Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)

Documentary filmmaker Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself), began this nonfiction feature as his UCLA thesis project and finished it a decade later; it was rejected by the Los Angeles PBS station that helped finance the project, but later had a brief theatrical release before mostly vanishing from circulation until its 2013 restoration and 2015 inclusion on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Andersen focuses on English-born Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), whose experiments in the creation and projection of sequential photographs was the predecessor of motion picture projection. Initially working with horses as his models, Muybridge began involving other animals – including elephants and parrots – before engaging men, women and children to appear in his photographic experiments. Muybridge’s zoopraxoscope, a predecessor of the film projector, simulated subject movement in very brief presentations. However, the development of cinematic technology made Muybridge’s work obsolete.

To his credit, Andersen presents a wealth of little-known Muybridge works – including some rather bold examples of full-frontal nudity (including an appearance by a clothing-free Muybridge wildly swinging a mining pick) that must have been a shock to late 19th century viewers. And the photographic sequence of a morbidly obese nude woman trying and barely succeeding to lift herself from the ground is something that will be impossible to forget (no matter how hard one tries).

Sadly, this film is far from perfect. Andersen pays far too much attention to Muybridge’s professional accomplishments and less to his tumultuous personal life, especially his fatal shooting of his wife’s lover and the courtroom acquittal on the grounds of justifiable homicide. One big problem in this film is Dean Stockwell’s droning narration, which makes the hour-long offering seem much, much longer.

Still, this interesting presentation deserves attention, as it offers a consideration on the pioneering efforts to create a cinematic environment.