Monday, July 30, 2007

The Movies Begin part five

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Five: Comedy, Spectacle and New Horizons, 1908-1913

This is the last post in a series of five on this subject. There may be some value in scrolling down to the first entry and starting from there.

Max Linder was the first great comic genius of the silent era (before Chaplin and Keaton). This disc contains Max reprend sa liberté / Troubles of a Grass Widower aka Max and the Fowl (1912), in which Max is left alone after his wife leaves him, and has to fend for himself, with dire results. It is sophisticated fare for its day, and still very funny.

The disc contains three other comedies, including the debut of the Keystone Cops in Bangville Police, with Mabel Normand; and Jean Durand’s Onésime horloger / Onésime, Clock-Maker (1912), written by Louis Feuillade. This features Eugene Bourbon as the title character, who speeds up time in order to get an inheritance as quickly as possible. Durand uses time-lapse photography to create variations on the film’s one joke, which has everyone careening around like mad. This was another film beloved by the Dadaists and Surrealists, and was a model for René Clair's experiments with motion in Entr'acte (1924), based on a screenplay by Francis Picabia, and featuring cameos by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Bourbon’s performance in Onésime includes a head-scratching mannerism that would be made familiar by Stan Laurel. It’s dated now, but great fun,

Luigi Maggi’s Nerone / Nero, or the Fall of Rome (1909), is a color tinted 14 minute drama that in some ways anticipates Giovanni Pastrone’s great epic Cabiria (1914). It’s slow going, but has something of the feel that has informed all the cinematic depictions of Rome.

Winsor McCay was American cinema's first great cartoon animator. This disc contains Winsor McCay and His Animated Pictures, a showcase for this creator of Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. If, like myself, you are unfamiliar with McCay’s work, this short film will make you want to see more, I would think.

There is a D.W. Griffth short on this disc, too, The Girl and Her Trust (1912), featuring Dorothy Bernard. It’s an excellent demonstration of both Griffith’s technical finesse and his ability to create authentic movie drama. The cross-cutting, the close-ups, and location shooting are all there, crude as they may be by today’s standards, and they work exceedingly well. Two things are obviously true as evidenced by the films in this anthology. One is how much movies have changed. The other is how they have not. And there’s a good deal of pleasure (and personal education) in finding out how.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Movies Begin part four

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Four: The Magic of Méliès

Georges Méliès was a supremely talented artist who made extraordinarily boring films, with some notable exceptions. Mr. Stop Motion was the master of the double exposure and a clever editor, but the “magic” in his films was often very literal. Much of his work serves as a perfect example of film in service to theater. He simply set up a stage show in front of the camera and filmed it. Worse, he was an illusionist, and many of his films are just magic tricks done for the camera and enhanced by special effects.

One of the exceptions to this is the deservedly famous Le Voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), which is on the first disc of this anthology. Disc four is all Méliès, and it includes L’ Voyage à travers l'impossible / The Impossible Voyage (1904), a wonderfully imaginative, hand colored science fiction movie in which the special effects really are magical. As with A Trip to the Moon, it was based on a Jules Verne story. The sets and model-work are very creative, and, although it is as cinematically static as his other films, this 24 minute romp involving trains, automobiles, dirigible balloons, submarines and boats is totally silly and very entertaining.

The last item on this disc is Georges Méliès: Cinema Magician, a documentary by Luciano Martinengo and Patrick Montgomery, which I found impossible to watch, just because it seemed to consist mainly of more footage of Méliès performing magic tricks for the camera. After about seven or eight minutes, I gave up.

There’s no doubt that Georges Méliès is a significant figure in cinema history. A Trip to the Moon alone would guarantee that fact. He was the first to use production sketches and storyboards. Edison discovered stop-motion, but it was Méliès who explored its possibilities. In his bio at the IMDB, Chaplin is quoted, calling Méliès “the alchemist of light,” and D.W. Griffith, too, who said, "I owe him everything."

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Movies Begin part three

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Three: Experimentation and Discovery, 1898-1910

The oldest extant piece of writing contains a recipe for beer. No surprise, then, the very first advertisement ever put on film was for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey (1898). It is on this disc. Also on this disc are two serious contender’s for my favorite works in this entire 5-DVD anthology: A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works (1906), made by the Cricks and Sharp company, and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910), made by Charles Urban for the Kineto company. These two films constitute a crucial link between the “actualities” of the Lumière Brothers and others, and modern documentary film.

Featuring the use of indoor arc lighting, Peak Frean is a very plain film, twelve minutes long, showing people at work in a biscuit (cookie) factory. It is totally fascinating. This is a direction that film might have taken, simple documentation, showing the lives of men, women and children in their everyday endeavors.

The world of my childhood was closer to the realm of Charles Dickens than it was to the world I live in now; it was chronologically closer, too. I believe that documentary details of daily life back then would make very compelling viewing today. Just showing what people did and how they did it. The value of many period movies is based in recreating such details, such as the endless flow of movies set in the 1940s and 1950s, for example. I don’t believe that the hook of sociopolitical commentary is necessary to make such material compelling.

At least, we have everyday life of today covered: endless car chases, massive explosions, people turning into spiders, zombies roaming the streets. But I digress. Peak Frean and Coal Miner are sufficient evidence that minimal staging (people doing what they actually do, although inevitably conscious of being filmed), is more than enough. There’s an excellent account of and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner by Ion Martea at Culture Wars, here:

There is a lot more on this disc, including short films by Cecil Hepworth and Ferdinand Zecca, the Edison Manufacturing Company’s ads, and Albert Capellani’s Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse / Aladin, or the Wonderful Lamp (1906), with hand-painted color film and twelve minutes worth of vaudevillian antics. And there is the pièce de résistance, Edwin S. Porter's The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), accurately described as, “…a stunning visual fantasy adapted from the comics of Winsor McCay.”

There’s a lot of experimentation and innovation in the films on this disc, and it does give credence to the claim that mainstream movies have been limited to particular narrative focus, but I would argue again that many of the possibilities indicted on this disc have been subsumed in that process, rather than eliminated. Watching these old movies really does give a fresh perspective to our views of film in our own time. It’s a journey worth taking.

The Movies Begin part two

The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinemas (1894-1913) Volume Two: The European Pioneers, 1895-1906

This disc contains the vital pioneering works of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, as well as several early British innovators: Robert W. Paul, George Albert Smith, Frank Mottershaw, James Bamforth and James A. Williamson. Many of these short films are what were known as “actualities” – minute documentaries. There are experiments with stop-motion and special effects, even at this early stage.

Here is the first part of the description on the back cover of this DVD, regarding the Lumière films:

“While some consider the cinema a distinctly American invention, the most influential figures during its infancy were two brothers in France: Auguste and Louis Lumière. In the beginning, they dominated world film production and distribution. Through the magic of cinema, such ordinary sights as the demolition of a wall, the arrival of a train, a family enjoying breakfast, or workers exiting a factory were transformed into mystifying spectacles of light and motion, having their premiere on December 28, 1895.”

“Mystifying spectacles of light and motion,” does characterize the aesthetic value of these films. Beyond that, there is the historical value, and the not inconsiderable impact of getting views of “real life” and real people from more than a hundred years ago.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Movies Begin part one

The Movies Begin - A Treasury of Early Cinema, 1894-1913 (1903) 5 DVD boxset, Kino Video, 2002
Volume One: The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works, 1893-1907

If cinema has a prehistory, this would be it. Watching early silent films involves some adjustment in expectation. Having a serious interest in the origins of the art does help, and I don’t mean a purely academic interest, I mean an interest in elements of these early films that may enhance our appreciation of the art.

In a review of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915), an IMDB writer had this to say:

“I suppose it behooves us to know the history of cinema. Its not that long and some of this early stuff had unintended and possibly outrageous influence. The situation was that in the ten years prior there were all sorts of possibilities for film. It could have been an extension of painting, of dance, of photography (which then had a strong artistic tradition). But Birth of a Nation terminated all futures (at least until recently) and froze film as an extension of theater. That's a crying shame.”

There are many radical reviewers at IDBM, and “tedg” is one that I value, even though I disagree with him much of the time.

Les Vampires is a serial of ten epsiodes about a government investigator, played by Édouard Mathé, who tracks a gang of thieves and murderers – Les Vampires – in the Paris underworld, including the fabulous Irma Vep, played by Musidora. André Breton and Luis Buñuel were both avid admirers of this work.

I’m pretty far from convinced that the cinematic developments created by Feuillade, and by the makers of what were considered the first feature films had “frozen film as an extension of theater” as “tedg” claims. Enrico Guazzoni’s two-hour costume drama Quo Vadis? (1912, no longer in existence), Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), two hours plus, and The Birth of a Nation (1915), two to three hours, depending the version, were the first feature length movies.

In purely cinematic terms, Griffith had been central in the evolution of a new vocabulary long before he made The Birth of a Nation. Even if his decisions about what to film were pedestrian, his decisions about how to film were a major contribution to the art. As far as narrative was concerned, that had been there all along, even with Lumiere’s workers leaving the factory and the train coming into the station, there was narrative. Maybe these innovators initiated a less than ideal form of narrative, one that was overly literal. I’m not so sure. Here is more from “tedg”:

“In fact, the pattern even extended to vast periods of time just watching people walk, climb (we have to see the whole thing) and run. In modern times, this extended to the convenient TeeVee filler of watching the detectives walk to their car, get in, start up and drive away. We have to see the entire thing. There's no art here, no innovation in framing, tone... any element. Just a history lesson in how the banal became acceptable.”

I admire his vigilance. I share his desire for imaginative filming and editing, and I do think that it has been most unfortunate that the domination of storytelling has forced certain kinds of filmmaking to one side.

However, there is a rich tradition of “alternative” cinema, from the work of Man Ray through Stan Brakhage, to Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman, and beyond, in which all kinds of possibilities have been explored and augmented. More significantly, the history of commercial cinema has endless examples of innovation that have extended film as an extension of painting, dance, photography, poetry, and so on. In fact, watching the movies on this DVD is fascinating for its own sake, but also as a reminder of the riches that followed these pioneering efforts.

The Movies Begin starts with a few Eadweard Muybridge sequences, then there’s a selection of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes, a bunch of famous Lumieres. It ends with some celebrated landmarks of film history: Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, and Ferdinand Zecca's Le Scarab’ee d’Or / The Golden Beetle. I was unfamiliar with the Zecca’s work, and amazed by Le Scarab’ee d’Or, a colorful pantomime with an amusing feminist sting in its tail.