Early Morning, Astoria Park
A Cinepoem for the STSC Symposium: Beginnings
In the early part of the 20th century, when motion picture cameras were still new, when sound could only be synced off of wax cylinders, and when color was only painted on the emulsion or tinted during chemical processing, filmmakers hadn’t fully developed the visual and editing language of narrative cinema. From the years of roughly 18951 through the 1920s, artists, playwrights, and engineers were rapidly adapting and inventing uncountable variations of shooting, editing, and meaning-making techniques with this brand new tool. In fact, pretty much any technique, narrative device, or stylization you can think of in modern day cinema was already tried, tweaked, developed, remixed, and built upon before The Jazz Singer.2
The greater arc of cinema’s history bent towards attracting audiences, and audiences quickly tired of actualities and staged showcases of boxers, dancers, and magicians. So early filmmakers set their mind to figuring out how to tell a story to keep people watching, and narrative cinema blossomed out of the continuity edits and cinematic language that derived from their experiments.
But while they were experimenting, many artists also found non-narrative approaches they found compelling. Motion picture photography was developing at the same time abstract and conceptual artists were criss-crossing Europe and the Americas, which makes sense when you consider how photography itself had a hand in freeing up the range of conceptual and representative techniques of painters, print-makers, and other artists. Cinema was easily adoptable by Dadaists, Surrealists, Cubists, Expressionists, collagists, sculptors, and anyone else interested in pairing images and optical tricks for a wide range of meanings and effects. In fact, some groups considered motion pictures to be akin to ‘moving wallpaper’ and basically were the first VJs and projection artists at similar club venues of the time.
Out of this era came the term “cinepoem,” a montage of rhythmic motion images that applied the techniques of poetry to the burgeoning language of film. So rhymes can be graphic matches, meter could be rhythmic cutting, symbolism, metanym, metaphor, and other figurative techniques could be employed freely.