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Miss Jerry (1894)

Alexander Black | United States of America | 1894

In the formative years of cinema, the difficulty of achieving a successful sequence of moving images meant the medium was used mainly for entertainment on a visceral level. The simple novelty of achieving a realistic reproduction of the external environment was sufficient to bring attention to film. Despite the artistic ambitions of the key players, technological limitations meant that storytelling was barely possible, and no wonder most of the directors at the time saw their new medium as incapable of achieving the type of public engagement prose or theatre did. There was one exception, however - Alexander Black.

Black was not a filmmaker in the traditional sense. A journalist, but also an exquisite photographer, Black wanted to construct a relationship between image and narrative, developing in consequence the concept of a 'picture play'. Miss Jerry, a story about a young female journalist, was his first work, arguably the first art film, and unquestionably the first blockbuster in the history of moving images.

In Photography in Fiction, Black explained his intentions: “Primarily my purpose was to illustrate art with life… I discovered several instances in which photographs from life were used to illustrate fiction, and many other instances in which fiction evidently has been adjusted to photographs from life… After outlining a combination of fiction and photography, each devised with a regard to the demands and limitations of the other, it began to be quite clear that the pictures must do more than illustrate… [They] must be progressive, that the effect of reality may arise not from the suspended action of isolated pictures, but from the blending of many… In ‘Miss Jerry’ my purpose has been to test experimentally, in a quiet story, certain possibilities of illusion, with this aim always before me, that the illusion should not, because it need not and could not safely, be that of photographs from an acted play, nor of artistic illustration, but the illusion of reality"[1].

Essentially, Black is laying the basis of film language, in which the image becomes the primary driving element of narrative. However, the accent is not on image continuity, but rather on causation: instead of flowing together seamlessly, one image leads logically to another. The difference between this and a traditional illustrated story is that the story is now already present in the pictures; the narrator is not forcing an external narrative on his characters. It is essentially this fictional reconstruction of a world, (which does not necessarily resemble physically the external world, but is governed by the causational pattern defining it), that allows Black to present a series of discrete photographs, yet still achieve a coherent, complete image.

Miss Jerry was and still is largely ignored in film history, often because of indifference on the behalf of the critics. Considering the success of The Pier (La jetée | 1962), primarily based on its use of a similar technique, the 'Film Realism vs. Visual Continuity' debate seems remarkably delayed. Admittedly, Black had a technical impediment in realising his project, but the basic idea and his take on the Arrow Paradox[2] in relationship to film is still key to the study of the medium. Film is then coined not as a succession of film images (as according to Metz[3]), but as a juxtaposition of photographic images. Ultimately, his argument relies heavily on the audience's psychological engagement with the material, and therefore he could have only succeeded with a convincing plot.

Miss Geraldine Holbrook (Blanche Bayliss), raised in the industrial mining community of Colorado, is Black's free spirited heroine. The author paints his character as an independent woman willing to defy stereotypes, wishing to succeed on her own, and unwilling to put herself under a man's thumb. She is an American Elizabeth Bennet[4], searching for her own man, in spite of economic or parental pressures. Black manages to stay on Austen's level throughout, though lacking the wit, and inheriting the same failings in opposing stereotypes: the girl still submits to young Hamilton (William Courtenay), accepting the success of his career over her own, all for the sake and beauty of love.

This “novel on a white screen”[5], with slides changing at a rate of three-four per minute, and originally narrated by Alexander Black himself, is regarding by Dick Johnson in The First Picture Show (one of the rare critical studies on the film) as a “ninety-minute screen drama”[5]. The issue is that beyond the technical presentation, Miss Jerry resembles the development of art film more than most short films of the time.

Films were not taken seriously as an art form worthy of reviews until 1915. Miss Jerry, on the other hand, enjoyed a rather wide critical success as early as 1894, and a warm audience reception on its presentations during 1894-1907. The construction of a visual narrative is unquestionably its main strength, even if the plot and the writing style are flawed in many areas. But, most importantly, Black established so many textbook features of film - from the use of celebrated actors, the establishment of two key themes in American cinema (“the good-girl”[6] through Holbrook and “the moral superiority of the sons”[6] through Hamilton), to the introduction of visual images theatres - that he can be easily considered the father of American cinema.

It is always dangerous to justify the quality of a work retrospectively, as one can easily confuse importance with substance. In his time, Alexander Black became a niche celebrity, and might have influenced a number of directors, although the latter preferred to develop certain ideas in film form, rather than continuing with the photoplay format. Unquestionably, Black would have done the same, if his journalistic and photographic commitments had not been so close to his heart. However, dismissing his format for visual narrative as foreign to cinema would unarguably be the wrong route for a productive assessment of the medium.

As for the quality of the work in its own right, the best solution is to analyse it from its basic premises. Black wanted to create the “illusion of reality [through] a quiet story”[1], and not vice-versa. The work therefore should be interpreted within the Cinematic Realism discourse, rather than on the Literary Realism discourse. The story is a romantic one, concerned primarily with the emergence of love. The author has managed to surpass his challenge, by creating an atmosphere that defies illusion and it is ultimately real, in his understanding of the causal implications that lead to the emergence of affection on an individual level. There is also a subtle understanding of the sociological environment, situating the picture in a rather unique place in history. “Miss Jerry's portrayal of reality is expressed through the fact that it was part of it itself: the play, as the entire American society, was experiencing a change from a ‘closed’ to an ‘open’ society[7], it was passing through an age of testing and uncertainty… The photoplay was a living organism on its own right, that happened to be part of the lives of more than half a million people who had the opportunity to see it”[8].

Unfortunately, all we can do now is imagine it, as the show was never recorded. Black left us the full collection of photographs and the text he was reading. But, like so many lost films from the silent era, Miss Jerry is a treasure never to be seen again.

[1] Black, Alexander. Photography in Fiction; p. 348. New York: Scribner’s Magazine volume XVII July – December, 1895.
[2] Cohen, S. Marc. Zeno’s Paradox of the Arrow. Lecture from Cohen, S. Marc. Philosophy 320: History of Ancient Philosophy. Seattle: University of Washington, 2003.
[3] Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
[4} Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice, edited by James Kinsley. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
[5] Johnson, Dick. The First Picture Show: Alexander Black’s “Miss Jerry”. In Journal of American Culture 2 no 4, p. 589. Hoboken: Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 1980.
[6] Stephenson, William. The Play Theory of Mass Communication, p. 62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
[7] Nisbet, Robert A. The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society; pp. 98-99. New York: Knopf, 1970.
[8] Martea, Ion. Wrapped Reality: Alexander Black’s Miss Jerry. In Rusnac, Gheorghe (ed). Analele Ştiinţifice ale Universităţii de Stat din Moldova: Seria “Ştiinţe Filologice”; p.386. Chişinău: CE USM, 2003.

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Links: Scribner Magazine - IMDb - Wikipedia - Amazon