Review: Exposing Muybridge

Written and directed by Marc Shaffer, tells the story of trailblazing 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who changed the world with his camera. Muybridge set the course for the development of cinema when he became the first photographer to capture something moving faster than the human eye can see. Artful, resilient, selfish, naive, eccentric, deceitful – Muybridge is a complicated, imperfect man and his story drips with ambition and success, loss and betrayal, near death experiences and even murder.

One of the strengths of Exposing Muybridge hits right off the bat, its expansive use of experts, bringing through a number of different voices to explore Muybridge’s life and legacy. The lead of which being Gary Oldman, an ardent admirer of the artist and he brings a sincere enthusiasm to the film. Oldman leans into a tone of dramatic and theatricality, this is not an exploration of a simple, hard-working man, he’s highly unusual and unethical to say the least. That eccentricity is where the film is most captivating, acknowledging the practically unbelievable road Muybridge took from simple photographer to one of the early creators of cinema.

However, the further the story goes, the more murky things become and its tone of admiration starts to feel misplaced. As it dives further into Muybridge’s achievements, it becomes clearer that he’s a typical man corrupted by power and success, using his position to explore his passions, even if they don’t particularly follow moral or ethical guidelines. Therein throws a surprising amount of nudity from his later work, touted as scientific but after a few examples, it’s easy to tell that likely wasn’t his main motivation. It then feels slightly strange to talk of how many artists and filmmakers have been inspired by his work. Adding up to a confusing and unsettled tone, still along the lines of admiration while at odds with the information they’re providing, much like The Real Charlie Chaplin. His contribution is clear but whether or not he deserves to have such a legacy feels less certain.

Overall, the visual style works well, swiftly moving from its talking heads to Muybridge’s work and a few recreations. It blends the nostalgic and historical with the modern, but while it does have the occasional flare for the dramatic as it explores the almost ridiculous nature of this story, the tone as a whole stays on the same page. It starts to become less effective as time goes on and while the information it’s presenting is interesting, it can’t hold your attention consistently throughout. Especially as it reaches its end and closes on a note of sympathy for Muybridge, an artist unappreciated in his time, feigning ignorance of the other rather condemning facts it explored earlier.

Exposing Muybridge divulges the scandalous past of a man who helped to create cinema, but it feels more concerned with strengthening his legacy that exposing him. While it has a great selection of experts and a mostly well done style, it’s fighting against itself by showing admiration while simultaneously imparting his murderous and murky past. What it has to say is undoubtedly interesting but ultimately leaves a slightly bitter taste.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½ | 7/10

Reviewed as part of Sheffield DocFest 2022

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