Even if you don’t know Eadweard Muybridge by name, you’ve definitely seen a riff on the godfather of film’s galloping horse photos. Whether it was through the direct callback in last summer’s Nope, U2′s black-and-white music video for “Lemon” or The Matrix’s frame-by-frame bullet time, the look of his pioneering motion photography has seeped into—and stayed a part of—pop culture like little else from the late 1800s. Finding a fresh story in imagery so familiar is a tough hurdle—one Exposing Muybridge mostly manages to clear.
Beginning with a meta touch, the film lines up its talking heads in a single composite screen that echoes Muybridge’s multiple frames before bringing any one speaker to the forefront. Among the usual crowd of historians and scholars, Gary Oldman stands out—appearing not as a celebrity narrator (thank god) but as a Muybridge enthusiast and collector. There’s something refreshingly accessible about the way he gushes, “I like the aesthetic,” over a collection of the photog’s early Western landscapes. And it’s a relief that, in a doc with its fair share of Ken Burns-style pans over still images, there isn’t one primary authoritative voice guiding the viewer through Muybridge’s improbable life.
But Exposing Muybridge is undeniably at its best when it sits back and revels in the weird, problematic and telenovela-worthy details of its subject’s story, rather than trying to overlay a narrative arc on top of it. Superimposed chapter titles slow the story’s otherwise steady clip, and a single reenactment (featuring director Marc Shaffer as one of Muybridge’s assistants) feels oddly glorifying in an otherwise multifaceted film. But the murder, brain damage, propaganda and playful softcore filling Muybridge’s life are ultimately more than enough reason to trot out to see it on the big screen, even if the technical choices on display can’t match the innovation of the film’s subject.
+Deep dive into the juiciest parts of proto-film history
Directed by Shaffer
With Oldman and Marta Braun
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 88 minutes