Watch the First Movie Ever Streamed on the Net: Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

When the World Wide Web made its pub­lic debut in the ear­ly nine­teen-nineties, it fas­ci­nat­ed many and struck some as rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but the idea of watch­ing a film online would still have sound­ed like sheer fan­ta­sy. Yet on May 23rd, 1993, report­ed the New York Times’ John Markoff, “a small audi­ence scat­tered among a few dozen com­put­er lab­o­ra­to­ries gath­ered” to “watch the first movie to be trans­mit­ted on the Inter­net — the glob­al com­put­er net­work that con­nects mil­lions of sci­en­tists and aca­d­e­m­ic researchers and hith­er­to has been a medi­um for swap­ping research notes and an occa­sion­al still image.”

That expla­na­tion speaks vol­umes about how life online was per­ceived by the aver­age New York Times read­er three decades ago. But it was hard­ly the aver­age New York Times read­er who tuned into the inter­net’s very first film screen­ing, whose fea­ture pre­sen­ta­tion was Wax or the Dis­cov­ery of Tele­vi­sion Among the Bees. Com­plet­ed in 1991 by artist David Blair, this hybrid fic­tion and essay-film offered to its view­ers what Times crit­ic Stephen Hold­en called “a mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional fam­i­ly saga as it might be imag­ined by a cyber­punk nov­el­ist. It flash­es all the way back to the sto­ry of Cain and Abel and the Tow­er of Babel and for­ward to the nar­ra­tor’s own death, birth and rebirth in an act of vio­lence.”

Jacob Mak­er, the nar­ra­tor, was once a hum­ble mis­sile-guid­ance sys­tem engi­neer. But increas­ing dis­en­chant­ment with his line of work pushed him into the api­ar­i­an arts, in homage to his famous bee­keep­er grand­son Jacob Hive Mak­er. That the lat­ter is played by William S. Bur­roughs sug­gests that Wax has the mak­ings of a “cult clas­sic,” as does the film’s con­struc­tion, in large part out of found footage, jux­ta­posed and manip­u­lat­ed into a dig­i­tal psy­che­delia. Its nar­ra­tive — amus­ing, ref­er­ence-rich, and bewil­der­ing­ly com­plex for an 85-minute run­time — has Jacob men­tal­ly over­tak­en by his own bees, who implant a tele­vi­sion into his brain and repro­gram him as an assas­sin.

With Wax, writes Screen Slate’s Sean Ben­jamin, “Blair laid an extrap­o­la­tion of La Jetée atop a bedrock of Thomas Pyn­chon and came out with some­thing clos­est to ear­ly Peter Green­away — yet ulti­mate­ly sin­gu­lar.” And on an inter­net that could only broad­cast it “at the dream-like rate of two frames a sec­ond” in black-and-white, it must have made for a sin­gu­lar view­ing expe­ri­ence indeed. Back then, as Markoff wrote, “dig­i­tal broad­cast­ing was not yet ready for prime time.”

Today, in our age of stream­ing, dig­i­tal broad­cast­ing has dis­placed prime time, and it feels only prop­er that we can watch Wax on Youtube, where Blair has uploaded it as part of a larg­er, ongo­ing, and not-eas­i­ly-grasped ongo­ing dig­i­tal film project. “There is a sense in which we have all had tele­vi­sions implant­ed in our heads,” Hold­en reflect­ed in 1992. “Who real­ly knows what those end­less reruns are doing to us?” Even now, the inter­net has only just begun to trans­form not just how we watch movies, but how we com­mu­ni­cate, con­duct our dai­ly lives, and even think. We can all see some­thing of our­selves in Jacob Mak­er — and on today’s inter­net, we can see it much more clear­ly.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Very First Web­cam Was Invent­ed to Keep an Eye on a Cof­fee Pot at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Cyber­punk: 1990 Doc­u­men­tary Fea­tur­ing William Gib­son & Tim­o­thy Leary Intro­duces the Cyber­punk Cul­ture

Dar­win: A 1993 Film by Peter Green­away

Mes­mer­iz­ing Time­lapse Film Cap­tures the Won­der of Bees Being Born

The First Music Stream­ing Ser­vice Was Invent­ed in 1881: Dis­cov­er the Théâtro­phone

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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