Visual ideas are the real things that drive cinema.
It’s time to redraw the map of movie history that we have in our heads.
These two quotes taken from Mark Cousins’ narration in the prologue to The Story of Film could well sum up the entire undertaking. Here he lays out his two-part thesis. First, the story of film as far as he’s concerned is preoccupied with seeking out visual ideas, innovation, and cross-pollination throughout film history. Second, he is going to question the accepted story of film, which is Hollywood and Europe-centric. Certainly he covers European and Hollywood cinema and recognizes the advances they made (much of the first episode is devoted to giants like Edison, the Lumieres, and Griffith), but throughout the he’s quick to point out when the established national cinemas fell into complacency and innovation was strongest elsewhere – Japan, or China, or Senegal. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
The fact that Cousins begins with this prologue is important. Besides giving a hint into Cousins’ breadth of knowledge and eye for visual echoes, it establishes this documentary not as primarily a textbook film history, striving for completeness and objectivity, but as a dissertation that takes a position and argues for it, via exhaustive knowledge and personal passion. Though the film is factual and highly informative, it is also very explicitly “Mark Cousins’ Story of Film,” as opposed to mine or yours or anyone else’s, and the film is stronger for it. Though his modern-day footage sometimes seems out of place, it strives to create a feeling of contemplation, of getting lost in a reverie. Not content to tell the history of cinema, Cousins wants you to get lost in the dream of cinema, and he makes his documentary a part of that cinema as well.
Cousins also excels at straight-up explanation, as when he discusses how editing can indicate “then” or “meanwhile” or show thematic connections. He stages some bits, like showing a woman looking away from the camera, to show how filmmakers learned to stop thinking about the camera as a fixed point looking at a stage (many early films even shared a proscenium arch with the stage) and start thinking of it as something that could be moved around and WITHIN a scene to see from different angles. The difficulty looking at any early film from today’s viewpoint is all of this seems so natural to us now, but had to be learned by early filmmakers and audiences, and Cousins is great at showing that innovation and explaining why it’s important to storytelling.
In this first episode, a lot is common knowledge to film buffs. The near simultaneous innovations of Edison and Lumiere, the development of cross-cutting by Edwin S. Porter in The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery, the special effects trickery of Georges Méliès. There will be more global influence and challenging of the accepted history in later episodes. He does emphasize the visual grandeur of Danish filmmakers Benjamin Christensen (Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) and Victor Sjöstrom (The Phantom Carriage, The Wind), who are a bit more off the beaten path, but hardly unknown to silent film fans. I did like his focus on the importance of women in silent cinema, from director Alice Guy Blaché, whose Falling Leaves has a poetic emotion rare in films of the early 1910s, to Frances Marion, Anita Loos, and other female writers who were highly sought after in the 1920s. I’d watch a whole documentary on this subject (and we’ll get to see one on Guy Blaché thanks to this successful Kickstarter).
D.W. Griffith is always the elephant in the room when it comes to early cinema. He is often considered the father of cinema, but his most famous film The Birth of a Nation is just as famous for being a hateful piece of racism as it is for being a brilliant piece of filmmaking. In fact, it is both, which makes it continually relevant in the discussion of how to reconcile great and innovative art that carries a repugnant message. Cousins does a solid, if arms-length job of dealing with The Birth of a Nation, but focuses on Griffith’s overall contribution to cinema. Griffith is often credited with creating cross-cutting, the feature-length film, and various other things he did not in fact do first, but Cousins credits him with what he calls “the wind in the trees.” In other words, Griffith imbued his films with a sense of life and a world outside the frame that previous filmmakers had not. His films are luminous (in no small part thanks to cinematographer Billy Bitzer), and they breathe (in no small part thanks to actress Lillian Gish). “The wind in the trees” is a poetic way to put it, but it fits with Cousins’ dreamy approach to cinema in general.
In combination with this episode of The Story of Film, TCM played selections from Edison’s and Lumiere’s catalog of early Kinetoscope and Cinematograph films; Méliès A Trip to the Moon, a trio of Guy Blaché shorts; Griffith features including The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm; Cecil B. DeMille’s first-feature-shot-in-Hollywood The Squaw Man; and the afore-mentioned Christensen and Sjöstrom films Haxan, The Phantom Carriage, and The Wind.
I’d seen many of the films before, but have enjoyed rewatching some and sharing them with my husband, and watching others I haven’t seen. We still have several to go. :)
Cousins credits Griffith with bringing “the wind in the trees,” that sense of the real world that previous cinema had lacked. To me, though, the Lumieres had this sense of realism already, in a way that Edison never did. I like many of Edison’s early actualities, but the Lumiere films from the same period are fresher than Edison’s by leaps and bounds. They feel genuinely like they’re capturing life, whereas Edison’s feel staged. That’s not ALWAYS a bad thing, and it’s clear early on that the Lumieres were pioneering cinema verite and documentary while Edison quickly moved into narrative films and adaptations. The Edison collection on TCM included a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1903 that I found basically unwatchable – without the title cards coming up to introduce each section, I would’ve had absolutely no idea what any scene was trying to depict, and even with them, it was difficult to keep track of who was who and what was going on. On the other hand, I really love The Great Train Robbery, so it was a joy to see that again. And I enjoyed seeing Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, which I’ve seen bits of but never the whole thing. When breaking free from the proscenium arch model and letting the imagination run wild, great things could happen.
Rewatching Haxan: The Story of Witchcraft reminded me how absolutely gorgeous it is – Christensen’s use of tinting, light and shadow, silhouettes, superimpositions, and just imaginative use of imagery is mindblowing. The opening section is a bit dry, but I do find the full-on academic tone, with pointer and everything pretty amusing. As much as Christensen may call this a documentary, he’s taking a lot of glee in it, too. The Satanic bacchanal is just tremendous, with all the witches flying by and then just the detail on the demons and witches attending, right down to a random skeletal horse who walks through the frame a couple of times. The monks who are hearing this “confession” seem pretty excited/turned on by the whole thing. I’m sure the Catholic Legion of Decency LOVED this movie when it came out, between the gluttonous/lecherous monks and the hysterical nuns. There’s a lot that more amusing now than terrifying, but it’s hard to deny Christensen’s command of visual language, certainly an influence on film for generations to come. It’s bold and stark when it needs to be (when the devil is onscreen – what a fantastically lewd performance by Christensen himself, by the way – and during the interrogation of the old woman, which seems to prefigure Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc) and busy and detailed when appropriate.
I intended to watch The Wind before posting this, as it’s one of the few that I hadn’t seen from this week’s feature program, and I’ve been dying to, but I ran out of time. We still have it on the DVR and will hopefully get to it. We also haven’t gotten to the last two of the Alice Guy films, which we intend to do. Whether we’ll get to everything else we recorded…who can say with The Story of Film continuing apace this week?
What’s Coming Up Next
Next week is Chapter Two in The Story of Film, which covers 1918 to 1928 and is subtitled “The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels.” In this chapter, Cousins will discuss the silent comedy greats Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, as well as touching on the beginnings of what Cousins terms “romantic cinema” (and most of us would consider “classic Hollywood cinema” – Cousins has a rather different and sometimes difficult definition of “classical”) with Douglas Fairbanks adventure films. He will go on to look at the challenges brought to the American studio formula by such foreign directors as von Stroheim and Dreyer.
TCM will accompany Chapter Two with a selection of silent comedy, including Keaton’s One Week, The Three Ages, and The General, Chaplin’s The Kid and City Lights, and Lloyd’s Never Weaken (which I’ve never seen and am super excited about) and Safety Last. On Tuesday, they turn to other genres with Robert Flaherty’s documentary Nanook of the North, the Fairbanks fantasy adventure The Thief of Bagdad, King Vidor’s The Crowd, von Stroheim’s Greed, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. This is a killer program, and I’ll be recording pretty much all of it, either to see for the first time (Never Weaken, The Crowd, Greed) or to share with Jonathan. We both saw The Thief of Bagdad at last year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, so we’ll probably skip it ourselves, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth watching.
Where Else to See These Films
Don’t have TCM, or your DVR threatening to explode if you record any more of these films on it? Here’s where to stream at least some of these films elsewhere.
Edison films: Many are on YouTube
The Great Train Robbery: YouTube
The Life of an American Fireman: YouTube
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend: YouTube
Lumiere films: Many are on YouTube
A Trip to the Moon: YouTube
Alice Guy Blaché films on YouTube: Falling Leaves, Canned Harmony
The Birth of a Nation: Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, YouTube
Intolerance: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
Way Down East: Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, YouTube
Orphans of the Storm: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages: HuluPlus, YouTube
The Phantom Carriage: HuluPlus, YouTube
One Week: YouTube
The Three Ages: Netflix Instant, YouTube
The General: Netflix Instant, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, YouTube
The Kid: Amazon Prime, YouTube
City Lights: HuluPlus
Never Weaken: HuluPlus, YouTube
Safety Last: HuluPlus, YouTube
Nanook of the North: YouTube
The Thief of Bagdad: Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, YouTube
The Passion of Joan of Arc: HuluPlus, YouTube
Vampyr: HuluPlus, YouTube