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The Box in the Screen

D W Griffith posing with a TV camera, Schenectady, N.Y.1929.


Said one writer of Francisco Goya's El Tres de Mayo, it "could have been anywhere; it could be My Lai."[1]

The observation relates perhaps as much to the image of the murder of innocents as it does to the mass dissemination of such images via 20th century TV networks. Georges Melies's prediction of television, LONG DISTANCE WIRELESS PHOTOGRAPHY (1908) may have seemed a logical next step following the development of photography in 1839, the telegraph six years later, and the telephone in 1876. Could that notion of TV have been appropriated from the French artist Albert Robida who in 1869, imagined a large oval TV monitor displaying soft-pornographic imagery? In 1879, coinciding with the first Muybridge show, Punch published a drawing of a rectangular screen, transmitting "light as well as sound", inaccurately described as "Edison's Telephonoscope". The image depicts a sports event: gentlemen and ladies engaged in a tennis match. The following year, Alexander Graham Bell announced the filing of a description of a method for "seeing by telegraph". In 1884, only two years before the publication of Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations, the German engineer Paul Nipkow constructed a mechanical scanning device, a piece of primitive TV technology. In contrast to and in parallel with film's temporally fragmented retrieval and replay structure, the concept of the "televisual" that replayed the unbroken interactivity of the telephone and the telegraph, seemed to be in the air.[2]

Albert Robida's 1869 concept of TV. Albert Robida

Thomas Edison, who filed patents but unlike Etienne-Jules Marey wrote no books, seemed intrigued by the possibility, proposed by Edweard Muybridge, of developing a total audio-visual device, a combination of Zoopraxiscope and phonograph. The apparatus, as described by Muybridge, suggested the future - television, 3-D movies, holography:

" ...in the perhaps not far distant future instruments will be constructed that will not only reproduce visible actions simultaneously with audible words but an entire opera with the gestures, facial expressions and songs of the performers, with all the accompanying music, will be recorded and reproduced by apparatus combining the principles of the Zoopraxiscope and the phonograph for the instruction and entertainment of an audience...and if the photograph should have been made stereoscopically and projections from each series be independently and synchronously projected on a screen, a perfectly realistic imitation of the original performance will be seen in the apparent round by the use of properly constructed binocular glasses."[3]


The myth of total cinema Edison and the others were supposed to have been dreaming of was described by Andre Bazin as "a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time." Was Bazin in some way really imagining television, i.e. describing a medium whose impact was such that rather than a visual record of a past incident, it positioned the spectator at the scene as it was unfolding without interference, doing away with the temporal discontinuity coming between spectacle and spectator? Bazin's cinema essays were originally published in France, 1958-1965, i.e. in the second decade of network television.

Did the artists who decorated the cave walls of Lascaux imagine themselves to be in the presence of those extraordinary creatures whose shapes and colours they depicted? Was the dream of those artists a dream not of cinema but of the re-enactment of the hunt viewed on a giant flatscreen HDTV?

Does the intended visual impact of the dioramas in some way anticipate TV rather than the movies? Did Sergei Eisenstein see the seduction of television in those attractions?

Most surviving paper prints of film copyrighted 1894 -1912 convey a reduced picture of the character of the film experience in its early years, the photographic quality loss making the reported excitement that greeted the early film shows puzzling. Prints made from the paper copies generally lack the extraordinary impression of action in depth and the sharply etched detail seen in the original negatives. Transferred to 35 mm from a 68 mm negative, A TRIP ON A MONORAIL(189?) and DELHI DURBAR ELEPHANTS(189?), viewed at a special screening at the Film Study Centre, Museum of Modern Art, February, 1978, might have rendered edited stories superfluous, these extraordinary images perhaps sufficient to attract audiences.

In January 1928, General Electric engineer Ernst Alexanderson supervised the first public demonstration of television on station WRGB in Schenectady, New York. By the end of the year, a small number of American experimental stations were sending out television signals. In August 1929, D. W. Griffith visited WRGB to witness a transmission of one of his feature films. Griffith toured the Research Laboratory and attended a dinner at which he met a number of company officials, including a John Klenke, "in charge of all our Motion Picture work." The photograph is of Griffith "at the microphone", posing with a TV camera. A note to R.A. Klune, Griffith's business manager, from W.T. Meanam, of the General Electric News Bureau said the photograph, taken by a General Electric photographer was "not as good as we would like". Reports by the Associated Press and United Press judged the broadcast to have been good. It is not clear which of Griffith's films was transmitted or how many first generation TV watchers were in the viewing audience. It would appear that some sort of business transaction was in negotiation; perhaps G.E. was attempting to persuade Griffith to join the company or acquire broadcast rights to his films. G.E. was awaiting "additional information from the Pacific coast." Griffith had departed United Artists and might have been looking for new business opportunities. It was an event though witnessed by perhaps fewer than a dozen people seems to look at the same time both back and into the future, locating the beginning and the end of the movies in the same frame.[4]

St. Clare of Assisi St. Clare of Assisi, 1193-1253, patron saint of eye disorders, telegraphs, telephones, and television.

St. Clare was a wealthy young woman who was greatly moved by the words and deeds of the self-made beggar Francis Bernadone. Many miracles were attributed to her during her life. A founder of the "poor Clares," a Franciscan order for women, she is revered as the second greatest Franciscan saint. In 1958 Pope Pius XII named her patron saint of television because when she was too ill to attend Mass, she had reportedly been able, via televisual hallucination, to see and hear it on the wall of her room.[5]

1.^Gwyn A Williams, Goya and the impossible revolution, Penguin Books, 1976, p.1.

2.^See William Uricchio, "There's More to the Camera's Obscura Than Meets the Eye", in Francois Albera, Marta Braun, and Andre Gaudreault(eds) Stop Motion, Fragmentation of Time, Editions Payot Lausanne, 2002, pp.103-117. Also, David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher, Tube: the Invention of Television, Counterpoint, 1996, pp. 9-20. The reference to the Punch Almanac vision appears in Emmanuelle Toulet, Birth of the Motion Picture, p.47.

3.^Eadweard Muybridge cited in James Sheldon, Eadweard Muybridge: Motion Studies, The Voyager Company, 1990.

4.^From documents in the files of the Film Department, The Museum of Modern Art. The documents identify the TV outlet as WGY, but that was the G.E. radio station that had commenced broadcasts in 1922.

5.^Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_Martini)
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