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Green Screens, or Watching Flowers at the Cinema: Realism, Fantasy, and Modernism in Early Time-Lapse Film

Whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up at points in our existence where we would least have thought them possible.

—Walter Benjamin, “News About Flowers”

Realism doesn’t do what it says it does. Or at least that’s all that critics of realism today seem to agree upon. Whether we read realism in the old “suspicious” style, as an ideological smoke-screen, or follow more recent critics like Devin Fore and Caroline Levine who stress realism’s aesthetic and political complexities, realist art is only ever just that: realist.[1] The internal promise of realism, its ability to represent something outside the text itself, can never be fulfilled. In the field of ecocriticism, to which this paper partially belongs, realism has fallen on especially hard times since Timothy Morton’s scathing rebuke of “eco-mimesis” in Ecology Without Nature, in which he stresses the need for environmentally conscious critics to stop looking for art to represent something outside itself and instead acknowledge the inescapability of Derridean textuality.[2] But what about art that displays something that cannot be seen otherwise? This paper looks to film, specifically a peculiar and novel “actuality” released in 1911 called The Birth of a Flower, as one site where we might think through some of the strange dynamics at play in art that seeks to produce mimetic effects. When the object of realism is something that could never be represented without the mediation of art, in this case the movement of plants, the porousness of the term comes into focus. I argue that Birth creates a new form of ecological realism precisely by employing experimental technological and aesthetic techniques of the kind usually associated with modernism. As Joe Cleary claims, “new technologies such as radio, cinema, and television stimulated new realisms” in the early twentieth century; in this case, an “actuality” was able to reveal the unseeable activity of plant life using non-realist techniques.[3]

Seeing the Unseeable

On April 11, 1911, at the Scala Theatre in London, cinema-goers curious enough to enter the financially struggling theater saw something very few people had ever witnessed. Midway through the evening’s program of short films from producer Charles Urban, a title card announced the next short: The Birth of a Flower, then a second title card proclaimed only the message: “HYACINTHS. 3 Days Each.” What transpired on the screen next was a small miracle: two hyacinth flowers steadily opened their petals in just a few seconds. Then a third repeated the process. Over the next seven minutes ten different species of flower, including spectacular close-ups of tulips and roses, move their petals, leaves, and stalks for the amusement of the audience. Each species is given its own title card informing the audience of exactly how much time was compressed into each 30 second segment: the durations range from one hour (for tulips, crocuses, and garden anemones) to three days (Japanese lillies, snowdrops, and roses), and even five days for the Neapolitan Onion flower. The movement of plants, too slow for human vision to register, was revealed to the audience for the first time. By photographing plants at predetermined intervals over the course of hours or days (a laborious task that required research into botany as well as tinkering with photographic equipment) director Percy Smith created what he called “speed magnification” revealing the behavior of plants to be deliberate and animal-like, much to the audience’s delight and astonishment; reviews noted (and producer Charles Urban later boasted) that the film was met with clamoring for an encore presentation.[4] The audience’s reaction is understandable. Urban and Smith had quite literally—to borrow a phrase from Benjamin—revealed a new Spielraum, “an immense and unexpected field of action.”[5] The movement of plants on screen revealed a whole world of agencies and vitality going on right under our noses. On every street corner, in every garden, field, and forest, plants were moving through the world, seeking sunlight, sustenance, and reproductive partners, actively producing environments and interacting with other beings.

A few flowers opening their petals might not seem worthy of Benjamin’s revolutionary language, but the film’s revelation was quietly revolutionary in its own way. That plants were possessed of independent, self-directed locomotion had been known to botanists for some time. Charles and Francis Darwin had proven it in their coauthored study of plant locomotion from 1880, The Power of Movement in Plants, going so far as to claim in their conclusion that a plant’s “radicle” (the root-tip that navigates beneath the soil) “acts like the brain of one of the lower animals.”[6] As Matthew Hall argues, the Darwins’ revelation that plants were capable of intentional movement ran counter to centuries of European philosophical thinking. Scientists of the early Enlightenment inherited from Aristotle a worldview in which plants occupied the bottommost rung on the ladder of creation where their “life processes . . . are rendered as passive, mechanical processes” which “allows plants to be perceived as an animate kind of nonlife, as automatons.”[7] The Darwins and other botanists of the late-Victorian period quietly dealt a serious blow to this anthropocentrism by arguing that plants moved of their own volition.

In transcending the limits of physiological vision, The Birth of a Flower showed general audiences plant motion for the first time, and they were astounded; film historian Oliver Gaycken calls the film “a conspicuous hit” of the evening’s program (Devices, 71). An ecologically-minded viewer today can recognize the immense ethical importance of films like Birth, which leverage technology and art in order to put their audience into sensory contact with the agency of nonhuman beings. These films disturb our habitual assumption that humans are uniquely in control of nature by showing the hidden ways that nonhumans act in the world. Birth shows that flowers, conscious or not, are not passive objects awaiting manipulation by human subjects—in Heidegger’s terms, “standing-reserve” that exists to be instrumentalized—but unique actors capable of affecting the world around them without human intervention. Birth reveals plants to be “actants” in Bruno Latour’s sense: “any entity that modifies another entity . . . [and whose] competence is deduced from their performances.”[8] Actants are defined by their ability to affect things, and Smith’s film shows that plants have this ability in no uncertain terms. These plants were “performers” in more than the technical sense—they also performed the evening’s entertainment. For scholars committed to the analysis of art that might challenge anthropocentrism and, instead, “direct sensory, linguistic, and imaginative attention toward a material vitality,” Birth is a compelling case study.[9]

Moving Plants: Between Modernism and Realism

Smith’s plant film did more than simply popularize a scientific discovery; it was a participant in a broad cultural movement, defined by Miriam Hansen as vernacular modernism, in which “there . . . emerged new modes of organizing vision and sensory perception, a new relationship with ‘things,’ [and] different forms of mimetic experience and expression.”[10] Can there be any doubt that the time-lapse film is anything other than a “new mode of organizing vision and sensory perception”—one that not only augments the human sensorium, but reveals plants to be possessed of their own “private time” in the way that, according to Stephen Kern, the theories of relativity and modernist novels did for human beings?[11] The film also espouses a new relationship to “things,” insofar as it reveals plants to be agential, thing-like, and not passive “objects” in the thing/object dichotomy espoused by Bill Brown and Jane Bennett.[12] Birth even partakes of that most classic modernist move: defamiliarization. In Viktor Shklovsky’s original formulation, aesthetic defamiliarization produced by poetic language could “remove the automatism of perception.”[13] Birth defamiliarizes our perception of plants much more literally, by physically revealing their unseeable motion and thus estranging them from those inclined to view plants as mere matter. Crucially, the film is also a new form of “mimetic experience” that purports to reveal the previously unseen truth of plant movement to its audience. The film’s mimesis partakes of what Kracauer called cinema’s “realistic tendency.”[14] Birth relies on cinema’s ability to “record and reveal physical reality,” particularly movement—cinema’s original and unique object of representation (Kracauer, Theory, 28).[15] Birth’s status as a piece of vernacular modernism is intimately bound up with the film’s particular version of realism, not opposed to it.

Furthermore, despite the cinema’s strong mimesis and the film’s status as a nonfictional scientific curiosity, the contradictions internal to realism are also at work here. Surprisingly for a science film, it is the opposition of realism to romance (hereafter referred to as fantasy), identified by Jameson as one of realism’s many “antinomies,” that destabilizes its straightforward realist ambitions.[16] If, as Cleary argues, “modernism might now be viewed . . . as an attempted sublation of realism into more spatially and cognitively expansive forms,” Birth’s attempt to “spatially” expand cinematic realism to the realm of plant motion can be read as a “modernist” move. The film’s attempt to put the unseeable on display thus involves both the techniques of cinematic realism and the formal complexity traditionally associated with modernism (Cleary, “Realism,” 261).

The instability of the film’s realism is apparent in at least one contemporary reaction to it, which complicates my own claim about the film’s ecological sensibility. Amongst the many glowing reviews of The Birth of a Flower that marvel at the animal- and human-like qualities of plants in motion, one introduces an intriguing wrinkle into the straightforward narrative of ecological awakening: “By this process plants are transformed, as it were, into sentient beings.”[17] The syntax is telling: the “process”—Smith’s “Speed Magnification” technique—has grammatical agency. Technology is the actor in this formulation, and plants are merely “transformed,” as if by magic, “into sentient beings”—hardly the ecological interpretation I’ve been developing. And yet the reviewer is accurately describing the film: The Birth of a Flower relies upon technological manipulation to produce the illusion that plants are moving fast enough for humans to perceive. In fact, similar types of filmic manipulation were in widespread use in the genre of the “trick film,” whose development is most strongly associated with the fantasy films of George Meliès, and which often involved stage-magic tricks and fantastic plots created with skillful film editing. One of Smith’s great innovations was to apply similar techniques in the realm of the scientific film. It is not a stretch to suggest that the reviewer was, in a sense, entirely correct in attributing transformational agency to the technological apparatus. Thus Birth essentially blends the two earliest genres of cinema: the “actuality”—short, nonfiction recordings of real-world events in the style of the Lumières that I align with realism—and the “trick film,” aligned with fantasy. Tom Gunning notes that early cinema provided two types of attraction: either “a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in and of itself,” or an attraction “of a cinematic nature, such as . . . trick films in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty.”[18] Birth combines both modes. The sight of plants moving quickly enough to be detected by human vision neatly fits the first category, “a unique event . . . that is of interest in and of itself,” but the second category functions here as well. By tinkering with cameras and mastering creative editing, Smith used the tools of fantasy to create an “actuality,” and structurally Birth most resembles Gunning’s description of a trick film: “a series of displays, of magical attractions, rather than a primitive sketch of narrative continuity” (Gunning, “The Cinema,” 58). The film thoroughly straddles the boundary between actuality and trick film, and thus raises a thorny problem for any straightforward reading of its ecological politics by fundamentally troubling the camera’s claim to inscribe material reality: if Smith’s technological trickery was required to produce a sensory encounter with moving vegetation, does the film reveal or create the vibrant plants depicted on screen? The effect of “speed magnification” is, after all, an illusion produced by stitching together film frames captured at widely disparate moments, an exaggeration of the usual filmic illusion that seems to undercut the film’s claim to undercut the film’s claim to reveal the “truth” of plant movement.

These internal contradictions of genre, combined with its novel scientific content, brings the instability of film’s “realism” into sharp focus. Central to this instability is the film’s reliance on pure spectacle for its appeal, which hearkens back to earliest days of film some sixteen years before its premiere. It embraces what Gunning describes as the “unique power” of early cinema, “its ability to show something” (56, 57; emphasis in original). Despite Urban’s insistence that the film was educational, it is first and foremost exhibitionist. The attraction of the film is the spectacle of plant locomotion made visible—a “showing something” that had never been seen before. As Urban’s catalogue describes it, The Birth of a Flower reveals to our astonished eyes the wondrous happenings, the struggles and the aspirations, ever upward towards the light. . . . The moving picture opens up a new world to our gaze” (quoted in Gaycken, Devices, 78; emphasis mine). The film’s first attraction is its content: the surprising vitality of the plant, to reveal the nonhuman world as vibrant and agential despite our usual inability perceive this. Its second attraction is the very spectacle of “speed-magnification” as technique, the seeming mastery of filmmaker and camera over the rhythm of nature itself.

Thus The Birth of a Flower’s appeal lies as much in the technical mastery required to capture and display plant movement as it does in the movement of the plants themselves, and it is in this conjunction that the film thoroughly intertwines the threads of realism, fantasy, and modernism. The Birth of a Flower thus combines both elements of early film’s “attraction”: 1) a display of something “that is of interest in and of itself,” and 2) the illusory appeal of the trick film, whose apparent manipulation of matter through technology involves the appeal of stage magic. Birth’s reliance on the techniques of trick film might be thought of as a mobilization of fantasy in the service of realism, as science and technology reveal a world as fantastic as anything depicted in fantasy literature. The film thus functions as what Alberto Toscano describes as “the kind of fantasy that doesn’t rise above reality but allows us to grasp it.”[19] Actuality filming in the mode of the Lumière brothers could never depict plant movement, so the techniques of fantasy were required to “document” the phenomenon. The film’s status as a technological marvel prevents us from reading the film as a simple disclosure or inscription of vegetal agency wherein the nonhuman’s agential power is finally and concretely revealed for human apprehension.

Seeing Vegetal Entanglement: Plant, Human, Machine

The complications compound if we consider that—from a certain point of view—the plants themselves exerted agency over film technology. In order to film the movement of plants, Smith had to tinker and invent methods of filming suitable to the speed and bodily cycle of each flower—visible in the final film in the differing lengths of time compressed into a few seconds for each plant. Indeed, Smith would have had to submit his own body to the rhythm of plant life, checking the equipment and capturing images at intervals determined by the cycles of plant life over which he had no control. We cannot in any simple way claim that the film reveals or represents a preexisting plant agency; nor can we follow the argument of technological determinism, which would cede agency only to the machine (i.e., that the phenomenon of plant agency depends upon visual technology).

The preceding analysis of the film’s divided generic allegiances therefore reveals that the film is a combination of human and nonhuman agencies, of plant, filmmaker, camera, and more. The film’s complexity resembles Karen Barad’s contention that the entities studied by scientists are inevitably entangled with humans, technologies, and language because an observer’s interactions with an object actually produce particular phenomena: “we are a part of that nature that we seek to understand . . . our ability to understand the world hinges on our taking account of the fact that our knowledge-making practices are social-material enactments that contribute to, and are a part of, the phenomena we describe”; indeed, Birth suggests that these entanglements are not limited to the realm of quantum physics (the terrain of Barad’s study).[20] The contradictions raised by an examination of the film’s realist credentials cannot be resolved, as there is no clear hierarchy of agency or influence organizing the many actants involved in the film.

Two points emerge by way of conclusion. The first: that representing the usually invisible activity of plants necessarily combines the poles of realism, fantasy, and modernism. When the “real” is something that cannot be witnessed without technological mediation, “realism” will necessarily be structurally complex; in the context of early twentieth-century science film, the line between realism and modernism is entirely blurred. The second: ecological criticism that values the revelation or perception of nonhuman agencies must recognize that the aesthetic forms available to represent these agencies always involve an entanglement of human and nonhuman agencies (in this case, both vegetal and technological). If observing or representing the nonhuman world always implicates us in the products of that activity, perhaps The Birth of a Flower’s greatest strength is its ability to represent those entanglements themselves.

Even beyond the formal-historical analysis of the film’s genre and construction performed above, the film carries the traces of entanglement in its content. These traces are especially apparent if we compare Birth to Percy Smith’s later time-lapse films in the Secrets of Nature series for British Instructional Films in the 1920s and early 1930s.[21] These films display Smith’s mastery of the photographic processes he pioneered in the first decade of the century. The movement of corn in Amazing Maize (1933), for example, is smooth, beautiful, and even eerie in some moments. The slight jerkiness of The Birth of a Flower’s plants—which belies the process of the film’s physical editing—is brought into focus by the comparison. So too is the function of Birth’s intertitles, replaced by voice-overs that give lessons in biology and botany in the Secrets of Nature films. The original intertitles remind us of the film’s construction by human hands, literally inserted between frames of photographic film, and their content proudly announces the ingenuity of the filmmaker who composed the images. Birth wears its entanglements on its sleeve, which is precisely what makes its complex realism well suited to scientific modernity.


[1] See Devin Fore, Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA MIT Press, 2012); Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[2] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[3] Joe Cleary, “Realism after Modernism and the Literary World System.” Modern Language Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2012): 255–68, 267.

[4] Oliver Gaycken, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 78, 73.

[5] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Edition,” trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Jennings et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008): 19–55, 37. The Birth of a Flower was not, strictly speaking, humanity’s absolute first glimpse of plant movement. The German botanist Wilhelm Pfeffer created four time-lapse plant films between 1898 and 1900, but these were only used as a teaching aid in his lecture hall. The Institute Marey also created a film for the zoetrope that displayed a blooming Convolvulus flower sometime between 1899 and 1913, but it was most likely intended to test Marey`s time-lapse filming equipment and never displayed on a screen. See Gaycken, “The Secret Life of Plants,” 56–61 for the history of these films.

[6] Charles Darwin and Francis Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants (London: John Murray,1880): 573.

[7] Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany (New York: SUNY Press, 2011), 23, 46.

[8] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977), 3–35, 17; Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 237.

[9] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 17.

[10] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–77, 60.

[11] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983): 8 and passim. We should also note Kern’s argument in The Modernist Novel: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011): 105–108, that the modernist novel departed from the realist novel in its treatment of time and particularly, for my purposes, the “pace” of narrative. Where realism tended to speed up or skip over “unimportant” periods for its characters, modernism tends to slow down and pause on the quotidian. We could read Smith’s acceleration of plant movement as an analogous move whereby the pace of movement is adjusted by the artist in order to draw attention to the quotidian, usually overlooked activity of flowers. Another connection of interest to readers of Modernism/modernity is Enda Duffy’s contention that “speed is the only new pleasure invented by modernity” in The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009): 1. There are crucial differences, though, between time-lapse film and the visceral, physiological experience of speed that Duffy takes to be characteristic of modernity. For Duffy, it is the human body accelerating in the motor car that is emblematic of modernity, whereas in time-lapse nonhuman entities are sped-up to match the usual, biological pace of human activity. This connection to speed suggests compelling avenues for further consideration of Birth’s relationship to the theoretical and political issues that animate Duffy’s work, such as territorialization and colonialism, especially in light of Charles Urban’s production of travelogue films and newsreels from abroad; however, meaningful discussion of these problems is sadly outside the scope of this short essay.

[12] See Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 1–22; Bennett, Vibrant Matter.

[13] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 3–24, 22.

[14] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 33.

[15] In fact, Kracauer briefly mentions “the growth of plants” as one of the “things normally unseen” made perceptible by cinema’s “revealing function,” although he does not mention any specific films or filmmakers (Theory of Film, 52–53).

[16] Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013), 2.

[17] Anonymous review quoted in Gaycken, Devices, 73.

[18] Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Adam Barker and Thomas Elsaesser, (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 55–62, 59.

[19] Alberto Toscano, “The Promethean Gap: Modernism, Machines, and the Obsolescence of Man,” Modernism/modernity 23, no. 3 (2016): 593–609, 607.

[20] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 26; emphasis in original.

[21] In a recent article, Caroline Hovanec draws on early film theory and the London Film Society’s programs of the late 1920s and 1930s to argue that the Secrets of Nature series “warrants reappraisal as a modernist genre” (Caroline Hovanec, “Another Nature Speaks to the Camera: Natural History and Film Theory,” Modernism/modernity, 26, no. 2 [2019]: 243–65, 244).