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The Little Extinguisher Box Of Tricks: "Magic Extinguisher" And Early Film

Sep 4, 2008
A fire extinguisher: for most of us, nothing but a standard piece of safety equipment, tied to the wall with extinguisher brackets and sealed in an extinguisher box. But for the early filmmakers of a largely pre-narrative Hollywood, a fire extinguisher of the classic pre-pressurized type was just another means of struggling to develop a common language of film.

It's hard to believe that what we think of as the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster evolved from work like "Magic Extinguisher", a 1901 film from the Williamson production company. Current movies are known above all for their fantastic special effects, their schmaltz-laden narratives, and their pantheon of stars designed to draw people in to even the weakest of productions. It's tempting to assume from the way Hollywood films actually evolved that this is the only way in which film as a medium could have evolved, the only possible way to make art from the simple process of recording moving images.

But at the roots of film, all we had was that process. There are plenty of stories about early film showing venues being packed with crowds willing to see nothing beyond a few seconds of footage in which a man shaved and got ready for work, or in which birds and animals moved across a lush yard. At one point, the simple novelty of motion was enough to captivate. Hints of the fascination of early film can still be seen when looking at the popularity of formats like IMAX, which began with dull footage of mountains filmed in such a way as to make their height seem terrifying and impressive: uninteresting content, novel and fascinating presentation.

The problem with the fascination of new technology, however, is that new technology never remains new for long. Eventually, the content needs to arrive on its own terms as well, filling out and justifying the form in order to allow the medium to take its place in the ranks of art.

With movies, "The Great Train Robbery" is the approach that caught on: using film to tell a story with characters and a plot. But there were other experiments, experiments doomed to perish like the three-eyed soft-shelled beasts of the Precambrian Explosion. One of these experiments was "Magic Extinguisher."

Viewed as a period piece, the film isn't awful. It attempted to recapture some of the already-passing magic of new technology in the same way as singers of the 1920s would attempt to seem modern by singing through megaphones: the film included the early "fire extinguisher", a large metal cone which could be placed over burning objects to cut off their oxygen supply and snuff the flames. Other than that burst of modernity, the film is nothing but trick photography. A magician places the extinguisher cone over small objects; a jump cut is performed; the magician removes the extinguisher cone and the objects have become something else entirely. After turning animals into other animals for a while, the magician places the extinguisher cone over his own head and removes it: suddenly, he's become a young boy.

And it's a skill that would be nice to have, honestly. With early film, it's possible to place the extinguisher cone of forgetfulness of our own heads and remove it to see the possibilities of one hundred years ago, at the dawn of a medium: a time when access to the silver screen was guaranteed for nothing more than a single magician and his extinguisher box of tricks.
About the Author
See specifications, sizes and advice on the UK's top selling fire extinguisher box at leading resource site www.FireProtectionOnline.co.uk
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