Edison Manufacturing Company, May Irwin Kiss, 1896
Edison Manufacturing Company, May Irwin Kiss, 1896

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

An early American film audience was not a tough crowd. At the end of the 19th century, you could show an auditorium full of curiosity-seekers 20-second loops of just about anything—a ship buffeted by a storm, blacksmiths passing around a bottle, a mustachioed man planting a wet one on a heavyset widow—and they’d be enthralled. It’s not that audiences of the time were undiscerning. It’s just that at the dawn of American cinema, it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone that a movie needed to be like a play. These early films were filled with white noise, shot in exceedingly high contrast, and pared down to a few key compositional elements. Like paintings, they may have had recognizable subjects, but they were ultimately abstracted from everyday life. Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, audiences expected a movie to behave something like a painting—only with flickering light and motion added.

The Phillips Collection’s current show, Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, connects the first publicly exhibited movies to traditional fine art, juxtaposing 60 turn-of-the-century short films with American realist paintings and photographs from the same period. The works are mostly broken down by genre: natural landscapes, urban vistas, figure studies, portraits. They’re chosen and grouped primarily to illustrate compositional and thematic affinities, so not all of the paintings here are winners. But the show does a remarkably good job of capturing the thrilling yet alienating sense of dislocation that the first people to view human actions on celluloid must have felt. It also lays bare the aspirations of men like Thomas Edison and Eadweard Muybridge, whose pretensions to high culture shaped the opening chapter of movie history. In the process, the show spotlights a distinctly American strain of modernism, driven by a love of spectacle and a readiness to embrace extreme transformations in the cultural landscape at the turn of the 20th century.

Then as now, porn was at the forefront of the new media technology. Or, if not porn, at least kissing and partial nudity, the forms that prurience could take in a public arena in the 1890s. A popular example from 1896, May Irwin Kiss, is typical of Edison’s early films. A single shot of a few seconds running in a continuous loop, it shows a couple from a popular Broadway play of that year, The Widow Jones. The man twirls the waxy ends of his mustache for a moment then lunges in to plant a kiss on his partner. The two then spend some moments talking to each other through the corners of their joined mouths. It’s a clinical exposé of a phenomenon that was scandalizing American audiences at the time: excessive make-out scenes in the theater.

The simple set design of the early Edison films—harsh frontal illumination, solid black tar-paper background—was initially a necessity. Shorts were first viewed through tiny peepholes in Edison’s Kinetoscope machines, and for visibility’s sake, films needed to make sharp distinctions between figure and ground and show exaggerated actions.

Given these limitations, it’s no wonder that the earliest filmmakers didn’t see storytelling as an option for film. That attitude still held fast in 1904, when Edwin Porter produced Parsifal. The scene on view at the Phillips, Parsifal Ascends the Throne, is typical: A single, distant, stationary camera, lots of broad, campy gestures, and a few silly special effects, like a dove that descends on a string. Porter’s aim wasn’t to tell a coherent story but to offer spectacle and universal, easily understandable vignettes—not unlike traditional history painting, which distills a famous story into one emblematic image.

Film and painting had the most common ground at this time when it came to landscapes. By 1896, when devices like Edison’s Vitascope could project images onto a screen nearly 50 feet high, movies were surrounded by a chunky, ornate frame, suggesting the rarefied air and seriousness of a major salon painting. It’s easy to imagine the impression that the James H. Whitenproduced Edison film, American Falls From Above, American Side (1896) made at such a scale. The lower half of the screen is filled with torrents of water from Niagara Falls, and the film also shows the efforts of a camera team venturing out onto the ice—the viewer is made aware not only of the cataclysm but of the effort to depict it. One stationary camera framing the scene for a brief moment isn’t terribly dynamic, but it trumps the large painting of the same subject nearby, William Morris Hunt’s Niagara Falls (1878). Hunt’s canvas is undistinguished—large, choppy knife strokes offer minimal indications of a scruffy, broken sliver of distant foliage, and streaming water in ridges of turquoise-green paint resolves into a shapeless mass of white mist in the lower left of the canvas. Aside from the fact that the picture was available in the Williams College collection—the venue that originated this traveling show—there’s nothing to recommend it.

A more interesting parallel between film and painting is the pairing of another Edison Company film produced by White, The S.S. Coptic Lying To (1898) and painter John Sloan’s Wake of the Ferry No. 1 (1907). The film shows a ship’s railing and a single life preserver cloaked in atmospheric gloom; the distant rising and falling of the sea, along with the continuous spray of water, breaks the screen into diffuse white noise. It’s more reminiscent of the insistent stabbing brushmarks of French impressionism than the more unified (if still sketchy and energetic) strokes of Sloan’s painting. But the mood of Sloan’s work, with its murky grays and masses of brownish black punctuated only by a few shocks of warm color, suggests a connection between the Ashcan School’s palette and the stark look of film and photography. Indeed, Sloan was an inveterate moviegoer and often took inspiration from the films he saw. Not only were moviemakers imitating paintings; painters were beginning to imitate the movies.

Yet regardless of all of this artifice, there’s something haunting about seeing real-time actions broken down into a succession of dark, grainy profiles. Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion camera exercises with galloping horses proved that not only do all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground while running—­something that many didn’t believe at the time—but that what seems like a graceful, continuous rhythm really consists of many awkward-looking individual steps. Further, his loops, with each frame visibly hand numbered, gives a definite sequence and span to these motions. The horse is transformed into a sort of machine, endlessly, predictably stuttering across the screen.