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Essential Films
Chapter 3

Buy this film
(More Treasures from American Film Archives
1894-1931, DVD)

Dickson Experimental Sound Film
William KL Dickson
Edison Manufacturing Company / USA / 1894

Starring: William KL Dickson
Cinematography by: William Heise
Produced by: Rick Schmidlin (2001 restoration)
Editing by: Walter Murch (2003 release)


Ion Martea
posted 19 May 2006

A decade ago, a documentary adaptation of Vito Russo's book study of screen homosexuality, The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman/USA-UK-France-Germany/1995), made an unknown film from Edison's archive famous. It featured three men: one playing the violin, two dancing with each other to the sound of music.

It was generally considered the earliest representation of a gay couple in cinema history. The fact that the film was never released commercially by its makers did nothing but strengthen the argument, since it was well known that Hollywood had discriminated against gay people for most of the 20th century.

However, in 2003, Dickson Experimental Sound Film has finally been released to the larger public, and the scene acquired a different importance for the medium. The dancers were still there, and so was the instrumentalist. The only thing that was added was the sound of the violin, the original recording of William KL Dickson performing an excerpt from Jean-Robert Planquette's 'The Chimes of Normandy'. From then on, the film's stature as the first sound film more than eclipsed its homosexual aspect.

In the poetic vision of cinema, History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kinetophonograph by William KL Dickson and Antonia Dickson, the British inventor commented: 'The actors will enter singly and in groups, in the graceful interweaving of social life, the swirl of the dance or the changeful kaleidoscope of popular tumult. The tones will be instinct with melody, pathos, mirth, command, every subtle intonation which goes to make up the sum of vocalism; […] all [the] effects of sight and sound will be embraced in the kinetoscopic drama, and yet of that living, breathing, moving throng, not one will be encased in a material frame. A company of ghosts, playing to spectral music'.

Beyond the pompous jargon, it becomes apparent that the desire to capture moments of life as they happen so they could be experienced by future generations was conceived not only at the level of images, but also sound. Dickson wanted the synchronisation of picture and sound to be achieved immediately, and not through a post-production process in the editing room, the way silent film developed. For him, music was important as part of the reality driving the story, and not merely as a background noise supporting the primary image. Cinema was envisaged not merely as a medium, but as an art capable of popularising other arts through personal charm and metaphor. That is why Dickson's writings concentrate on live recordings of operas or concerts, in which the sublimity of symphonic compositions transcends the ordinariness of the image.

The complexity of classical music was the main drive for the idea of live recordings, as Dickson could not accept a random juxtaposition of image (in this case, a concert performance) with the sound that would roughly fit it. Thus, he devised the kinetophonograph, which combined film-image with rubber ear tubes that helped to obtain the synchronised sound. However, the mechanical belt used in the process was unable to sustain the machinery for long periods of time, and even in those brief moments, there was only a partial synchronisation. Hence, he never filmed the grand spectacles he dreamt of, but limited himself to a solo.

One late evening of 1894, after a long shift trying to assemble all the pieces together, Dickson got a violin and asked two of his assistants to dance in tune with the music. If everything had worked perfectly, there he had two key ingredients needed for his project: the movement of the bow and the moving steps of the dancers - both proving the authenticity of the sound recording synchronised with the film image.

The experiment failed though, and the rudimentary soundtrack was thrown away, to be considered lost until the 2001 restoration by Rick Schmidlin and Walter Murch. The production company at the time saw little commercial use for a random dance sequence performed by some unknown actors; (Dickson was also given little public recognition by Edison, who registered most of the inventions under his own name). Dickson Experimental Sound Film ended up hibernating in piles of dust, and might have as well been burned, as far as the makers were concerned.

Once the Edison archive entered pubic domain, the film was an odd inclusion in the pile. There was no soundtrack, yet the title suggested a sound film. There were no stars, yet the players seemed as if they were constructing a narrative with substance through their solemnity. The lack of information on its history gave critics a chance to develop a story. Yet, it emerged that there was only one thing that appeared of interest - the strange performance of two men waltzing, a rather ambitiously modern vision coming from the puritanical late 19th century USA.

Coining the term 'sissy' as the only form in which homosexuality was portrayed in Hollywood cinema, Vito Russo argued that 'men of action and strength were the embodiment of [American] culture, and a vast mythology was created to keep the dream in constant repair'. 'The Gay Brothers' (his baptism for Dickson Experimental Sound Film) was a key player in the construction of the myth, as it both showed the close ties between film and homosexuality, but also allowed for the ridicule of gay characters on screen. Unfortunately, Russo's judgement directed the discourse in the wrong direction. Even his opponents take for granted that the film is inherently homosexual. In Straight, Wheeler Winston Dixon argues that the actors are heterosexual, reasoning that society at the time had a more relaxed attitude to seeing two men dancing cheek to cheek, if not for aesthetic reasons, than at least for entertainment. Dixon does nothing but reinforce the idea that homosexuality can be used on screen primarily for the purposes of ridicule, the very thing Russo was trying to fight against in his book.

The problem posed by Dickson's film is the fact that the two men exert both a straight machismo (yet void of vaudeville), and a relaxed matter-of-fact approach to their dance (yet maintaining a certain sense of detachment from one another). In developing an argument regarding their sexuality, we are almost forced to argue that they are straight men who pretend to be gay, or gay men who pretend to be straight. The current discourse does not seem to allow any middle ground, apart from the fact that in the larger context of cinema history, their 'homosexuality' is more advantageous in building further arguments on sexual discrimination on screen.

The irony might be in that the dancers' sexuality is irrelevant to the film itself, as it only establishes a fact that the film shows two characters who happen to be gay or straight, depending on what the critical viewer decides to settle on. Despite providing an interesting topic for debate, a sexual discourse is nothing but a critical construction resulted from a lack of knowledge of the film's history. It is quite plausible to assume that Dickson wanted to test the effectiveness of his new kinetophonograph one evening, without attracting any media attention to it. He called in two of his assistants and asked them to improvise a dance, and akin to a situation in a drama workshop, the two assistants just acted the scene convincingly. Whether they made a point for or against homosexuality, then it is reasonable to assume that it was not a conscious decision. The manner in which they carry the dance is in itself testament to this lack of conscious direction, present in such works as Buffalo Dance (William KL Dickson/USA/1894) or Dancing Niggers (C Goodwin Norton/UK/1899).

Ultimately, Dickson wanted to record a sound film, and devised a situation to show off the effectiveness of his apparatus. As the synchronisation failed, he had little use for the film, not because it showed gay characters, but because Dickson Experimental Sound Film lacked sound.

In retrospect, however, it is unarguable that Dickson has made one of the most important films in the history of the craft. His vision of making sound films that run in sync with action is key to our appreciation of a quality film, as taking us convincingly into a world that functions on the surface like ours. The debates that emerged on its content, however, proved that lazy criticism can sometimes establish theories that are taken seriously despite their lack of merit.


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