Miss Jerry (1894)
The adventures of a female reporter in the 1890s.
Country United States
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Ion Martea | Culture Wars - Essential Films | www.culturewars.org.uk | English
formative years of cinema, the difficulty of achieving a successful
sequence of moving images meant the medium was used mainly for entertainment
on a visceral level. The simple novelty of achieving a realistic reproduction
of the external environment was sufficient to bring attention to film.
Despite the artistic ambitions of the key players, technological limitations
meant that storytelling was barely possible, and no wonder most of the
directors at the time saw their new medium as incapable of achieving
the type of public engagement prose or theatre did. There was one exception,
however - Alexander Black.
was not a filmmaker in the traditional sense. A journalist, but also
an exquisite photographer, Black wanted to construct a relationship
between image and narrative, developing in consequence the concept of
a 'picture play'. Miss Jerry, a story about a young female journalist,
was his first work, arguably the first art film, and unquestionably
the first blockbuster in the history of moving images.
in Fiction (1985), Black explained his intentions: 'Primarily
my purpose was to illustrate art with life… I discovered several
instances in which photographs from life were used to illustrate fiction,
and many other instances in which fiction evidently has been adjusted
to photographs from life… After outlining a combination of fiction
and photography, each devised with a regard to the demands and limitations
of the other, it began to be quite clear that the pictures must do more
than illustrate… [They] must be progressive, that the effect of
reality may arise not from the suspended action of isolated pictures,
but from the blending of many… In "Miss Jerry" my purpose
has been to test experimentally, in a quiet story, certain possibilities
of illusion, with this aim always before me, that the illusion should
not, because it need not and could not safely, be that of photographs
from an acted play, nor of artistic illustration, but the illusion of
Black is laying the basis of film language, in which the image becomes
the primary driving element of narrative. However, the accent is not
on image continuity, but rather on causation: instead of flowing together
seamlessly, one image leads logically to another. The difference between
this and a traditional illustrated story is that the story is now already
present in the pictures; the narrator is not forcing an external narrative
on his characters. It is essentially this fictional reconstruction of
a world, (which does not necessarily resemble physically the external
world, but is governed by the causational pattern defining it), that
allows Black to present a series of discrete photographs, yet still
achieve a coherent, complete image.
was and still is largely ignored in film history, often because of indifference
on the behalf of the critics. Considering the success of La
jetée [The Pier] (Chris Marker/France/1962),
primarily based on its use of a similar technique, the 'Film Realism
vs. Visual Continuity' debate seems remarkably delayed. Admittedly,
Black had a technical impediment in realising his project, but the basic
idea and his take on the Arrow
Paradox in relationship to film is still key to the study
of the medium. Film is then coined not as a succession of film images
(as according to Metz),
but as a juxtaposition of photographic images. Ultimately, his argument
relies heavily on the audience's psychological engagement with the material,
and therefore he could have only succeeded with a convincing plot.
Holbrook (Blanche Bayliss), raised in the industrial mining community
of Colorado, is Black's free spirited heroine. The author paints his
character as an independent woman willing to defy stereotypes, wishing
to succeed on her own, and unwilling to put herself under a man's thumb.
She is an American Elizabeth Bennet, searching for her own man, in spite
of economic or parental pressures. Black manages to stay on Austen's
level throughout, though lacking the wit, and inheriting the same failings
in opposing stereotypes: the girl still submits to young Hamilton (William
Courtenay), accepting the success of his career over her own, all for
the sake and beauty of love.
on a white screen', with slides changing at a rate of three-four per
minute, and originally narrated by Alexander Black himself, is regarding
by Dick Johnson in The First Picture Show (1979) (one of the
rare critical studies on the film) as a 'ninety-minute screen drama'.
The issue is that beyond the technical presentation, Miss Jerry
resembles the development of art film more than most short films of
were not taken seriously as an art form worthy of reviews until 1915.
Miss Jerry, on the other hand, enjoyed a rather wide critical
success as early as 1894, and a warm audience reception on its presentations
during 1894-1907. The construction of a visual narrative is unquestionably
its main strength, even if the plot and the writing style are flawed
in many areas. But, most importantly, Black established so many textbook
features of film - from the use of celebrated actors, the establishment
of two key themes in American cinema ('the good-girl' through Miss Jerry
and 'the moral superiority of the sons' through Hamilton), to the introduction
of visual images theatres - that he can be easily considered the father
of American cinema.
always dangerous to justify the quality of a work retrospectively, as
one can easily confuse importance with substance. In his time, Alexander
Black became a niche celebrity, and might have influenced a number of
directors, although the latter preferred to develop certain ideas in
film form, rather than continuing with the photoplay format. Unquestionably,
Black would have done the same, if his journalistic and photographic
commitments had not been so close to his heart. However, dismissing
his format for visual narrative as foreign to cinema would unarguably
be the wrong route for a productive assessment of the medium.
the quality of the work in its own right, the best solution is to analyse
it from its basic premises. Black wanted to create the 'illusion of
reality' through 'a quiet story', and not vice-versa. The work therefore
should be interpreted within the Cinematic Realism discourse, rather
than on the Literary Realism discourse. The story is a romantic one,
concerned primarily with the emergence of love. The author has managed
to surpass his challenge, by creating an atmosphere that defies illusion
and it is ultimately real, in his understanding of the causal implications
that lead to the emergence of affection on an individual level. There
is also a subtle understanding of the sociological environment, situating
the picture in a rather unique place in history. 'Miss Jerry's portrayal
of reality is expressed through the fact that it was part of it itself:
the play, as the entire American society, was experiencing a change
from a "closed" to an "open" society (Nisbet,
1970), it was passing through an age of testing and uncertainty…
The photoplay was a living organism on its own right, that happened
to be part of the lives of more than half a million people who had the
opportunity to see it' (Martea, Wrapped Reality, 2003).
all we can do now is imagine it, as the show was never recorded. Black
left us the full collection of photographs and the text he was reading.
But, like so many lost films from the silent era, Miss Jerry
is a treasure never to be seen again.
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