How Motion Pictures Became the Movies
Postcard image of Milwaukee’s Butterfly Theatre. It opened in 1911 and was given this facade in 1916. For more on the Butterfly, go here.
This video lecture (embedded below) looks at the artistic choices and changes
that emerged in feature filmmaking from 1908–1920. It was originally a
PowerPoint talk that I took on the road, but thanks to Erik Gunneson it
has become a video that you can play with my voice-over lecture. For more
on the background to the lecture, go
to this blog post.
The lecture is aimed at general audiences—people interested in
film history and students studying the subject. Its primary focus is a general
account of the changes in film style across this exciting period. Studying those
changes obliges us to analyze sequences, which I do in a series of stills. The
secondary focus of the talk is an effort to trace three ways in which historians
have sought to describe and explain those changes. This historiographic dimension
was only sketched in because it had to get short shrift in the talk; I didn’t
want to get bogged down in the literature, or even a welter of citations.
thanks to the wonders of the Web, I can post the lecture on this page and supplement
it with a bibliography and filmography cued to it. If you want to follow up any
of the arguments and schools of thought I mention, the publications and links
below are good starting points. As for the films: Many that afford neat examples
aren’t famous, and many aren’t available on video. For those which
are, I include a filmography.
The lecture runs about 70 minutes. Instructors are welcome to use all or part of it in courses. For in-class screenings, if you need to split it in two, there’s a convenient breaking point at about 35:42.
Finally, this lecture couldn’t have been accomplished without the assistance
of many film archives over a couple of decades of my research. In particular
I want to thank the Danish Film Archive and its curator Thomas Christensen, and
above all the Royal Film Archive of Belgium and its successive curators Jacques Ledoux,
Gabrielle Claes, and Nicola Mazzanti.
For more in-depth consideration of issues in the talk, you can go to my books On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. For broader context, see chapters 1–3 of Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, third ed.
(timecode) 2:58: The critics alluded to are among the very earliest in film history. Riccioto Canudo wrote a series of articles collected as Usine aux images (1927, “Image Factory”), and the prolific Louis Delluc became the most famous critic in France through such books as Photogénie. Extracts from their work are available in Richard Abel, ed. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907–1939, vol. I. A key Canudo essay is here. Frank Woods wrote criticism and commentary for the New York Dramatic Mirror before moving into film production, initially with D. W. Griffith. Hugo Münsterberg is widely considered the first film theorist, and his 1915 book The Photoplay: A Psychological Study is still read and analyzed today.
Of the films mentioned, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Battleship Potemkin are available in many DVD versions. Such is the power of the editing-based canon!
5:24: In this section I allude to what I’ve called the Standard Version of stylistic history. The filmmaker-heroes of this generation include Louis Lumière, Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, and D. W. Griffith. Surprisingly, none of the many historical surveys by Georges Sadoul, France’s premiere film historian, has been translated into English. For readers of French, the place to start is his Histoire du cinema mondial. Paul Rotha’s central contribution to this debate is The Film Till Now. Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film remains a monumental account of the film business and film artistry. On the Russians, many of Sergei Eisenstein’s essays have been translated into English, and the screen-filling quotation about cinema as not theatre comes from another director, V. I. Pudovkin, who wrote this in his book Film Technique, pp. 83–84, 23.
11:12: More name-dropping, but it’s important. This Revisionist school of historical research has been, for me, the most exciting development in film studies during my lifetime. Some key references are Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows; Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis; Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film; Tom Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph; and Charles Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907–1913. Other major contributions to the debate include Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 and Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema: 1907–1915. The anthology Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker, is a good introduction to several arguments launched by the Revisionist research tradition. See as well in this collection Tom Gunning’s essay, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” pp. 56–60. For more on the development of editing in the 1910s, see our blog entries here and here and here and here.
Of the films mentioned, Fantômas (1913), Roman d’un mousse (1914), The Woman in White (1917; also streaming here), Hearts and Diamonds (1914), and Muriel (1963) are available in video versions.
35:05: For more on the idea of “intensified continuity” see my book The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. There is no caption identifying the shots of Joan Allen and Matt Damon, but I thought everyone would recognize The Bourne Supremacy.
35:45: To characterize the third strand of thought, I’d pick out the work of Yuri Tsivian, especially his essays “Portraits, Mirrors, Death: On Some Decadent Clichés in Early Russian Films,” Iris no. 14–15 (Autumn 1992): 70–78 and “Two ‘Stylists’ of the Teens: Franz Hofer and Evgenii Bauer,” in A Second Life: German Cinema’s First Decades, ed. Thomas Elsaesser, pp. 264–276; Brewster and Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema, mentioned above; and Kristin Thompson’s essay “The International Exploration of Cinematic Expressivity” in Film and the First World War, ed. Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkam. pp. 65–85. In this same volume, see also John Fullerton’s “Contextualizing the Innovation of Deep Staging in Swedish Film,” pp. 86–95. My own work on the staging tradition can be found in the books mentioned at the start and in this cluster of blog entries.
My examples available on video include Life of an Evangelist (1915), The Ballet Dancer (1911), The Watermelon Patch (1905), A Corner in Wheat (1909), From the Manger to the Cross (1914), The Vicar of Wakefield (1917), Ingeborg Holm (1913), and Island in the Sun (1957).
43:52: This illustration of the visual pyramid is from E. G. Lutz, The Motion-Picture Cameraman (Scribner’s, 1927), p. 79.