks focus in the second shot to reveal the man from the first shot lying in bed as before, only this time next to his nagging and less attractive real wife (depicted in the still above).
The use of racking focus in successive shots is a little crude (it’s the prototype of the kind of slow dissolves that would later become the standard in signaling a shift between states of consciousness); but by today’s standards the film is still quite funny and even poignant in terms of what it suggests about the divide between dreams and reality. Buster Keaton would perfect this theme, and the cinematic techniques used to accompany it, in Sherlock Jr. in 1924 (due out in a new Blu-ray edition later this month), but he could have never done so without first looking to the shining example of an earlier classic like Let Me Dream Again.
Let Me Dream Again can be found on the second volume of Kino Video’s essential The Movies Begin DVD box set.