Sunday, January 12, 2020

William Dickson | The Dickson Experimental Sound Film


dancing princes
by Douglas Messerli

William Kennedy Dickson (director) The Dickson Experimental Sound Film / 1894 or 1895

The first US sound-film by William Dickson, with music by Robert Planquette, filmed at Thomas A. Edison studios “Black Maria” in 1894 or 1895, was also one of the earliest representations of possible gay interactions recorded on film.
      Certainly, that is what Victor Russo his The Celluloid Closet argued, describing the 17 second as actually being titled The Gay Brothers. Russo’s suggestion of the short’s title is highly unlikely since “gay” was not a word applied to homosexuals at that time. Moreover, it was extremely common during that period—far less sexually determinate than our own times—for men, particularly at sea (Planquette’s 1877 composition was titled “Song of the Cabin Boy”) or in the all-male military to regularly dance together in what were described as “stag dances,” a course in which was taught during that period at West Point.
      Yet, one cannot but be intrigued by the Kinetophone film, restored from a rediscovered cylinder at the Edison Laboratories, by the handsome, well-dressed gentlemen in this work dancing to Planquett’s barcarolle.

     Even if these men were not at all romantically-involved Edison-employees chosen at random from their all-male environment, this was not a casual situation. With the director himself playing the violin, the dancing males are well-dressed and coiffed, and they do indeed look, as Russo suggests, somewhat alike. They might as well be brothers.
     And they certainly do know how to dance, holding one another quite closely while they smile in apparent pleasure, and at a least in one moment, leaning into each other’s crotches. Clearly, they are not shy of the terpsichorean pleasures they are attempting to present to a larger audience. They truly seem to be enjoying the event.
    Again, this may simply be a matter of how images of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals changed over the decades following the late nineteenth century. What was seen as simply a “gay” (in the alternative meaning of that word) delight was soon turned into something darker and dangerous in film, literature, and the public consciousness.
     It is still fascinating, nonetheless, that the very first cinematic captures of sound image should feature two men, when Dickson and others might have easily reached out for a local woman to come join in the dance.
     This is not a film that one needs, as Russo did, to read “into” or “under.” It represents, quite obviously two men dancing, with no narrative implications of romance. Yet, it is an astonishingly significant 17 minutes, as important, I suggest, as Leslie Fiedler argues for Huckleberry Finn, as Jim’s call to Huck to come back to the raft: “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”
      Women are shown dancing together throughout our film heritage, particularly when men were away at war, but far beyond that as they learn to become the young ladies they hope to become. But men, even if they participated daily in such events, were not generally captured on film. Like Thomas Eakins’ homoerotic photographic clips and paintings of the same period, these two men, in Dickson’s very short cylinder-film, tell us something that the general public soon after might not quite want to accept.  
      These dancing princes record their enjoyment that it would take decades to regain.

Los Angeles, January 12, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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