The Big Swallow Was Early Film’s Greatest Surreal Success
Note: This is the fifteenth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1901 film, THE BIG SWALLOW, directed by James Williamson.
James Williamson made three of the most important films of 1901. FIRE! was a massive step forward in editing; it established a chronological narrative through multiple shots with continuity. It wasn’t stage bound, like so many of its contemporaries. STOP THIEF! was an iteration upon this idea, but stepped it up to action movie levels, rendering it what many consider the first chase film. And THE BIG SWALLOW (also known as A PHOTOGRAPHIC CONTORTION) was a tremendously creative and bizarre demonstration of the extreme close-up.
While FIRE! and STOP THIEF! are impressive in context, and represent incredibly significant and necessary shifts in filmmaking techniques, their step away from the popular trick film genre of the time into realism territory didn’t quite topple the over the top nature of Georges Méliès, Walter R. Booth and, somehow, THE BIG SWALLOW, from Williamson himself.
Williamson was an unofficial member of the “Brighton School” of filmmaking, as unofficial as the rest of its participants. The retroactive term refers to the group of filmmakers, inventors, producers, and distributors operating in the Brighton area during the nascent period of the British film industry. Williamson, a chemist and druggist by trade, picked up photography as a hobby, and eventually began selling film and related chemicals and materials as a part of his business. During the late 1880s, and into the 1890s, this brought him into contact with William Friese-Greene, a film pioneer whose work only barely postdates Louis Le Prince’s, and George Albert Smith, a director and tinkerer who would go on to shape film alongside, yet separately from, Williamson.
Smith, in particular, probably had a profound influence on Williamson; Smith had seen the London Lumière show, and was paying attention to Robert Paul’s ascendancy in the craft in real time. As a hypnotist, magic lantern operator, and general showman, Smith’s friendship with Méliès, which resulted in Smith’s patented double exposure effects in THE HAUNTED CASTLE (1897), couldn’t have hurt his inspiration and influence, and vice versa. The point is, there was a perfect storm of events, influences, films, and people moving in and around the Brighton sphere. Williamson and Smith, neighbors, would both, together and separately, work with local engineer Alfred Darling to develop their own camera technology and film businesses.
Smith’s body of work in the late 1890s and early 1900s represented advances in film editing and experimented with the concept of close ups, an interesting parallel to Williamson’s innovations, following just a year or two later. Smith would end up being stymied by legal issues a number of times in his career, even after developing the incredibly ahead of its time coloring process, Kinemacolor, by 1906. In fact, it was technically the first successful film coloring process.
Williamson, on the other hand, left the industry philosophically, disliking the industrial boom movies were experiencing in the early 1910s. Paul left for similar reasons at around the same time, and Williamson’s later career was also an interesting foray into wartime instruments. He got back into the still photography business, and his cameras and technology were widely used in World War I and, after his death in 1933, in World War II.
But by 1901, Williamson had been experimenting with moving pictures in some form for five years; his first significant film, THE CLOWN BARBER, was made in 1898, and his work in the 1890s fit fairly neatly into the trick film genre. But, as if with the turn of century, his style turned decidedly more inspired and technically sharp. His 1900 film, ATTACK ON A CHINA MISSION, foreshadowed the concepts exhibited in the “Holy Trinity” of 1901, and along with FIRE! and STOP THIEF!, felt like a total 180 from the style of filmmaking he started off copying, at least as much as early film technology allowed. But THE BIG SWALLOW returned to that tradition, albeit in such a short amount of time it could be argued that the other films might have just been deviations that proved so successful and formative.
THE BIG SWALLOW is simple in premise, and execution for that matter. But Williamson’s decision to move the camera closer to the action, or in this case, the character’s (played by Sam Dalton) decision to bring the action to the camera, was a delightfully simple novelty that shaped the potential of emotional impact for all films to come.
The approximately minute long film, as you might expect, moves very quickly. A man gets angry at a cameraman, approaches the camera, and swallows it. We, as the audience, can see nothing but the blackness of the closed mouth, but then a brief glimpse of the cowering cameraman and the instrument of his doom establishes an even more meta premise. The film closes with the man, seemingly content, chewing the remains of what was sure to have been a normal sized man and camera.
It’s all very surreal, in the truest sense of the word. No real part of the film is really supposed to make sense, except perhaps the man’s anger at being filmed, presumably without his permission. You’re not supposed to wonder how a man could have swallowed a whole man and his camera. You’re not supposed to wonder how our viewpoint seemed to be the camera, but we’re now able to see the man and his camera and the angry man’s final satisfied reaction. Considering Williamson’s other meticulous, realistic films, THE BIG SWALLOW feels like a tremendous breath of fresh air. Even considering other trick films, it feels novel; rather than relying on elaborate staging, complicated camera techniques, or any other “trimmings,” THE BIG SWALLOW just presents its strangeness in an otherwise ordinary setting. It makes it all the more bizarre.
More so than the weird events of the film or the angry man’s motivations for swallowing a whole man and his camera, the fidelity of the visuals of THE BIG SWALLOW stick with me. When Dalton approaches the camera, the pores on his face, his stubble, come into detailed view, and the way his lips frame his seemingly massive mouth is unsettling. The brief darkness we get upon the camera being swallowed is so visually quiet, by comparison, and is a striking shot to be subjected to after the visual overload of a man’s face looming into view. THE BIG SWALLOW is one of the most intimate films made by 1901, solely because of how close we literally get to the film’s actor, and how truly dark the “belly of the whale” feels, both literally and metaphorically.
THE BIG SWALLOW is a fascinating film. There are three hour films with less personality, nuance, and importance to be gleaned; THE BIG SWALLOW accomplished so much in just over one minute. It could be argued the sparse, yet growing, art form of film allowed things like this to be noticed at all, and if made today, many early films would not be notable at all. Perhaps, but the fact remains that THE BIG SWALLOW was made 116 years ago, not today. Its surreal forethought and place in the natural progression of film technique is historically significant, and maybe because of that or in spite of it, it’s entertaining to watch even today. THE BIG SWALLOW, ultimately, made me feel amused yet uneasy, an ironically shining early example of dark comedy in film. Its metaphysical nature, and its breaking of the fourth wall, is as amusing as it is investing, which is why its brilliance had to be included among my favorites of 1901.
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