CHAPTER 1: FILM HISTORY
Silent Cinema: The Beginning of Film Form (1895 – 1928)
Film history begins well before the invention of the motion picture camera. To understand how and why the film industry has grown to become the primary mode of artistic expression in the world, we must first carefully trace the path of early cinema, which developed the movie standards that we use today. Cinema storytelling became standardized remarkably quickly – within the first two decades of its existence. The rules by which we make film today are more or less these same rules, which were developed out of industry competition, global wars, audience reception, and incorporation of radical art movements. These historical influences on the film industry in its early stages developed a sturdy film form.
The first element in this film form is the technical aspect of watching moving images. Cinema does not literally show us movement, but it does show us a fast succession of still images. The origin of cinema lies in our need for this illusion of motion and the subsequent industry race to create a movie camera capable of recording and projecting images for the viewing pleasure of its audience. This movie camera would have a light source to capture a series of images composed of ‘frames’ onto a flexible, and reproducible celluloid. The cinema apparatus would also need a projecting medium to create the illusion of motion by playing these frames back at a specified speed or frame rate (the number of frames per second). In this way, cinema can be thought of as still images set into motion, and thus the story of cinema also becomes the story of animation, of photography, and the development of other technologies. While the movie screen appears as a seamless flow of images, it is in fact dark part of the time. The optical phenomenon known as ‘persistence of vision’ and its counterpart, the phi phenomenon — the mental act of suturing the gaps between frames or images – aids in the appearance of a constantly lit screen and the continuity of the image. Before the advent of photography, many early optical devices exploited the specialized way in which humans process light to trick the eye into conceiving motion.
Pre-cinematic technologies (6th c – 1980)
There were many different pre-cinematic devices using light sources to project images that paved the way for cinema— from the camera obscura as early as the 6th century to the magic lantern in the 18th century. The camera obscura, also often known as a pinhole camera, was basically a box with a hole on its side that reproduced a naturally occurring optical illusion. Light from an image set in front of the camera obscura passes through the hole, reproducing and inverting the image within the opposite surface inside the pinhole camera. The magic lantern, on the other hand, was one of the earliest projectors of images onto a ‘screen’ or wall. It used a concave mirror to project light from a light source through a rectangular sheet of glass or paper containing the image to be screened. A lens at the front of the lantern would then focus the image.
The 18th century also saw the appearance of phantasmagoria: a type of horror exhibition chiefly produced through the magic lantern that projected images of demons and skeletons onto walls, smoke, and transparent curtains to frighten its audiences. From its inception the pre-cinematic device operated as a medium of light and film, introducing ideas of phantasms or ghosts embedded within the very structure of the medium. The idea of ghosts in film introduces a defining way in which cinema began to be imagined as a tool to represent or re-imagine and interpret reality. In light of the phantasmagoria, we see one of the earliest aims of the cinematic device as entertainment. The first films of cinema, though, would provide a document or archive of the ghosts of the past, from the people, places and events that were recorded onto celluloid.
The invention of photography (1820s -1880s) and other pre-cinematic effects such as the zoetrope (1834) in the 19th century brought about a seismic shift in the possibilities of the cinematic apparatus. Photography in particular brought the celluloid technology to make images not only reproducible but also more accessible to the masses. During the mid-1800s to the 1880s two men, English professional photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), were using photography to study the locomotion (movement) of humans and animals. Both men aided in the evolution of motion photography by developing breakthrough camera techniques that set individual images into motion. Muybridge used dozens of cameras to capture motion across separate negatives placed in sequence to each other. In 1879 Muybridge projected these still images in rapid succession onto a screen for the first time from an invention he called the zoopraxiscope, an important predecessor of modern cinema. Muybridge can thus be credited with creating some of the first moving pictures. His contemporary Marey used chronophotography to depict movement through multiple exposures onto a single photographic plate. Marey designed a camera called the fusil photographique or “photographic gun”, which allowed the user to take individual shots rapidly. As one of the earliest camera devices to record sequential movements, Marey’s photographic gun was one of the many important steps towards a fully functioning movie camera. Muybridge and Marey’s experiments into chronophotography— still photographs that recorded movement—are understood as laying the foundation of cinematography.
While Muybridge and Marey set the template for moving pictures, the need for a cinematic device capable of recording movement instantaneously grew. This early movie camera also had to be portable, allowing budding filmmakers and film exhibitors ease of travel, access, and exhibition. In 1889, American entrepreneur George Eastman engineered celluloid ‘roll film’ which became the industry standard. Prior to Eastman’s more durable and flexible emulsion-based celluloid, paper sensitive film and glass plates were the norm for experiments in photography and movement. The crucial invention of celluloid technology would allow for the filming of longer subjects, and the easy transfer and exchange of films. All that remained to achieve cinema, as we know it, was the rapid development of the movie camera apparatus. The rise of the technology, which lead to the creation of the first movie cameras, occurred akin to an arms race, where the desire to create a recording and projecting medium, which set images to motion, was also tied up in the financial possibilities of cinema.
An interesting figure during this time in film history is Frenchman Louis Le Prince, who lies at the center of an enduring mystery that has never been solved. Le Prince worked in England and is credited with shooting what may have been the first moving picture sequences as early as 1888. In 1890, at the eve of his first public demonstration, he mysteriously disappeared with all his patent applications allowing other inventors to outpace him and be attributed with the invention of cinema. While Le Prince’s work arguably did not influence the commercial development of cinema due to the secrecy around it, his presence sets up an argument for the first films emerging in England, Leeds, rather than that long held thought the cinema began in America and France.
Persistence of vision: The effect of an afterimage on the retina persisting after an image has been shown. This allows for sequential images, as in optical toys or in film, to blend together to appear to be in motion.
Photography: The creation of permanent images with light on a light-sensitive material, often an emulsion on paper or celluloid.
Chronophotography: Photography that captures a quick succession of movements in several images. Originally used for scientific study of body movement.
Celluloid: A malleable thermoplastic. Used in cinema as photographic film stock.
Edison, Kinetoscope, and Lumière Brothers (1891 – 1895)
Cinema technologies were invented in different countries at different times, but the earliest date has been set at 1891, with the American inventor Thomas Edison’s Kinetograph camera and Kinetoscope viewing box: a type of peep show device, activated by putting a coin in the slot. Edison’s assistant, W. K. L. Dickson is credited with much of the work patented by Edison and was key to the formation of the first machines capable of recording and screening moving images. But it would be Dickson’s four-hole-perforation of 35mm Eastman roll film that would change the course of film history. These perforations on either side of a film frame permitted the film to be pulled by gears through both the camera and viewing apparatus and would become the standard in the industry. Edison built a studio called the Black Maria (pronounced ‘Mar-iah’) in New Jersey, named after its resemblance to the cramped black police wagons that transported criminals, to create numerous shorts such as Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), the first movie to be copyrighted in the United States, Annette Dances (1894), The Boxing Cats (1894), one of the earliest forms of the cat video now popularized on the internet today, and The Kiss (1896). The stage was set for the film industry in the United States to be born on the East Coast, and more specifically in New Jersey.
Many of Edison’s earliest films were filmed by William Heise and Dickson, two of the most prolific filmmakers marking the beginnings of cinema. These early films produced within the Black Maria were characterized by black backgrounds and sunlight from the studio’s roof, which opened to allow for natural lighting. Because recording these films required a bright light source, Edison had the revolutionary studio built on a revolving track to follow the movement of the sun for optimal lighting throughout the day. These continuous one-shot films were often short, no more than around 20 seconds in length, with a fixed frame that kept the audience at a distance, as observers of life. Edison’s films ran the gamut from comedic to intimate snapshots of life, often featuring notorious figures like Annie Oakley and other people and places of note. In seeking to document reality these first films eventually began to introduce the idea of cinema as more than just pictures that move, but rather moving pictures that told a story.
By 1894 Edison had Kinetoscope parlors across the U.S. and Europe. Each machine, though, could serve only one audience member at a time, since it could only fit one set of eyes in the peephole, and was limited to exhibiting a single short film. Although popular, the Kinetoscope’s days were numbered by the continued race by inventors to discover a commercially viable way to project films to large groups of spectators. Germans Max and Emil Skladanowsky, for example, developed the Bioscop movie camera and projector in 1895, which utilized two strips of film rather than the standard 35mm single strip film. They are credited with projecting a program of their own films to a paying audience in Berlin almost two months before the Lumière Brothers’ famous first film-projection for a public audience at the Grand Café in December 1895 Paris. In 1895, Dickson also left the employment of Edison to partner with inventor Herman Casler, Henry Norton Marvin and Elias Koopman in the American Mutoscope Company, which by 1908 would become the Biograph Company. Dickson and Casler would invent the Mutoscope, a type of flip-card peep show device that would provide direct competition as a cheaper alternative to Edison’s Kinetoscope. By 1896, Dickson and his partners would launch their own Biograph camera and projector in their continued attempt to wrest control of the American film market from Edison’s monopoly.
Although the Edison camera was patented as the first motion picture camera, the official birth of cinema is often considered to be 1895 with the Lumière Brothers who successfully were both able to record a series of images on a flexible, transparent medium (35 mm nitrate-based celluloid film) as well as project the sequence in a system accessible to the commercial growth of cinema domestically and internationally.
Inspired by the Kinetoscope, in 1895 Frenchmen Louis and Auguste Lumière debuted the groundbreaking Cinématographe. The Cinématographe operated as a recording camera, printer or developer of the filmed images, and projector, while also being small and portable, making it the first all-in-one commercially viable film camera. Importantly, the machine used a slower exposure rate of 16 frames per second, a rate that would become the standard international film speed, as compared to Edison’s application of 46 frames per second to his cinema apparatus. Using the Cinématographe, the Lumières filmed their factory workers leaving at the end of the day. The resultant film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) is considered to be the very first motion picture made with this innovative machinery. By the time of the Lumières’ celebrated first film screenings for a paying audience at a café in Paris, the Lumières had a program of ten films that met with wide public acclaim and economic success. These films allowed a glimpse into early documenting of everyday life from August Lumière and his wife feeding their baby, to the arrival of a train, and men playing cards. Others showed early comedic skits like a young boy tricking a gardener into spraying himself with a hose by stepping on it.
Like Edison’s first films, the Lumière Brothers’ first films were single moving scenarios taken in one shot, composed like a photograph or painting, and short in length, usually under a minute long. The Lumière films, though, were marked by their ability to easily take their camera to the streets, resulting in on-location shooting, and films composed of simple settings and narratives that often focused on nature or everyday people. By 1896 trained cameramen and projectionists were sent across the globe with the Cinématographe to find new subject matter to shoot, and to show their films to new, appreciative audiences, thus launching the beginning of film history in many other nations.
The Actualites: Cinema as realism
These earliest films created in the 1890s revealed an awareness of an audience and sought to create something amusing or actual for their entertainment. In this way, most of the films were non-fiction or actualities, what might be considered an early antecedent of the documentary, that presented real settings and events for audience viewership. Some actualities, such as the traveling actualities where the camera is attached to a vehicle, provided the first examples of camera movement in cinema. For instance, Canadian James H. White’s Panoramic View of the Champs Elysees (1900), made for the Edison company, presents its mobile view from what appears to be a horse-drawn carriage. Films of foreign lands and news reels also constitute actuality films. The fiction film, especially the simple comedy, was also an important genre for these early films.
Early films had no introductory titles, credits or intertitles, which contributed to the loss of many of these films in the annals of film history. Many films consisted of a variety of shorts from different directors spliced together in a reel without individual identification, and maybe stored in someone’s home, office or studio. Although most early films of the 1890s consisted of a single continuous shot, some filmmakers filmed different shots of the same subject which could then be screened separately, spliced into other shorts, or run all together creating a type of multiple shot film dependent on the needs of the exhibitor. The exhibitors of these early films were the first editors because they often had the sole power to decide which shorts would be shown in a reel to audiences and in which order.
By the end of the 1890s, films were becoming longer and exhibiting multiple shots, requiring producers and directors to begin exploring new ways of telling stories through early forays into editing. Though these early films are now called “silent films”, they were not silent at all. In fact, these first films were typically accompanied by some type of live or recorded music. Pianists, musicians, and sometimes whole orchestras would play sheet music or improvise for movie audiences. Many also used phonographs to provide music for their film shorts, especially Edison in his Kinetoscope parlors.
With the demand for film as entertainment, many other film studios rose to provide competition with new cameras and movies to take hold of the budding industry within their respective countries. In France, for example, Pathé Frères was founded in 1896 and by the early 1900s became the largest vertically integrated film company in the world. They would create the lightweight Pathé camera, based on the patented Lumière design in the early 1900s, which would dominate the global industry well into the end of the 1910s. Gaumont Film Company, founded by inventor Léon Gaumont, produced their first films in 1897 and quickly became the chief rivals of Pathé Frères. Alice Guy-Blaché, the industry’s first female director, quickly rose through the ranks in Gaumont’s company to become the Head of Production from 1897 to 1907 directing the host of the company’s popular actualities. Between 1910 and 1914, Guy-Blaché was the first woman to own her own studio plant, The Solax Company Studios — the largest pre-Hollywood studio in America — in Flushing, New York from where she directed and produced hundreds more shorts and eventually feature length films. From Italy, to Denmark and Japan, film industries and cultures thrived, opening the door to new ways of understanding cinema as a product not just of realism but of fantasy and storytelling.
In 1896, the Lumière Brothers screened the now infamous fifty-second film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat (Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station) to Parisian audiences. The film showed the everyday scene of a train pulling into a station and passengers boarding and disembarking. Despite the familiarity of these actions, audiences reacted with fear and delight at seeing this mundane scene captured on film. One founding myth of cinema is that audiences ducked their heads when the train approached the screen’s limits, as though it would burst out of the wall to hit them. This famous anecdote of spectators running, screaming from the sight of an approaching train has taken on the status of urban legend and has been undermined by many critical film scholars.
It is easy to hear this urban legend and assume that early spectators had a childlike relationship with the screen, where they were unaware of the artificiality of movies and took the images too literally. But film scholars disagree with this assessment of early cinema goers. Tom Gunning sets forth a concept of a ‘cinema of attractions’. It can be difficult as students of cinema to see where the attraction lies in these first black and white early film shorts containing little plot, movement or stylistic development. The idea of early cinema as a ‘cinema of attractions’ considers how new experiences of space and time in modernity (technological revolution, railway developments, electrical and communication systems, the new automobile, the increase of a global society) and the shock of an emerging modern visual culture affects the way in which these early spectators perceived the screen.
Rather than laughing at the naiveté of these first spectators who ‘believed’ what they saw on screen, as students of cinema we can think about why might the spectator have been affected by the technology of this new medium. For Gunning, the basic aesthetic of early cinema was the visual shock rather than narrative. The early cinema spectator were thrill seekers, standing their ground in the face of a rapidly approaching train, not helpless naïve children. They delighted in the imaginary threat of the train. Of early cinema, one of the most popular genres were films of approaching vehicles, suggesting that spectators were attracted to the visual shock of cinema, rather than a blind terror.
There is an awareness of the audience in these films that actively attempt to visually startle. In L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat, for example, even though the camera itself does not move for the length of the film, it is deliberately positioned so that the tracks approach it at a diagonal. This framing causes shifts in shot size based on the train’s movement alone — from long shot, to medium to close-up. The camera angle creates dynamic shot that increases the tension of the everyday train pulling into a station and creates the thrilling sensation of a train racing towards its audience. These early films posit an understanding of cinema as astonishing spectacle that holds the ability to fascinate audiences.
Actualities: Early non-fiction short films that were often composed as static one-shots. The first films in cinema history were actualities.
Cinema of attractions: Concept developed by theorist Tom Gunning to describe how early moviegoers were attracted to cinema primarily as a shocking and exciting new technology.
Georges Méliès: Cinema and the magic tradition
Georges Méliès is considered by many to be one of the most important filmmakers in the early years of cinema because he shifted away from the moving photographs of Edison and the actualities of the Lumières towards story and narrative expression. He was exceedingly successful both in France and internationally during his career, and he was often imitated or illegally pirated by filmmakers like Thomas Edison who was resentful at the competition in the market. Because he controlled all aspects of his film production – screenwriting, directing, acting, producing, and distribution – many today consider Méliès to be the first auteur of cinema.
Méliès was present that historic day in 1985 when the Lumière Brothers stunned audiences in Paris with their Cinématographe and its program of films. Inspired, but unable to purchase the machine from the brothers, Méliès procured his own camera-projector from British inventor Robert W. Paul, and small film studio called the Star Film Company. In 1896, Méliès soon began screening his own films to audiences. Initially one-shot reel films of no longer than a minute, Méliès’ early films quickly became marked by his use of special effects or magic tricks, which popularized multiple exposures, dissolves, stop motion and split screen photography among other techniques in cinema.
In Un Homme de tete (The Four Troublesome Heads, 1898) Méliès enters the frame and proceeds to remove his head placing it on a table. Every time a new head appears on his shoulders, the director removes it until four identical Méliès heads interact with each other—three on the table, and one on his shoulders in a technically impressive early use of multiple exposures. Méliès’ take on Cinderella, Cendrillon (1899), similarly provided one of the earliest uses of dissolves, and was the director’s first use of lavishly designed multiple scenes to tell a story in cinema. Méliès’ cinema was distinct and influential in its ornate stage design, which drew the spectacle of the theatre into motion pictures. The magical illusion of his camera presented elaborate stories in ways that were impossible in live theatre and startlingly new to the medium of the screen. Méliès would often appear in his films and use direct address with his audiences, creating a self-reflexivity that encouraged audience awareness of the camera and artificiality of the screen. Audiences were part of the magic trick or adventure on screen in this way.
A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904) remain two of the most influential early films of science fiction. The respective scenes of the space shuttle flying into the moon’s eye in A Trip to the Moon and the sun swallowing a flying train in The Impossible Voyage are still two of the most iconic images in film history. Méliès used his camera to embrace the air of scientific discovery and exploratory hope for the future that marked the time period. A Trip to the Moon was the first example of science fiction on film in its imagining of not just the journey from the earth to the moon, but the perspective of the earth from the moon. Important also to Méliès’ storytelling innovations was his use of linear editing to establish continuity between his shots to tell simple stories. Filmmakers across the globe were still figuring out how to tell a story through rudimentary editing that kept narrative clarity for audiences across space and time. Melies’ 11-minute A Trip to the Moon successfully kept its spatial and temporal logic from scene to scene, using editing to sequentially follow its characters on their journey to and from the moon.
For all his cinematic innovation, movement in Méliès’ films happened not through the camera, but through set design. His cinema of tricks mandated a very steady or fixed camera through which he could swap in other objects to create jump cuts, so his camera never moved, preventing him from experimenting with shot sizes and camera movement the way in which other filmmakers would. Early British films, especially, continued the Méliès magic tradition and were known for their special effects cinematography, for example, James Williamson’s The Big Swallow (1900) and Cecil Hepworth’s Explosion of a Motor Car (1900). Through these films you can begin to trace the begins of the editing tradition in early cinema. In The Big Swallow a man walks angrily towards the screen until his open mouth fills the camera view. Williamson invisibly cuts on the black interior of the character’s mouth to a black back drop into which a cinematographer and his camera falls, then back again to the now laughing and chewing face of the man to suggest that the angry man his swallowed the cameraman.
As the name suggests, Explosion of a Motor Car presents the spectacle of an exploding car that slowly scatters the body parts of the car’s passengers in a comedic and playful way. Hepworth’s film features one of the earliest uses of Méliès’ popularized stop motion effect to negotiate the shock of the modern experience with the presence of the rapidly developing technology of the automobile. By 1912, Méliès was considered old-fashioned due to changing film practices, and he became outpaced by his peers. Despite the global popularity and imitation of Méliès’ films and their special effects, the dominant form of cinema today is not one filled with tricks and fantasy, but rather of a narrative embedded in realism. The Pennsylvanian director, Edwin S. Porter, would be a key figure in encouraging this direction of modern storytelling. From the one-shot films of the Lumières to the tricks of Méliès to Edwin S. Porter, we see a steady development of cinema from dependency on technology to aesthetic play and towards greater realism.
Classical storytelling and Classical Hollywood cinema
Originally a film projectionist and equipment expert, Edwin S. Porter quickly rose in the ranks of the Edison Manufacturing Company. Working with his future collaborator George S. Fleming, Edison would become a prolific cameraman and director for the majority of Edison films. In 1903 he directed two seminal American films, Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, providing important forays into the use of continuity editing to deepen narrative in early cinema. A major problem for early filmmakers was the establishment of temporal continuity from one shot to the next. The films of Georges Méliès were especially influential to Porter in their lessons on storytelling through continuity across narrative time and space. A Trip to the Moon held a particular familiarity to Porter as he had illegally duplicated it for distribution by Edison in October 1902, allowing him a closer understanding of the mechanics of editing together a story for narrative clarity. The 6-minute film The Life of an American Fireman (produced in late 1902 and released in January 1903) grew out of this experiment with continuity.
James Williamson’s 5-minute British film, Fire! (1901), was one of the very first films to edit multiple shots together chronologically to create a cohesive narrative sequence. Although Fire! skillfully used editing to heighten the emotional tension of firefighters racing to rescue a family with a baby from a burning house fire, it struggled in its narrative clarity. The spectator is often confused about the proximity or distance of spaces from each other. The opening scene, for example, shows a police officer who has noticed a home on fire running off-screen for help and immediately arriving at a fire station. Subsequent shots, though, highlight the horse-drawn fire engines sprinting to the scene of the fire which now appears to be a distance away.
Inspired by Fire!’s technical skill and narrative, Porter created Life of an American Fireman (1903), a dramatized nine-shot narrative that combined multiple staged scenes of firemen coming to the rescue with actuality film of a real fire brigade. Porter’s film begins with a fireman thinking about his wife and daughter, one of the first films to feature a character’s inner thoughts and thereby humanize the figure of the fireman. Porter further deepens the audience investment in his film through one of the first uses of the close shot in early cinema. Fading in and out between images of the fireman thinking of his family to a close shot of someone pulling an alarm, and firemen reacting to the alarm, Porter displays an advanced use of continuity between shots that maintains a sense of temporal and narrative pacing and meaning across shots. His sophisticated attempts at continuity extend to sequenced shots of horse-drawn fire engines all going in one direction. Despite depending on wide, fixed shots to tell its story, Life of an American Fireman exploded into audience’s consciousness, taking what had been done before by disparate filmmakers to another level that made the popular genre of the firefighting film even more in demand. It would be with Porter’s next film, The Great Train Robbery, that the direction of cinema would firmly turn towards the realist narrative as its dominant form compared to the fantasy-driven narratives of Georges Méliès.
The Great Train Robbery remains Porter’s most famous and influential film to the development of classical storytelling in cinema. A story about a gang of bandits who hold up a train, Porter’s film is arguably the most popular film of the pre-1905 period and prompted many imitations. The Great Train Robbery tells its story in eleven shots, moving back and forth between scenes of a tied up telegraph operator, his discovery by town folk who mount a posse to apprehend the bandits, the anticipated train robbery, and shoot-out that leads to the bandits’ death in the end. Porter makes the device of editing central to his storytelling, with a film language focused on creating a sense of time passing between shots, while simultaneously stimulating audiences by cutting between different locations in the building of tension and drama. While there were other fiction films composed of multiple shots being created during the time period, The Great Train Robbery challenged the expectations of the frontally composed and theatrical films still being made by most filmmakers at the time. It displayed an unparalleled level of continuity of action, on-location shooting, and narrative clarity across shots that served to increase the realism of Porter’s film.
The Great Train Robbery ends on a shocking final insert of a bandit shooting his gun directly into the camera, in a breaking of the fourth wall, which shows its awareness of the spectating audience. This famous ending reverberates in modern cinema today in homages placed in films like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), the gun barrel sequence in the James Bond movies, and George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone (1993) where characters fire their guns at the camera. Porter was one of several filmmakers across the globe whose work pushed forward the development of classical storytelling and editing during the era.
The 1905-1912 Nickelodeon boom created the moviegoer who now went to the movies as a habit. This explosion of permanent indoor exhibition spaces across the United States that were dedicated to screening motion pictures made huge profits from charging just a nickel for admission. With the demand for more films to screen to these habitual audiences, by 1906 early cinema began to be dominated by narrative storytelling necessitating the rapid development of a visual language of expression. It is within this era of the Nickelodeon boom that Biograph actor-turned-director, D.W. Griffith, would leave the company in 1913 to produce a body of infamous films that would change the face of modern visual storytelling. Learning from earlier films and his own experimentations, Griffith developed the rules of continuity editing at a scale never seen before in his most influential film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith shot his scenes with multiple cameras to create a continuous flow of dramatic storytelling while maintaining continuity in space and time across his numerous cuts.
The Birth of a Nation was the highest-grossing film of the silent film era, but for all its innovative camera techniques and narrative achievements, it was also highly controversial and socially devastating. Griffith’s film tells the story of the American Civil War through a focus on two white families torn apart by the conflict and the threat of the freed slave. Three hours of racist propaganda, The Birth of a Nation starts with the Civil War and ends with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the South, and more specifically white women, from the uncivilized emancipated slaves. The origin of stereotypes like the loyal Uncle and Mammy characters became popularized through their prominently portrayal by white men in black face in these characters’ unwavering service towards their owners.
In contrast, the other slaves within the narrative are ruined through their freedom, having become violent, arrogant, and sexually aggressive. In the middle of the second act, Flora, a young white woman flees the unwanted attentions of Gus, a former slave turned Union soldier, who wants to marry her. Rather than be despoiled by a black man, she jumps off a cliff, leading her brother to form the Ku Klux Klan to avenge her death. In The Birth of a Nation, lynching is the tool suggested to exact vengeance and bring order to the land. Through filmmaking tools, Griffith creates sympathy for the white characters and demonizes black slaves as dangerous narrative elements to be destroyed. The editing cuts closer to Flora to set up character psychology that highlights her purity, and it cuts increasingly faster between Flora, Gus, and her brother, who desperately searches for her, to create drama and tension. Editing and a sweeping orchestral score is used in The Birth of a Nation to emotively portray the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and to position the audience on their side, in a revisionist history of America’s birth.
Although Griffith is often incorrectly credited with introducing innovations such as cross-cutting, and the close-up, Griffith effectively used these techniques to show several competing lines of action, moving between different shot sizes and groups of characters, with a clarity of story that remains astounding for the 1910s. In the climax of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith displays a sophisticated use of parallel editing that builds tension and excitement in terms of emotional and narrative cues. Cutting between Klan members riding to the rescue, to a white family under siege in a small cabin by black soldiers gone mad with too much freedom, to Lillian Gish fighting for her virtue against the mulatto, Silas Lynch, Griffith cuts from full-figure shots to close-ups to accentuate the drama. In the little cabin, as a father prepares to kill his own daughter to save her from the bestiality of attacking black soldiers and characters desperately fight to hold off the horde, Griffith inserts a close-up of a child crying to further manipulate audience emotions. He consistently returns to the sight of the Klan as the white characters’ only hope and creates drama by shortening the shot lengths to accelerate the pace and deepen the emotional stakes. Though the content of Griffith’s film was immediately criticized by many viewers and has become a dark spot in film history, he has been revered for filmmaking techniques that effectively manipulate viewer emotions. Griffith’s mastery of crosscutting provided a foundation for narrative action and pacing in cinema, which underpins modern Hollywood cinema today.
When The Birth of a Nation opened to audiences in 1915, it was met with standing ovations across the country by white audiences, but also the counter-pressure of massive protests organized by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) due to its dangerous misrepresentations and liberties taken in recounting history, which many American filmgoers at the time mistook as accurate. Griffith’s film singlehandedly aided in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, who actively used The Birth of a Nation as a recruiting tool. While The Birth of a Nation is considered by many to be the foundation of modern Hollywood cinema, it is also representative of racism, white supremacy, and America’s history, and it cannot responsibly be understood separately from its politics and ideology. Understanding this connection between Hollywood’s foundations and the ideology that it perpetuates is important to historically orient Hollywood practices today, like whitewashing and the use of racist stereotypes. A criticism or study of Hollywood cinema today must take into consideration its beginnings rooted in Griffith’s sensational film.
After the record-breaking success of Griffith’s three-hour The Birth of a Nation there was no going back. The multi-film reel or feature film became the norm. With longer films came other stylistic standards: more restrained acting style and the further development of character psychology, which would lead in turn to the emergence of the star system and fan magazine culture like Motion Picture Story Magazine (1911) and Photoplay (1911). The classical style of storytelling and editing evocatively showcased in Griffith’s film set in place the editing practices that still make up the basis of Hollywood cinema to this day. More recently Hollywood films have drawn from the troubled historical legacy of The Birth of a Nation to speak to contemporary concerns in America. In 2016 Nate Parker released The Birth of a Nation, which repurposed Griffith’s film title to challenge a white supremacist version of events and tell the story of the birth of America from the slave’s perspective. Although also marked with controversy, Parker’s film won numerous awards, and the distribution rights were bought for $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight Pictures, breaking the record for the largest amount paid to date for a Sundance Film Festival production. In Spike Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, referencing The Clansman, the original title of The Birth of a Nation, Klan leader David Duke screens Griffith’s film for the Colorado Springs chapter after a secret induction ceremony. Using audience awareness of The Birth of a Nation as the foundation of the American film industry, Lee’s film reengages Griffith’s in a satirical examination of race and politics in modern America.
Griffith was only one of many directors creating feature length films during the silent film period important to the development of Classical Hollywood cinema. Mentored by Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber was a prolific director, screenwriter, and highly recognized and sought after talent in Hollywood alongside D.W. Griffith. Unlike with D.W. Griffith, the course of film history has obscured Weber’s importance to silent cinema laying its creative trajectory chiefly at the feet of men. In Suspense (1913), a roughly 10-minute film in which a man, chased by police, steals a car in his haste to reach his remotely located home to save his wife and baby from a threatening tramp, Weber engages in superior editing to heighten the suspense and narrative clarity of her story. Using a variety of film techniques from a three-way split screen to introduce characters in order to explain space and location to the audience, to a key hole effect to create a close-up, and cut-ins to cut closer to the action, Weber produces an immersive experience for her film audience. In one startling moment, Weber places the spectator within the point of view shot of the young mother in peril as she peers from her upstairs bedroom window and meets the gaze of the tramp who looks straight into the tilted camera representing the shocked mother’s, and audience’s, gaze. Weber cleverly heightens the tension and emotion of her film through her manipulation of shot sizes and parallel cutting between the home invasion and the husband on his way, building upon the legacy of the rescue sequence that D.W. Griffith would display on the immense stage of The Birth of a Nation.
One of the early directors to create feature-length films in the 1910s, Lois Weber’s 1914 film, The Merchant of Venice, is widely considered to be the first American feature directed by a woman. In 1916, she would be the first, and only, woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association in honor of an oeuvre that addressed the social issues within her time and her own personal politics. In films like Hypocrites (1915), Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) she challenged the power and hypocrisy of religious institutions and issues of contraceptives and abortion, respectively.
By the end of the 1910s the feature film was a staple of Hollywood cinema, and the industry was steadily migrating to the West Coast to take advantage of the year-round sunlight and good weather crucial for outdoor filmmaking. Classical Hollywood narrative form informed a universal language of cinema that still remains the norm today. In other countries around the globe, directors began taking alternative approaches to telling stories visually that would continue to impact on the development of the medium through the rise of an international avant-garde cinema. This alternative to Hollywood narrative cinema would use its cinema to encourage new representations of reality, and to call forth a new cinema spectator.
World War I & international avant-garde cinema
Referred to as ‘the first modern war’, World War I saw the technological clash of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) against the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States). This modern war saw the unprecedented use of chemical warfare and military technology, which would result in socio-political upheaval and the deaths of civilians and soldiers on a massive scale. On the winning and losing side respectively, the cinema industries of France and Germany were particularly affected through the immense casualties experienced during the war.
Before World War I French studios like Pathé Frères and Leon Gaumont dominated the international film market, but the loss of conscripted personnel and the use of the studios for wartime purposes during the Great War basically brought these giants to a standstill. Hollywood cinema rose to fill the gap. By the end of the war there was a desire to create a distinctly French cinema, to reclaim the theaters from the hegemony of Hollywood by producing a distinctly national product. In 1918 French Impressionism, a film movement invested in the centrality of the emotions and the subjective spaces of characters, deepened the possibilities of what cinema as a medium could do. Filmmaker-theorists Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier and Abel Gance were strongly associated with the movement and used different aesthetic approaches to explore cinema’s unique ability to make audience’s feel emotions, not simply see them displayed. In a movement away from the more objective world of the earlier actualities, Impressionism allowed audiences to intuit meaning from emotional impressions, rather than the often linear, clear-cut understandings encouraged in classical Hollywood cinema.
Abel Gance’s La Dixième Symphonie (The Tenth Symphony, 1918) is considered the first major film of the Impressionist movement and tells the tale of a composer who, believing his wife is having an affair, expresses his pain through a powerful symphony. The Tenth Symphony showed the possibility of mainstream cinema to be liberated from theater and the novel, which tend to tell meaning directly, in a move towards the sensations that gives rise to meaning and emotional truths within the audience. In Gance’s film the performance of a symphony is felt through visual devices and emotional reactions of the people who listen to the symphony. The bodies of characters layered within the frame heave in shared feeling, moving silently as one as they physically react to impressions inspired by the music. The use of superimpositions and inserts of a woman dancing in a woodland glen evoke the mental space of characters, privileging the creation of mood over plot. The Tenth Symphony showed the possibility of cinema outside a classical Hollywood narrative form dominated by realism.
Impressionism is characterized by point of view storytelling, lighting, and the revolutionary technology of frame mobility that allowed the camera to represent the eyes and experience of characters. Most films around the world were still largely static, but Impressionism saw the rise of a new generation of filmmakers who strapped their cameras to carousels, and locomotives in an attempt to facilitate the ease of experiential character movement. In L'argent (1928), L'Herbier’s camera swoops and glides through cavernous rooms, pulled by numerous pulleys and dollies in its visualization of corrupt practices, and shifting perspectives as characters are consumed by their surroundings. Due to Impressionists’ interest in character subjectivity, their films also often played with optical effects to suggest the inner life and experience of its characters. Germaine Dulac's La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1923) presents a narrative concerned with a young housewife’s fantasy of escape from a dull marriage. Dulac uses visual techniques – slow motion, double exposure, irises, dramatic lighting and distortions – to allow the spectator entrance into feminized mental spaces of dreaming and loneliness.
Central to Impressionism was the idea of photogénie, a concept introduced by Jean Epstein that saw as the essence of cinema its artistic ability to enhance the soul or character of things through filmic reproduction. Plot and story should thereby be secondary to the creation of what is truly cinematic, that is moments of photogénie. For the Impressionist filmmaker the camera should be wielded in spontaneous ways to break free of the limits of the traditional film narrative and present fresh ways of seeing and understanding the world. For Epstein, the use of the close-up intensifies emotions and provides opportunity for photogénie.
In Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle (The Faithful Heart, 1923), a stand-off occurs between two men, Jean and thug Petit Paul, over the fate of Marie, an exploited young woman they are both interested in. In a confrontation sequence that shifts between a variety of shot sizes, Epstein utilizes over twenty short, extreme close-ups of faces, fists, and a hand grasping a bottle to highlight the tension and anxiety imbued in the moment. What creates photogénie in this sequence is the many subtle movements made visible by the use of close-ups that generate a world of the emotions and meanings that would otherwise be lost through a focus on dialogue and intertitles. In Impressionist cinema, the rhythms of editing and the distortions inherent in dreams, hallucinations and other mental states, can be confusing and exciting to untangle. These techniques destabilize the neat realist presentations of classical narrative cinema and force spectators to be active in generating film meaning.
Dada and Surrealism
The Dada movement emerged across all media around 1915 as a reaction to the sense of meaninglessness and disillusionment felt over the unparalleled loss of life experienced during World War I. Horrified, artists in Zurich, France, Germany and New York rejected the rationality of science that had led to such a war, choosing instead to adopt an absurdist view of life, one centered in nonsense, irrationality and anti-art, or anti-bourgeois capitalist sensibilities. Entr'acte (Clair, 1924), is one of the best known representations of Dada film. From the very start of Entr'acte, Clair throws the audience into disorientation through his ambivalent shifts from slow motion to fast cutting and unstable camera movements. In one sequence, a canon fires at the audience in a point of view that is absurdist and filled with narrative ambiguity even as a clear statement on war can be read. A hilarious funeral procession ensues when the mourners are forced to chase the hearse when it escapes the camel that is pulling it. Entr'acte challenges traditional ideas of storytelling in cinema through its undermining of conventions of character, plot and setting, its nonsensical images and disconnected scenes that defy clear interpretation, and its overturning of clear temporal and spatial relations. In Clair’s irreverent postwar film, laughter is the only thing that makes absolute sense.
Many members of the Dada movement went on to form the Surrealist movement, originating in Paris from 1924. André Breton officially founded the movement in 1924 when he wrote The Surrealist Manifesto in which he argues that cinema should be understood in terms of dreams. In the 1920s the question of ‘what is cinema?’ and how it could be differentiated from the other arts gained ground. For Breton, cinema was different from other arts in its ability to approximate the dream, and so cinema had a unique way of merging dream-states with reality. The surrealism of the dream forces the spectator to engage in a higher level of thought that escapes the limits imposed by traditional ways of structuring a story through the cause and effect structure and formal aesthetics of Hollywood narrative cinema. While Surrealism partakes in Dada politics of negotiating anxieties concerned with the state of the world, Surrealist cinema combined absurdist imagery with shocking, often sexual and irrational juxtapositions to present new ways of considering reality through dream states. It is no wonder that the critical work of Sigmund Freud on dreams and the subconscious were crucial to surrealist work.
Even as the Surrealist movement grew out of France, its artists hailed from different nationalities and no one specific Surrealist expressed themselves the same stylistically. In 1927 American visual artist, Man Ray, a Dadaist-turned-Surrealist, produced the hypnotic short film Emak Bakia composed of dreamlike images and film techniques that blur the distinction between objects in its presentation of female mental space. The film ends with the famous image of a woman with eyes painted on her eyelids. It is only when she opens her eyes and smiles direct at the audience, that the trick is fully revealed, and the strange unease felt at the woman’s previous blank stare is dissolved. It is a shocking moment that forces the spectator to draw their own conclusions and engage with the cinematic medium at a ‘higher’ level than required by narrative cinema. Ironically, Emak Bakia was criticized by many Surrealists as containing too little narrative.
Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí and Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel are the individuals most associated with Surrealism in cinema, chiefly due to their famous collaboration Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929). Un Chien Andalou ostensibly presents the story of two lovers, but Buñuel disrupts the clarity of traditional cinematic storytelling by structuring his film along the lines of the dream. Following the title-card, “Once upon a Time”, Buñuel introduces a man who, in a shocking cut to close-up, slices open a woman’s eye with a razor blade. He then proceeds to undermine the narrative continuity by having the woman, who was previously blinded, regain her sight following an intertitle telling the audience that eight years have passed. Un Chien Andalou destroys the linear and logical expectations of seeing and understanding the world of the story in cinema. Filled with aggressive imagery, Un Chien Andalou is composed of vignettes and nameless characters with unclear spatial and temporal relations to each other.
Despite the popularity of Un Chien Andalou, Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928) is considered by many to be the first Surrealist film. Originally an Impressionist filmmaker, Dulac shifted briefly to Surrealism to direct The Seashell and the Clergyman, a film about a priest’s frustrated pursuit of a beautiful woman. Filled with dream imagery, disjointed settings, superimpositions, and split screens among other techniques that place the spectator within character’s mental spaces, Dulac’s film challenges the idea of cinema as representation of reality. By the 1930s and 1940s, many Surrealists emigrated to the Americas as the globe became embroiled in World War II, allowing a resurgence of Surrealist ideas to enter into Hollywood cinema.
Although Germany lost World War I, hit with sanctions and losses that isolated and devastated the society economically and socially, it would become a juggernaut in the world of cinema production with highly technical and moody storytelling that would challenge the norms of narrative cinema across the globe. The harsh reparations that Germany was forced to pay to the Allies at the end of the war led quickly to inflation. The German economy collapsed, hyper-inflation rocked the country by 1923, and unemployment visited all, including those belonging to the middleclass who had never before experienced economic depression. Discontent, anxiety, and disillusionment were felt everywhere as the national trauma of losing the war and humiliations of ‘peace’ hovered over the society. During the war Germany had banned the import of foreign films, so between 1916 and 1920, with no competition, domestic German film production soared. Expressionism was already a flourishing movement in German art and theatre before World War I. After the war, as the German people increasingly suffered under socio-political and economic tensions, the Expressionist movement gained a foothold in German cinema, redefining the relationship between cinema and realism.
The German Expressionists sought an approach to cinema that questioned the way that reality was traditionally represented and understood in cinema by translating the inner experiences of its characters onto the world around them. The mise-en-scène – makeup, costumes, set design – took on the qualities of character’s emotions, often anger, angst, and shock. While the Expressionists shared the centrality of the emotions as a defining trait of their movement with the French Impressionists, the Impressionists’ focus lay in their camera mobility and cinematography techniques. The Expressionists, on the other hand, used mise-en-scène and simple continuity editing techniques to express emotions. They pushed the human figure into exaggerated performances and expressed character subjectivity through visual distortions in set design, like unparallel lines and jagged shadows. Expressionist cinema also drew heavily from earlier Expressionist theatre and painting, borrowing techniques of stylized sets, geometric compositions, tilted angles, low-key lighting, and heavy shadows. In revealing the artificiality of cinema, that is, by making it clear to audiences that they are watching something that has been carefully constructed, the Expressionists sought to awaken the spectator of Expressionist cinema to their own realities. In watching Expressionist films, we become aware that our worlds also have been structured in certain ways by institutions, like religion, education, and politics. By troubling vision, Expressionism attempts to reveal these systems of control and introduce new ways of seeing and thinking.
In 1920 Robert Wiene’s silent horror The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was screened to audiences. Its unique abstraction of space with oblique lines and angles, dark staging and theatrical movement of characters would signal the beginnings of a new German cinema of expression. Wiene’s film recounts the tale of a psychotic hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist, Cesare, to commit murders. The film played with narrative expectations by telling the story from the point of view of a young man, Francis, who is revealed at the end to be a patient in a mental institution, a classic unreliable narrator. The stylized sets, chiaroscuro lighting, the iris shots that open and close scenes, among other techniques all challenge the perception of the audience and retroactively suggest that the world of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is caught up in the twisted mindscape of the mad.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would be the first of many Expressionist films that would deal with themes of madness, alienation and monstrosity. Horror remains one of the most important genres impacted upon by the Expressionist movement. While some Expressionist films resemble The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its highly stylized and graphic mise-en-scène that clearly draws from Expressionist painting and theatre, other Expressionist films sought out the expressionism inherent in exotic locales at tension with everyday reality. In 1922 F.W. Murnau released the Expressionist horror masterpiece Nosferatu, a film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thomas Hutter travels to the faraway Carpathian Mountains to meet a reclusive client, Count Orlok, who wishes to purchase a new home. Unbeknownst to Hutter, Count Orlok is an ancient vampire who will wreak havoc on his life, and those he loves. Everything about Count Orlok is wrong. From his too long body and fingers, to his too long teeth and ears. Starkly highlighted through harsh lighting and exaggerated acting, Count Orlok’s shadow creeps across walls in an expression of his bestiality, but also of his alienation and loneliness. Central to the creation of an expressionist style in Nosferatu is Murnau’s use of real landscapes rather than studio-built sets. In Hutter journey’s towards Count Orlok’s castle, Murnau captures the brooding, alien feel of the landscape through long takes, providing a sense of an insight into the vampire’s very old, yet enduring soul. See Chapter 3 for more on Mise-en-Scène.
With the ‘Rentenmark-currency miracle’ of 1924, the German economy stabilized. Economic and cultural life flourished in what would come to be known as “the Golden Age of Weimar". Technological advancements abounded and new techniques replaced the old in the face of burgeoning modernity. With the success of the Expressionist movement, many German directors like Wiene and Murnau, emigrated to Hollywood, just as the Nazi party began to gain in power in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Filmmaker Fritz Lang made one of the last German Expressionist films, Metropolis (1927), and this marked the end of the movement in Germany. Set in an urban dystopia, Metropolis follows the fraught love story of Freder, the son of rich management and Maria, child of workers, and their attempts to surmount the gulf between the classes. Fritz Lang used exaggerated movements of characters, geometrical lines of his urban landscape, and stylized contrasts between high and low social spaces to imbue his film with social commentary about the dangers of technological progress at the expense of the human condition.
As film history progressed beyond its early stages, it incorporated new technologies and cultural standards in film industries. But the core principles of storytelling, editing, and cinematography from early cinema remained the same. The feature film is still our standard for widely distributed cinema. In fact, the three-act structure, which was developed in the 1920s is still our screenwriting standard. Since developing continuity editing in the 1910s, which keeps coherent time and space across shots, we have not changed it. And the cinema style developed in French Impressionism, Surrealism, and German Expressionism through cinematography, mise-en-scène, and editing, continue to be our building blocks of style today.
French Impressionism: A cinema movement of the 1920s in which character psychology is portrayed with point-of-view storytelling, lighting, mobile framing, and optical effects.
Dada: A short movement of the 1910s that expressed meaninglessness and disillusionment in the world. An absurdist view of life is portrayed with nonsense, unstable camera movements, and play with fast and slow motion.
Surrealism: A 1920s art and cinema movement that focused on dream logic, absurd combinations of shots, and shocking imagery.
German Expressionism: A 1920s art and cinema movement that expressed suffering and angst through exaggerated acting, harsh shadows, and off-kilter set geometry.
Other chapters in this textbook continue the story of film history: Classical Hollywood Cinema is covered in Ch 2: Narration; French New Wave and camera technology are covered in Ch 4: Cinematography; "Talkies" transition to sound is covered in Ch 6: Sound; Film Noir is covered in Ch 8: Genre; and Third Cinema, Direct Cinema, Underground films, and the Post-Cinema Age are covered in Ch 9: Beyond Genre.
Questions for Consideration: Film History
- What is film history? Every year montages of the year’s best films are created and posted online (YouTube, Vimeo etc.). View one such montage, and consider this question in light of how the montage is edited together. What nationality and gender is mainly represented for instance? What genre or type of film is dominant? What tone does the montage take on? What does this tell us about the way film history is imagined, and the role of perspective in recalling or recording film history?
- Across film history there have been many different approaches to cinema, all concerned with using the medium of cinema to represent reality. How can we think about cinema today in light of representations of reality? Think about the films you have seen in the last year, and discuss how these films choose to frame reality in terms of cinematography, editing and content. How do these cinematic approaches shift across nation, gender of the director and character, or engage with your own understanding of realism as a person in the world?