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


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.


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


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.