The Great Train Robbery (1903): Porter and the Wild East

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If Méliès’ Trip to the Moon was significant for its fantastical escapism, Edwin S. Porter’s masterwork the following year made a strong case for realism in cinema. Remembered today as the medium’s first true Western,  The Great Train Robbery caused a sensation during its day for its revolutionary film effects. The movie executed two successful pans, introduced on-location shooting and a complicated (for its time) narrative arc. Today, it sits in perpetual competition to Méliès’ Trip to the Moon as the finest film of the 1900s.

Porter, a former Edison cameraman, was impressed by crime films of the day, and set about making his own. Favouring a rustic feel over the artificial in-studio production, Porter took his crew to locations just outside Edison studios in New Jersey. The result was a grittier adventure that showed the landscape as it actually was, not as elaborate set decorations interpreted it. Furthermore, the movie presented “real” people and real consequences, a true descendant of the documentary form pioneered by the medium’s first filmmakers. Although still clinging to the standard theatricality of the day, Porter’s rendition of the crime narrative was a landmark development in the burgeoning style of realism.

The Great Train Robbery is also notable for its fourth-wall-breaking finale. After the story wraps up and the bad guys have been taken care of, the closing shot portrays one of the outlaws (Justus D. Barnes) firing point blank at the audience. It is a unique ending, and maintains is stylistic flourish even to the modern viewer. In the context of its time, I predict that this ending was a relic of the old Edisonian filmmaking style. This shot closely matches Edison Studio’s documentary shorts of the late 1800s, and I assume it was meant to replicate that style. Whatever the origins, the shot is striking, and appears to pre-date the French New Wave movement of the 1950s. It is yet another example of the experimental nature of early cinema: an artform that is devoid of pronounced standards, and relishing in it.

 

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902): The Master and the Moon

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This is a big one. Georges Méliès’ 1902 picture Le Voyage dans la Lune is probably the first masterwork of cinema, and stands miles ahead of what we’ve seen so far. Not only did this work establish the science-fiction genre, but it elevated the potential of what filmmaking could accomplish and definitively marked the direction that the art form would pursue.

Excusing the crude metaphor, lets think of filmmaking so far as an elementary school science fair. All of the kids have been working hard to put together their display, some harder than others, but there has been some considerable effort put into each project. A few displays are crude, ugly and poorly constructed. They function as worthy projects, but there really isn’t anything special to be glimpsed. Another crop of entires make some innovative conclusions, and are quite beautifully presented. At any other year these would be the front runners for first place, but there’s one more project at the back of the fair. It stops you in your tracks, and you instantly forget about the other projects at the fair. The lone entry blows the competition out of the water, its not even close. The idea is novel, the display is astounding and the presentation transcends the juvenile competitors flanking it. This is the project that steals the show and redefines what a science fair project is capable of. This entrant is Georges Méliès, truly in a league of his own.

We’ve neglected Méliès for a few weeks because we wanted to save his best work to introduce him, and therefore strengthen his impact on the story of cinema. Méliès was born in 1861, and came of age under the guidance of his entrepreneur father. Taking little interest in the family business, the young Méliès sold his shares and pursued his interests in art. Méliès was particularly fond of stage magic, a passion that would find its way into his later film ventures, and likewise become inexplicably linked to cinematic special effects. In late 1895, Méliès witnessed a presentation of the cinematograph and immediately recognized its potential for facilitating stage magic. Within months, would Méliès would purchase an Animatograph film projector and dip his toes into the moviemaking world.

Leveraging his knowledge of illusion, Méliès developed a filmmaking style that was reliant on camera trickery and special effects. He experimented with superimposition, camera movement and accidentally invented the ‘substitution splice’ of cutting away from a frame to suddenly replace it with a disparate frame. But despite his impressive technical resumé, Méliès is regarded today as the medium’s first auteur. More than any of his contemporaries, Georges Méliès understood the artistic potential of cinematography, and he combined this with his knowledge of the illusory to create a unique style. This style was highly fantastical, and tended to curb the trajectory of the artform away from staunch realism and towards a playful albeit composed output.

In 1902 Méliès released the iconic Le Voyage dans la Lune, a loose adaptation of stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The movie depicts an excursion to the moon by a group of scientists, and the drama that unfolds as they fend off a tribe of aliens. It’s a simple concept by today’s standards, but in 1902 the idea was truly out of this world. Never mind that humans would not commence space travel for another 55 years, or that no reliable photographs of the moon surface existed, Méliès was determined to tell the story. In characteristic fashion, Méliès populated the set with elaborate backdrops, fantastical costumes and lots of magic. With a budget of 10,000 francs and a 3 month shooting schedule, Méliès and the crew got to work building complex moving backdrops and hired professional actors to populate the picture (although the director himself played the role of the protagonist). The film boasts a ravishing design, but it is the editing choices that reverberate throughout cinematic history. Méliès implemented every trick in his repertoire, including fades, pyrotechnics and dissolves. In the movie’s most recognized sequence, Méliès introduces the tracking shot by slowly zooming into the ‘man in moon’ surface, and then presents a quick substitution splice by cutting to the rocket lodged in the moon’s ‘eye.’

Méliès was successful, and his fantastical movies caught on with audiences across the world. His contemporaries noticed the appeal and production houses tailored their oeuvres to facilitate the Mélièsian method. We can see this as early as 1902, when the American Edison company released Jack and the Beanstalk, a whimsical fairytale in the style of Le Voyage. It was a pale imitation, and audiences realized it. So the American producers went straight to the source and began distributing pirated copies of Méliès’ masterpiece. The bootlegged versions did well, with Méliès receiving only a fraction of the money that his film would gross. He continued making films throughout the early 20th century, but the Edison company remained a fierce opponent to the French director. In an effort to monopolize the film industry, Edison collaborated with fellow titans of cinema to form the Motion Picture Patents Company. The MPCC expected a certain quota from American and European directors, an obligation that Méliès was hesitant to uphold. He fought back as best he could, but a string of disappointments and debts to the MPCC drove Méliès to bankruptcy and out of the film business.

Despite an unceremonious exit from the industry, Méliès developed a credibility amongst film scholars in subsequent decades. While many of his films were destroyed during World War I, a sect of devotees set about locating Le Voyage. A partial print was discovered in 1929, and enjoyed screenings in New York to much acclaim. It wasn’t until 1997, a mere 10 years ago, that a fully restored version of the film was produced from surviving splices of Méliès original work.

The effect of Le Voyage dans la Lune ripples throughout the history of cinema, and its influence can be found in far-reaching corners of the galaxy of film. Without Méliès’ voyage, Walt Disney remains an obscure illustrator and Star Wars is never realized. Without Méliès, Wes Anderson’s quirky set pieces are never built, and Steven Spielberg stays away from film school. Without Méliès, ‘movie magic’ doesn’t exist.

 

Histoire d’un crime (1901): Realism in Victorian Cinema

15histoire_dun-zeccaFerdinand Zecca’s Histoire d’un crime is the longest and most complex film that we’ve watched thus far. The movie comes in at over 5 minutes, contains about 5 scenes and has a sizeable cast of characters. Furthermore, the film makes use of some novel visual effects that were unparalleled at this stage in the cinematic story.

Given its complexity, Zecca’s film is also rather confusing to the modern viewer. The movie depicts the tragic arc of a would-be thief, whose failed heist leaves a guard dead and police in pursuit. The  robber escapes to a cafe where his peculiar spending draws attention and leads to his arrest. The man is brought to a jail cell, where a series of flashbacks, superimposed above the subject, expose the path that led him to crime. In a controversial finale, the man is executed via guillotine.

Histoire d’un crime is as notable for its storytelling innovations as it is for its subject matter. Zecca’s feature is among the first crime dramas to appear on the screen, and its subject matter has a lot to do with the converging cultural mores between the 19th and 20th centuries. Histoire was released in the dwindling years of the Victorian era, where the prim facade of industrial Europe was giving way to a seedy reality. After the Jack the Ripper murders terrorized London, the Western world was equally shocked and fascinated by this new breed of evil. Newspapers capitalized with a stream of sensationalist crime reporting, and a Gothic renaissance dominated the world of popular literature. It was also during this period that advancements in psychology and sociology dictated a new understanding of the criminal element, as well as the environment that fostered him.

Ferdinand Zecca’s production company tapped into the paranoia and sensationalism of the period to create their early crime masterpiece. Histoire is technically significant for its on-screen violence, camera tricks and multi-scene structure, but its real revolution is in its surprisingly progressive criminal assessment. The movie comes at a time when realism dominated the art world, but nonetheless personifies an archetypal Romantic hero. The criminal protagonist is certainly an unsavoury fellow, but he is not some faceless monster operating on a whim. Flashbacks depict a man working hard to provide for his family, and a wife who he embraces in admiration. Through a series of circumstances and poor decisions, the man is dropped into a life of alcoholism and burglary, resulting in the robbery that is the subject of the movie. The man breaks down in despair when he realizes the extent of his debauchery, and his climactic execution by guillotine leaves the audience despondent. It is interesting to see how advancements in the social sciences permeated society in such a way as to effect popular entertainment. Zecca’s movie is a product of its time, but its ripples can be seen today in any tragic crime archetype.

References
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01.shtml

How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900): The Cinema of Experience

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There’s a popular anecdote about the Lumière brothers’ 1896 film “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.”  According to the story, theatre-goers were initially distraught upon seeing the moving image, and feared that the approaching train in the movie was coming to run them down. Audience members were said to have fled from the theatre in a panic, only to return moments later in embarrassment. Whether this event actually happened is a matter of debate, but there is no denying the impact that moving images could have on the unsuspecting patrons. Much in the same way that virtual reality tantalizes the senses today, one can imagine the exciting prospects of motion pictures to people at the turn of the century.

How it Feels To Be Run Over could be considered the first exploitation film. Rather than capitalizing on some political/cultural movement, Cecil Hepworth’s 1900 film exploits the human mind. Like Edison in America and the Lumières in France, Britain’s Hepworth was engaged in designing a cinema of experience, rather than a cinema of drama. How it Feels to Be Run Over is unique to the motion picture medium, and tantalizes the viewer with a physiological reaction, rather than a response built on emotion. The plot-free picture presents the passive observer with the image of a car approaching from a distance. As can be imagined, the car commences straight toward the screen, eventually eclipsing the screen in a wash of black. And thus, the shocked viewer has experienced what it feels like to be run over.

How it Feels to Be Run Over was Cecil Hepworth’s third film in a career spanning 30 years. The 26 year old enjoyed an early beginning in the film industry, and built a studio to rival his contemporaries in 1899. The studio was producing about 3 films a week by 1900, and the enterprising Hepworth was looking to find his directorial voice. Early efforts relied on cinematography tricks and other gimmicks to entice the audience, such as his debut about a magician performing illusions. How it Feels to Be Run Over blossomed out of this period as a novelty short, and it seemed to have caught the attention of audiences. Driven by audience intrigue, Hepworth followed this up with the more sensational Explosion of a Motor Car, which he claimed as his most successful movie at the time (Hepworth 51). It appears that today’s explosion-heavy blockbusters owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Hepworth.

Melissa and I watched Hepworth’s early classic a few days ago, almost 117 years after it was released. We had 2 other movies on the agenda, so we were eager to get this one out of the way and move into the 20th century proper. As we anticipated the grainy car coming straight for us, something unexpected happened: Melissa jolted back in surprise.

“That scared me. I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.

I was in disbelief. Given that I knew the title and the general effect of the movie, the “collision” wasn’t much of a shock for me. But Melissa didn’t have had preconceptions, just a grainy image and a slow-moving jalopy. Despite years of movie experience, as well as a solid technical background under her belt, Melissa was taken aback by a cheap effect from 1900.

I think we are too eager to dismiss the films of yesteryear as simplistic or unengaging. We laugh in derision when we hear about the panicked theatre-goers running from a train, yet we find it perfectly acceptable to cry at the latest Oscar-bait. Movies are about reaching us on an emotional level, despite their frame-rate or audio quality. I think Hepworth would be delighted to know that all these years later, his movies are still making audiences jump.

Hepworth, Cecil M. Came the dawn; memories of a film pioneer. London: Phoenix House, 1951. Web.

The Biter Bit (1899): The Remake Model

13biter_bit-bamforthIf you’re anything like me, you’ve grown a little weary of the glut of remakes, spinoffs and sequels currently saturating the movie industry. As I write this, the latest Star Wars sequel-prequel-spinoff has clasped the zeitgeist and is making all kinds of money worldwide. Within the last 10 years, 8 of the 10 highest grossing movies were sequels, spinoffs or additions to an extended cinematic universe. The current appetite is for familiarity over originality, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere yet.

And it seems like this has persisted for longer than we thought. This week we looked at our first remake; James Bamforth’s The Biter Bit from 1899. Bamforth’s film is a British take on the 1895 French comedy The Sprinkler SprinkledYou may remember that Sprinkler was something of a hit when it was released, and made tremendous progress towards advancing narrative film. The success of the movie attracted the attentions of fellow filmmakers, who exploited lax copyright laws to develop their own versions of the picture. The result was an avalanche of remakes, which were steadily pumped out over the next five years.

Bamforth’s iteration of Sprinkler Sprinkled isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t improve upon the original premise, nor does it advance the filmmaking medium in any significant way. Yet the movie deserves recognition as a successful remake. Imitation is the currency of filmmaking, and the artform is perhaps more susceptible to copying than any other. On the contrary, movie production encourages replication, not only as a money-making endeavour, but as a means to maintaining the status quo. Filmmaking is built upon a very specific grammar, and audiences subconsciously recognize and rely on this grammar to lead them through a story. Every once in a while an innovator will tamper with movie conventions and create something extraordinary, but movies remain stagnant for the most part. Even within the latest blockbuster smash, you find the DNA of filmmaking’s earliest productions.

Perhaps reproductionists like Bamforth recognized the stagnation of moviemaking before their contemporaries. Whether or not you agree with the remake ethos, you have to admit that Bamforth had the business-savy to survive in the early days of motion pictures.

Come Along, Do! (1898): Lost and Forgotten

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Right off the bat, I have to apologize. Posting has been sparse as of late, as I quietly leave the ‘post-a-week’ format behind. I would love to be writing a weekly blog, but certain developments have prevented me from keeping the original schedule (laziness being the prime culprit). But have no fear, this blog project will continue, and I hope to get back on the intended schedule soon.

Part of the reason for the hiatus is the film we’re looking at in this blog post. Come Along, Do! (1898) is just -kind of boring. The movie is 1 minute and 38 seconds (too) long, and there just isn’t a lot to it. The film is essentially one shot of a couple talking (flirting?) outside of an art gallery, followed by a few shots of the gentleman admiring a nude statue while is wife looks away in shame. Melissa and I glanced at this thing a few weeks ago, and were equally confused. We immediately forgot about it, and moved on with our day.

It’s dull, even by 19th-century-film standards. But I think that I should offer a few words in defence of Robert W. Paul’s short. Come Along, Do! is considered a ‘lost film’, a movie that, for whatever reason, is no longer available for viewing. Reasons could include technological constraints, insufficient production numbers, or improper handling of the original edition. Lost films were common amongst the growing pains of film’s early years (1896 lists 20 lost films alone on the “Lost Films” Wikipedia page). Besides this, there are a large number of movies that are considered “partially lost”, such as Come Along, Do!. With this case, the first half of the movie is available for viewing in all its grainy glory, but the second half has been reduced to a series of still images. I couldn’t quite determine why this movie was partially lost, I guess these things tended to happen. Either way, not a terrible loss, right?

Well, actually, it is rather unfortunate. It may not look like much, but Come Along, Do! was rather significant for the development of cinema. Robert W. Paul’s movie is today considered one of the premier examples of a multi-scene structure in a narrative film (it may even be the first). As we’ve seen from previous examples, the early days of film consisted of a strict one scene rule (the Coronatation of Csar Nicholas was an exception, but I’m assuming the multi-shot depiction was a series of individual movies). Of course, the multi-scene structure seems kind of inevitable in hind-sight, but I think we need to give Paul a little more credit. After all, early filmmakers often based their work on the continuous nature of theatre performances, so suddenly ‘cutting’ to an entirely new setting is rather revolutionary. It’s quite an achievement, too bad the movie was a bit of a dud.

 

The X-Rays (1897): Another Piece of the Puzzle

11the_x-rays-smithWe’re back at it this week after more than a month off. With just three years left in the 19th century oeuvre, we’re seeing film exit its embryonic stage as directors experiment with the storytelling mechanisms of the medium. This week’s movie, The X-Rays, is another example of the artistic innovation sweeping across the moviemaking world.

Every art form benefits from certain aesthetic “tricks” that can only be established by that avenue. A novelist might rely on wordplay, a visual artist will return to reliable brushstroke patterns, and a musician understands which harmonies rile which emotions. Filmmaking is no different, it just took a bit of time to figure out. Some call this the “visual grammar” of a movie, others call it “special effects” (often pejoratively) and some prefer the even broader “style.” Whatever the term, there exists a reliable toolkit of visual techniques that, when deployed, stir our emotions and create magic on the screen. George Albert Smith’s 1897 short The X-Rays showcases one of the earliest of these techniques: the jump cut. This technique involves an abrupt change in visual information, either through editing technique or physical camera movement. The move is most often associated with the fantastical work of magician Georges Méliès (who we’ll be seeing soon) and the artsy New Wave movies of the 1960s.

The jump cut was a particular favorite of  primitive filmmakers because it was easy to execute and dazzled the eye. This tactic was really the first visual effect, and helped add a bit of zest to movie projects. In an era where directors were torn between documentary realism or simply filming stage plays, the jump cut injected an essence of magic for the viewer to behold. We have seen the magic of unreality before (specifically in Pauvre Pierrot) but that required painstaking hours of labour to create the effect. With the jump cut, any live action scene could be spliced with a disparate shot, opening the floodgates for all sorts of narrative tricks. Suddenly, directors started to consider what they could accomplish during the editing process, and set about staging their films entirely with editing in mind.

The X-Rays is focused around a single jump cut gag. A couple, sitting alone is subjected to an “X-Ray” camera that instantly exposes their skeletons to the viewer. Is it a metaphor for the necessary transparency of love? Is the director exploring the underlying human similarities despite gender roles? Are we shocked into disbelief at the thought of out eventual mortality? No, probably not. The movie is a simple comedy, likely composed to show off the nifty new jump cut more than anything else. But its important to note where special effects began, and movies like this are a good place to start. I hope that by now you are understanding the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up the history of film. We start with one piece; camera technology. Then we add ideas like fictional filmmaking, documentary, or animation. Next we add in visual techniques, like lighting, staging and camera angle. In 1897, special effects got thrown into the mix, and now we see a cavalcade of possibilities opening up for the next century.