Top Films of 1896

1896 – Puccini’s popular La Bohème premiered in Italy, the first modern Olympics was held, the Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v.Ferguson, and William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, but lost to William McKinley. Here were the top films of the year, the way I see it.

5) L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (dir. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière)

This film is most famous for the legend behind it. The story goes that at its initial screenings, the audience mistook the filmic train for a real one and panicked. I find that a bit hard to believe. These people have certainly seen photographs before. And, I assume, they had been told what the basic concept of a “motion picture” was when they bought their ticket. Not to mention that the film is in black and white and had no sound.

So, I’m skeptical – especially after learning there aren’t contemporary accounts of the madness described by film history textbooks which take the legend at face value: Martin Loiperdinger and Bernd Elzer. “Lumiere’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth.” The Moving Image 4, no. 1 (2004): 89-118. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/171125 (accessed December 7, 2016).

 

4) The Kiss (dir. William Heise)

Edison promoted The Kiss thusly: “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.” He seems to have been the first to realize the erotic possibilities of the medium – The Kiss is just the natural progression of the dancers his team filmed earlier in the decade. 1896 also marks the year the first “blue film” was made.

A few online sources say The Kiss kicked off calls for the censorship of cinema, but I haven’t found any primary sources either way. Let me know in the comments if you see one. That seems plausible – after all, India and Kenya both censor kissing in motion pictures to this day.

3) The Cabbage Fairy (dir. Alice Guy)

Guy saw a Lumière Brothers projection in 1895, and walked away inspired – and also seeing a future for film beyond what the Lumières did. She worked for a photography company and convinced her boss to fund her experiments in cinema.

Guy wanted the medium to consist of more than just “actuality” and scientific films like everyone else was making. In 1896, she created one of the world’s first narrative movies, The Cabbage Fairy. This, along with the Dickson and Méliès films also in this year’s Top 5, mark a turning point in movie history. Cinema became a story-dominated medium, and has never changed since.

Guy, later Guy-Blaché, was the first woman to direct a film. She made movies in both France and the United States into the 1920’s.

 

2) Rip Van Winkle (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

This selection is 8 separate films made in 1896, and not combined until 1903.  I assume customers had to pay 8 separate times to get the complete story, making Edison a pioneer of yet another longstanding Hollywood business practice.

Edison’s studio, Alice Guy and Georges Méliès all seemed to stumble upon the idea to tell fairy tales in the same year. The oneiric quality of film seems to lend itself very well to that type of story.

The studio recruited Joseph Jefferson, an actor known for portraying Rip Van Winkle on stage. They made the film(s) outside on Jefferson’s property in Massachusetts. Jefferson had worked with Edison before, making an audio recording of some lines from the stage play in 1890.

1) Le manoir du diable (dir. Georges Méliès)

With Méliès, film truly became an art.

The theater showman and magician was transfixed when he saw the Lumières projections in December 1895. He tried to buy one of their cameras, but they refused. So, Méliès traveled to Britain and purchased a camera from Robert W. Paul, another pioneer. He made money showing other peoples’ films until he could buy his own and have it properly perforated.

Méliès proved to be quite the enthusiast. That first year he made a whopping 78 films, of which 6 survive.

Le manoir du diable (released as The Haunted Castle) is the most memorable of these. Considered the first horror film, it begins with a bat transforming into the devil. He then uses a magic cauldron to conjure an assistant, and creates several horrors – including a beautiful woman who transforms into an old hag as soon as she is touched by a cavalier. This mishmash of folk and gothic tropes kicked off a long tradition of horror films, from Nosferatu to The Shining.

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Replaced by Technology

           One of the stories of the 21st Century is the ways our new technology makes us less human — and our attempts to fight back and create a space to maintain our humanity.

The fear of new technology has been a sci-fi staple for as long as the genre has existed. But I believe the feeling that we are being replaced by robots is a distinct thread in that fear – and one that is well-founded in reality.

            The dehumanization of persons is a consequence of the humanization of robots. If a role or a task that once seemed uniquely human can be taken over by a robot, that role or task no longer seems an essential part of what it means to be human.

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HAL 9000 defeats David Bowman in chess in 2001: A Space Odyssey

For example, take the game of chess. When I was young, chess was regarded as something like an art form. It was the quintessential example of human intelligence – a chess player was a convenient shorthand for a genius. Chess implied complex, nuanced thinking, and planning. Kubrick used the scene of a machine beating a human at chess in 2001: A Space Odyssey to demonstrate that the computer HAL 9000 was human-like.

 

That all changed in the 1990s. IBM’s Deep Blue defeated reigning world champion and chess legend Gary Kasparov in a game in 1996 and in a match in 1997. Now, we take it for granted that computers have the advantage against humans not just in chess, but in everything from Jeopardy! to scouting baseball players.

A lot of attention was paid to how Deep Blue’s victories raised the estimation of the way people regard computers. But Kasparov’s loss also equally diminished the social status of chess players. Kasparov is likely to be the last chess celebrity; the last chess player to be a household name. Chess is still seen as a difficult game, to be sure, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the chessboard used as a symbol of intelligence or spirituality the way Kubrick or Bergman used it.

Watch The Man vs. The Machine on FiveThirtyEight.com for free.

Note that in the Harry Potter franchise, it isn’t the genius character Hermione who plays Wizard Chess, but the dunderhead character Ron. That first Harry Potter book was written during the years of those Deep Blue vs. Kasparov matches.

Chess simply doesn’t matter as much anymore – and neither do its players.

The story of technology displacing human labor is an old one, but we’re in its most dramatic unfolding since the industrial revolution demolished the old arts and dragged knitting and woodworking down from the world of vocations and into the valley of hobbies.

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Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

You can easily trace the story’s thread from the 19th Century tales of John Henry being outhammered by steam through Charlie Chaplin’s Depression-era assembly line where man and cog are indistinguishable to HBO’s Westworld, in which the robots appear poised to send homo sapiens the way of the Neanderthal. As the machines progress, the people recede.

 

Or look at the story of labor over the past 40 years. A factory workers lost their jobs to robots, they also lost their social cachet. No one is romanticizing blue collars anymore.

Two politicians in the 2016 cycle – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – had tremendous populist success simply by being the first two politicians in quite some time to give the former workers some attention. Economists say they both misdiagnosed the problem, but railing against free trade seems a little less kooky than blaming the robots.

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Future humans target robots as the enemies in AI Artificial Intelligence

And yet I still predict we’ll see our first anti-robot presidential candidate from a major party sometime in the next two or three election cycles. Perhaps their rallies could look like the ‘Flesh Fairs’ from A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But I haven’t heard of any actual political solutions to the problem of the massive human job losses that are really only just beginning.

 

Will actors guilds become the first union to really rise up against technology? The resurrection of Peter Cushing’s image in Rogue One could be just an early stage in this use of CGI. Why pay Robert Downey, Jr. millions for the next Avengers movie when you can just recreate his face? My guess is that Hollywood stars may end up getting more legal protection against their digital replacements than blue collar workers will.

Although the Trumpian, Sandersian popular uprising against free trade won’t save manufacturing jobs, it’s difficult to convince workers not to at least give it a try. I don’t have any real ideas either – and philosophical fatalism won’t save a factory town or create a living wage. Abandoning free trade is a gamble, taken in a hope to reclaim what has been lost.

As technological modernity advances, many people feel they must do something to try and prevent it from completely encroaching on our lives. I believe this effort is what’s driving the ‘pseudo-scientific’ or ‘anti-scientific’ movements of the past decades. Otherwise reasonable people are willing to entertain fringe belief systems in the frenzied rush to erect some sort of defensive barrier against the rapid rise of the machines.

And I believe this goes beyond simple fear of change.

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James Henry Beard’s It Is Very Queer, Isn’t It? (1885) at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas

Outside of technology, take the scientific theory of evolution as example. The evidence for evolution is rock solid. I believe Darwin and his successors are basically right. And yet, I find the entire thing unsettling. I hear that some people find the concept that we are descended from animals through the forces of natural selection inspiring or uplifting somehow – but I certainly don’t, and most other people don’t either. Darwin made an advance in knowledge that stripped a certain specialness away from humanity. Where we were once just a little lower than the angels, now we are very clever primates who walk upright. I don’t think there’s any way his discovery is not disnobling.

 

So I’m left with a small array of choices. I can accept the science and take my diminished role in the universe. Or, I can engage in denial and equivocation and maintain a fuller sense of human dignity.

Hundreds of millions of people who accept nearly all other major scientific theories balk at this one. Our species is instinctively protective of our imagined place in the cosmos.

This dynamic is present in three main areas of organized pushback to the replacement of people with technology. All three deal with the intimate workings of our physical bodies: 1) Medicine, 2) Food, and 3) Sex.

1: Medicine. Technology has proven remarkably effective in treating and preventing human diseases. But that doesn’t mean modern medicine doesn’t have alienating effects.

A biologist looks at the body in a rationalized way – it is a set of parts that works and fits together in a predictable manner and can be manipulated as such. An ethical doctor can examine a body in a “clinical” and “detached” manner that precludes sexuality and certain sentimentalities. The doctor does not relate to the patient in the manner that human beings naturally relate to each other; our intimate problems are to a doctor tasks to be performed during a day at work.

Medicine works, and few of us want to eliminate it. Most of us are happy to take the occasional objectification by a surgeon when the alternative is sickness and death.

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Surgeon with ‘mutant’ instruments from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers

The miracles of science are overtaking dystopian science fiction. We have created cyborgs, and we are developing chimeras. David Cronenberg explores the revulsion inherent in modern medical practice in his body horror films.

 

The anti-vaccine, homeopathic and “natural remedies” movements play on this revulsion. Our technology is not attractive. We wish we could simply eat herbs and drink the right teas and live a healthy life.

2: Food. Revolutions in agricultural, processing and preservation technologies have transformed the way we experience food. We have become so detached from food production that it seems heroic to cook a meal for oneself or to buy something grown in the same county.

The pro-food movement has had some marginal success this century. Inspired by the writings of Michael Pollan and others, many have begun to reclaim food.

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Scott Technology’s Automated Lamb Boning System

There are no clear health benefits from eating GMO-free food, cage-free eggs, raw milk or organic vegetables. But for those who can afford it, it feels better to buy something from the farmer down the street than from a faceless company operating an automated abattoir at an undisclosed location.

 

Most of the fringes on the pro-food movement are harmless. Americans generally struggle to remember that their chicken came from a chicken, our alienation is so complete.

 

'THE STEPFORD WIVES' FILM STILLS - 1975

Robot replacement wife from The Stepford Wives

3: Sex. The Stepford Wives used humanized robots to demonstrate how dehumanized women are when treated as sex objects. Female sexbots have been a staple of science fiction since at least Thea Von Harbou’s script for Metropolis.

Only more recently have real-life men widely acknowledged that women also have sexual desires, and so only recently have we included that anxiety in our fiction. HBO’s Westworld features several examples of robotic men competing with human men sexually. Channel 4/Netflix’s Black Mirror has a poignant example of a romance between a human woman and a robotic man in the episode Be Right Back. (Incidentally, both shows use the themes of robotic resurrection.)

There are other ways that technology has changed sex – and each of them have met with strong pushback. Take online dating for example: have you ever met anyone who hasn’t tried it? And yet each one talks about how terrible it is. Or online pornography. Its use has become nearly universal during the past decade, making allies of both feminists and social conservatives attempting to push back the tide. And like with both the movements for more primitive medicine and food, scientific arguments are incidental to the anti-pornography movement. Porn is distasteful because it can turn people into objects, dehumanizing them.

Despite the widespread anxiety, the almost necessarily physical nature of sexuality appears to insulate itself against total surrender to the machines. Many of us may be perfectly content to each packaged grocery store food for the rest of their lives, but very few find fulfillment in purely electronic relations.

So where do we go from here? Are there places our machines cannot follow us?

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Automated confessional booth from THX 1138

Religion and spirituality seems to be the obvious answer. They are both important to our identity as humans and seemingly impossible for robots to authentically replicate. Religion (and Shakespeare) are the signifiers in Westworld that their fictional robots may be becoming sentient.

Free will is another domain that may be all our own. Artificial intelligence may be able to simulate free will through random processes. But will itself, as experienced by each of us on a nearly constant basis, may be too inexplicable for us to program.

Our irrationality is the key difference. This same baseness of origin and composition that so bothers us about Darwin’s discovery may end up being our saving grace – the thing that makes us ultimately irreplaceable in the future.

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Header Image: Grand Moff Tarkin from Rogue One and Bernard from Westworld

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Top Films of 1895

1895 – Alfred Drefus and Oscar Wilde were each sentenced to prison, the Republic of Formosa existed on the island of Taiwan for several months, the first professional American football game was played and the world’s first automobile race was held. Here are the Top 5 films of the year, the way I see it:

5) Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (dir. Louis Lumière)

The Lumière Brothers entered cinema history with their public projection of 9 short films at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895. Auguste and Louis patented their cinematograph in February that same year.

Their invention was a technical step up from the cameras being used by their contemporaries, including Edison. The picture quality was slightly better, and the cameras were more mobile. The same machine that shot the photo could also be reassembled to develop and then project the same film.

 

4) Le repas de bébé (dir. Louis Lumière)

“Baby’s Meal” was one of the nine films the Lumières made their debut with. I think of it as a very early forerunner of perhaps the subject captured most often in motion pictures.

 

3) The Arrest of a Pickpocket (dir. Birt Acres)

Birt Acres and his partner Robert W. Paul developed Britain’s first 35mm camera and held some of the nation’s first public displays of film. The Arrest of a Pickpocket shows a horizontal structure that the actors must have been familiar with – it seems more like a filmed staged performance than a film. But, the effort at a small narrative was much appreciated by myself, after watching several dozen short actuality films in a row.

 

2) Annabelle Serpentine Dance (dir. William K.L. Dickson, William Heise)

Annabelle Moore spreads her flowing skirt around her and flaps, like butterfly wings. Many editions of this short from Edison’s studio were made – including some hand-tinted prints that give Moore’s dance a hypnotic magic.

 

1) Wintergardenprogram (dir. Skladanowsky Brothers)

Brothers Max and Emil Skladanowsky displayed the first projected motion pictures to a public, paying audience in the Wintergarten Ballroom in Berlin on November 1, 1895, beating the Lumière Brothers to the miletone by more than a month. Their films were made with the “Bioscop,” a camera of their own invention.

Their program was an anthology of several actuality films they had created during the prior year or so. The two showmen’s choice of subjects shows a creativity unusual for most of the other early film pioneers. There are the usual folk dancers and a weightlifter – but also a boxing kangaroo.

Although the Skladanowsky Brothers’ technology was quickly surpassed, their showings that fall opened up a new world to those lucky enough to see them.

“The press reviews of their Wintergarten Ballroom projection-event intimate something of the near-diabolical transmutations which the unleashing of film-images into the audience’s space generated,” Stephen Barber wrote in Senses of Cinema.

“Although enthralled, those spectators appeared simultaneously disturbed, as though subject to a maleficent, askew conjuring-trick able to steal-away their faculties, their hold upon time and reality, and even their corporeal presence.”

 

 

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Top Films – 1894

1894 – Anarchists terrorize western Europe, the Franco-Russian Alliance is formed, workers strike against coal and rail companies in the United States, Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason, and the Harvard-Yale and Army-Navy matchups are suspended because of massive amounts of injuries. Here are the best films of the year, the way I see it.

La CarmencitaHonorable Mention) La Carmencita (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

Shortly after I published this list, I visited the exhibition The Art of American Dance at Crystal Bridges, and who did I see but Carmencita! I immediately felt guilty for leaving her on the short list.

The oil painting is by John Singer Sargent, 1889. The subject is Carmen Dauset Moreno, “La Carmencita,” who danced before Dickson & Heise’s camera in Edison’s studio in 1894 – making her the first woman to appear in an American film.

5) Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (dir. William K.L. Dickson, William Heise)

The second of two boxing matches filmed by Thomas Edison’s team matched the then-current Heavyweight Champion James Corbett against Peter Courtney. They faced off in an exhibition of 6 rounds lasting 1 minute each. Corbett often performed exhibitions on the stage, and made more money from vaudeville than from fighting. He later took on film acting roles and put together a modest career from 1910-1930.

4) Falling Cat (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)

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CC BY-SA 3.0 Eyytee

Now billed online as the “World’s First Cat Video,” Marey created the film for reasons similar to why Eadweard Muybridge invented his camera back in 1877 – to settle a debate over how animals move. In Marey’s case, he was examining the “falling cat problem.” A cat seems to always land on its feet, no matter which position it is in when it begins to fall. This should, on its face, violate the law of conservation of angular momentum.

 

Scientists from the 17th Century onward attempted various methods to solve the problem. Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell used to throw cats out of windows at Cambridge, before switching to tables and beds, in order to determine the precise height needed to toss a cat without it being able to land safely. Marey’s more humane method slowed down the cat’s fall to allow scientists to examine exactly how the cats move. (By the late 20th century, experts figured how to use mathematical language to describe the obvious fact that cats contort their body to spin upright and, presumably, stopped throwing cats.)

3) Fred Ott’s Sneeze (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

By 1894, Dickson had realized films needed to be more than just simple experiments if they were to continue to dazzle audiences. He recruited fellow Edison employee Fred Ott to help him with this short film. Ott was known for his sense of humor and his funny sneezes. The YouTube embed below is particularly funny because of the very formal framing given by the Library of Congress.

2) Annabelle Butterfly Dance (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

This is one of several short films Annabelle Moore made with Edison’s studio. Some of her later dances would be hand-tinted, but this early one was not. Her hypnotic dancing, bizarre costume, and the vintage quality of the film gives it an other-worldly look that is alternatively charming and creepy, depending on the disposition of the viewer.

1) Dickson Experimental Sound Film (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

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Kinetophone

This is the world’s first sound film. You can see Dickson standing next to a large recording horn and playing the violin while two men dance. The sound was recorded separately from the film, and it’s not clear if they were ever successfully synchronized until 1998.

Edison had been interested in combining sound with images ever since his first meeting with Muybridge in 1888. Although this experiment was successful, the process proved to be more difficult and expensive than anticipated. Until audio-on-film technology was developed in 1919, synchronization was only possible if you started to play a sound recording at precisely the same time as you started to play the visual recording.

In 1895, Edison’s lab manufactured Kinetophones. A spectator who paid to watch a film inside the box would also put in ear buds and listen to background music. Edison was only able to sell 45 of them, and discontinued the product to focus his resources on projection.

Sources on Dickson Experimental Sound Film:

https://spencersundell.com/writing/pre-history_of_sound_cinema_part_1.html

http://filmsound.org/murch/dickson.htm

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I hit 500! – My Personal Top 50

I finally made it! I’ve now seen 500 of the 1,000 films on the TheyShootPictures.com Greatest Movies compilation list. I hit the milestone with Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far: https://themetropolistimes.com/1000-films-2/

It’s been a ridiculous amount of fun learning about film through the list so far. I’ve seen so many movies I never would have thought to see otherwise. I’m excited to see at least 500 more!

To celebrate, here is my personal Top 50 Greatest Films List. I broke it up into foreign and domestic, and allowed for only one film per director – just to make it interesting.

Foreign

1) Lawrence of Arabia

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David Lean’s World War I has long been a personal favorite of mine. Legends tell of Lean’s obsession with the smallest details in this grand epic. It can be watched with the sound off as a pure visual treat, but its embrace of the mystery and affected romance of Lawrence’s character gives it a depth few other films have equaled. Often mistaken as a paean to colonialism, I believe it has become more relevant as we move further away from the events it describes and become entrenched in postmodern questions of identity and civilization.

2) 8 1/2

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 Fellini’s masterpiece about a director creating his own film is also a man creating his own life and a circus director ranging the clowns. Fellini is the Italian Liz Lemon.

3) Metropolis

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Fritz Lang’s Weimar Republic silent sci-fi was the first great dystopia on film. Its scenes have been used as fodder for everything from Frankenstein to Westworld.

4) La passion de Jeanne d’Arc

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Renée Falconetti turns one of the greatest performances in history in Carl Th. Dreyer’s religious drama. His dramatic, makeupless closeups creates are legendary.

5) Shoah

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The 1985 documentary on the Holocaust doesn’t use a frame of archival footage. Whereas other films of the subject tend to focus on Hitler and present him as a manipulative genius, Shoah examines the people directly involved, making human choices in an environment long stepped in Antisemitism.

6) Rashomon

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Many films have explored the way in which we all perceive the world differently, but only Kurosawa is bold enough not to attempt to reconcile the contradictory perspectives of the characters in his film.

7) The Seventh Seal

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I gave Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on death and life the slight nod over Persona primarily because of the way some of his scenes have become recognizable icons even for people who have never heard of the movie. This one, with the knight playing chess against death, is my favorite.

8) Stalker

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Is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker sci-fi? Fantasy? It may transcend both. Like dark, lost mythology, it bring us to the haunting otherworld and gives us a near sense of the mystery of the reality that we can never describe.

9) Napoléon

File created with CoreGraphics

Abel Gance’s exciting 5 1/2 hour biopic both tells a compelling fable of Napoleon’s early life and introduces the widescreen triptych this film is most remembered for.

10) The Exterminating Angel

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Luis Buñuel’s surrealism took on many forms through his career; here, the upper class gathers for a party but find themselves unable to leave the room. A different sort of storyteller would have given viewers a clue or two to speculate about, but Buñuel doesn’t allow his characters to even really investigate their predicament.

 

Domestic

1) Citizen Kane

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I’ve been saying for a long time that Citizen Kane ought to be required viewing for high schoolers. Apart from its landmark as a piece of art, it also stands with The Great GatsbyHuckleberry Finn and Moby Dick as iconic explorations of the American character.

Writing in October 2016, I don’t think I have to work too hard to make a case for Kane‘s relevancy. Politico published ‘How Trump’s Favorite Movie Explains Him‘ this June. And below is Mr. Trump’s review of Citizen Kane, filmed by Errol Morris.

2) 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus transformed what generations of mass audiences expected from film. His transcendental journey is set in the context of a hard science film, combining the spiritual and the material and seeking a way out of our modern rut. Watching 2001 provokes the type of ethereal awe one only feels from entering a cathedral for the first time, or listening to an 18th Century choral mass.

3) City Lights

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Chaplin’s best film, it achieves the perfect balance between comedy and sentimentality he always sought.

4) Taxi Driver

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“You talkin’ to me?” Travis Bickle is Scorsese’s greatest Angry White Male. Doses in enough realism to bring the line as close as a dark comedy could possibly get.

5) Some Like It Hot

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In the running for the funniest movie ever made. Extraordinarily hilarious, it takes the best elements of the end of the screwball era and mixes them up. Also one of Marilyn Monroe’s best performances.

6) The Birds

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I’m in the small minority in naming The Birds Hitchcock’s best. It doesn’t easily give itself over to frame-by-frame formal analysis that some of his other works do. But it has a bizarre quality to it that makes it Hitchcock’s bravest work yet. Very little about the film is conventional. It has no resolution, and no explanation; it’s Hitchcock by way of Buñuel. The mindless, causeless terror leads me to imagine Hitchcock spent decades trying to discover the source of his fears and eventually gave up.

7) Duck Soup

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You won’t find any better examples of The Marx Brothers’ fast-paced blend of physical and verbal comedy. Only Dr. Strangelove satirized war as well as Duck Soup.

8) The Sound of Music

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My pick for the greatest musical ever made. It’s impossible to watch and not be overwhelmed with joy. Julie Andrews elevated the entire art of cinema by fearlessly embracing the best of our emotions – and having it juxtaposed against our worst historical backdrop.

9) Casablanca

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Casablanca has seeped into our collective consciousness to such a degree that it hardly seems like a movie anymore. Rather, it exists as a series of iconic scenes, words, and glances that we all seem to remember whether we’ve actually seen the film or not.

10) Star Wars

star-wars

Speaking of our collective consciousness… Star Wars and the films around it gave the West its first great mythology of the post-Christian era. Less than 40 years after its release, it has become as difficult to imagine America without Star Wars as it is Greece without Homer.

 

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Top Films – 1893

1893 – Grover Cleveland takes office for the second time, the World’s Columbian Exposition is held in Chicago, Gandhi arrives in South Africa, Dvořák’s “From the New World” premieres at Carnegie Hall, Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (“Pathétique”) premieres in St. Petersburg just 9 days before the composer’s mysterious death, the first college basketball game is played, and the first football helmet is worn.

Only 1 film survives from this year.

Blacksmith Scene (dir. William K. L. Dickson)

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Edison’s “Black Maria”

1893 marks three important milestones in the history of film. First, Thomas Edison opened up the world’s first proper movie studio. Nicknamed the “Black Maria,” it was little more than a shack covered in black tarpaper to prevent unwanted light from entering. Edison was able to rotate the shack, in order to angle the windows towards the sun as it moved throughout the day.

 

Second, Edison took a step towards monetizing film. He registered Blacksmith Scene and some of Dickson’s other early work for copyright, and exhibited the movies in Brooklyn that summer. He’d start selling tickets in 1894.

Third, Blacksmith Scene marks the first time actors were paid to play a role on film. Previous films had either been experimental, short snippets of real life called “actualities,” or in the case of Pauvre Pierrot, animated. Blacksmith Scene also shows Dickson beginning to consider the aesthetics of what he was capturing on film. You can see he composed the frame into a symmetrical shape, with the figure of the blacksmith in the vest sometime joining the center of the frame to make a cross.

Cinema was starting to grow up into an art form.

 

References:

Burns, Paul. 2010. “THOMAS ALVA EDISON (1847 – 1931) .” The History of the Discovery of Cinematography. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://precinemahistory.net/1890.htm.

 

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Top Films – 1892

1892 – Grover Cleveland won his rematch, the first public college basketball game was played, and The Nutcracker premiered in St. Petersburg. Here were the top films of the year, as I see them.

3) Handshake (dir. William K. L. Dickson)

2) Fencing (dir. William K. L. Dickson)

In 1892, William K. L. Dickson and Thomas Edison continued to develop the Kinestoscope, and tested on very short experimental films like this one. The surviving Edison/Dickson films from this time period are all similarly unremarkable to modern eyes. The real magic wouldn’t happen until Edison completed construction on the “Black Maria” film studio – he started building in December of this year.

1) Pauvre Pierrot (dir. Charles-Émile Reynaud)

Poor Pete” is the only survivor of Reynaud’s “Patnomimes Luminesuses.” He exhibited it along with several others at the Musée Grevin in Paris, presenting “the first animated pictures shown publicly on a screen by means of long, transparent bands of images.”

Pauvre Pierrot is also the first narrative movie in my list. In the story, a man visits his lover. Pierrot knocks, and the couple hides. Pierrot starts to sing, and the man scares him, so Pierrot leaves.

Pretty simple, but it represents a huge jump in the idea of what a movie is and what it can accomplish. It is the “missing link” in the evolution of cinema from a technological toy to powerful form of expression.

Only a few minutes of Pauvre Pierrot survives today, as Renaud threw most of his work in the Seine. It originally ran about 15 minutes in length – also a huge jump up from other contemporary films, which were only a few seconds, at most.

 

References

Burns, Paul T. 2010. “CHARLES-EMILE REYNAUD (1844 – 1918).” The History of the Discovery of Cinematography. Accessed October 2, 2016. http://precinemahistory.net/1890.htm.

  1. “Edison and Motion Pictures.” Engineering and Technology History Wiki. December 14. Accessed October 2, 2016. http://ethw.org/Edison_and_Motion_Pictures.

Herbert, Stephen. 2016. “Charles-Émile Reynaud.” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Accessed October 2, 2016. http://www.victorian-cinema.net/reynaud

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