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The Unlikely Beginnings of Cinema at Home

by Mark Zimmer

At the recent MidCoast Film & Arts Festival, held in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois, DVD producer and film historian David Shepard gave a series of talks on the beginnings of film in the home. Just as the commercial American film industry oddly enough started off in New Jersey, watching films at home had it beginnings in Davenport Iowa.

According to Shepard, A.F. Victor was an itinerant showman and magician who had a bit of bad luck when much of his equipment was destroyed in a fire. Since in the early 20th century motion pictures were already becoming big business, Victor hit on the idea of getting a way to move the film experience into the home. His first attempt, which he called the Animatograph, was a simplified device using serial photography, mounted on a disc (so with a disc format we have come full circle, in a way). The early Animatograph didn't work too well, however, and Victor didn't sell any.

But the story didn't end there. As the patents for the motion picture began to expire, Victor developed what would become the first portable movie projector about 1912 at his home base in Davenport, Iowa. At the same time, safety stock was beginning to make an appearance, since already the safety issues with nitrate stock were well known. After a few disastrous occurrences of people using explosive nitrate on his home projectors, Victor developed a 28mm format that would use only safety stock in that gauge.

Victor wasn't the only player in the market, of course. Kodak was then in the process of developing 16mm film for market. However, Victor got wind of this development, got busy in his workshop and ended up beating both Kodak and Bell & Howell to the market with a 16mm camera and projector, and despite their status wound up with a 20% market share.

When sound came in, Victor was also in the forefront, developing a sound system with a disc interlocked with the film. He also worked with reducting 35mm to 16mm, and managed the first optical 16mm sound to boot. The Victor factory struggled through the Depression but survived until World War II. At that time, the military decided to use film for troop instruction, and before long the Victor company had 600 employees making projectors. By the end of the war, Curtis Wright bought them out, and A.F. Victor retired. The business continued to operate in Davenport through 1956 when it was again sold and moved to Connecticut. But even the Victor equipment continued to be made until 1987 when video tolled the death-knell of film at home.

Davenport, Iowa doubly became notable for cinema at home when the Eastin-Phelan company set up its Blackhawk Films rental operation in Davenport; not only did this have the benefit of trading off Victor's association of nontheatrical films with that city, but that it was also a major rail hub with lines going in all directions. Railway express permitted the quick shipment and return of films from across the country, resulting in the preservation of the large film collection that forms much of the basis of Shepard's silent and early sound film library and that continues to be brought to DVD by him in first class editions.

The Midcoast Film Festival, still a bit of a fledgling in its second year, provided an interesting array of short and feature films in addition to Shepard's talks on the cinema history of the Quad Cities area. These were an interesting and eclectic assortment of pictures ranging from the most recent picture by Seijun Suzuki, Pistol Opera, to the poignant documentary Balseros about Cuban refugees, to Close to Leo, a French examination of the effect of AIDS on a family of four brothers (with a superb performance by the boy who is the youngest brother), to selected shorts by local filmmakers. Among the latter that I found highly striking were Phil Dingeldein's brief Field Trip, which starts as a look at the innocence of childhod but ends like a ferocious slap to the face. Kara Toal's semi-abstract meditation on her father's death, Trichotillomania, notable for its ironic bilingual commentary and vivid and breathtaking closeups of flowers, was suitably haunting.

There are still a few growing pains with the festival; many if not all of the pictures were transferred to DVD and shown with an LCD projector, which on occasion gave some fits and extreme pixelation spoiled a couple segments. However, others looked breathtakingly good (particularly those shot in digital video). The venues include the quaint independent pub/theater QC Brew and View that is well worth a visit. Several workshops, including one on CGI animation and writer Max Allan Collins of screenwriting, were also prominently featured. Although not yet well known nor massive, the Midcoast festival is both well-organized and features an interesting mix of pictures, with a site that has a surprisingly important connection to the history of the development of film.