Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Conway Castle - Panoramic View

Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L.& N.W. Railway

I've been reading Bryony Dixon's book The Story of Victorian Film which can be seen as an extension of the brilliant free-to-access BFI Victorian Film archive. For example, she discusses Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L.& N.W. Railway, a 'sedately paced' landscape film which the BFI website describes thus:

This beautiful film, shot in February 1898, has a dream-like quality and is hand tinted (possibly stencilled). It is believed to have been coloured some time after it was first shown as no contemporary reviews or advertisements refer to what would surely have been a major selling/talking point, 1898 being very early for coloured films.

This film was made in response to the first American phantom train ride film (by the British Mutoscope and Biograph's parent company, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company), 'The Haverstraw Tunnel', which showed the scenery around the Hudson river and a tunnel and so delighted the audience that the British operation decided to make their own version, which also proved very popular - it showed not only in London but also in Rochester, New York, and then travelled all over Europe, still being shown in cinemas as late as 1910. This film is preserved by the EYE Filmmuseum, Netherlands.

Dixon's chapter 'Moving Images: Panoramas, Phantom Rides and Travel' explains that the first travel film made from a moving vehicle was Alexander Promio's Panorama du Grand Canal pris d'un bateaux, shot from a gondola on 25 October 1896. There are several versions of this uploaded on YouTube and I've embedded one of them below. Two years later Biograph produced Panoramic View of the Vegetable Market at Venice with a large format camera that gives a remarkably clear, almost 3D stereoscopic effect. Such films can be related in their subjects and composition to earlier picturesque views in art, as well as the more recent phenomenon of moving panoramas (views unfurled on rolled-up cotton with a lecturer explaining each scene). A little later we get more Italian travelogues with more than one shot - Visit to Pompeii (1901) is 8 minutes long and features a 360-degree pan of the ruins, a lovely misty view of Vesuvius with sheep providing motion in the foreground and then a ride up the volcano's funicular railway (another version of the 'phantom train ride'). One more to recommend you look at is Ride on the Peak Tramway (1900), filmed in Hong Kong, which has a grainy, mesmerising quality. 'As the tram crests the peak it's just possible to see the huge vista of Victoria Harbour and Kowloon laid out before us, as if viewed from the world's greatest natural rollercoaster.' 



Another interesting genre discussed in Bryony Dixon's book is the sea wave film. 'Nearly every report of early film screening mentions audience reaction to films of sea waves. Films showing the movement of water were very popular for their mesmeric effect as well as for the initial shock they gave audiences at their feeling of 'absolute realness''. She quotes a reaction to Birt Acres' early Rough Sea at Dover (1895) - "It is not too much to say that persons seated near the screen must have shrunk from the approaching billows which gathered, lifted their foam-tossed crests, curled and crashed down with an absolute realism from which nothing was wanted but the roar." Again there are obvious precedents in art and recent photography (Acres was himself a photographer). Cecil Hepworth's film Rough Seas Breaking on Rocks (1899) reminds me of the 'rough seas' genre of postcards I wrote about here in 2011.  Dixon lists other examples but notes in particular 'the beautiful Sea Cave Near Lisbon, filmed by Henry Short for Robert Paul in 1896, in which Portugal's famous Boca di Inferno (Mouth of Hell) frames the waves swirling and smashing against the rocks.'

Sea Cave Near Lisbon

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Branches Waving in the Current

Back in October I was fortunate to be able to attend a book launch for Michael Wood's new book In the Footsteps of Du Fu. He gave an excellent speech on Du Fu's life and importance (not everyone present had read the poetry) and was clearly moved when he quoted '500 Words on the Road to Fengxian'. He said his interest in Chinese poetry was sparked by A. C. Graham's Poems of the Late T’ang, published in 1965 (this was the book that inspired Roger Waters' lyrics for 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'). When I first read this book in the mid eighties there were still hardly any translations of Chinese poetry available, although Arthur Cooper's Li Po and Tu Fu had appeared as a Penguin Classic in 1973. I've never understood why more haven't appeared over the years, although readers of this blog will have encountered quotes from the trickle of books published by American publishers. I doubt Michael Wood's book will provoke a new wave of enthusiasm here for Du Fu, but you never know.

Michael Wood on the Yangtze
(from the one hour BBC documentary Du Fu: China's Greatest Poet, 2020)

Rather than discuss the whole book, I thought I'd use the opportunity to talk here about a specific landscape which Du Fu wrote about. White Emperor City (Baidicheng or Baidi Fortress) is on the northern shore of the Yangtze, near Fengjie. Sadly, construction of the Three Gorges Dam submerged many buildings although tourists can still visit what remains on an island. Du Fu was one of many poets who came here over the years - ‘Early Departure from White King City’ by his friend Li Bai (701-62) is in the Arthur Cooper book. On the 15th of November 767 Du Fu saw here ‘a pupil of the Lady Kung-Sun dance the sword mime.’ In response he wrote a beautiful, moving meditation on aging, at about the age I am now. He had seen Lady Kung-Sun when he was a child in 717, but now even her pupil was past her prime. Arthur Cooper says in his notes for the poem that the dance, in the style of ‘West of the Yangtse’, was ‘probably at its climax very fast and vigorous, much like Tartar or so-called Polovtian dances known today through Russian ballet.’

A. C. Graham, in Poems of the Late T'ang, explains that Kuizhou (K’uei-chou), was ‘a town adjoining and apparently no longer distinguished from Pai Ti (White Emperor City)’. These places can be seen in the helpful map above, which I hope it's OK to reproduce from Michael Wood's book. ‘K’uei-chou had been part of the old kingdom of Shu and contained a temple to the great Shu statesman Chu-ko Liang, who was one of Tu Fu’s heroes’ (David Hawkes). ‘Ballad of the Old Cypress’ concerns a tree that Chu-ko Liang (Zhuge Liang) was supposed to have planted. Also near the city ‘there was a formation of dolmens which appeared as the Yangzi river sank. This was supposed to have been Zhuge Liang’s symbolic representation of the military formations his army should assume in the conquest of Wu’ (Stephen Owen). Du Fu wrote a famous poem about these too, ‘The Diagram of Eight Formations’. This was the setting for Brian W. Aldiss's 1978 short story 'The Small Stones of Tu Fu' in which a time traveller meets the aging poet. 

Zhuge Liang's Diagram of Eight Formations, or Stone Sentinel Maze, features in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century about events at the end of the Han Dynasty. Lu Xun is leading his troops towards Kui Pass when he begins to sense danger, but no sign of enemy soldiers. One of his followers inspects the area but finds only 'eighty or ninety chaotic rock piles alongside the river.' Some locals tell Lu Xun that when his enemy Zhuge Liang had been here, he had sent troops to arrange these rock formations and 'since then, a kind of cloudlike effluvium seems to emanate from their interiors'. As the sun goes down Lu Xun goes to investigate the rocks himself. Suddenly violent winds appear, the river rumbles and the sky is covered with streams of sand and stone. An old man appears and tells him this is the Eightfold Maze, whose openings appear unpredictably. They each have a name and Lu Xun had entered by the one called 'Perish'. But the man, who identifies himself as Zhuge Liang's father-in-law, leads him to safety. The novel then quotes Du Fu's poem.   

Du Fu had arrived in the Kuizhou-Baidicheng area in the spring of 766 and found two farmsteads to live in, the main house an hour’s walk uphill. Michael Wood, in the footsteps of Du Fu, noted that the poet's ‘vegetable garden with an orchard and orange grove of almost six acres commanded wonderful views which with a little imagination we can still see in the mind’s eye. Sometimes he walked higher up above the Gorges to see the whole vista unfold with distant mountain ranges beyond. So although the river has covered the site of Du Fu’s houses, if we look up, something of the ‘landscape remains’, as we would say’. It was here that the poet wrote his two great 'Autumn' sequences, which many consider the greatest of all Chinese poems. 

Bill Porter (Red Pine) visited this location a few years before Michael Wood for his odyssey round the poetic sites of China, Finding Them Gone (2016). The island of Baidicheng (Paiticheng) was surprisingly quiet - 'the only sounds I heard above the wind were those of crickets and doves. I was also joined by a passel of sparrows and what must have been the last butterflies of the year.' The famous view down the gorge (which can be found on a 10 Yuan note) still looked beautiful. As the site of Du Fu's Western Study has been drowned, a replacement version has been carved from rocks higher up. Red Pine ignored this and headed instead for Huanhua Village, named after the stream Du Fu lived by in Chengdu where he could look down over a slope of farm plots to the water, beneath which the poet's hut and orange grove now lie. He then made for the site of Du Fu's second submerged home, at a place called Huangchuehshu. A local explained that it is named for the ancient trees (Ficus virens) planted there.

'The trees were so big, he said, it took the outstretched arms of several people to encircle one of them. The huang-chueh was a relative of the banyan and was often used in that part of China to honour sites of historical or communal importance, and the site of Tu Fu's former house would have qualified. I thought about all those branches waving in the current where so many poems were written. It wasn't simply the landscape that inspired Tu Fu's poems. It was also his life coming to an end and he felt it.'