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Essential Films
Chapter 11

Buy this film
(Early Cinema -
Primitives And Pioneers,

Explosion of a Motor Car
Cecil M Hepworth
Hepworth / UK / 1900

Starring: Cecil M Hepworth, Henry Lawley

Ion Martea
posted 22 September 2006

What did audiences in 1900 think of Hepworth's Explosion of a Motor Car? Brits that may not have seen any of Méliès' films were probably impressed by the fluidity and realism of the explosion. Some might have been horrified by the gruesome representation of death. The interesting question to ask however is: did they laugh?

Cecil M Hepworth (1873-1953) is the most obvious precursor to DW Griffith. His work has managed to retain its narrative appeal, which overshadows even Hepworth's contribution to film technique. His improvements in cinematography, most obvious in Rescued by Rover (Lewin Fitzhamon, Cecil M Hepworth/UK/1905), paved the way for the expressive visual flair of continental silent features in the next decade. Nowadays, the miniature detective story, in which Rover shows why the dog is still a man's best friend, is best known for the famous attic lighting, that is sharp in tone irrespective of the time of the day. This is arguably because the plot appears rather contrived to modern audiences, who cannot understand why an old lady, living in poverty, would bother to steal the child of a rather average family. Even if we engage emotionally with the chase, the resolution is slightly obvious from the very beginning, and as a result, the rewards are rather minimal.

Explosion of a Motor Car is an entirely different cookie, with a strong British flavour. With the eye of a documentarist, Hepworth watches a quiet street. People go about their business in a fashionable turn-of-the-century kind-of-way. A driver (Henry Lawley) with his wife is comfortable in a brand new car, which seems to have acquired a smoking habit. It isn't long before the car duly explodes. Up to this point, the film looks like an ordinary contemporary short film meant as an experiment in special effects and editing techniques. So far, so good.

Cecil M Hepworth appears on screen in the role of a police officer witnessing the incident. There is little left of the vehicle. He notes down what he sees. There is no sign of passengers either, so he searches around. Nothing on the pavement, nothing in the air. Or no… One by one, the limbs of the deceased start falling to the ground like a delayed torrential rain. A leg, a torso, another leg, conspicuously no heads. He notes this down, with no apparent horror or disgust. He simply investigates the accident; it's part of his job.

But this is no ordinary policeman. Once there is nothing left to fall, he picks up the limbs one by one, and starts reassembling the bodies, paying careful attention to where everything shout fit. Once the job is done, he notes everything down, and then leaves the dismembered puppets on the ground, decapitated, solitary, together.

It is easy to see that Explosion of a Motor Car does not fit properly within the experimental early film, unless one stretches the term beyond genre narrative. The explosion sequence is reminiscent of The Execution of Mary Stuart (Alfred Clark/USA/1895), but the dominant mood is not one of horror, but comedy. Hepworth, as an actor, manages to create a brilliant sense of nonchalance to the situation, that even the puppet props seem to anthropomorphise in our eyes. We accept the trickery as real, and play the game along with the police officer. We play, although we cannot contain our laughter. In 1900, Hepworth invented the comedy that made Monty Python famous in the 1970s.

Addressing our original question, indisputably the film must have created a similar reaction in its contemporary audience, only the laughter might have been even louder then. Theorists think an extra comic edge would have come from the fact that automobiles at the time were often a nuisance rather than practical. The police officer's reaction almost tends to suggest that the incident was not that uncommon either. To see the comedy purely in the audience's ambivalent relationship to the wonders of the industrialised world would be misguided, though; if that were all, the short would have lost its appeal over time. The real comedy comes in the investigation chapter. What is at stake here is our relationship with death.

Laughter comes when we cannot comprehend the 'dread of death and horror of life', in the words of FS Boas, who coined the term 'dark comedy'. In Explosion of a Motor Car, we are appalled by the policeman's behaviour, but we are fully aware that his job does not necessarily allow him space for compassion. He is almost trying to make the incident a happy one, by reuniting the couple in eternal life, playing chivalrously on the old saying that tragedy ends in death and comedy ends in marriage. It is a grim way of paying respect to the dead, but at least the accent is on respect. He deals with the tragedy in the only way he is capable of in reverence to the victims.

The real tragedy is that he leaves the bodies unattended, going about his business. It's the shock generated by his reaction that brings poignancy to the work. The ordinariness of death is a lamentable joke in the face of human concerns and pleasures. What Hepworth seems to suggest is that we should acknowledge the fact with respect, but ultimately with a smile, slightly echoing the Dacian proverb that one should die at the pinnacle of joy.

Film directors, especially prolific ones, have never hesitated to hail their own attempts at dealing with death through dark comedy as original. Luis Buñuel made a career out of it, and, more recently, Pedro Almodóvar is trying to regenerate his own status in film history. To protest that Shakespeare and Molière did it first, or even Beckett for that matter, is to miss the point. Hepworth's little gag is a more interesting rejoinder for two reasons. The obvious one is that it is a film, and thus it establishes an approach within the medium. The second one is that Explosion of a Motor Car is still unrivalled in its refusal to accentuate any other response but laughter, and therefore it achieves a real rather than a manipulative effect. The key is the unity of the point of view. The long shot allows us to observe, but it doesn't ask us to look. We, the audience, choose to watch what we want, and hence the only manipulation comes from our own curiosity.

It is precisely this approach to film image - overt un-dogmatism, subtle poignancy - that places Hepworth apart from purely technical directors, or stage-blocking specialists. The film auteur is born as he establishes the centre of gravity around the world created within the film, rather than ideas present outside it. This element became even more apparent in the works of the first major auteur, DW Griffith. Credit is due to Hepworth for showing that the recreation of a visionary world is possible.

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