Panorama of Gorge railway
James H. White
USA, 1900, 1 min, DCP, B&W, silent
Down the Hudson
Frederick S. Armitage, A. E. Weed
USA, 1903, 3 min, DCP, B&W, silent
USA, 1938, 32 min, DCP, B&W, English
Canada, 1957, 20 min, DCP, B&W, French
Paddle to the Sea
Canada, 1966, 28 min, DCP, colour, English
The water that falls from Niagara Falls crashes down with such force that a gigantic whirlpool and rapids are formed to release the force. A century and a bit ago, an insane railway line made it possible to admire them and accompany the river upstream and downstream. And that was where James H. White, Edison’s cameraman went. He boarded the train and filmed an electrifying tracking shot as the train and the rapids moved, the white foamy water moving in the opposite direction.
Three years later, Armitage and Weed filmed a tracking shot from the Hudson looking towards its banks, electrifying it by speeding up and slowing down the frames, for experimental cinema has always existed. The journey upriver (the title is incorrect) becomes a fairground ride, where houses and industries gradually replace trees and other divine entities, until they disappear.
We are in North America and the physical and rhetorical scale is completely different: the scale of myth. A river has a history as soon as some human beings touch it, but not before, and Pare Lorentz tells the story of the Mississippi in a self-serving way, having been charged with convincing his contemporaries of the need to build dams. Through bewitching names and repetitions, over three trips downriver, we understand what has happened: there were spruce, fir, pine, cedar, hickory and scarlet oak trees, and they were cut down. How it hurts to see them fall! Without trees there are no roots, and without roots to hold the soil, some of it is washed away and what is left cannot absorb the rainwater, and the rainwater ends up flooding everything.
What if the fact that wood floats were a curse? The trade of transporting logs by river is called drave in Quebecois. As in the United States, Canada needed wooden beams and newsprint, and the forests paid the price. The draveurs speed up the thaw by dynamiting the ice, dancing on the felled logs and covering the Ottawa from shore to shore with them. It’s hard work if you have to do it, and fascinating if you are simply watching it, because you see one world unfold while another is being destroyed. The film, as well as showing this process to you, sings it to you gracefully in the voice of Félix Leclerc.
But if grace is what you want, few films have this in such high concentration as Paddle to the Sea. Paddle is a piece of driftwood and his fate matters a great deal to us because a young boy carves the driftwood into a unique, humanlike creature. The boy lives north of Lake Superior and can’t see the sea, so he sends his creature off. This adventure by proxy involves the Great Lakes system and then the St. Lawrence river until ending in the St Lawrence Gulf, a journey that includes (thus coming full circle), Niagara falls. Not being human, Paddle immediately invokes animals and stumbles with equal doses of awe and wonder upon all things; it’s touching.