Starting today, we venture on a voyage of going back to the time, when cinema began its journey. Over the next few weeks, we’ll get up close with the stalwarts of cinema who brought reel and real together and laid the foundation of great cinema. Our guest writer, John H Foote takes us all on the journey of a lifetime.
Presenting ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE NARRATIVE CINEMA
Just a few short years after the invention of the moving image, dubbed “movies” the new medium was still considered a novelty act, not expected to last very long. A French magician, Georges Melies had other ideas. If you have seen Martin Scorsese’s superb valentine to silent cinema and Melies, ‘Hugo’ (2011) you will know precisely of what I speak. A magic act, Melies was also a master of gadgets and engineering and understood that the film camera offered endless possibilities for fantasy on film. He purchased one from a British manufacturer and began incorporating films into his act, though he became far more ambitious. ‘The Conjurer’ (1898) a short he made, was nothing more than a series of a subject appearing and disappearing, achieved through a simple trick Melies had figured out. Place a character in position, shoot some film, then pull him out of the shot, shoot the empty space, place him back in the frame, and shoot some more and continue this for a few minutes. When processed it appears the person is appearing and disappearing at will, which thrilled audiences and told Melies he had only touched the very beginning of what film would achieve. At this point in the history of the cinema, films were no longer than five or six minutes, but Melies figured out ways to cram a lot of storytelling into those precious minutes. What he did not do was move the camera ever, instead putting his sets on complicated tracks, when simply moving the camera would have been so much easier.
His most famous film, ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902) was a fantastical little film, beloved by all who have seen it. His characters take a trip to the moon, crashing into the eye of the man in the moon, encountering adventure before returning home. The film transported audiences in a way the stage could not, and those interested in the cinema were beginning to see the new medium offered endless possibilities. The film was seen by American film pioneer Edwin S. Porter who realized stories could be told with the camera, and by moving the camera, which Melies had not attempted, it could propel the narrative. The simple movement of the camera, a pan shot, or moving closer could elevate the manner in which the story was told. A visual language was being born.
His film ‘The Life of an American Fireman’ (1902) was among the first films to explore visual language in cinema. We see a sleeping fireman, in the top corner of the screen is a superimposition of a mother putting her child to bed in a home she does not yet know is on fire. The alarm goes off, we cannot hear it, but we see the bell being rung and know what is happening. Trust. The men rush to the poles and jump on, landing at the bottom as Porter cut from top to bottom. He trusted his audiences to understand if the man grabs the pole at the top and slides, he is going to land at the bottom. They jump on the horse-drawn fire carriage and out the door, they go. And then he did something extraordinary, he panned the camera to show the blazing inferno, the same one the man had been dreaming about. With just a few shots, the pan of a camera and the trust of his audience, he had begun the language of the cinema. That same year he made ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1902) the first western, that is a textbook story on how to rob a train, again with superb visual language, and an exciting, for that time story. Porter seemed to realize film had to move, there had to be constant motion in the frame otherwise, why watch?
No one at that point in film history had understood that trusting the audience, making them part of the experience was part of the movie-going experience. Live theatre worked that way, the audience needed to be a part of the play for it to truly exist. Porter understood that he needed to trust the audience to follow the film, and he knew the language had to make sense. So when he showed the young firemen
leaping onto the pole at the top, he trusted the audience to know, without showing them, they would slide down, and land at the bottom, which they saw. The jump cut was born. And that was just the beginning. Later the Russians would claim that editing was the foundation of cinematic art.
Among the young men, Porter would impress would be a young playwright who thought cinema was beneath him, D.W. Griffith. No one was producing his plays, he was eking out a living as an actor when he was asked if he wanted to try directing a film. Over a conversation with his cameraman and friend Billy Blitzer, he received a crash course in directing and off he went to helm his first film, ‘The Adventures of Dolly’ (1908). Griffith continued to direct, pushing the envelope each time out it seemed with something new, a new shot, newer shots, greater mobility of the camera, and the length of his work. He felt if audiences would sit through a two-hour play or opera, why could a film not be that length? From 1908 through to 1914, Griffith directed more than one hundred films, none more than twelve minutes in length, though he was dreaming of a huge film that would forever alter the course of the art form and medium of cinema.
Griffith had begun casting younger, more attractive actors because he believed the audience must connect to the characters, and they were more likely to connect with attractive actors. He raided the Broadway stage for his films, and began, very primitively, the movie star system. In 1915 he released the film that changed cinema forever, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915), a massive, stunning picture about the American Civil War that is a technical wonder, but terribly racist. Griffith and Blitzer created the long shot, the close-up, the extreme close up, the iris shot, virtually every type of camera shot used today were created by these two men for their work and utilized best in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) which ran over two hours!! Imagine getting used to films running ten minutes, tops, and suddenly you are sitting through a two-hour epic recreating the Civil War with stark and realistic brilliance?
The American President Woodrow Wilson called the achievement “history written in lightning” and Griffith was the most important director working in movies at that time. Watching him closely, learning from him were artists about to emerge, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, F.W. Murnau, and Todd Browning, each on the cusp of greatness. With extraordinary battle sequences that placed the audience in the heat of the battle, the film created images that seemed to leap from the history books. And yet for all its scope and size, the film is still an intimate study of what war does to a family. Beautifully shot and edited is the soldiers’ homecoming, the hand on the gate, the reunion with his wife, all very powerful. Sadly Griffith’s next film ‘Intolerance’ (1916) was a dismal failure, costing far too much and filled with grand ambition, but also loaded with self-indulgence, often the undoing of many a great director. The sets for the film towered over Hollywoodland, drawing onlookers interested in what was happening. A huge historical film dealing with ancient times it was a disaster because there was no cohesive narrative, it was all about the production design and size of the film. Never again did Griffith make a great film, despite being one of the founders of United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. He would die near destitution.
Buoyed by what Griffith had accomplished other directors followed suit, with longer films giving them the ability to tell greater, grander stories. Cecil B. Demille was a true pioneer of the times, understanding to be able to make the sort of films he wanted to make, money must be made. It was after all a business and though art was appreciated, money ran the business. His greatest work during the silent period came towards the end when he directed the original ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1923) and the first feature film about Christ, ‘The King of Kings’ (1927) which became sort of a template for all films to follow about Jesus. As Demille was rising, Chaplin was peaking, merging comedy with pathos, knowing that while they were laughing at his antics he could sneak in his message. Fiercely concerned with the state of the world. he used film as a satire to speak out on political issues that bothered him. No one could touch him as a comedic actor during the silent period, no one better understood Chaplin than Chaplin, and he insisted on directing all his films once he achieved stardom. Creating a character, the little tramp, meant to be an everyman, his films explored how the tramp tirelessly fought against authority. No one could have known the little man with the strange moustache would change film to become the most important art form of the 20th century.
To be continued…