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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Landmarks of Early Film #1

Over the past few years, I've been watching a lot of early movies in more or less chronological order. I started doing this fairly systematically in 2009, but the first early-movie DVD I got from Netflix was back in December 2007: Landmarks of Early Film #1. This is a collection of movies from the earliest days of the Edison company and the Lumiere Bros. through D. W. Griffiths and the Keystone Cops. It was a great place to start my exploration of movie history.

Most of the movies on this disc are of primarily historical interest. The earliest ones were primarily experiments, though an interest in storytelling develops early on. Many of the early films were "actualites"--essentially what we would now call documentaries, though very brief and with a stationary camera. People would set up a camera outside a factory or in a train station and simply film what was going on. (Of course, one has to suspect that pretty soon the filmmakers started manipulating events in order to get more interesting results.)

Slapstick comedy is one of the genres that developed very early. Much of it isn't very interesting, at least to me. The humor often seems heavy-handed.

The three most famous movies on this disc are "The Great Train Robbery" by Edwin Porter from 1903, sometimes called the first Western; "A Voyage to the Moon" (1902) by the Frenchmoviemaker Georges Melies; and "A Girl and Her Trust" (1912) by D. W. Griffith. "Robbery" is historically interesting and somewhat enjoyable. The most talked-about moment in the movie is usually shown at the end, when one of the robbers turns and fires his gun at the camera; this seems to have nothing to do with the story (the robbers have been caught by this point), and as I understand no one really knows when it was originally supposed to be shown. "A Voyage to the Moon" seems to be largely based on Jules Verne. It's the most famous movie by Melies, who began as a stage magician and is best known for his development of special effects. Melies doesn't do a lot for me--I recognize that his technical wizardry was impressive, and that he had a quirky imagination, and I have more respect for what he did than for the bloated CGI that audiences flock to see today. But there doesn't seem to be any heart in his films--they're all trickery and crude spectacle. Historically interesting, but not particularly meaningful on other counts.

Griffith's "A Girl and Her Trust," on the other hand (a revision of a movie called "The Lonedale Operator"), is great melodrama with a plucky heroine who saves a safe from a gang of bandits (largely, in the final climax, by simply hanging on to it as they drive off with it--and her--along the railroad tracks). It has one of the great early chase scenes in the movies, and a lovely final shot of the heroine and her boyfriend sharing a sandwich while riding on the bumper of the train that has rescued her. Watching this movie made me a fan of Griffiths--about whom more to come if I continue this series.


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