Posts by Great Books Guy

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The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Review

7/21/14

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Director: Charles Tait

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★★☆☆☆

The Story of the Kelly Gang was the first feature-length narrative movie in history, running longer than one hour upon release. It tells the story of Ned Kelly, the famous Australian outlaw, as he ventures forth on his many escapades. Much of the film has been lost or severely edited, but the thin narrative still stands. It details the rise and capture of Ned Kelly. There were no inter-titles released with the film, and due to its poor material quality historians have been forced to piece together the story from newspaper clippings of the film and accounts of the Ned Kelly story.

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The Story of the Kelly Gang is a film worth watching purely for the sake of posterity. While it is historically significant to the development of cinema, much of the film is lost, confusing, or badly damaged. Only true dedicated film buffs should watch this film.

Life of an American Fireman (1903) Review

7/21/14

Life of an American Fireman (1903) Director: Edwin Stanton Porter

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★★★★☆

It is difficult to look upon these early cinematic gems with a critical eye, but after watching the short films of George Méliès, many other films pale in comparison. Nevertheless, The Life of an American Fireman is a wonderful little narrative film filled with impressive cinematic innovations and remarkable editing. It is a simple film, but also an essential for cinephiles.

The Life of An American Fireman represents the growth of early silent cinema as American narrative films took hold. It portrays an American fireman who envisions a woman in peril. Together, he and his fellow firemen race to her home in order to rescue her. It was one of the first films to employ editing techniques like cross-cutting –an amazing feat if you consider the complexity of devising two interspliced narratives within the same contemporaneous time sequence. The Life of An American Fireman was a smash success upon its release, both domestically and abroad. It was made through the Edison Manufacturing Company. The Director Edwin Porter’s other more famous film was The Great Train Robbery which was also made in 1903 to widespread shock and popularity. Porter was the son of a Pennsylvania merchant who nearly lost all his wealth in the Panic of 1893. Porter eventually worked for the Edison company as an inventor and director. He died in 1941. He was a sort of an enigmatic man, never repeating his directorial signatures, and preferring to stay mostly behind the scenes. It was said that he preferred to work with machines rather than with people.

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) Review

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) Director: George Méliès

“A Trip to the Moon”

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★★★★★

Georges Méliès’s films tend to present fantastical journeys through time and space with technical innovations and aesthetic splendor. While many of his short movies were created to complement his performances as a magician, his later films such as The Impossible Voyage and The Haunted Castle are truly marvels of cinematic achievement. I have seen A Trip to the Moon many times over the years and in my view it is his best film, well deserving of its rank among the greatest films of all time. Méliès’s films possess a sense of chaos, excitement, anarchy, and wonder which place them many years ahead of contemporaries in the world of early film-making.

Le Voyage dans la Lune is loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon as well as H.G. Wells’s adventure stories. At a meeting of astronomers, five brave adventurers (Nostradamus, Alcofrisbias, Omega, Microgemas, and Parafaragaramus) volunteer to fly to the moon in a bullet which is shot into space by a group of ladies (these ladies were actually hired from the Chatelet Ballet in France). The famous scene in which the bullet hits the eye of the moon is one of the most iconic scenes in the early history of film. Once on the surface of the moon, Phoebe and Saturn awaken the crew, and they venture into a cave where giant mushrooms grow. They encounter a race called the Selenites (“selenites” refer to the ancient Greek word for “moon” and were played by French acrobats), however if they strike the Selenites with their umbrellas the creatures disappear in a cloud of smoke. After being brought before the leader of the Selenites the adventurers escape back to their bullet, which they push off the side of the moon which crashes back to Earth in the Atlantic ocean. The film concludes as the explorers are celebrated in a parade with a statue reading “Labor Omnia Vincit” (of “Work Conquers All”).

This was Méliès’s 400th film and it was made on a budget of 10,000 Francs, a massive sum at the time. There were roughly 30 different tableaux, or scenes, in the film. He wrote, directed, acted in, produced, and constructed the costumes and sets –he was an auteur in the highest sense. A Trip To The Moon was influential on other emerging directors like Edwin Stanton Porter who began making narrative films such as The Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). Porter was able to build on the foundation laid by Méliès. Whereas Méliès placed prime importance on the stationary shot, Porter instead focused on the frame of the scene. By cutting frames, the director and editor had the ability to compress time –that is, by editing the film the cutting room floor became a more successful mode of suspending an audience’s disbelief through the arrangement of moving shots within time. D.W. Griffith was an early master of this strategy, as well.

Other important films directed by George Méliès include: Cendrillion or “Cinderella” (1899) whose scenes were modeled on the drawings of Gustave Dore and was highly influential on later directors like Cecil B. Demille; The Impossible Voyage (1904) which was modeled on the success of A Trip to the Moon; and The Haunted Castle (1896-97). The name of Méliès’s production company was called Star Film (1896) with the motto: “The whole world within reach.” For A Trip To The Moon, Méliès rather painstakingly infused the logo of his company on the stars in some of the scenes to prevent theft of his footage, however thieves still colored over the logos and sold the film illegally. Méliès made films until the outbreak of World War I, but he was unable to compete with the booming American market and in the end he became an aging figure mostly forgotten and indebted. Shortly before his death he was discovered selling toys and trinkets in the train station in Paris, and his story was thankfully recovered by historians of early cinema.

The Great Train Robbery (1903) Review

7/21/14

The Great Train Robbery (1903) Director: Edwin Stanton Porter

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★★★★☆

The Great Train Robbery is the foundational triumph of American pioneering film director Edwin S. Porter. In particular the closing scene of a point-blank gunshot is famous the world over, having been a shock to audiences in its heyday. It has been alluded to in many other films including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster.

The Great Train Robbery is the first great American Western film. It was filmed in New Jersey, where many early films were shot before the rise of Hollywood in California. The film tells the story of two bandits who rob a train while it is docked in a station. The bandits attack and bind the train station operator. Then they board the train, kill the officials, and file all the passengers onto the platform in order to ransack their belongings. One person tries to escape but is gunned down. The bandits escape with their loot on horseback, lawlessness rules over justice in this film. Later, the operator gathers men from a dance hall to chase the bandits down and kill them. The famous closing scene of the film portrays Justus D. Barnes shooting his gun point blank at the camera.

According to legend, the realistic scenes of shooting and moving trains frightened early 20th century film goers so much that many fled in fear. The Great Train Robbery was the most popular film of the silent era prior to the release of the mega blockbuster, Birth of a Nation in 1915.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) Review

7/10/14

La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) Director: Louis Lumiere

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, was directed and produced by the Lumiere Brothers, Louis and Auguste in 1895. In French it was called “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon,” though the film has been called a wide variety of names in both English and in French.

The film lasts just under two minutes (46 seconds in the earliest 35mm version) and it features 100 factory workers at the Lumière factory in Lyon-Montplaisir, France as they end their work day and quietly file out the front doors. All workers exit the factory between two gates and leave the frame on both sides. Note: several different versions of this film exist, because it was filmed during different seasons and with different objects in the foreground, such as a horse-drawn carriage. Today, this building still stands in Lyon but it is now the Lumière Institute, a museum dedicated to the preservation of French cinema.

The brothers were French sons of a portrait painter, and they were excited about the nascent advances in photography, particularly Thomas Edison’s inventions. They were enamored with the Kinetoscope, an Edison invention, despite its clunky and enormous size. Together the brothers improved upon it with their own Cinematograph, an invention that initially did not have a proper name, but which they used to offer screenings of short films for the general public. From the French word “Cinematograph,” we derive the word “cinema.” The brothers viewed the medium of film as an odd novelty, an extension of their father’s small and teetering photography studio in Lyon. They continued to develop unique photography and novelty colored films until their deaths in the mid-20th century.

The first private screening of the Cinematograph occurred on March 22nd, in 1895 at 44 Rue de Rennes in Paris. The screening generated considerable excitement, the local press was infatuated with the prospect of the new machine. Later, the Lumière Brothers presented their first fully public screening on the 28th of December at the Grand Cafe located on Paris’s Boulevard de Capuchines. The films shown were:

La Sortie de usines Lumière (1895)
La Voltige (1895)
La Peche aux poissons rouges (1895)
La Debarquement du congres de photographie a Lyons (1895)
Les Forgerons (1895)
L’ Arroseur arrose (1895)
Repas de bebe (1895)
Place des Cordeliers a Lyon (1895)
La Mer (1895)

Audiences were immediately enamored with this new invention, when it was first shown they demanded a replay of the workers leaving the Lumière factory. Notably, the most compelling film of the group featured humans in motion –people like watching other people in movies.

It’s important to note that the subject matter of the film concerns ordinary workers of all stripes – a theme which the history of cinema will return to again and again, such as in Chaplin’s Modern Times or in Eisenstein’s Strike. However, later films rarely if ever turn the camera back onto their own workers –staff and crew and so on. The workers often remain silent parties to the final cinematic project. Although the Lumière Brothers did not intend for their first film to be political, it nevertheless set a tone for the future of cinema with one single camera at eye-level on the street, focusing on industrial workers ending their workday. Naturally, Marxist interpreters of the film have offered numerous interpretations regarding the plight of the proletariat and exploitation and so on, however I am generally not as interested in these revisionist interpretations. In the film, the factory serves as a kind of container filled with people, and it does not stop until it is emptied, a pleasing motion for the mind’s eye. This ability to capture the desires of the audience’s mind is what becomes the goal of all later story film-making, particularly in Hollywood, which rarely focuses on how the film was made, but rather simply in capturing the faith of its audience –suspending viewers’ disbelief for a period of timeWith the development of moving pictures, cinema begins as a gratifying spectacle.

This film has endured simply because of its extreme importance to the history of cinema. Otherwise, the title explains the entirety of the single shot. The film is primarily important for its technological innovation, and its precedent-setting moment. This film was preceded by the Roundhay Garden Scene, by Louis Le Prince in 1888, an English inventor who shot some of the earliest known footage at his home in Leeds, but mysteriously he disappeared on a train in 1890 and was never heard from again. Conspiracies abound as to his disappearance, including a story about Thomas Edison killing him. His family later sued Edison, believing Le Prince was the original inventor of motion pictures. At any rate, the Lumière Brothers are an undeniable force who laid the foundation of early cinema.