The top fifty!

•June 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Most of these films will have been mentioned/commented upon in previous posts, so hopefully no need for discussion! Some placings will no doubt be controversial with ‘classics’ falling lower down in my list, but it’s a reflection on how these films have made me feel or think and I’m more or less happy with it.

For Happiness (Evgenii Bauer, Russia, 1917)
Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith, US, 1919)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (Wladyslaw Starewicz, Russia, 1912)
Behind the Screen (Charles Chaplin, US, 1916)
I Don’t Want To Be a Man (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1918)
The Child of Paris (Leonce Perret, France, 1913)
The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, US, 1903)
Tram Ride into Halifax (Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, UK, 1902)
Suspense (Lois Weber, US, 1913)
After Death (Evgenii Bauer, Russia, 1915)

Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street (‘Billy’ Blitzer, US, 1905)
The ? Motorist (R. W. Paul, UK, 1906)
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, France, 1915)
Panoramic View of the Morecambe Seafront (Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, UK, 1901)
The Birth of a Flower (F. Percy Smith, UK, 1910)
Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, US, 1916)
Scene from Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower (James White, US, 1900)
When the Clouds Roll By (Victor Fleming, US, 1919)
Easy Street (Charles Chaplin, US, 1917)
Daydreams (Evgenii Bauer, Russia, 1915)

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Auguste and Louis Lumiere, France, 1895)
The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)
Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim, US, 1919)
Grandma’s Reading Glass (George Albert Smith, UK, 1900)
The Whispering Chorus (Cecil B. DeMille, US, 1918)
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Melies, France, 1902)
The Battle of the Somme (Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, UK, 1916)
Child of the Big City (Evgenii Bauer, Russia, 1914)
Let Me Dream Again (George Albert Smith, UK, 1900)
The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)

The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (Leonce Perret, France, 1912)
Life of an American Fireman (Edwin S. Porter, US, 1903)
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, US, 1906)
The Immigrant (Charles Chaplin, US, 1917)
History of a Crime (Ferdinand Zecca, France, 1901)
A Chess Dispute (R. W. Paul, UK, 1903)
Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (Auguste and Louis Lumiere, France, 1897)
South (Frank Hurley, Australia/UK, 1919)
The Magic Sword (Walter R. Booth, UK, 1901)
The Kiss in the Tunnel (George Albert Smith, UK, 1899)

The Melomaniac (Georges Melies, France, 1903)
The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, US, 1915)
Inferno (Giuseppe de Liguoro, Italy, 1911)
Fantomas (Louis Feuillade, France, 1913)
The Dragonfly and the Ant (Wladyslaw Starewicz, Russia, 1913)
Panorama of Eiffel Tower (James White, US, 1900)
J’accuse (Abel Gance, France, 1919)
Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, Italy, 1914)
The Impossible Voyage (Georges Melies, 1904)
A Fool There Was (Frank Powell, US, 1915)

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Last minute round up

•June 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

As the polls close on the voting for the Criterion Forum’s canon of cinema between the period 1895-1919, there’s just enough time to quickly round up the last minute viewing I’ve managed to cram in.

Whilst Chaplin’s the first name we immediately think of when it comes to the comedians of the silent era, during the mid-1910s, the undisputed king of the genre was Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whose career would later flatline in controversial circumstances. Masters of Cinema has recently released an anthology of the films Arbuckle both starred in and directed, co-starring Buster Keaton, whose upwards career trajectory mirrored Arbuckle’s decline. Keaton very much plays the straight guy role to Arbuckle’s more outlandish persona. There’s some nice visual gags throughout and some terrific physical work (especially from Arbuckle, who’s surprisingly agile for such a large chap), but none of the individual shorts quite made the cut. I never felt enough of these shorts worked as coherent whole films, certainly in comparison with some of the far superior Chaplin shorts; ‘Behind the Screen’, ‘The Immigrant’, etc.

Then two key documentaries; ‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and ‘South’ (1919). The former is self-explanatory. Two British cinematographers were commissioned to venture deep into the heart of war to report on what has become to be known as one of the most painstaking battles in history, where any victory was purely pyrrhic. Although designed to be a form of propaganda, it comes across as one of cinema’s great anti-war pieces, capturing the futility of war in a way no fictional account ever could. The latter traces Shackleton’s perilous attempts to reach the Antarctic region, as the final hundred of so miles found the crew cemented in blocks of ice. Given that the boat began to sink and Shackleton and his men, including Hurley, somehow escaped to safety, it’s a miracle this documentary was even completed.

And there we have it. After four or so months, exhausting all the resources I could reasonably get my hands on, every film I watched has been mulled over and a list (somewhat arbitrary, but aren’t they all?) has began to take shape. It’s been submitted and I’ll post it here shortly. Inevitably, we’ll start on the next decade of cinema, the 1920s shortly. With that will come a new blog, exclusive to the project. Hopefully there’ll be some respite though to allow me to catch up with some more contemporary or not quite-so-old cinema at least – and more importantly – a slightly amusing pun title for the blog. Thanks for reading.

Unseen Cinema

•May 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film (Various, US, 1894-1941)

Anthology Film Archives has released a seven disc anthology of bold, inventive American cinema that remains unknown to most cineastes. Discs are distinguished according to certain criteria, depending on what the films are most striking for, whether it’s experiments in technique and form, new directions in narrative, or surrealism. Although much of what’s contained in this collection more than goes past our remit, there’s still plenty of films there that would applies. ‘Paris Exposition Films’ (1900), a collection of small shorts filmed around Parisian landmarks, act as a demonstration of innovative techniques at an expo on….well, cinema naturally. Here we have 360 degree panoramas, tilting up and down the Eiffel Tower and tracking shots across the Parisian skyline. Panoramas taken aboard transportation, whether it’s boats, ghost trains or street cars, also feature.

The work of Edwin S. Porter, whose most famous film is the seminal ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903) takes up the surrealist mantle. His work includes numerous visual techniques, such as dissolves, multiple exposures and matte shots. ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ (1902) is a charming, whimsical fantasy, whilst ‘Dream of a Rarebit Fiend’ (1906) takes on Melies at his own game. Victor Fleming’s ‘When the Clouds Roll By’ (1919) on the other hand, is the flipside to ‘Dream of a Rarebit Fiend’ – as Douglas Fairbanks experiences strange and frightening food-based nightmares. Fairbanks floats and climbs walls and he escapes human sized foodstuffs in slo-mo. Fleming’s film shows how cinematic technique had moved on within the last decade.

This anthology also includes a disc on early films about New York, about a dozen or so, exploring the dynamic metropolis at the turn of the twentieth century. We see the city at its most bustling, through the streets, skyscrapers and night life. ‘Panorama from Times Building, New York’ shows the urban sprawl for miles ahead from one of the highest vantage points of the city. Similarly, there’s panoramas from atop the Tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as from North River, surveying the rapid growth of skyscrapers in the city. Porter returns with a night-exposure technique that enabled him to make ‘Coney Island at Night’, a panorama of the Luna Park area. Traditionally films would have been made using natural sunlight. Also of note is ‘Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street’, Billy Blitzer’s (later D.W. Griffith’s DoP) film of the recently constructed New York subway system.

There’s a veritable treasure trove of important, neglected films within this collection, that trace the development of cinema as a serious art form. The contrast between the techniques of Porter (who was ahead of the pack in the early 1900’s, let’s not forget) and what Fleming was using in ‘When the Clouds Roll By’ just demonstrate how much progress had been made in such a short space of time. What we have are films that possess imagination, a willingness to take risks and a willingness to break new ground.

The Films of Georges Melies

•May 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Films of Georges Melies (Georges Melies, France, 1902-1912)

This Grapevine Video anthology compiles seven short films from one of cinema’s early geniuses. Most notable of these is the first, ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902), whose influence is evident to this present day. Even those who’ve not seen the film will have seen some of its most striking images, such as the spaceship hitting the eye of the man in the moon, as referenced throughout films and other media since. ‘Melomaniac’ (1903) features some of Melies’ most impressive visual trickery. Music staff lines made from telegraph wires contain duplicate versions of his heads as notes and move around with reckless abandon. The trio of exotic, Middle Eastern/North African shorts, ‘The Monster’ (1903), ‘Terrible Turkish Encounter’ (1904) and ‘Palace of Arabian Nights’ (1905) feature elaborate, ornate sets to compliment the various uses of trick photography. Melies returns to science-fiction of sorts, with ‘The Eclipse’ (1907), in which a Sun with a devils face is blocked by the Moon, though as the Sun passes thereafter, it looks far more disconsolate. Stars, containing humans within, then wander the night skies. ‘Conquest of the Pole’ (1912), one of Melies’ final films, is a Jules Verne adaptation. Scientists contemplate and then attempt the best means of reaching the North Pole. Very little of what Melies filmed is still available. Most was destroyed not long after they were filmed and distributed in an astonishing act of short-sightedness. Of all the early silent pioneers though, it’s Melies whose influence and signature style most resonates deeply today.

The Birth of a Flower

•May 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Birth of a Flower (F. Percy Smith, UK, 1910)

F. Percy Smith was a well known photographer of plant life who became a pioneer of scientific film making. He made a number of documentaries in this field, but two stand out more than others. Made second was ‘The Strength and Agility of Insects’ (1911), a strange film that depicts….well, the strength and agility of insects as they perform for Smith’s camera. No trickery or cruelty was apparently involved. This was preceded though by ‘The Birth of a Flower’, a stunning apparent first example anywhere of time lapse photography. With his camera trained from hours or in some cases days, we see flowers bloom to life before our very eyes; crocuses, daffodils, tulips, Japanese lilies and more. Although just seven minutes long, it’s a breathtaking piece of work – the sheer wonder of nature encompassed in this short period of time.

Fantomas

•May 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Fantomas (Louis Feuillade, France, 1913)

The first of Feuillade’s ambitious serial films (followed by ‘Les Vampires’ and ‘Judex’), ‘Fantomas’ is seriously considered by some critics and silent film afficionados as the boldest, most daring use of the medium at this point. Adapting the pulp novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre about an intelligent yet violent thief, Feuillade creates and defines the crime genre as we’ve come to know it. Feuillade’s film comprises five episodes, designed to be seen as such, with cliffhangers at each end, designed to set the viewer on edge and await the next instalment. For the early period of cinema, this was rather dark subject matter and Feuillade created one of the first genuine characters of cinema, someone who the audience would be forced to empathise with, into whose shoes they could step. In many ways though, it feels like a dry run for the serials that would become even more challenging and striking. Feuillade’s pace of storytelling doesn’t fizz along like it does with ‘Les Vampires’ and it often feels stretched out for its own sake. He also seems to be still getting to grips with the medium in some ways, as though he hasn’t quite mastered the challenge he’s set himself with a five hour serial. That said, it’s churlish to really undermine his efforts because no-one else had embarked on such a staggering project at this time. ‘Fantomas’ is a pivotal step in motion pictures, demonstrating that film could be radical, revolutionary and filled to the brim with ideas.

Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Films Volume Two

•May 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Films Volume Two (Charlie Chaplin, US, 1916)

The first volume of the Chaplin’s films for the Mutual company contained so many dizzying highs (‘Behind the Screen’, ‘The Immigrant’) that the second volume could never really compare. Certainly it seems that the better Chaplin shorts were creamed off for the first volume, leaving the lesser films for this one. That said, such was Chaplin’s run of creativity at this time that one could never really be disappointed by any of his output. The Chaplin persona was at this point fully developed, the ‘tramp’ enduring life’s struggles but overcoming them, combining pathos and physical humour. And this plucky underdog would be one of cinema’s most defining characters. ‘The Pawnshop’ demonstrates the full physical nature of Chaplin’s comedy as he almost destroys the shop he works in. ‘The Vagabond’ is the first Chaplin film that shows the tramp saving a damsel in distress and establishes a template for several subsequent films, including many of the shorts in these two volumes. After the Mutual shorts were completed, it was onwards and upwards for Chaplin. Already the highest paid actor in Hollywood, he signed a contract with First National and then established United Artists. The full length features he’s most famous for were soon to come.