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Essential Films
Chapter 8

Buy this film
(Unseen Cinema: Picturing a Metropolis
, DVD)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre
Frederick S Armitage
American Mutoscope & Biograph / USA / 1901

Cinematography by: Frederick S Armitage


Ion Martea
posted 21 August 2006

Thomas Edison's reputation for taking credit for other people's inventions did not serve him well in the motion picture business. His leading asset, William KL Dickson, was to abandon him by 1895, establishing with Herman Casler, Henry Marvin and Elias Koopman the first film company in the USA that produced works for cinema distribution, rather than for kinetoscopic entertainment. The hugely successful American Mutoscope & Biograph Company was to grow into the most powerful institution in early silent film history, but its status should not be measured by its size, but by the quality of its productions.

Success did not happen at once though. One fact that is often forgotten about early cinema is how competitive the market was at the time. An untrained public, without any expectations of what it wanted to see at the nickelodeons, was a fragile factor in the equation. Skilled camera operators and technicians were considered as indispensable as great ideas. But sometimes great ideas materialised into memorable examples of modern art.

In April 1901, Frederick S Armitage, Biograph's leading cameraman at the time, exhibited the results of an ambitious project which had taken more than a month to complete (unusually long for the period). Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre was a painstaking labour of love, but also ingenuity. Developments in editing allowed Armitage to exploit stop-action effects in such a way as to give the impression of speeding up time.

The Star Theatre opened as Wallack's Theatre in 1861 on the corner of Broadway and 13th Street in New York, and by the end of the 19th century, it had been home to many outstanding theatre productions. In 1901, the building was set for demolition. Armitage must have been aware of the famous Démolition d'un mur [Demolition of a Wall] (Louis Lumière/France/1896), in which the demolition is shown in reverse. However, municipal plans for the Star Theatre offered more interesting challenges for a filmmaker.

Armitage shot his film for over 30 days, taking exposures every four minutes, eight hours a day. The black and white cinematography applied to an extreme long shot meant variations in weather and natural lighting had a minimal effect on the final work. The entire demolition process is shown in less than a minute. The utter sense of destruction is enhanced by two establishing shots lasting nearly 15 seconds. The opening shot shows the beautiful building, towering with elegance in the centre of Broadway life, and establishing a sense of real time. Armitage's trick is to start the stop-action edit late enough that it seems to be on the same timescale, only to end with another 15 second continuous shot of a large empty pavement - a view haunted by feelings of relaxation and emptiness.

For present day audiences, Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre may not seem particularly special. The film's technological impact in establishing linear footage visual effects is of significance when discussing post-production developments. Arguably, until the appearance of digital media, the industry was in a state of stagnation, with little fundamental change in the way the film image was being treated. Nevertheless, that may not be enough to excite the non-specialist spectator.

However, it is rather unfair to judge Armitage's film purely in historical terms. Film, if it is to be treated as an art form, cannot simply rely on craftsmanship or on the quality of the technology employed in various stages of production. It requires narrative of some kind, irrespective whether this is director-driven (a result of conscious reasoning), or content-driven (in which the narrative metaphor emerges independently of the process of production). A work of art usually contains a combination of the two, which opens up the debate on interpretation, and therefore the role of the critic.

In spite of the fact that Armitage was one of the leading players in Biograph, there is a rather meagre amount of information regarding his work and life. Yet, watching Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, his intentions are rather apparent. Beyond the visual pleasure, he seems to make an interesting claim about our relationship with the world we are living in. The destruction of the Star Theatre can be interpreted as an aspect of progress, but also as something to be lamented. Arguably, Armitage was searching for the latter.

The film acts as a stunning requiem to art and its destruction. The force with which the Star Theatre is brought down, expressed through the speed of the edited sequence, is shocking, particularly as the building has aesthetic qualities of its own (established in the opening shot). The interlude, showing the empty plot, could be viewed as celebratory only if Armitage had decided to finish the film at that point. Armitage's brusque re-employment of Lumière's technique to reverse the footage, allowing the Star Theatre to re-appear as a phoenix out of the ashes, is spellbinding in the context. This is where the feeling of mourning is introduced, paradoxically reminding the audience of the irreversibility of the destruction.

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre would have been a chore if the only aim was to see the destruction. As it stands, the film is stimulating because it forces us to engage with issues that hide within the film-image, yet are not physically depicted by it. Entertainment is born at this point, as we are confronted with a physical manifestation that defies our expectation. Thought and reflection are thus required for a proper assessment.

The issue of art and non-art (and not low vs. high art) thus comes down to whether there is any intentionality (ie a narrative metaphor that drives the film image). The present day acceptance of Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre as a work of art is based not on its technological aspect (which may appear rudimentary and dull), but its narrative. In a good print, Armitage's film can make the sceptic ponder its essence. Ignoring the possibility of narrative, or meta-linguistic discourse in the film, is like throwing the phoenix's ashes down the drain.

It is to Biograph's credit, specifically Armitage in this case, that it produced films that make us think twice on whether moving pictures are aimed only at base entertainment. Its success was ultimately down to the fact that its works were mainly aimed at challenging, and therefore, respecting its audience, irrespective whether the latter had a good enough time at the pictures. (Griffith's later works with the company more than exemplified this relationship with the spectator.) The ones who did enjoy the experience ended up returning. The ones that didn't have probably never understood the magic of the medium.


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