Film History part I
written by J.A.Bohr
Today it is taken for granted that one could go to a video rental store and chose a movie which takes the viewer out of our "perceived reality" and plunges us into worlds seen only in the mind's eye. We marvel at futuristic cities in Bladerunner, travel across galaxies in Dune, join space battles in Star Wars, and meet alien civilisations living under our seas in the Abyss. But only a century earlier these forms of reality existed only in the books of writers such as H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Film saw it's first audience in 1895 as the Lumiere Brothers began showing their "Actualities". Some filmmakers used this new medium to "capture" common events of everyday people, but some wanted more out of film. Within film they found the ability to show the mind's eye. It is here that I begin examining early film; not only by examining the films themselves, but by examining some of the world events and how they might have influenced the writers, directors, and actors.
In 1894 Louis Jean Lumiere, the younger of the brothers, began redesigning a Kinetopscope and Kinetograph (originally designed by Edison). Within one year the brothers had a working camera able to shoot, develop and project their films. They called it the Cinematographe. Their films consisted of single shots taken outdoors. On December 28, 1895, they exhibited the first films to an audience in the Frand Cafe in Paris. In America, Thomas Edison was using the equipment he designed to shoot his "shorts", but they are shot indoors, and evolve solely around the staged actions of people. Probably the most famous of these early films is The Kiss (1896) featuring John Rice and May Irwin standing before a black background. The Actualities of the Lumieres were images of environments projected onto a wall. Some were only scenic, but most contained people doing everyday events. "The Edison films...were gropings toward a fictional, theatrical film, many of them shot indoors. The Lumiere films, with a nose for the news, roamed around outdoors: They were freer, less tilted, better composed, more active."1 The Lumiere Brothers felt film was a fad, using their camera to film exotic places to dazzle their audience instead of trying to develop complicated narrative storyline. But their work did inspire a vaudevillian magician by the name of George Melies.
Trip to the Moon (1902)
Coming from the stage, Melies saw how he could use film to create illusions of magic that could not exist in reality, and he saw the potential to create visual expressions of the type of fantasy writing being published at this time (H.G. Wells' novel "First Men in the Moon" is published in 1901). Working on stages in studios, Melies shot his scenes from the audience's point-of-view. His early works, like The Conjuror (1899), shows a magician and an assistant who disappear back-and-forth in front of a common magician's theatre backdrop. This piece, like all of Melies' work, relies heavily on editing the film (cutting the characters in and out of the stage shot). "Between 1896...and 1913, he made at least 500 movies...He appears to have been the first filmmaker ever to use superimposition (multiple exposure), handpainting..., the dissolve, and time-lapse photography."2 Superimposition is one of the most obvious effects seen used by Melies in his 1902 Trip to the Moon (I have read that hand-painted versions of this work have existed, but none were available to me for viewing).
Trip to the Moon is a 15 scene film (the version I viewed for this paper was only 11:40 minutes, although the work is reputed to have been "14 minutes"3 in length) called by some "the screen's first science fiction story."4 The narrative begins simple enough. The President of a French astronomical society wants to take a trip to the moon. One of the members of the society disapproves of the plan, but he is violently opposed by the others. The society votes to go, and five men are chosen to accompany the President. This all occurs in the first scene of the film which sets the audience up for the point-of-view used by Melies throughout this film, the "theater seat" positioning of the camera. Most of this scene feels like watching a play on a stage, until the first "film edit" occurs where the front members of the society are holding up telescopes which magically turn into chairs (through the use of a jump cut).
The next four scenes show the ship being built, the casting of the space cannon, the boarding of the ship, and the launching of the ship from the space cannon. Melies uses flat, but eccentrically elaborate painted backdrops to give us the feel of the city as we see the steel poured into a huge mould for the cannon (as the astronomers watch from a "roof top", stage left). It is scenes like this which mirror the artistic visions that the German Expressionists will spend years trying to perfect, the illusional cities of fantasy. In a perfect example of the style of entertainment which Melies derives his background from, both the assistants at the society and the launching of the ship are scantily-clad women, reminiscent of vaudevillian performances (and Las Vegas chorus lines).
continued on Page Two