David Wilkinson’s The First Film fits snuggly into an avenue of programming Dallas VideoFest often champions, which is the inward exploration of film itself, either through a certain filmmaker or a unique tangent of its long history. I’d dare say this film probably extends back into cinematic history as far as one possibly can.
As an actor, writer and producer since the early 1970s, Wilkinson has struggled to gain acceptance of his idea that an early technological pioneer named Louis LePrince is the man responsible for the very first film images taken in the British town of Leeds. Not Paris. Not New York. But Leeds.
Fortunately for him, very small snippets of three LePrince moving pictures still exist. One of them is of a busy street in the center of Leeds’ square. The second documents an employee of LePrince as he slowly skulks around a concrete building corner. And the third (and most impressive) is a seemingly carefree parade of bodies (namely his family) as they pose and have fun on the lawn.
From these seconds of almost deteriorated film, Wilkinson spins a documentary that borders on the conspiratorial. He examines the war of technology being waged around the world, identifying at least 11 other figures who could also be called the fathers of cinema. He visits museums where original cameras belonging to LePrince are housed, giving the viewer a clinic on how they work. He chases down great-great relatives of the man in Memphis and rummages through old letters for clues. He even interviews an attorney to explain how patents are generated.
And did I mention that all of this becomes clouded by the fact that, not long after completing these indelible images in late 1888, LePrince boarded a train and disappeared, never to be seen again? It’s enough to make your head spin, or at least heavily induce the myth that Edison really was a shred businessman with tentacles that could dissect his competition across the ocean.
And Wilkinson does just enough head-spinning and myth-making as he proceeds down various rabbit holes, piecing together tiny strands of long-lost information and inferring what he can from them. And while that can be interesting at times, it also creates a sense of lethargy. Because he follows so many possibilities, The First Film loses its energy in the middle. It’s scholarly, but rigid. It’s determined, then scattershot, especially in the inclusion of certain interviews. It presents too much information, and then not enough. It’s clear Wilkinson is passionate about his life’s project, but it could have used a more incisive thoroughfare to the heart of its subject.
All of this aside, there are piercing moments of cinema history that deserve to be discussed. The full truth of LePrince’s hand in the formation of movies may never be reckoned, but Wilkinson is doing the noble thing by asking questions.
Whether it’s their choice of subject matter or the expansive and chameleon-like landscape of the country, America often looks different when confronted by European filmmakers. Think of the American films of Wim Wenders (especially Paris, Texas) or Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, one of the best films of the 60s for how it elevated the usual California backdrop into a golden playground of vistas for its main characters.
Well, Texas looks downright otherworldly in Steve Balestreri and Maxime Lachaud’s Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts, a free-floating exploration of both dilapidated drive-in theaters and the Texas noise-music scene. An odd combination, yes, but one that works.
We’re first introduced to Mother Fakir, an artist in the Austin area whose voice-over lends a poetic tinge to the film. He talks about his art and the pain that he’s able to block out on stage while performing acts of body horror, which will later get its full due, alongside his droning, pulsating music. Also observed is the band Attic Ted, known for the painted, over sized masks they wear while performing … and apparently while grocery shopping as well.
Interspersed between these bands and their creative-filled days, Balestreri and Lachaud’s film becomes a lament for the weed-infested parcels of land once known to house bustling drive-in movie theaters. Sometimes, the bands take over the space for a concert. Most times they lay dormant and forgotten. There’s no grand statement on how these two tangents of the film intersect. Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts doesn’t seem overly interested in making anything other than a document of a select few people and their environment. This is especially true in the staged tableaux of people in Attic Ted masks standing motionless against a hectic backdrop, most often I-35 or a Wal-Mart parking lot. Hints of a Harmony Korine vibe infest the film, but rest assured, Texas Trip is its own unique beast.
As their debut film, Balestreri and Lachaud have a keen eye for landscapes. They way they capture a seemingly winter Texas sky or the care in which they situate their camera to observe the ruins of once-loved cinema hot spots display an understanding (and even reverence) of time and place. They also seem to have a deep affection for the types of films that used to play here. Lachaud has written a book called Redneck Movies (available only in French) and Texas Trip deploys horror movie clips at just the right time, reminding us of the fringe culture being observed here and how these musicians spin their own horror shows. It’s almost as if Lachaud has made his own redneck movie finally. And seen at an actual drive-in at DocuFest is the most perfect homage imaginable.
Crisp black and white images that capture moments from the past are my bag. I follow several Twitter accounts devoted to images of Texas history. They’re never less than jaw-dropping, freezing people, faces and places that stir the imagination and challenge our understanding of the non-modern world.
Mark Birnbaum’s Proof takes such images as its starting point. His subject, Fort Worth’s own Byrd Williams IV, has taken it upon himself to excavate and preserve three generations worth of his family’s photographic history. The film is also an exploration of Byrd himself, reconciling some violent moments in his family’s past as well as the conflicting thoughts that race through his mind as we all deal with an ongoing pandemic and how art reflects those times.
Following a fairly routine documentary set-up, Proof is only as good as its subject. Fortunately, in Williams IV and his restless sense of archival research, the film has a good anchor.