Top Films – 1891

1891 – Benjamin Harrison was president, Carnegie Hall held its first performance, and Stanford University was founded by Leland Stanford, patron of film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. Here were the top films of the year, as I see them.

je vous aime.gif1) Je vous aime (dir. Georges Demeny)
In 1891, there were two centers of filmmaking, an American center and a French center. The French center comprised of Étienne-Jules Marey and his gun-shaped camera, “the Chronophotograph.” Marey trained Georges Demeny to use the machine. The idea behind this film came from the director of the National Deaf-Mute Institute. The idea was to use film to teach deaf students how to speak and lip read. The result was the world’s first medium close-up.

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Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, 1892, by Étienne-Jules Marey

dickson greeting.gif2) Dickson Greeting (dir. William K. L. Dickson)
On May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope was displayed in public for the first time. Edison showed off short films made at his laboratory by William K. L. Dickson, including this one of Dickson greeting us by holding his hat.

two-fencers3) Two Fencers (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)
This short from Marey’s Chronophotograph shows the promise of motion better than anything else from this time period. The framing and choice of subject shows an artistic competence by Marey that Dickson lacked, at least at first. It compares very favorably to Dickon’s Men Boxing, in which the two pugilists don’t actually make contact.

4newark-athlete) Newark Athlete (dir. William K. L. Dickson)
Newark Athlete also shows the kinetic possibilities of the frame. The athlete swings Indian clubs towards and away from the camera, demonstrating the potential of illusion of three dimensions in a way no one else had before.

la-vague5) La Vague (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)
La Vague was one of Marey’s earliest experiments with motion. He recorded the waves crashing on the bay of Naples. Click here to see some more examples of Marey’s work and modern uses of the Chronophotograph.

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Top Films – 1890

1890 – Benjamin Harrison signed bills that would tank the economy, more than 150 Lakota were killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published. Here are the most important movies to know:

London’s Trafalgar Square (dir. Wordsworth Donisthorpe & W. C. Crofts)
In 1876, anarchist Wordsworth Donisthrope patented a camera to take rapid photos that could be played back to create a movie picture. Records don’t show how well it worked, but in 1878 Donisthrope brainstormed an idea to synchronize moving pictures with Thomas Edison’s phonograph. He did little to work on the idea however, until 1889. That year, he teamed up with his cousin, W. C. Crofts, to patent and create the Kinesigraph.

The two tried out their invention on a spot overlooking London’s Trafalgar Square. 10 frames survive. The quality of the image is stunning when compared to other films of the time. You can clearly make out one of the square’s famous fountains, and even the individual spokes on a carriage wheel.

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London’s Trafalgar Square

 

 

Mosquinha (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)
Étienne-Jules Marey spent the late 1870s and the 1880s developing the “chronophotographic gun.” The gun was an early movie camera that, by 1882, could capture 12 frames a second. Maray was among the first to switch from paper to celluloid.

 

IMDb’s first listing for Marey is Mosquinha, in 1890. I’ve been unable to verify that date outside of the IMDb page, but for the purposes of this blog series, I’ll accept it. The film shows a fly made enormous through Marey’s lens. 126 years later, it’s a bit terrifying; one wonders what the reaction would have been from an audience unused to film.
Most of the histories I’ve read about the development of film have either overlooked Marey or forgotten about his contributions during this time period. Read this essay from BIU Santé to catch up.

Watch Mosquinha on YouTube

 

 

Monkeyshines, No. 1 and Monkeyshines, No. 2 (dir. William K.L. Dickson, William Heise)
In 1888, Eadweard Muybridge met with Thomas Edison in New Jersey and the two talked about ways to unite Muybridge’s experiments with motion pictures and Edison’s invention of the phonograph. Edison began filing patents, saying he wanted to “do for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear.” He developed the Kinetograph, a camera, and the Kinetoscope, a device to watch the films through.

Edison put employees William Dickson and William Heise to work in what would soon become the world’s first movie studio. These two Monkeyshines films were experiments, and show an actor (of sorts) moving around in front of the Kinetograph. (There is a third Monkeyshines, but it has been lost to time) The films could then be viewed through a peephole.

Watch Monkeyshines, No. 1 on YouTube

Watch Monkeyshines, No. 2 on YouTube

 

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The Clay Monument on Canal Street in New Orleans, 1890. From the Shorpy Historic Picture Archive.

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The Creation of Cinema

The beginning of cinema is a story of murder, mystery, and miraculous invention. Before starting into a series of blogs exploring film through each year of its existence, I want to take a step back and learn how it came to be.

The Awe of Creation

We will never know what it was like to stand in the first cave where the first human painter thought to press her dirt-covered covered hands to the wall, transforming the cold bare stone into a sacred object. Was it that same evening she discovered the magic she could create if she moved her palms across the stone? Across and upward, she could create a deer. Palms spread out, a buffalo would appear.

 

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Rhinos from Chauvet Cave in France. c. 30,000 BC or earlier

How long did the experimentation continue before the usefulness of ochre was discovered? Who was the first to develop the stencil technique? How did they discover the way animal fat could bind colored minerals to create paint? Was it an accident, or something developed through experimentation? And what did these fingerprints, handprints and creatures mean?

 

The inventions of literature, drama, and music are easier to imagine. It makes sense to chart a gradual process from the guttural noises of the lower mammals through to chants and stories played out around a Neolithic campfire, being first written in stone and papyrus, and later flowering among the theatres of Athens. Painting though, seems to require a brilliant “monolith” moment, when our species went from scratching randomly in the dirt to creating art.

Film is closest to painting in that regard. It’s difficult to see how you can have many proto-films without suddenly getting straight to the developed product. As the Pettakere and Chauvet caves provoke a sense of wonder at the dawn of a new art, so the early zoopraxiscopes create amazement at the creation of the Seventh Art.

Early Technologies

                During the 19th Century, several moving-picture toys were invented. They featured brief, looping animations that seem closer to a GIF animation than a full-length feature film. However, they operated on the same principles as today’s cinema; when distinct frames are played in rapid succession, they create the illusion of movement.

 

taumatropio_fiori_e_vaso_1825

A Thaumatrope from 1825

In the late years of the Regency era, several scientists observed an optical illusion that takes place while looking at spinning wheels. As Michael Faraday described it in 1831, there is a “persistence of a visual impression for a determinate interval’ after an object has been withdrawn or changed its place. We see the trail of a shooting star and can create a fiery circle by waving a match. A disc with two sides, called a Thaumatrope was invented. Spinning the disc rapidly could create the illusion that there was a single image, instead of two images.

 

In 1832, animation was born. Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau created the very first moving picture – the image of a spinning doll. Plateau published his invention in the journal Correspondance Mathématique et Physique.

phenakistiscope

Joseph Plateau’s Phenakistiscope

Those early Phenakistiscopes quickly sold out. Several others expanded and improved upon this concept. Beginning in 1867, the Zoetrope was marketed by Milton Bradley and the following year, English lithographer John Barnes Linnett patented the flip book. And in 1877, Charles-Émile Reynaud improved the Zoetrope by adding mirrors to simplify the viewing process.

Eadweard Muybridge

                The second monolith moment for cinema came just a year after Reynaud’s invention. This step went form simply animating drawings to animating the world.

Photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his patron Leland Stanford worked through the 1870s to create cameras that could take photographs of objects in motion. The earliest film had to be exposed to the light for long periods of time. Moving objects would not show up, or would show up as a blur. In 1877, Muybridge was able to take a picture of the horse Occident with a negative that was exposed to the light for less than 1/1000 of a second, freezing a horse mid-trot.

                Stanford paid $20,000 (about $4.5 million in 2016 dollars) to rig up a new shutter system at a racetrack at Palo Alto, California. The system would allow Muybridge to take 12 of these high-speed photos nearly instantaneously, capturing a horse in motion. Muybridge took photos of several horses, other animals, and later athletes. He published the frames in strips. The results were an international sensation.

the_horse_in_motion

Several people printed copies of Muybridge’s photos for use in Zoetropes. In fall 1879, Muybridge started showing off his photos in his own invention, called a “zoopraxiscope,” which projected the images onto a wall.

The_Horse_in_Motion-anim.gif

A galloping horse is a fitting subject for a new art. It is universal, totemic. It hearkens back to those earliest paintings in our caves. And to be created in California is another boon. With Muybridge, the Golden State began to take the baton from Paris (previously held by Florence and Athens) and has dominated as the creative capital of the world for the past century.

(The moment’s drama is heightened further by the past of the two men involved. Muybridge was a murderer who had killed the man his wife was cheating on him with. The jury decided it was justifiable homicide. Stanford drove in the ‘Golden Spike’ that finished the Transcontinental Railroad.)

Movie Cameras

 

louisleprincerestored

Louis Le Prince

In 1888, Louis Le Prince built a camera with a single lens that could take photos with a short-shutter speed in rapid succession. Many historians consider this the true beginning of film. On October 14th, 1888, Le Prince captured a few seconds of his family walking around a garden in Leeds, England.

Le Prince followed this up with other similarly prosaic scenes of Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Man Walking Around the Corner. At this time, other inventors started to create their own single-lens movie cameras. Those included the German Ottomar Anschütz and the American Thomas Edison.

Roundhay-Garden-Scene.gif

Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene

Edison features into conspiracy theories surrounding what happened next. In September 1890, Le Prince planned a trip to the UK to patent his camera and then to the U.S. to promote it. He boarded a train and was never seen again. His body, his luggage, and his invention were never found. Le Prince’s family blamed Edison, who they believed wanted to claim invention of the movies for himself.

Edison would soon create the world’s first movie studio – a subject I’ll explore in later posts. But these early years of cinema are an unprecedented look at the creation of a new art form. We have a level of knowledge about the birth of motion pictures that we never can about painting or sculpture. We don’t know who the Eadweard Muybridge of poetry or architecture was. But the way these breakthroughs spread rapidly and were developed in similar ways by different inventors working continents apart, could provide a model.

The next posts will focus on the rest of cinematic history, one year at a time, from 1890 to today. (Whichever year ‘today’ is when I catch up.)

 

Bibliography

Ball, Edward. 2013. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. New York: Doubleday.

  1. “Cave painting.” New World Encyclopedia. Oct 4. Accessed Sept 7, 2016. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Cave_painting.

Herbert, Stephen. 2000. A History of Pre-Cinema. Taylor & Francis.

Herbert, Stephen, and Luke McKernan. 2016. Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Accessed Sept 6, 2016. http://www.victorian-cinema.net/.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2003. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking Penguin.

Walters, Jonathan. 2002. EarlyCinema. Accessed Sept 6, 2016. http://www.earlycinema.com.

 

 

 

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Dueling Dystopias

amidalaThe morning after Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, a friend of mine texted me a meme from Star Wars Episode III. “So this is how liberty dies,” Queen Amidala says while watching Palpatine become Emperor. “With thunderous applause.”

She is far from the only one to use dystopian fiction to describe the rise of Trump. Last month, The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada wrote about Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America in an article titled “How does Donald Trump stack up against American literature’s fictional dictators? Pretty well, actually.” In April, Salon compared Trump to comic book supervillains who became president.

In the U.S., presidential candidates are always compared to Hitler and Stalin, and totalitarianism is always allegedly around the corner. But the idea of Trump as world-historical villain seems to be taken more seriously this time around. He certainly hasn’t helped his case by retweeting Mussolini, complimenting dictators and praising the Tienanmen Square massacre. The idea of Trump as a dictator is being taken so seriously in many circles that Slate has published an article explaining how Donald Trump isn’t technically a fascist.

Trump’s supporters also tell a story of dystopia – but one coming from the opposite direction. They’re not painting Hillary Clinton as a budding Stalin. In fact, they’re doing exactly the opposite.

The night after Trump’s speech, Seth Meyers joked that Trump believes “We are currently living in a dystopian nightmare,” and that “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the Syfy network.”

Maureen Dowd in the New York Times also made note of the dystopian picture Trump was creating. “LIKE any masterly comic book villain, Donald Trump is reveling in conjuring a dystopia.” But, Trump’s dystopia is different than the classic totalitarian dystopias of George Orwell or Suzanne Collins. Trump does not conjure the specter of an all-controlling state — instead, he sees the state as too small to protect. He linked violence of a lack of leadership, saying the “legacy of Hillary Clinton is Death, Destruction, Terrorism and Weakness.” Trump’s dystopia is the chaotic, violent nightmare of Mad Max or The Walking Dead.

mad max 1979

The fear of anarchy has usually taken a second seat to the fear of dictatorship in the West. For one, our experience of anarchy has usually been short-lived; chaos quickly gives way to types like Cromwell and Robespierre in European history. The legacy of the World Wars helped cement this attitude. 

The New York Daily News, in an editorial on “Donald’s diabolical dystopia,” points out that Trump’s dark vision of America isn’t statistically true.

“In fact, America’s crime rate is at a 40-year low and line-of-duty police killings fell by almost 40% from 1981 through 2015, with the number hitting a record low under Obama.”

160722184922-gps-chart-civilians-killed-exlarge-169

CNN’s Fareed Zakaria included this graph in his article Sunday.

Slate’s graphs and Steven Pinker’s books circulated across liberal social media this weekend. They prove that the United States and the world are about as safe as they ever have been. Of course, graphs aren’t generally comforting to people in a panic. The fear the Trump campaign channels isn’t based on a statistical analysis of the rate of global genocide. The white, middle-class American voter has always assumed things are better at their mall, school or workplace than they are in an unstable third world country. ISIS has been successful at bursting that feeling of security — and that feeling of security is nearly as important to the quality of life as actual security is.

ISIS isn’t the only contributor to the feeling of instability. If you’re not safe while surrounded by police officers, when are you safe? As a teenager, the attack on the Pentagon was the most immediately frightening part of 9/11. If even the Pentagon is vulnerable, we all are.

v_for_vendetta15The truth is, both types of dystopias are legitimate expressions of legitimate fears. Some of the most thoughtful writers saw dangers in both Scylla and Charybdis. Aldous Huxley debunked Rousseauian savagery as a solution to corrupt civilization in Brave New World. Alan Moore railed against his totalitarian future in V for Vendetta, but never allowed you to feel comfortable rooting for the radicals either.

The aforementioned Collins warns against permanent revolution in The Hunger Games. In film, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight features a hero who must embrace mass surveillance and violence in order to defeat a villain bent on anarchy for its own sake. Although liberals will likely dismiss the fears of Trump’s supporters as fervently as Trump’s supporters will dismiss liberals’, orderless violence and its consequences are a real part of American life.

I’m certainly not implying there is an equivalence between the candidates in this year’s election or that all fears are equally possible of being realized. (I decided who to support quite some time ago, but I prefer to keep my precise political views off my blogs.) But I do believe that the underlying values and fears of both camps are legitimate — and I expect candidates to take full advantage of them.

(And let’s leave Idiocracy for a totally separate discussion)

 

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Bollywood & Hollywood Nationalism

I’ve seen two Bollywood films during the past few weeks that really stood out – not only for their engaging quality, but also for the ways they each promoted Indian nationalism. I’ve been reading about the growing sense of national identity in that country during this century. I found that each promoted nationalism for India in many of the same ways I’ve seen Hollywood productions do the same for America.

Lagaan

The 2001 sports/historical/musical/romantic epic Lagaan is my favorite Bollywood film I’ve seen so far. Set in the late 19th Century, Lagaan pits a British overlord against the starving villagers he oversees. He agrees to a contest – if the villagers in his cantonment can beat his men in a game of cricket (which the Indians have never seen before), their land tax will be canceled. If the villagers lose, the tax will be doubled (later tripled, and raised even further).

Paul Blackthorne as Captain Andrew Russell in Lagaan

Just look at that sneer!

The portrayal of the British in this film is hilarious. Virtually all of the depictions of English imperialists I’ve seen or read have come from British or American sources. Even when they’re the baddies, as in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, they still get a three-dimensional and thoroughly un-exotic treatment. Lagaan was a chance to see the colonizers from the point-of-view of the formerly colonized. The Villain, Captain Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne, now of Arrow), is the English equivalent of a comic book Nazi. His manners are impeccable, his upper lip is as stiff as cardboard, and he sneers harder than anyone may have ever sneered before.

Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth, is also an idea of the perfect European beauty. Tall, pale, and wide-eyed, in one scene she wears a Victorian dress while spinning to classical music around a marble-pillared room and falls on a satin-sheeted bed. The film contrasts her with the thoroughly Indian Gauri, who is short, dark-skinned, and dances in her village to a song celebrating the Hindu gods.

The contrast between the two women inverts the European ideal. Both women fall in love with the film’s hero, Bhuvan, but Bhuvan takes no romantic interest in Elizabeth. He hardly even seems to realize she loves him. He only has eyes for Gauri.

Gauri and Bhuvan’s number “Radha Kaise Na Jale” elevates Lagaan to a world few musicals venture. The two perform in front of their village in the guise of Lord Krishna and his lover Radha. “How can Radha not be jealous?” she sings, at once both Gauri and Radha. I entered a world of sublime mythology I can compare only to perhaps seeing a Cecil B. DeMille epic for the first time.

The cricket team Bhuvan puts together is deliberately pan-ethnic. One story arc concerns the integration of a Muslim character; another of a disabled untouchable. The pained consciousness of the arcs are all that stop the two from being tokenish in the way the African-American members of The Avengers can sometimes seem here in the U.S. The message is clear – national identity as Indian trumps all other differences within the state.

Rang De Basanti

rang de basanti

Our heroes… and their target.

The same conscious diversity is also present in 2006’s Rang De Basanti. The film sets up a conflict between a Hindu nationalist character and a Muslim character. The nationalist is set up as a villain early on, and is part of a group that breaks up the rock-in-roll parties the rest of the teenagers enjoy. (OK, not just teenagers… 40-year-old Aamir Khan is inexplicably part of the group. Khan also started in Lagaan.) But as the film continues, both the nationalist and the Muslim characters are united in a common enemy – the corrupt government.

Like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti also builds nationalism by looking at a pan-ethnic past. The characters in our film are convinced to play as actors in a film about a group of Indian revolutionaries in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Identity as an Indian is not dependent upon race or religion – rather, its identity is a group loyalty in favor of independence and common interests.

Rang De Basanti also features one of the most abrupt shifts in tone I’ve ever seen in a movie. The first hour or so plays like it’s from the American Graffiti school of nostalgia and hip teenagers. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of depth. But by the film’s violent end, it has taken on an extremely revolutionary, political tone. In the decade since its release, it has had to fend off accusations of fascism.

American Films

Rang De Basanti promotes nationalism and unity, but also makes the ruling politicians uncomfortable – a dynamic that exists within films emblematic of American nationalism. Famously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was denounced as communistic.

Unlike the two Indian films here, American films have largely stayed away from our Revolutionary period. It’s impossible for a movie featuring George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to promote racial harmony – which is a large reason why the few recent successes have focused on anti-slavery figures like John Adams in the HBO miniseries and Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway show.

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Judd Hirsh as Julius Levinson, leading a prayer in Independence Day.

Instead, Hollywood sticks mostly with the present or the near-future. Independence Day and Saving Private Ryan are probably the two standout examples of popular American patriotism released in my lifetime. Both made an explicit point of our country’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic nature, and both freely criticized the government. Likewise with 2016’s big grosser, Captain America: Civil War.

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Top 5 Films – 1916

1916 – Troops battled in the trenches of France, Woodrow Wilson won re-election, and James Joyce wrote his first novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here are the year’s top 5 movies, the way I see it:

1) Intolerance (dir. D.W. Griffith)
Intolerance - D.W. GriffithD. W. Griffith didn’t take criticism of his 1915 racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation well. Despite becoming by far the highest-grossing movie of all-time and garnering for Griffith some of the highest praise that has ever been afforded a director, (“D.W. Griffith is the Creator of the Eighth Art of the World!”) it also brought about some backlash from certain citizens who didn’t appreciate a film in which the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as a heroic force against free African Americans. The NAACP called for boycotts, and the film was banned in Kansas, Chicago,  and St. Louis, and New York City ordered about 500 feet of film cut.

Page from "The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America," by D.W. Griffith

Page from “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America,” by D.W. Griffith

Griffith, the son of a Confederate soldier, never seemed to quite understand exactly what the problem was. He had toned down much of the source material and had only intended to tell the truth. So, Griffith blamed the forces of “INTOLERANCE” in a pamphlet he wrote and released to the public, free of copyright. In The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, he links the forces that censored his film to those which “murder Socrates,” “crucified the Christ,” “put Columbus in chains,” “destroyed Assyria’s civilization,” and “smashed the first printing press.”

My first reaction to reading Griffith’s pamphlet is how little has changed in 100 years. Griffith’s screed would seem right at home in the comments section of a news story about a Confederate flag removal. (Read ‘Disappearing the Confederacy’ by Ian Tuttle of The National Review and ‘Is “Free Speech” Becoming the New “All Lives Matter”‘ by Michelle Goldberg of Slate for two well-written articles that disagree with each other over this issue.)

The existence of this pamphlet puts Griffith’s next film, Intolerance, in an entirely different context. Not only the title, but the entire structure and style of the film seem to be an extension of the argument he laid forth in his written expostulation. The pamphlet has a rapid, frenzied pace and one imagines that Griffith wrote the entire thing during one excited night. It jumps through history, linking Russian pogroms with the trial of Joan of Arc, the outbreak of contemporary war in Europe, and the censorship of D.W. Griffith’s own The Birth of a Nation.

Griffith Intolerance FilmThe pamphlet, like the film, builds and crescendos unevenly. But while Griffith was a juvenile polemicist, he was a masterful filmmaker. The film was originally only a contemporary drama called The Mother and the Law, but inspired by his newfound hatred of INTOLERANCE!, Griffith added storylines for ancient Babylon, the Christian Gospels, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Griffith had seen the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, which included gigantic sets, moving cameras and an ancient setting.These additions gave Griffith a story large enough to create his own epic.

Having built Intolerance up, the studio ordered Griffith to edit the film down from an initial runtime of 8 hours to less than 3 and a half. This form of corporate censorship gave Griffith occasion to pioneer yet another filmic technique. He cross-cuts between the stories, spending only a short period of time on each one. The camera takes us across the sky and across centuries in less than a blink, sending our souls on a journey no other art form had ever before. Cross-cutting today is a staple necessity of film and television – try to imagine even Sesame Street without it. Only occasionally a film comes along that reminds us how radical this technique can be. (Pulp Fiction and Inception are two of my favorite examples from the past few decades)

Watch Intolerance on Hulu

One A.M. Charlie Chaplin2) One A.M. (dir. Charles Chaplin)
Chaplin had been making films for years, and by 1916 he was already a household name. One A.M. is one of his most delightful. Chaplin plays a drunk who comes home late and finds it impossible to navigate his home. He’s (almost) the solo performer, and uses the story as a framework to show off his acrobatic skill. One A.M. also gives us the iconic example of the Murphy Bed gag.

Watch One A.M. on YouTube

Hell's Hinges3) Hell’s Hinges (dir. Charles Swickard)
A minister and his sister ride into a Western town intending to clean things up and bring Christianity to the outlaws. Things don’t turn out well. I’m not sure if SPOILER rules apply after a century, but the power of the movie is ruined if I tell you what happens. So go ahead and highlight over the next part to read it:
Decency fails, and the minister’s allies burn the town down in anger. The apocalyptic finale seems like a clear inspiration for Lars Von Trier’s Dogville. What seemed like a run-of-the-mill progressive film during the first 20 minutes turns dark, Old Testament style.

Watch Hell’s Hinges on Youtube.

Reenactment footage from The Battle of the Somme, not actually footage from the Battle of the Somme.

Reenactment footage from The Battle of the Somme, not actually footage from the Battle of the Somme.

4) The Battle of the Somme (produced by W. F. Jury)
As if to illustrate to future generations the insanity of World War I, the film The Battle of the Somme was shot, produced, released and became a blockbuster all while the actual Battle of the Somme was still happening. About 1.3 million men were casualties of the battle, while 20 million Britons watched a film about their fight. The filmmakers mixed actual war footage with reenactments in such a way that it has been impossible for historians to definitively sort out which is which.

I’ve been watching The Great War YouTube Channel, which presents the events of World War I week by week, 100 years ago after they happened. Although I have far less at stake, I imagine I’m not too different form those Britons who watched The Battle to learn about the battle – I’m simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the horrors of war.

Watch The Battle of the Somme on YouTube.

Judex5) Judex (dir. Louis Feuillade)
Judex is a 5-hour long crime serial, in 12-parts. Directed by Louis Feuillade, who also made the 1915 serial Les vampires, which I loved, I felt like Judex lacked some of the romantic power of his earlier film. It attempted to rely on plot more than atmosphere, but I never could figure out exactly who did what to whom or why. Still, Judex had many pulp crimefighter elements I still enjoy today; Batman and V for Vendetta are two of its obvious heirs.

Watch Judex on Fandor.

Soccer team of British soldiers with gas masks, World War I, somewhere in Northern France, 1916.

Soccer team of British soldiers with gas masks, World War I, somewhere in Northern France, 1916.

 

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Top 5 Films – 1915

1915 – Europe was engulfed in World War I, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the world’s first long-distance call, Kafka published “The Metamorphosis,” Ford Maddox Ford wrote “The Good Soldier,” and Babe Ruth hit his first home run. Here are the year’s top 5 movies, the way I see it:

'The Birth Of A Nation'1) The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith)
Griffith’s despicable masterpiece can be credited with establishing both 20th Century Hollywood and the 20th Century Klan. It’s the reason I started this series in 1915. I wrote about the film and its power of evil in an essay last year.

Watch on YouTube:

Les Vampires2) Les vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade)
The 7-hour-long crime serial casts a dark, surreal gaze at Paris. The result is a dreamy Gothic thriller that kept me hypnotized during viewings. The haunting GIF animation on the left is from Episode 2, “The Ring that Binds.” Unlike The Birth of a Nation, which codified film grammar, Les vampires used primarily a static camera, with occasional close-ups. The actresses and actors performed their own stunts. Les vampires is emblematic of the sort of beauty you can’t get from anything other than a vintage silent film. The imperfect restorations add to the otherworldly character. This doesn’t feel like a film from 1915, but from a mythical year that somehow fell through the holes in history.

Watch on YouTube:

Regeneration (1915)3) Regeneration (dir. Raoul Walsh)
A perfect artifact of the Progressive Era, Regeneration begins with the tale of an intelligent, sensitive orphan boy who is trapped into a life of crime because of his family’s poverty and his neighbor’s drunkenness. Can the heroine – a middle-class young woman who has devoted her life to serving the homeless – rescue him from his hopeless plight?

Watch on YouTube:

The Cheat4The Cheat (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
DeMille’s dramatic lighting and storytelling sense were on display early in his career. The story of a freespending, upper class housewife who agrees to sell her body to pay off a debt she ran up with her husband’s money provides a contrast to the absurdly virtuous woman in Regeneration. 100 years later, Hollywood still tends to keep women in similarly two-dimensional roles.

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Posle Smerti5) Posle smerti (dir. Yevgeni Bauer)
Based on a story by Ivan Turgenev — and made while Turgenev was still alive. It’s always astounding to realize just how old movies actually are. The adaptation has a few strong moments, evoking a Poe-like atmosphere for this moody ghost story. Like with Les vampires, it’s a unique product of the bygone early silent era.

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Woodrow Wilson throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the 1915 World Series.

Woodrow Wilson throwing the ceremonial first pitch at the 1915 World Series.

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