Thursday, October 21, 2010

SEPIA SATURDAY: Shattering Bubbles of Time

Every moment is a bursting bubble of time, gone even as it happens.

This concept has fascinated me -- and Landron -- for a very long time. The Shattering of Time.

Nothing embodies this concept more than "A Trip Down Market Street", perhaps the most important film ever made in and about San Francisco.
I was pleased that 60 Minutes chose to feature it and the recent conclusion that it was not made in 1905 -- as was long assumed -- but in April 1906, likely days before the great earthquake and fire if not the day before. In 12 minutes of real time, we see people, buildings, vehicles and animals, many of which likely perished shortly after the film was made. The only familiar sites are the street itself and the ferry building in the distance that at first looks like a painted stage set and then becomes increasingly real as the camera nears.
It's at the ferry building, in the final minute of the film, that things become truly fascinating and the images are closer, more fleeting and transcendent. The man in the Eureka - California wagon appears for less than a doezen frames, but I find myself wanting to know his story.
The car driving erratically with a group of men in bowler hats equally fascinates me.
As we arrive at the end of Market and seem nearly to crash into the Ferry Building, men gawk and women seem to either sneer or demure. Who is the woman in the cape? The woman on the left seems equally dubious about being captured on camera.

Suddenly, this cheeky fellow on the right races in, seemingly aware that this is a chance to be caught for posterity but not aware of the fate facing him mere days or hours ahead.
Finally the cable car and the camera rest for a moment, but not the action. We see this trio of men standing near the ferry building's corner stone.

The camera is motionless, but the old man's long gray beard dances in the Pacific breezes. Just a few years earlier audiences were fascinated when they witnessed trees and grass blowing in the wind in films by the Lumiere brothers. The very concept of capturing the action of wind was completely revolutionary. Seeing this old man, the emotion of his eyes only faintly shadowed by the brim of his hat, I wonder if he could have been part of the gold rush less than 50 years earlier.

Finally the camera pauses, then rapidly pivots to give a reverse, westward view, the final miles of the continental U.S. before the Pacific. A sea of news boys jump and wave -- a joyful, sunny moment in the early 20th century spring sunlight. It's as if they are shouting "We were here!" across more than a century, and for a few seconds we are there with them, and then it's all gone. A bubble of time forever captured. People caught and unaware of tragedy looming. Joy pressed in a book forever, like dried flowers whose petals and colors we may distinguish, yet we'll never experience the exact aroma and freshness.

Each moment, already over just as it has begun. I don't know how many frames are in "A Trip Down Market Street" but I want to explore each one, champagne bubbles forever holding the moment in amber.

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At 9:13 PM, Blogger ArtSparker said...

What a lovely description, you tune the language very precisely.

At 4:48 AM, Blogger Lorenzo said...

Wonderful post, Gregg. The video is quite mesmerizing and your description is memorable. I particularly like your take on the bursting time bubbles and how you describe the people.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger daylily (Queenmothermamaw) said...

That was an amazing post. I enjoyed your questioning of the outcome and the movement in such an old movie. Great job.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Marilyn said...

A really interesting post, I couldn't play the video but will check back later. I like the idea that every moment being a bursting bubble of time.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Tattered and Lost said...

It is an amazing film. People caught on the brink of the abyss.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger urban muser said...

great video. i am in awe of the carriages, people and vehicles darting in and out of traffic unscathed. your post is so well written, and your observations very interesting. thanks for this.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

I first this video in April just before the anniversary of the earthquake (without music). There are several things that caught my eye then including the clothing of the time; the mix of horses, cars, streetcars, and people sharing the road; and the smoothness of the film (no bounciness as one would expect having it attached to the streetcar). I remember thinking that it was all gone not long after the film was made. But you've done a grand job of stopping the film and pointing out details that I missed the first time around. This was a really great post. Thank you.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger The Silver Fox said...

Fascinating article ("Post" doesn't do it justice!). I must search for this film!

I am the proud owner of two issues of California's Overland Monthly. The first, from 1869, contains the debut of Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." The second is a beautiful issue from 1906 commemorating the great earthquake and fire... a nice companion piece to this film, I suspect.

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Susan - At least I get close when I clean up the typos.

Lorenzo - The bubbles of time are borrowed from a cheesy but favorite Jimmy Webb lyric.

Daylily - Amazing what power a 104-year-old film can hold.

Marilyn - If you can't link to the video, let me know. I think everyone else has been able to view it.

Tattered and Lost - Your moniker sort of describes their fate.

Urban muser - Yes, there is so much to take in on that little journey.

Nancy - I have seen this film several times over the past 30 years. They keep cleaning it up, and with each revision, you see more.

Silver Fox - Though a new state and the last frontier, California is rich with history.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger sEAN bENTLEY said...

Wow, wonderful film, thanks for posting it. Having jettisoned my TV, I wouldn't have seen it otherwise!

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

sEAN - These days most TVs have been jettisoned.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Bryce Digdug said...


I was just leaning against those very carved letters indicating the date the Ferry Building was built, sort of a corner stone but not on the corner. Did you ever notice the statue of Ghandi is facing the wrong way. The City (San Francisco) is big on aligning statues the wrong way. They need to hire a statue consultant (like myself). - Bryce

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Gregg Biggs said...

Bryce - Yes, I've noticed that. My graduate thesis on design showed that 95% of natural disasters can be prevented by proper alignment of statues. You'd think that after 1906 and 1989 San Francisco would finally realize that.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger L. D. Burgus said...

This is a wonderful analysis of the sequences shown. I really enjoyed seeing them.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

L.D. - I was in the same area yesterday for a business meeting and could almost feel the ghosts from this movie around me.


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