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.


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