Film History Essentials: Newark Athlete (1891)

What it’s about:

A boy who looks to be somewhere between 12 and 15 holds up a pair of Indian clubs (specially-weighted exercise equipment that originated in India). He hoists them above his head, then lets the clubs twirl in his palms, continuing as he drops his arms to waist level.

Why it’s essential:

Once Dickson abandoned the experiments with a phonograph-like cylinder for the kinetoscope and transitioned to film, he seems to have progressed much more quickly. (At least, if the work with cylinders did continue into late 1890, as some believe.) Dickson produced a series of experimental films during the next few years as he continued to perfect both the kinetoscope and the kinetograph.

This one, taken in the early summer of 1891, is one of the first successful experiments. Or, at least, it’s one of the oldest surviving successful experiments. It is also, as of 2010, the oldest film selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. (Each year, the NFR inducts 25 films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” from a pool of nominees that can be submitted by any member of the public.)

As with many of the earliest film performers, we know little or nothing about the star of this brief motion picture beyond what the title states and what we can see. He is an athlete and he is from Newark, the next town over from Edison’s labs in West Orange. Who he is and how he was selected to appear are a mystery. However, in the tradition of both Muybridge and Marey, the majority of Dickson’s films shot during this time are of a man or men engaging in some kind of exhibition of athleticism.

Perhaps Dickson was following their lead, either consciously or unconsciously, or perhaps he chose from the subjects that most interested him for his tests. Or maybe he simply judged that these sorts of activities would provide the best test material. Certainly when making a motion picture as a test, the one thing you want to be sure of is that there is motion. The Newark Athlete, whoever he was, certainly delivered that.

Why you should see it:

Filming something that is effectively test footage as an experiment, there’s no reason for it to be artistic, or entertaining, or engaging. And certainly this isn’t really any of those things, to a modern audience. It’s more interesting to us now because of what it is than because of anything in the experience of watching it (though it’s not like you’ll get bored when it’s over after about 10 seconds). Still, Dickson could have pointed the camera at anyone or anything for his test, and he seems to have made choices that were very deliberate, even though we don’t know the reasoning behind many of them. I think he must have known how important it was, not just to be able to film something and then play it back for a viewer, but to choose specific subjects that an audience might actually be interested in viewing. He was developing, not just the technology of motion pictures, but their appeal.

~ by Jared on January 19, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Newark Athlete (1891)”

  1. […] a single viewer. America’s first movie audience lined up to watch it, one at a time. Before Newark Athlete made the list in 2010, Blacksmith Scene (added in 1995) was the oldest film on the National Film […]

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