December 8, 2009
The decade is almost at a close, and a deluge of film lists has started the conversation about who were the vital movie artists over the past ten years. All of them are worth scrolling through to stoke some self-righteous anger or gratifying head nods, but before I pull together my chin-scratcher about the end of the oughts, I thought I’d take a look back at the first decade of the previous century. This is the period where cinematic language was transitioning between what Tom Gunning famously termed the “cinema of attractions”, which favored spectacle over story, and the emotionally motivated narratives of D.W. Griffith. Consider this list a work-in-progress, a wish for more suggestions and thoughts on this wondrous period, when the future of the art was up for grabs. I ended up with twelve films of varying lengths and complexity, but all of them are valuable not just for their place in history, but their vibrancy as moving images. These are unranked, in chronological order.
How It Feels To Be Run Over (1900, Directed By Cecil M. Hepworth)
A forty second joke based on an experiment in point-of-view and audience expectations. The camera is set at a low angle on a country road, and when the first horse-and-buggy turns the corner, one expects it to crash right into us, since we’ve been cued by the title to take the POV of the camera. But no, Hepworth, with a dry sense of humor, has it drive right by for a simple actualité, something not out of place in a Lumiere retro. Soon, though, another carriage comes hurtling towards the lens, and this time it doesn’t stop, busting straight over the camera (and us), before one of the earliest uses of intertitles flashes on-screen over our blackout: !!! Oh Mother Will be Pleased.” And it’s the end.
With its misdirection, canny use of the camera as audience surrogate, and slapstick sense of humor, it’s a compact little masterpiece.
What Happened on 23rd St. New York City (1901, Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming)
Another documentary scene that then explodes into fiction. On 23rd St. near the Flatiron Building, New Yorkers pass by the camera and look in sheepishly, or glance quickly and then scamper away. It again has the feel of an early Lumiere brothers picture. But Porter, the pioneer of narrative filmmaking, couldn’t help but slip in a little slip of a story: thus, the dangers of the air shaft are proven underneath the billowing waves of a young woman’s skirt. Yes, she steps over the shaft and shamefacedly shows the world her abundant undergarments. A direct ancestor to Marilyn Monroe’s scene in The Seven Year Itch:
Jack and the Beanstalk (1902, Edwin S. Porter & George S. Fleming)
Another early triumph from Porter, this lucid re-telling of the fable displays adept use of double-exposures and theatricalized space while maintaining continuity from shot to shot, in one of the earliest instances of sustained storytelling. But the joys here are beyond such historical accomplishments. There is real unpolished magic in the hop-skipping cloth cow, whose exuberant jig tips over a prop rake before he’s sold down the river. There’s a delight in performance here that’s impossible to resist . Then there’s the set design, which goes from cardboard cut-outs to densely layered fantasy in the final shot, a child’s paradise of sailboats, pinwheels, and dense (plastic) jungle undergrowth.
A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Melies)
No more words need be spilled on this immortal work of film magic, just watch and awe at the moon’s grimacing face. There is no cinema without Melies.
The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin S. Porter)
Essential to view with the proper tinting and coloring, but even in sub-par YouTube versions, it’s essential. My favorite scene is in the dance-hall, where a group of locals whoop it up, even employing a revolver or two to goose things along. It has the ritual feel of the dance sequences in John Ford’s work.
The Georgetown Loop (1903, American Mutoscope and Biograph)
Ladies and gents wave their hankies at the camera as a train wends its way through Colorado. Absolutely hypnotic, for the undulating lines of the camera, which piggyback on one of the first “tracking shots”. The passengers are brazenly, confrontationally happy, thrilled with the advances of technology and the nearness of their hankies, which they wave out of the window with reckless abandon. The patterns these fluttering white blobs create is often breathtaking.
Coney Island at Night (1905, Porter)
Sensing a theme here? Porter rather owned this decade. This is one of the documentary subjects he churned out, but it also just happened to be uncannily beautiful. Tracing the arcs of the lights in Coney Island in pitch-blackness, the camera slowly pans around the flow of electricity. A serene, melancholy oddity of devastating effectiveness. It presents Coney Island in an abstracted, incredibly pure state: just a blast of illumination to bring us all back to our childhoods: pure dreamland.
The Consequences of Feminism (1909, Alice Guy)
A raucously funny comedy of the sexes, in which gender roles are reversed and the woman walk around with machismo sweating out of their pores. They drop their kids off with their husbands before heading the gentlewomen’s club to talk stocks with their tight knit pals. The ending reverses field, restoring the role of man and undercutting Guy’s social commentary, but the sheer joy in which she depicted these super-virile women gives her true motives away.
Le Printemps (1909, Louis Feuillade)
An oddity from the king of serialized conspiracies and violence, this is a cutesy short symbolizing the coming of spring in a variety of forms: from woodland sprites to cherubs to plain ruddy-faced angels. Shot with an oval masking so the film’s frame looks like a lover’s pendant, it contains stunning nature photography, verdant and shot through with dew.
Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy (1909, J. Stuart Blackton)
Totally bonkers, this short finds a belligerent smoker conversing with the fairies living in his tobacco stash. One ducks under the cigar box, the other in his pipe. With ingenious use of gigantic props to convey the size difference, along with a mastery of special effects (double-exposures, split-screens, etc.), it’s perhaps the first film to show the dangers of smoking – or at least the dangers of fighting with tobacco-nymphs.
Those Awful Hats (1909, D.W. Griffith)
A timeless subject – the evils of elaborate hats worn at cinemas – is turned into a delightfully surreal short by D.W. Griffith. A parade of flowery-hatted women enter a rather ratty theater, when the patrons get jumpy at their blocked view. It’s not until a jaws-of-life type deus-ex-machina disposes of the offending headwear that things start getting weird.
A Corner in Wheat (1909, Griffith)
A masterclass in parallel editing, as Griffith compares the plight of the poor wheat farmers as compared to the capitalist wheat king, whose stock speculations have sent his net worth soaring. With sterling cinematography from Billy Bitzer of the hard bitten life relentlessly cut with debauched parties with wide-eyed bozos, from breadlines to cocktail lines, it’s no surprise this finely tuned cinematic machine springs a trap for the spiritually poor Wheat King. A beautiful and devastating piece of work – and achieving a level of suspense far beyond Porter’s more linear technique.