Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Futures Past: SF History in Leeds, P.8 Early Films of Leeds

This post was influenced more by technologies than events of futures past, after watching an early film of Leeds bridge and the city centre around the turn of the century. These sorts of films, showing local people and places, were often commissioned by companies in the working class entertainment industry, to be screened in music halls, fairgrounds and public halls - either on their own or as part of a programme of other entertainment.

One such film, Leeds Street Scenes, is featured on the Yorkshire Film Archive’s website. It is made up of portions from three different films: Street Scenes near Bridge (1903); Street Scene in Boar Lane (Leeds) (1898); and Leeds - Views From Moving Tram (1903). The third of these has been identified with the Riley Brothers, a Bradford based manufacturing firm, who also produced some of the lanterns and slides in the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine's collection (University of Leeds). Optical lanterns were the topic of a former SF Forward post from 2013, in which the magical effects of this early technology were discussed.

Views From Moving Tram is a ‘phantom ride’ film, which begins on Boar Lane, so called because the position of the camera on the front of a moving vehicle meant that the movement appeared to come from an invisible force. Patrick Keiller notes that this type of film doesn't direct the viewer’s attention to any particular part of the scene, in the way that more recent films usually do, and featured Views From Moving Tram in his own moving image project, City of the Future (2007). Compiled from about 60 films made between 1896 and 1903, it has been described as a ‘virtual landscape’ and is arranged both spatially, on a hierarchy of maps, and as a silent narrative, so viewers can switch between the two.

The idea of the city of the future brings me to the SF connection in the film, in the way it sheds light on the development of the modern city, and the use of cinema in capturing the future as it seemed to be unfolding at the turn of the century. From the other end of time, it opens a window onto the past and evokes the perennial SF theme of time travel. Is it a coincidence that The Time Machine and numerous other time travelling stories flourished around this time (see, e.g., Leeds Beatified)? Certainly, there was something about the dawn of the 1900s that must have inspired these imaginative temporal reflections and speculations. Watching Leeds Street Scenes, and its journey through the city, is an immersive experience and draws attention to the sense in which cinema is also a time machine, in its intermingling of forward moving and backward looking momentum.

Still from Leeds Street Scenes, Yorkshire Film Archive

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