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Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925

Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925 by Luke McKernan (University of Exeter Press, 2013),  256 pages, ISBN: 978-0859898829 (hardback) £60

Oliver_GayckenAbout the reviewer: Oliver Gaycken is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Maryland. He received his BA in English from Princeton University and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. His teaching interests include silent-era cinema history, the history of popular science, and the links between scientific and experimental cinema. He has published on the discovery of the ophthalmoscope, the flourishing of the popular science film in France at the turn of the 1910s, the figure of the supercriminal in Louis Feuillade’s serial films, and the surrealist fascination with popular scientific images. He is currently writing about the figure of the detective/scientist in the films of Billy Wilder and conducting research into the American popular science film before 1920. His current book project is entitled Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science and should be out from Oxford UP in early 2015.

The pioneers of early cinema are, for the most part, a well-documented bunch. Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, Thomas Edison, and the Lumière brothers, to name the most prominent members of this fraternity, all have numerous volumes consecrated to their life and work. Given the century plus since the emergence of cinema, the chances that a major figure from this period would escape careful scrutiny might seem as slim as the chances that significant early films could still be discovered. But long odds do still occasionally pay off, as, for instance, the rediscovery of the Mitchell and Kenyon collection demonstrates. And with the publication of Luke McKernan’s meticulously researched and elegantly written account of Charles Urban, we see that there are still significant individuals from this period who have not been given their due, hidden, as it were, in plain sight, obscured by certain tendencies in cinema history.

One such tendency is the view that the history of cinema is first and foremost the history of the fiction film. Urban, however, pursued a lifelong goal of providing, in his words, ‘something more than a mere picture show.’ As McKernan details, the ‘something more’ was tied to nonfiction film. The ‘mere picture show’ that Urban sought to outdo was populated predominately by fiction films that constituted the mainstay of the film programme beginning in the middle of the 1900s. Interspersed in these film programmes were, of course, nonfiction films, but for the most part, these travelogues, actualities, or popular-science films played a supplemental role, a change of pace interspersed between breathless melodramas and a breakneck comedies. Urban’s defining contribution to cinema history is, as McKernan demonstrates, his unstinting commitment to non-fiction filmmaking, elevating it to the primary, and even sole, component of the motion-picture show. In an era, beginning around 1903, when the film industry generally was moving away from non-fiction films, Urban had a different agenda.

Another reason for Urban’s current obscurity is the hegemony of John Grierson’s influential branding of the concept of documentary. Grierson’ intervention led to a canonization of a ‘documentary tradition’ that began in the mid-1920s, just as Urban’s career was coming to an end. This redefinition of what constituted a documentary relegated the first two decades of nonfiction cinema to the scrapheap of ‘uninterpreted fact,’ in the words of an early documentary program held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. But McKernan’s book amply demonstrates that Urban’s films were significant not merely because they presented a different vision of what cinema could be but also because a great many of them were noteworthy from an aesthetic perspective. (And in this context is bears mentioning that McKernan also maintains an extensive, excellent website devoted to Urban, one page of which is a commented list of ‘twenty famous [Urban] films’: www.charlesurban.com/) A central virtue of the book, then, is not only its recovery of a key, but largely forgotten, figure from the era of silent cinema but also enlarging the historical boundaries of what should count as a documentary tradition.

… meticulously researched and elegantly written

As McKernan’s account also demonstrates, Urban’s vision of what the cinema should be went beyond extending cinema into the areas of ‘science, education, and matters of state,’ as the title of a pamphlet/manifesto that Urban wrote in 1907 put it. Urban pursued other ideas about how cinema could be different, the most prominent of which was technological – the colour system Kinemacolor. And Urban also was an early adopter of film archiving, as his massive collection and recycling of his own footage in the final stage of his career attests.

In sum, McKernan’s book is equal to the task of providing a vivid account of his larger-than-life figure, fluidly recounting the critical phases of Urban’s career, and moving capably across modes, from biography to film analysis to the sometimes recondite histories of technology that Urban’s career traversed. Charles Urban succeeds admirably in its aim, as stated in the introduction, ‘to demonstrate that [Urban’s] legacy is less chimerical than might first appear.’ Indeed, in McKernan’s hands, an exciting, capacious new chapter of early-cinema history appears, expanding and enriching our sense of the capabilities of cinema.

Oliver Gaycken

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