Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Silent Oscars: 1888-1905 (The Nickelodeon Era)

Must-See Movies: Le voyage dans la lune a.k.a. A Trip To The Moon (1902); The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Recommended Films: Pauvre Pierrot (1892); Professor Welton's Boxing Cats (1894); L'arroseur arrosé a.k.a. Tables Turned On The Gardener (1895)
Of Interest: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888); Monkeyshines No.1 (1890); Blacksmith Scene (1893); Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894); L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat a.k.a. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895);The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895); The Kiss (1896); L'homme orschestra (1900); The Big Swallow (1901); Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901);; Life of an American Fireman (1903); La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ a.k.a. The Passion Play (1903); Le voyage à travers l'impossible a.k.a. The Impossible Voyage (1904); Panorama from Times Building, New York (1905)

Trying to say definitively who invented the movies is a little like trying to say who invented fire—the records are sketchy, everybody who knows for certain is dead, and what evidence that does remain comes largely from the self-serving accounts of Thomas Edison's patent lawyers.

And where do you start, which is to say, what was the first indispensable step toward what we now think of as motion pictures? If I knew his name, I'd say it was the first caveman who thought to entertain his neighbors with shadow puppets and firelight. In fact, two of the key elements of film, movement and representation, have been staples of art and entertainment since at least the ancient Greek stage.

Turner Classic Movie's recent documentary, Moguls and Movie Stars, began with seventeenth century Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens who in 1659 invented the magic lantern show—a process of projecting light through a painted slide onto a wall or screen—and in terms of being entertained while sitting in the dark looking at pictures on a wall, the magic lantern is a reasonable place to start a history of the movies. Over the course of the two hundred years that followed, these magic lantern shows became quite sophisticated—by stacking slides one in front of the other and manipulating them, a projectionist could create the illusion of movement—and were one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the 19th century.

And then there was Eadweard Muybridge, who on a bet took a series of photographs in 1872 of a galloping horse to prove that all four of its hooves leave the ground simultaneously when it runs. Strung together on a glass cylinder and spun quickly enough, this "magic lantern show gone mad" created the illusion of a horse in motion. Muybridge also had a fondness for photographing nude models performing mundane tasks and audiences had a fondness for paying to see them, proving once again that pornography often drives the acceptance of new media. (Also check out Étienne-Jules Marey who similarly used a "chronophotographic gun" to capture remarkable images of birds in flight.)

But if we think of movies as something involving a strip of film and a projector, then I think the history of movies starts with Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince who in 1888 used a single-lens camera and paper film produced by George Eastman to film two seconds worth of fashionable men and women walking around a garden in Roundhay, England. Along with equally brief footage of horse and buggy traffic crossing a bridge in Leeds, Le Prince is generally credited with producing the first "films" in movie history.

Alas for Le Prince, while preparing for a cross-Atlantic trip to exhibit his invention in New York, he boarded a train bound for Paris in 1890 and literally vanished without a trace. Although theories abound—suicide, fratricide, assassination—his disappearance has never been explained. In fact, investigators turned up no leads at all and the case went cold until just seven years ago, when, while combing through its nineteenth century archives, Paris police found a photograph dating from 1890 of an unidentified drowning victim who bore a resemblance to Le Prince. But whether it was positively him or how he might have drowned on a moving train, no one can say.

After Le Prince, the story of film picks up with Charles-Émile Reynaud. A French science professor who directed and exhibited what may have been the world's first animated film, Pauvre Pierrot ("Poor Pete"), his most lasting contribution to film history was the invention of a camera that recorded images not on photographic plates but on perforated film advanced by sprockets, resulting in longer filmed sequences than a cylinder or drum would allow.

Reynaud demonstrated his camera-projector, which he called the Praxinoscope Théâtre, at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 (the one with the Eiffel Tower). In the audience was the famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison who had been struggling to come up with his own movie camera without much success. By his own admission, two of Edison's greatest inventions were credit stealing and patent lawyers, deploying armies of the latter to accomplish the former—along with the light bulb, his most lasting and influential contributions—but he later insisted that his epiphany that the future of motion pictures depended on perforated film on sprockets was purely coincidental. The U.S Patent Office agreed.

"Everyone steals in industry and commerce," he said later. "I've stolen a lot myself. The thing is to know how to steal." (An idea he no doubt stole from his attorneys.)

Reynaud died penniless, but Edison—or more precisely his assistant William K.L. Dickson—ran with Reynaud's ideas (and, I don't know, maybe some of his own), and by 1894 created what he called the Kinetoscope, essentially a "peepshow" housed in a bulky cabinet, whereby the bored and the curious could one at a time watch brief films for a nickle. The movies were neither artistic nor adventuresome—just brief scenes of men sneezing, couples dancing, Annie Oakley shooting—but for a time at least the paying public was enthralled.

It was two French brothers, however, Auguste and Louis Lumière, who first thought to exhibit movies not to one person at a time but to a theater full of paying customers. Starting their careers in film as assistants in their father's photographic firm, the brothers—Louis as the inventor, Auguste as the business manager—developed a new and improved camera-projector. Where Edison's Kinetoscope was bulky and hard to maintain, the Lumières' combination camera-projector, the cinématographe, was light and mobile and relatively easy to use. In December 1895, these two brothers rented a hall in Paris and charged the public admission to see their new invention—the first time in history an audience paid money to see a motion picture in a theater.

Here in its entirety is that groundbreaking film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the only proper way to study movie history is to watch movies, and when I sat down and watched a couple of dozen of the Lumière brothers' best-known movies (judging by the number of votes they've received on the Internet Movie Database), it quickly became clear that while the Lumières may have invented the camera, they didn't have a clue what to do with the camera. Their films never progressed beyond fifty-second home movies of whatever they happened to be standing near—trains entering a station, babies eating breakfast, etc.—audiences quickly grew jaded and early in the 20th century, the brothers famously concluded that "the cinema is an invention without any future." Instead, they turned their full attention to photography, finding their lasting success with a color photographic process, the Autochrome Lumière, which they patented in 1903.

It was instead another Frenchman, Georges Méliès, who was the first to grasp the unique potential of the new motion picture technology. A stage magician by trade, Méliès saw movies as a successor to the tradition of fanciful entertainments. Where Edison and the Lumière brothers used their cameras to record reality, Méliès realized that through editing and photographic trickery, film could be used to create a new reality, one that could never exist apart from film. It was perhaps the single greatest insight in movie history.

Among his many movies, one, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), from 1902, is perhaps the one indispensable film from the first quarter century of film history and gave us the single most famous movie image before Charlie Chaplin first donned his little tramp outfit.

I'll grant you, A Trip To The Moon is a relic by the standards even of the decade that followed it, but it was also wholly original, deriving from nothing before it, inspiring so much of what came after it, and containing images that are still unique and unforgettable despite the passage of a century's worth of filmmaking. Or to put it another way, that The Simpsons could spoof A Trip To The Moon as an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon (in French, no less) without the need to explain it, tells you all you need to know about how much a part of the culture Méliès really is.

Unfortunately, Méliès wasn't much of a businessman, and Edison and his lawyers were able to copy prints of A Voyage To The Moon and exhibit them in the United States without paying royalties. Too, Méliès stopped progressing as a filmmaker. His 1912 movie, The Conquest Of The Pole, for example, could have been made a decade earlier in terms of its sets, acting, storyline and editing, and while D.W. Griffith later said of Méliès "I owe him everything," Griffith and others quickly surpassed him in terms of artistry and technique.

Méliès went bankrupt in 1913 and wound up selling toys in Paris's Gare Montparnasse train station. He was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1932 and died six years later.

Méliès's story is a none-too-subtle reminder that while movies are the greatest art form of the 20th century, they're also a business, and whatever else you can say about Thomas Edison, he did figure out how to make money from the movies and to popularize the medium. While men such as Le Prince and the Lumière brothers were more clever inventors and Méliès was a superior artist, it was Edison who made movies pay, and his realization that nobody was going to buy a film projector if there were no films to project on it may have been the second greatest insight in movie history. Certainly the most practical.

A variety of men made movies at Edison's behest, but the two most important were the aforementioned W.K.L Dickson and Edwin S. Porter. Dickson was primarily an inventor and his contributions as a filmmaker are largely those of a cinematographer recording his own experiments. His first works, the first American films, are simple scenes filmed in his own workshop—men blacksmithing, sneezing or shaking hands.

These snippets of life provided the content of Edison's peepshows and in the beginning were sufficient to satisfy the public's curiosity. But with more interesting films arriving from the Lumière brothers and especially Méliès, Edison realized he needed more substantial fare if his fledgling film company was to survive. Edison put Porter, who had formerly worked as a touring projectionist for a rival company, in charge of motion picture production at his New York studios, and there Porter set to work filming not just workplace scenes, but stories.

Porter directed more than one hundred eighty films between 1898 and 1915, but far away the most important and enduring of them is the 1903 western, The Great Train Robbery.

"In literature and music, as well as movies," Daniel Eagan wrote in America's Film Legacy, his collection of essays about the National Film Registry, "the past can seem slow, obvious and at times filled with odd, unexpected touches too far removed from our experiences to decipher easily—which makes The Great Train Robbery an even more remarkable achievement. The blockbuster of its time, it has lost none of its power to entertain over the past hundred years."

Put simply, The Great Train Robbery was the first great American film. Not only is the shot of Justus Barnes firing a Colt revolver directly at the camera one of the most indelible images in movie history, but Porter grasped that unlike with the stage, the "best seat in the house" was wherever the camera needed to be to show the action. Porter placed his camera on top of a movie train or riding along with the outlaws on horseback, a "conceptual leap" (Eagan again) that puts the film a decade ahead of its time.

Porter's use of jump-cuts, cross-cutting, matte shots and hand-tinted frames was equally cutting-edge, and that the film also established the narrative conventions for decades of westerns to come makes The Great Train Robbery the most important American film before The Birth Of A Nation a dozen years later.

Despite the commercial success of The Great Train Robbery, neither Porter nor his boss were comfortable with the film's technical and storytelling innovations, and thereafter, to the disappointment of the ticket-buying public, the studio's product reverted to more conventional forms. A Trip To The Moon notwithstanding, ultimately the one thing Thomas Edison couldn't steal was quality and within a few years, immigrant entrepreneurs such as Adolph Zukor and Carl Laemmle and directors such as D.W. Griffith equaled then surpassed Edison as a filmmaker. The company lost steam, Porter left Edison's employ in 1909 and an adverse ruling in an anti-monopoly case in 1915 exacerbated the decline. With the coming of World War I and the closing of the European market, Edison sold his studio and abandoned film altogether.

It was an ironic and somehow fitting end to the master inventor-thief's involvement in the history of motion pictures.

Postscript: Matthew Blanchette steered me to an even earlier surviving film from Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, called Man Walking Around A Corner. It was shot on an earlier version of Le Prince's camera, this one with sixteen separate lenses—it looks more like a spider's eye than a camera. Thanks, Matthew!


Jason Marshall said...

Thank you for a wonderful overview of the early history of movies. Like you I also watched the TCM series "Moguls and Movie Stars" and I have to admit the first episode that covered this period was my favorite because it was the period I knew the least about.

What I like the best about you essay is it becomes evident how fragile the development of film as a narrative art form was. The Lumiere Brothers made this great innovation and shrugged their shoulders, not seeing any potential for it. To them film was a cute novelty, but nothing revolutionary. What would have happened if no one else had been pursuing the same technology? It may have been well into the twentieth century before we had something like "The Birth of a Nation."

I guess we shouldn't be too hard on Thomas Edison. He was a crass self-promoter and blatant rip-off artist, but hey, what is America all about anyway? If he wasn't all that movies could have been ten or twenty years slower to develop.

I am definitely looking forward to the rest of your silent series.

Mythical Monkey said...

I confess I prefer the messy, warts-and-all version of Tom Edison to the "boy genius" stuff I read as a kid. Reminds you that life is rarely as black-and-white as we'd like to believe.

Valerie Troutman said...

-It's easy to right off the Lumière brothers in favor of Méliès, but it's their work that started the realist vein in cinema.

-A Trip To The Moon was the inspiration for the music video of Smashing Pumpkins' Tonight, Tonight.

-My favorite part of films from this period is the temporal overlap. For example, when somebody opens a door from one angle and then the door opens again when the camera cuts to another position.

-I love this story:
In 1899 Biograph set up to film a boxing match on Coney Island with electric lights. The Vitagraph cameras were 20 rows back filming. Pinkertons were sent to deal with Vitagraph and there was more action out of the ring than in it. Eventually Albert E. Smith recorded the whole fight for Vitagraph. The next morning it was found that the Edison company had made a pirate copy from theirs and released it. Vitagraph and Edison were the only ones to make money on the fight.

Mythical Monkey said...

It's easy to right off the Lumière brothers in favor of Méliès, but it's their work that started the realist vein in cinema.

British film historian David Thomson would agree. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, he wrote, among other things, "Whether they would have liked it or not, they are the antecedents of the mainstream of French and American cinema, the first men to discover -- albeit unwittingly -- the fictional content of documentary, and the men who established that films reached out toward audiences and were in turn altered in the process of being watched."

I think the key word there might be "unwittingly" -- their films work, but they didn't seem to realize that they worked and wound up abandoning the project. Not a knock on what they accomplished, just an explanation of why they stopped so abruptly.

Valerie Troutman said...

True, I happen to have just started reading a book on French cinema and it says the same thing too.

Matthew Blanchette said...

I want to point out that Louis Le Prince didn't just film two seconds worth of action; that's all that's left of his films -- what's been recovered has either been found deteriorated in archives or scraped out of Le Prince's own film cameras decades after his death.

For instance, Roundhay Garden Scene was not Le Prince's oldest surviving film; that honor belongs to Man Walking Around a Corner, shot on Le Prince's first motion picture camera (a sixteen-lens monstrosity) -- and, since it was built and he experimented with it in the United States, in 1887, one can only assume that this remaining fragment is the oldest surviving motion picture in the world to be shot in America:

In effect, Le Prince beat Edison by over a year.