See the moving picture


A Spectacular Flight of Fancy

Un Drame dans les airs (Drama in the Air)

Pathé-Frères, France, 1906

At two and a half minutes, Un Drame dans les airs is a miniature compendium of bricolage filmmaking. It begins with actualité footage of a real balloon launch (1) but quickly shifts from real exterior space to fanciful studio-set space with a trick-shot image of two airborne balloonists floating through a moving diorama of the sky (2). The following sequence then alternates between shots of the men as they survey the prospect below them through a telescope and shots of what they see. On the one hand, there is a suggestion of “realism” in all three “point-of-view” shots. The shot in (3), for example, consists of a real cityscape scanned by a panning shot whose lateral movement seems to capture the movement of the balloon-borne telescope, and the next two “point-of-view” shots consist of actualité footage of images in natural motion (some ships on an undulating sea and waves crashing against coastal rocks). On the other hand, however, the mask which denotes the circular frame of images seen through the telescope indicates that all three shots function as spectacle demonstrations of the cinema’s illusion-making capability rather than as information designed to further an event-driven narrative.

The brightly tinted image of the balloon in (4), as it explodes from a lightning strke, is clearly conceived as a spectacle attraction, but the event—the titular “drame dans les airs”—can be taken as part of a two-shot narrative of suspense, as the two intrepid adventurers must be recovered during a nighttime rescue at sea (5) (which is appropriately blue-toned in this print).

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