Academic journal article CineAction

Winsor McCay's the Sinking of the Lusitania and the Origins of Animated Documentary

Academic journal article CineAction

Winsor McCay's the Sinking of the Lusitania and the Origins of Animated Documentary

Article excerpt

An artist of vast imaginative ability with an affinity for the fantastic, McCay suffered from a troubled social conscience, which manifested itself in the intrusion of reality into the world of the dream. (1)

--Judith O'Sullivan

Preface--Not Yet Documentary

On Friday, May 7, 1915, at approximately 2:10 in the afternoon local time, 30 kilometers off the southeastern tip of Ireland and within what the German government had declared to be a war zone, the submarine U-20 fired a torpedo toward the Cunard Liner, Lusitania. The torpedo hit the Lusitania's hull and exploded. A much larger explosion followed. The size of this second explosion caused the Lusitania to sink in 18 minutes, killing 1198 passengers and crew. Among the dead were 128 Americans, citizens of a neutral country. As the New York Times reported in its headline, a "grave crisis" was at hand.

Among the early responses to the sinking was a British Pathe newsreel item that began by relating the news in a manner typical of the newsreels of the day. It showed a sequence of shots of an ocean liner departure, including a shot of the Lusitania's bow. That the Lusitania had been launched in 1907 and had crossed the Atlantic two hundred times suggests that these shots needn't have been of its last crossing. An inter-title tells us that life on board was going its merry way. We see rather well dressed people playing a game that involves moving eggs about with spoons. Another inter-title interrupts this happy play to tell us that what we just saw is "instantly transformed to." What follows is a sequence of shots of people on what may be some sort of boat. They are running about in badly acted panic. The camera, rather unconvincingly imitating a ship in distress, is tipped back and forth. In one recurrent set of shots within the sequence, there is what appears to a jet of water being sprayed on the passengers, most likely from a hose being held just off screen. One of the "Lusitania victims" can be caught turning to the camera and smiling.

This newsreel item is not particularly interesting for its use of generic footage and the inclusion of obviously staged shots. Those techniques date from the earliest actualities. The curious moment here is the opening line in the next inter-title: "No photographic record of the actual sinking exists." The immediate response to this disclaimer might be: "what is it then that we have just seen and why have you shown it?" The item then concludes with shots of what is identified as wreckage from the Lusitania and, finally, a single shot of a group of people whom, we are told, are survivors of the sinking. (2)

This newsreel item, a mashup of representational modes, may also be seen as a tiny window (or should we say, "porthole") into the thinking of the era's newsreel producers at the time in regard to their audiences' demands for an often impossible authenticity. This is, after all, in a moment between the newsreel establishing itself as a form (Pathe started its regular newsreel releases in 1908) and the theorizing of documentary in the 1920s by figures like Dziga Vertov, John Grierson and Paul Rotha. In 1915, audiences have outgrown the actualite without yet having a word ("Kino-Eye," "Documentary") much less a concept on which to hang a more evolved replacement. (3)

Taken as an archaeological artifact, the British Pathe item is an attempt to have the audience experience the event as it might have happened. It elicits truth-based affect without much in the way of authentic actual footage. The inter-title announcing a lack of that footage offers the filmmakers' candor to the audience in return for its compliance with this construction. In all, the progression in the item from stock footage and re-enactment to claimed and probable authenticity (i.e. shots of the wreckage and survivors) makes the entire presentation all the more convincing and poignant.

The lesson, or at least the reminder, to be gleaned from the British Pathe item is that we are obliged to understand cinematic authenticity as it was understood at the time particular texts appeared. …

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