Tag: early cinema

The Romanticism of Lost Films (2015 For the Love of Film Blogathon)

[This is an entry in the For the Love of Film Blogathon, which supports film restoration and preservation. Please enjoy the post, and look for the link to donate at the bottom.]

Lost movies appeal to our sense of doomed artistry. The movies in your head are always much better than the movies you sit down to see. We build up heroic concepts of certain directors. Then, when their work is lost, we imagine what we’re missing as even better than the movies we have. In that sense, we need lost movies. They fortify our Romantic ideal of cinema, that’s cap-R Romantic of course.

That’s a quote from a character in Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels; Nehme is perhaps better known in these parts as The Self-Styled Siren, co-founder of the For the Love of Movies Film Preservation Blogathon (though she is not hosting it this year), so you’ll have to forgive me for appearing to suck up a bit by beginning with a quote from her novel. In fact, I didn’t know what I was going to write about for this year’s blogathon (or in fact, if I would manage to come up with anything at all) until I happened across this quote.

The speaker in the story is Andy Evans, a colleague of main character Ceinwen’s boyfriend Matthew. Andy is a math professor who happens to be a big collector of silent film memorabilia (and silent films themselves, as well). Nobody likes him much, and in fact, this particular quote is followed by all the other characters saying that this particular sentiment is balderdash, and that Andy’s spent way too much time hanging out with the humanities crowd.

I’m not F.W. Murnau, I’m not Tod Browning, I’m not interested in my own puny concept of what they’d have done. I want to see those movies. I don’t want to get my kicks imagining little scenes with Janet Gaynor.

Harry Engleman in Missing Reels

Perhaps it’s my own background in the humanities (I spend a couple of years doing a masters in English lit, where I did in fact do a very intense semester on Romanticism), but Andy’s words make sense to me – after a fashion. He’s talking here about capital-R Romanticism, meaning he’s referencing the 18th-19th century aesthetic movement of Romanticism and its collective ideals.

The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter 1

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.

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