Feb 13, 2010

A New Trip Down Market Street

In today's media-saturated environment, audiovisual glimpses of daily life are ubiquitous. Flashback to the earliest days of the moving image, and much of what remains feels fragmented by comparison: minute-long mementos recording everyday life (the Lumière films), staged performances (Edison kinetscope loops), or bits and pieces of curiosities. However, as windows into the past, their range is finite. That's precisely why the captivating film known by the assigned title A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire -- a single, unbroken shot of San Francisco circa 1906 --  holds onto its place as a vital piece of film history. Depending on the projection speed it unfolds  between ten and fifteen minutes.

The Library of Congress on-line version (digitized from a print deposited by the AFI in 1972) is catalogued as 533 feet long. Transferred at 15fps it runs 10:38. The longer running time comes from renowned film collector Rick Prelinger, who found a previously neglected 35mm print, which he has also used for Prelinger Archives's first venture into HD transfer. At the Internet Archive, the trip lasts 13:52.

The camera operator behind this long take is left unidentified. One historian recently posited it was a man called Jack Kuttner, others question that verdict. Another historian suggests that advertisements of 1906 point to the Miles Bros., a nationally prominent, San Francisco-based film company of the time. (See Melinda Stone's essay, "Five Moments on Market Street, 1905-2006," at SF360.org.)

Whoever the cinematographer was, his[?] project succeeds precisely because he manages to stay invisible. As the static camera stares unblinkingly at the street ahead, the cable car on which it rests slowly drifts through downtown San Francisco, aimed at The Ferry Building in the distance.

The silent footage makes a lively affair, as we watch the bustling metropolitan scene grow animated with colorful details. Horse-drawn carriages and buggies compete with automobiles for space on the crowded road, while men and women adorned in formal [everyday?] dress wander through the frame. Occasionally children dart across the street, vanish and reappear. The freedom of movement creates a retroactive sense of suspense, as we realize that nobody adheres to any discernible traffic laws. Pedestrians wander aimlessly through the streets, occasionally pausing to mug for the camera.

Whenever media archaeologist Prelinger has screened the footage using the recently uncovered 35mm print, as he plans to do with a further restored version at the Orphan Film Symposium, viewers discover a wealth of details, including passing advertisements and even license plate numbers. Over time, the footage develops a hypnotic rhythm, turning a naturalistic snapshot into something with far greater meditative value. Noticing this transcendent quality, avant garde filmmaker Ernie Gehr stretch-printed the footage for his 1974 found footage work, Eureka.

Time has validated A Trip Down Market Street more than anything else. The film offers a precise geographical survey -- so precise that in 2005 filmmakers Melinda Stone and Liz Keim mounted their own cameras on the back of a truck and recreated the footage shooting a contemporary Market Street. (Their resulting DVD gathers several other archival films shot on that location as well as new and recent productions.)

The original is more informed by change than familiarity. Much of the urban landscape on display vanished during the April 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. As a result, Market Street functions as a record of the past forever haunted by the future.

  At the Orphans 7 screening, April 10th, Rick Prelinger will introduce the screening of his new 35mm print. A A new, original musical soundtrack is being composed and recorded by the NYU program in Scoring for Film and Multimedia (thanks to Ron Sadoff).

-- notes by Eric Kohn and Dan Streible