EXPOSING MUYBRIDGE – Review by Diane Carson

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Exposing Muybridge delves into a complicated man’s life.

Director Marc Shaffer begins his documentary Exposing Muybridge with a succession of Eadweard Muybridge film, history, museum, and photography experts giving one-word descriptions of this complicated, multi-talented man. They suggest: tricky, eccentric, duplicitous, temperamental, volatile, mischievous, and “God or the devil, probably both.” Shaffer proceeds in the next eighty-eight minutes to offer details substantiating each attribute, describing several events less than complimentary to Muybridge.

Chronologically organized, rambling at times from superficial commentary to reenactments, including photographers Byron Wolfe and Mark Klett unnecessarily retracing Muybridge’s steps and replicating his exact camera placement at Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park, this significant historical figure proves as elusive as he is imposing. As illustrated here, Muybridge did photograph and produce an early American West landscape catalog, did document with singular respect the native Tlingit people and others of Southeast Alaska, Utah, and California, and did capture Yosemite’s beauty as he dangerously posed on rock ledges. For the U.S. government, Muybridge produced, and was not reluctant to stage, images representing the Modoc War in Northern California. Central America became part of his repertoire, and his 3D image stereoviews established his reputation. It’s no exaggeration to assert that with his focus on stories and sex in his wide-ranging motion studies and zoopraxiscope films, Muybridge anticipated and established the very beginning of cinema, predating Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers.

Celebrated most often for ingeniously devising an 1878 twelve camera experiment for Governor Leland Stanford, Muybridge captured visual proof that at one point a galloping horse’s four hooves leave the ground. And yet, credited for extraordinary resourcefulness in his intellectual scientific and creative artistic achievements, Muybridge’s personal life revealed a man of quite different character. He murdered Harry Larkins (who spelled his name Larkyns), lover of Muybridge’s wife Flora Shallcross Stone. Though he shot Larkins at point blank range, the jury acquitted Muybridge for his “justifiable homicide.” He ended up a bitter enemy of Leland Stanford and remains a persistently murky, shadowy figure. This seems all the more to intrigue actor Gary Oldman, who appears multiple times. Hoping to produce a Muybridge biopic, Oldman collects Muybridge memorabilia and expresses an undaunted enthusiasm for the man who changed the spelling of his name multiple times, from his birth name in 1830 England, Edward James Muggeridge, to Mugridge, signing Helios in photos, then using Eadweard James Muybridge, with history books now eventually settling on Eadweard Muybridge. Ironically, Maybridge is erroneously carved on his gravestone.

As he began his life’s journey, Muybridge asserted that “I am going to make a name for myself. If I fail, you will never hear from me again.” Without question, he succeeded in establishing his name, however he wants to spell it, with, most recently, director Jordan Peele’s feature film Nope invoking his legacy. And yet, despite Exposing Muybridge’s multidimensional array of private and public details, he remains mysterious, indefinable, and as intriguing as ever. I come away from this documentary hoping the interest generated here may lead to either Oldman’s wished for, character-driven biopic or another, more insightful documentary that reveals with more perspicacity the full nature of this intriguing man, if that is possible given Muybridge’s apparent and successful determination to remain indescribable.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.