Documentary Review: “Exposing Muybridge” remembers a cinema pioneer, an “eccentric” killer and a grand footnote to “Nope”

If you’ve seen “Nope,” you recall Jordan Peele’s clever, folkloric connection of the characters in his latest film to the “inventor” of cinema, Eadweard Muybridge. The stunt-horse training family under alien assault on a remote Southern Cal horse ranch — played by Keith David, Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya — pass themselves off as descendants of the jockey who appeared in the very first “motion picture,” that of a rider taking a horse through its paces for “motion studies” conceived and filmed by one of the great photographers of the age.

The reason Peele could build his film around that gimmick is that Muybridge’s images are so iconic as to be shared cultural currency, familiar to almost anyone who has ever seen a motion picture or TV show.

I remember the first time I saw them and heard the quirky story of how they came to be, on an episode of the 1960s TV series “Death Valley Days” titled “The $25,000 Bet.”

The story goes that railroad tycoon/governor/senator/Stanford University founder and lifelong equestrian enthusiast Leland Stanford took a bet with a fellow rich swell that all four of a horse’s feet never left the ground at the same time. Stanford commissioned his favorite photographer to come up with proof. And inventor/landscape photographer Muybridge overcame the photographic limitations of the late 19th century to snap a string of images that could be termed the first “motion picture.”

“Exposing Muybridge,” a terrific new documentary about the man, the motion picture and the myths, omits “the wager,” which was almost certainly an invention by the credit-hogging Stanford. And while Muybridge filmed motion studies of a Black boxer, Ben Bailey, if he ever photographed a Black jockey at the gallop, it might have been years later, not on that first “proof of concept” effort in California.

PBS “Frontline” veteran and “Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787” director Marc Shaffer serves up a polished, brisk and entertaining documentary that details a life so colorful that Oscar winner Gary Oldman is trying to make a biography of the British expat recognized as the father of the cinema.

Oldman, who has collected Muybridge prints and done a lot of homework for the project he called “Flying Horse” when he announced it in 2018, is the most ebullient of the many informed talking heads that decorate Shaffer’s film.

Muybridge was “daring,” promising to “make my name” in the world, or disappear if he failed to do so. He was also “duplicitous,” and not just about his name — which he changed from Edward Muggeridge to “Mugridge” to Eadweard Muybridge, with many variations along the way. He didn’t invent “Photoshop” or even the idea of doctoring images, but he mastered the art — an “artist/scientist” who dabbled in the chemicals used to make the primitive glass-plate photographs of the Civil War era and just afterward.

Modern photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe take us to Yosemite and compare Muybridge’s vivid, artistic and sometimes dangerously-grabbed images of the place to the works of those who came much later — Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. They deconstruct the compositions and re-photograph his perspectives, showing us the drama and the scenes and helping us “see the photograph with your whole body.”

Historians such as Marta Braun and Richard White dig into the details of the Muybridge’s life and career — from the early fame to the murder he got away with to the images of people, dogs and horses he photographed as motion studies, many of which he turned into “zoopraxiscope” disc “films” that could be projected for audiences years before Edison and the Lumiere brothers put on their picture shows.

Oldman looks at one of Muybridge’s many self-portraits and notes his “intense and focused” eyes, calling them “gold dust” to an actor hoping to portray the man on the screen.

The scandals, the ways the eccentric genius was denied credit by the robber baron Stanford (perhaps the “crime of passion” “murderer” association was too much), and the fact that the nascent filmmaker undertook many motion study films of nudes later at the University of Pennsylvania, some of them playful enough to be seen as the first movie “comedies,” make Muybridge a grand subject for a big screen biography. “Exposing Muybridge” thus becomes a proof-of-concept for Oldman’s magnum opus, and makes one long for it to be financed, filmed and released.

As it is, Shaffer has filmed a great primer on a key figure in the history of cinema and the perfect movie for anyone whose interest was piqued by “Nope” to learn “the real story,” which is colorful enough without the glorious myths surrounding it.

Rating: unrated, nude photographs

Cast: Gary Oldman, Marta Braun, Rebecca Gowers, Richard White, Thomas Gunning, Richard Jackson Kushakaak, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Marc Shaffer. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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