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The Fly (Mosquinha | 1890)

Étienne-Jules Marey | French Republic | 1890

A fly takes off and vibrantly flies away. We see each beating of its wings in slow motion, gracious and dynamic simultaneously! This early film from Étienne-Jules Marey is still impressive to this day in its detailed microscopic analysis of an insect’s flight, more so as it uses technology that predates the first apparatus capable of capturing movement from a single point of view.

A maverick in the study of physiology, Marey was pivotal to the birth of motion pictures as he was the inspiration behind Eadweard Muybridge’s seminal Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878). In Animal Mechanism, published in 1873, Marey wrote with hopeful earning that his experimental plates “will soon be sufficiently perfect to be of real use to those who are engaged in the artistic representation of the horse”[1]. It took Muybridge only five years to make the leap from artistic representation to representation of reality of the subject matter, an act that has not only changed the nature of how we have learned to perceive the world, but one which had given Marey himself the exact medium he was after for furthering his research. By 1882, Marey developed his own apparatus, the photographic gun, that was able to shoot images at twelve frames per second. This gave him the chance to expand his analysis beyond the analytical into a practical evidence based science on the particularities of movement in the natural world.

In the same decade, Muybridge was the one to note that “Marey, in his physiological experiments, has recently made successive exposures with far less intervals of time; and the author has devised, and hopes some day to make use of, an apparatus which will photograph twenty consecutive phases of vibration of an insect’s wings”[2]. It is unsurprising that both individuals where keen to observe the minutiae movements in nature, and thus the two can be seen not as competitors but rather as collaborators towards the same ideal. The photographic output complements each other’s throughout the 1880s, Muybridge with his black birds against the white background and Marey with his white birds against a dark one.

What is truly distinctive of The Fly is that it stands out amongst its contemporaries as one of the first and most successful microscopic images in motion. In her detailed analysis of Marey’s work, Marta Braun identifies that in order “to take pictures fast enough to record the wing movements of tinier insects, he created the first high-speed films; he narrowed the shutter slots to 1.5 centimetres then concentrated the light of a heliostat onto the camera lense. The insect […] was filmed at 1/25,000 of a second”[3]. This detailed analysis allowed him to validate his theory he put forward a few years earlier using an artificial fly that “the plane in which the wings move is not vertical, but, on the contrary, very nearly horizontal”[4]. “Cinema, according to Marey, was nothing less than a superhuman or extrahuman form of vision that offered astonishing precision where human organs suffered deceptive appearances”[5]. In effect, scientific research was revolutionised by the invention of moving pictures.

However, concluding that The Fly is important purely in the spirit of academic investigation does not take awake from the director’s achievement in the sphere of artistic representation. The film, as seen in the context of its time, offers us a glimpse on how the technical cinematographic possibilities are capable of creating emotional experiences for the viewer that are unique to film. Nature documentaries have become an intrinsic part of our connection with the natural world. The sophistication achieved in modern times in the works narrated by naturalists such as David Attenborough have shown that we are still possessed by a spirit of awe at the sight of phenomena that are imperceptible to the human eye. And Marey’s film is arguably the first to generate that particular response in the history of art.

When confronted with the insect that covers nearly the entire canvas, our instinct is first to observe the flight in detail, but ultimately the image of the moving fly sticks to our imagination as a figment of dreams, rather than reality. In this, the film is possibly more akin to An Andalusian Dog (Un chien andalou | 1929), evoking horror and a sense of disorientation within the worldly space. What we do not get from The Fly is the feeling that we are watching an artefact of early cinema, rudimentary in style, and void in actual sensations so common amongst the actuality films of the 1890s. The image pulsates in our eyes with the same vibrancy with which it was probably received by its first spectators. As Bazin eloquently opines, Muybridge and Marey “not only invented film technology, they created at the same time cinema’s purest aesthetic”[6].

And it is precisely the aesthetics of The Fly that elevate it as one of the greatest in the first years of film-making. The dark background against which a black fly with transparent wings takes its flight is reminiscent of the 1964 black-on-black canvases in Rothko’s Chapel. In both of these examples the play of colour (or lack of) is evocative of a certain purity of existence, in which the image comprises the totality of natural and spatial phenomena that we experience, yet it is void of human touch. Just as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we feel simultaneously “within and without”[7] at the sight of either of the works. The flight of fly is ephemeral, meaningless to our state of being, yet it takes place at our command, at our desired speed, at our desired scale.

In essence, the question that The Fly poses to us is: why do we make and watch films? Is it a cosmic necessity that drives us towards the distortion of time and space? Or is it a rational call towards deconstructing our reality so that we can make more sense of it? For Marey, the answer would have been in the latter sphere, however subconsciously his methods of reproducing reality trigger ideas of the former kind.

[1] Marey, Étienne-Jules. Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion (The International Scientific Series, volume XI), second edition; p. 178. London: Henry S. King & Co., 1874.
[2] Muybridge, Eadweard. Animals in Motion, edited by Lewis S. Brown; p. 23. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957.
[3] Braun, Marta. Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904); p. 166. Chicago – London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.
[4] Marey, Étienne-Jules. Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion (The International Scientific Series, volume XI), second edition; p. 204. London: Henry S. King & Co., 1874.
[5] Elcott, Noam M.. Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media; p. 27. Chicago – London: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
[6] Bazin, André. Le Film scientifique: beauté du hasard (cinémas nationaux ou genre); p. 10. Paris: L'Écran fançais no. 121, 21 October 1947. (English version: Bazin, André. The Science Film: Chance Beauty. In Bazin, André. Selected Writings 1943–1958, translated by Timothy Barnard; pp. 49-52. Montreal: caboose, 2018.)
[7] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby; p. 35. New York – London – Toronto – Sydney: Scribner, 2004.

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