Friday, 31 January 2014

Guest Post: Silent Movies & The Birth of a Revolution (by Paul Jensen)

Paul Jensen is a film historian and instructor at Vancouver Film School. He's also a good friend who makes one helluva martini! We invited him to share his expert opinion on the subject of his choice.

One shot, one minute! Film began as documentary (Louis Lumière's Exiting the Factory), capturing life in a way that had never been done before. To watch living things move on screen: was this some weird kind of immortality? Characters doomed to repeat the same gestures over and over again like ghosts haunting our theaters? The experience it offered was groundbreaking.

It’s incredible to think that, at the time, many people were skeptical of this new gimmick called "movies", convinced it was a fad or some fading trend that would disappear within a few years.  Others questioned the point or value of it, assuming it was only good for slapstick comedy at best or pornography at worst. For twenty years the debate raged back and forth. Meanwhile, countless short films continued to be released and loved.  

Then came D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915, a game-changer that would elevate the potential of film to a whole new level. At well over 3-hours long, Birth of a Nation proved to producers and theatre owners that people were not only willing to watch a linear story from beginning to end, but also invest a good chunk of time doing so. It also proved that audiences were more sophisticated than some may have thought, able to make sense of Griffith’s avant-garde editing style which had been influenced by movies like Edwin Porter’s Great Train Robbery and the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria.

What was it that captured audiences so?  In a word, it was the story. Griffith (along with the Lumiere brothers and Porter) understood this, making story increasingly prominent in their films and inventing a vocabulary for film that is still being used today by directors who stand on the shoulders of film's early pioneers. True, Birth of a Nation contains racists views that feel incredibly dated and offensive today, so one must view it with a grain of salt, remembering to consider it in the context of its time.  What makes the film unique is not its political views so much as its revolutionary narrative approach. For this reason, Griffith's masterpiece deserves an important place in the canon of film.
During the 33 years of Silent Cinema’s rein, many great artists pushed the envelope of visual storytelling, rendering the term ‘motion picture’ in its fullest sense.  It’s easy to lump all silent films into one category but it is important to note the variety it offered.  Consider Carl Dreyer's 1928 epic The Passion of Joan of Arc which told its story almost entirely in close-ups.  Charlie Chaplin, easily the silent era’s greatest figure, created one of the world’s much loved characters in The Tramp, a universally relatable soul who broke national boundaries in classics like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936).  Then there was legendary daredevil Buster Keaton, whose masterpiece The General (1926) sees him perform his own dangerous stunts, often at real risk of injury or death.  All to make an audience laugh.

While many filmgoers today might struggle sitting through a silent film, there are a few worth taking a peek at.  

Victor Sjostrum’s The Wind (1928) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) have managed to stand the test of time, continuing to move and inspire.  Full of emotion and intense drama, both films break universal boundaries. 

 Greed (1924) by Erich Von Stroheim is another one you shouldn't miss.  Granted, its 4-hour cut may sound like an endurance test, but its story is so full of dramatic highs and lows, one quickly becomes engrossed in it. (Be warned, though: it's not a great "first date" movie!)


Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Also known as: The Clansman 
Year:  1915
Country: U.S.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall

Based on: Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905)
Length: 190 minutes 

The close emotional ties between two families - one from the north, one from the south – are tested during the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction.

Prompted in part by big-scale Italian historical epics such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? (1912), Griffith’s breathtaking recreation of the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction period was a massive box office hit, produced on a budget of $112,000 (roughly $2.5 million by today’s standards) and earning $50 million. Like Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery seven years prior, Birth of a Nation represents a giant leap forward in storytelling and cinematography, including panning views, panoramic shots, night photography, localized colourization, and sweeping battle scenes involving hundreds of extras. It was also one of the first films to have an original musical score (composed by Joseph Carl Breil).

 Unfortunately, Griffith’s masterpiece remains plagued by the negative public reaction - then and now - to its sympathetic treatment of the Southern states during the U.S. Civil War and the underlying message that equalizing the races was not only unnatural but would lead inevitably to widespread sexual violence against white women. (Despite a failed attempt at the time by the NAACP to ban the film, public protests continue at modern-day screenings.) Linked to the controversy are the film’s repeated denigrations of African-Americans, their portrayal by white actors, and an unmistakable thumbs-up to the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, The Birth of a Nation remains an important if vexing benchmark in cinematic history.

This is an interesting one to watch in the era of Lincoln, Django Unchained, and 12 Years A Slave. The sets and costumes are first rate. Realistic battle scenes abound. An early re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination is more chilling than any dramatization I’ve seen to date. 

But while I can deeply appreciate Griffith’s groundbreaking techniques and his influence on the evolution of cinema, and have little problem contextualizing Birth of a Nation in terms of the director’s time and Southern leanings, I found this film almost impossible to sit through. Length wasn’t the issue (hello, Wolf of Wall Street); it was the incessant and heavy-handed attempt to turn me into a white supremacist what did it, Ma. This is one of those (thankfully few) films that tests my ability to be an objective critic and a human being at the same time. 

Still, I think it’s an absolute must-see for everyone who wants to know how film has grown over the years, with the added bonus of watching an American filmmaker unapologetically expose the racism that was still very much alive more than fifty years after the nation's most destructive war formally brought slavery to an end.

Him: It’s time to watch the next movie on our list, The Birth of a Nation.
Her: Sounds good!

The movie starts.

8:40 pm
Her: Um...are they going to play crazy, over-the-top music through the whole thing?
Him: Well, it is a three-hour silent film. Guess it needed something.
Her (to the cat): I’m going to need a lot of chocolate.

Her: Is that an overweight white man playing the part of a black maid?
Him: Uh...yup.
Her: Jesus wept.

Her: So at this point I hate women, black people, horses and anyone north of the Mason Dixon.
Him: Pretty much. Hey, I just read that this film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK.
Her: Exchanges eye-rolls with cat.

The film concludes its depiction of the Civil War.
Her: This is the end, right?
Him: Sure, Jim Morrison...of Part One!
Her: Where’s the chocolate?!

Her: Wow, white people in sheets to the rescue while their women sew new uniforms.
Him: Heartwarming, huh? Django Unchained déjà vu.

The film ends.
Her: Well, at least it had a moral. See? Even Jesus approved.
Him: Oh, America!
Her: I need a shower.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Country: U.S.A.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes
Length: 10 minutes

A gang of robbers force a telegraph operator to stop a train, then board and rob it. Later, the operator assembles a posse at a local dance hall who, in turn, hunt down and kill the bandits. In a final shot, the bandit leader menacingly shoots at the audience.

Significance/Notable Achievements:
A massive box office hit that played in theatres and Nickelodeons across America in 1904 and 1905, The Great Train Robbery is considered the first narrative film (i.e. following a cohesive storyline) and the first Western, giving birth to that genre. Fourteen scenes make up the 10-minute film inspired by the real-life 1900 robbery of the Union Pacific Railway's No. 3 train in Table Rock, Wyoming by the "Hole in the Wall" gang. Technical innovations included on-location shooting, camera movement, cross cutting (two concurrent scenes in different locations), and composite editing (combining images from different sources into a single shot). 

These breakthroughs resulted in an intensified feeling on the part of the audience that it was “in” the movie, watching everything unfold from the POV of the robbers or victims. Porter's unflinching portrayal of violence and death jars us now as it did then, and a scene in which a man shoots at another's feet to make him dance is one of the most copied moments in cinematic history. A final scene in which outlaw leader Justus D. Barnes shoots directly at the audience is said to have inspired the opening montage of the James Bond films.   

What a quantum leap forward from Exiting the Factory and Voyage dans la lune! Unlike the fixed camera positions used in those earlier films and the constant awareness that we were watching a movie, here we're on the roof of a train, watching breathlessly as thieves commandeer the speeding behemoth and throw innocent victims to their death on the tracks below. Some have argued that this scene and others qualify Great Train Robbery not only as the first Western, but also as the first horror movie.

The relatively sophisticated story, fast action, multi-angle views, and effective cross-cutting between simultaneous events represented a seismic shift in both storytelling and film production, arguable creating a greater "wow" factor than many of today's stylistic changes and CGI wonders if only because they occurred at a time when film was still young. (If Lumière's Factory was equivalent to the horse and buggy, and Méliès' Voyage was the Model T, then Porter's Great Train Robbery was a Cadillac V-16.)

But there's something else going on in Great Train Robbery that shouldn't be passed by too quickly, something that speaks volumes regarding the power of film. Porter is not only appealing to his audience's feelings, he is appealing to our sense of moral outrage. As the story unfolds, the bandits' crimes are visualized as so calculated and abhorrent that when they finally receive their just desserts, our response is as moral and visceral as it is emotional. In this sense, Porter's film is as ideological as it is entertaining and could be considered one of the first films to make people think a certain way or stimulate the audience's social consciousness. Cinema's most enlightened (and diabolical) filmmakers have been thusly manipulating viewers ever since. 

Very exciting and enjoyable! Cool to see characters out and about instead of being restricted to a stage or one location. The panning camera shots really built a lot of anticipation for the scenes that followed. So far, this is the first film we've watched that has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, as well as a moral and a ton of suspense. Easy to see how this served as one of the early cinematic building blocks for what was to come. And of course, I learned a lot. For example, next time I get a hankerin' to rob a bank, I ain't gonna leave no varmints alive to go round up a posse and hunt me down like the dog I am! Yeehaaa!!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

Also known as: A Trip To The Moon
Country: France
Director: Georges Méliès
Length: 17 minutes


A team of astronomers fly to the moon where they survey the land, narrowly evade capture by a tribe of hostile natives, and return to earth with a captive moon man.

Significance/Notable Achievements:
Georges Méliès was a professional magician prior to his career as a filmmaker. Because of his innovative special effects and fantastical style, he is considered a founding (if accidental) father of the fantasy, sci-fi and horror film genres. The landing of the space shuttle in the Moon’s eye is one of cinema’s most popular images. Made on a budget of 10,000 francs, it took three months to make, and though best known in black and white, hand-coloured versions were shown and sold at the time. 

Voyage dans la lune was also one of the first notable victim's of film piracy and illegal distribution, which cost Méliès a fair share of the movie's profits. On the other hand, the film borrowed stupendously from an immensely popular 1901 New York fair attraction called A Trip to the Moon, the Offenbach operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune, Jules Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon and almost certainly H. G. Wells’ The First Men On The Moon - all at a time when copyright laws were (lucky for Méliès) a little freer than they are today. One might say, in the words of Justin Timberlake, that what goes around comes around.  

The massive impact Voyage dans la lune has had over the years on audiences, artists, and cinema as a whole is undeniable. (Over a century later, that shot of the astronauts' ship in the moon's eye is still firing up imaginations and helped turn eight-year old me into a certifiable sci-fi dork.) As far as early cinema goes, Méliès satirical and imaginative ideas of what space travel and lunar conditions might be like offers a cool contrast to the everyday realism of the Lumière brothers. I can forgive the director for his dated, arguably racist colonial view of “those savage aliens". He was, after all, a product of his times. I was mostly just excited that he put people on the moon at all, especially ones that provide a glimpse into how shrimp might dance if they stood on two legs. (Think District 9, The Musical.)

Following a largely solid three-act structure and with wild set pieces clearly designed to dazzle audiences used to stage performances, Voyage is never boring. The film's constant flights of fancy and religious devotion to melodrama make it nearly impossible to engage with the characters emotionally. Méliès also struggles a bit with knowing when to bring things to a close. But that's the twenty-first century talking. If we'd been sitting in a theatre at the time, this thing would sent us over the...well, you know.  

Side note: One of my favourite bands, the French group Air, made an album in 2012 with the same name, which served as the score for a recently restored version of the film.

This was fun to watch once I wrapped my head around the fact that it was made in 1902. It’s all very staged and the editing errors were out of this world. (See what I did there.) Things I learned from this film: That the moon really is made of cheese, that mushrooms grow there and look great in black & white, and that you can kill a Martian by flogging his feet with an umbrella.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Exiting the Factory (1895)

Also known as: Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon
Country: France
Director: Louis Lumière
Length: 46 seconds

Louis Lumière films his workers as they leave the Lumiere factory in Lyon, France. 

Significance/Notable Achievements:
Considered the first film ever made (though technically preceded by Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene in 1888). Filmed using one of the world's first all-in-one cameras - a Cinematographe - capable of filming, projecting, and developing, and shot in 35mm at 16 frames per second (800 frames). Screened by the Lumière Brothers for the public in Paris, along with nine other original films, on December 28, 1895. The entire show lasted twenty minutes.

This one is less about the story on the screen than the one behind it. These first moving pictures must have blown everyone's mind, not least of which the people who starred in them. Mundane as Exiting The Factory might seem by today's standards (though easy to sit through at under a minute), try to imagine the impact in a time when the only visual images most people had available were in frames on walls! 

Sure, a few fortunate souls had access to gadgets like the magic lantern, the Phenakistoscope, and Edison's Kinetoscope (look 'em up, they were pretty darned cool) that allowed them to watch simple images move. But at 16 frames per second on a screen as big as your house? 

I actually really enjoyed this one. I felt the excitement of the employees as they were becoming a part of history. It’s amazing to think about what this started! Having the dog and the man on his bike in the shots leaves me feeling that the director had a sense of humour about the imperfections in life, and didn’t require anything to be re-shot.