Friday, 28 May 2010

1904-1913: Cinema’s Forgotten Decade

When I finished compiling the initial list of films for this blog, I noticed a large ‘filmless’ gap that spanned from 1904-1913. Even Silent Era’s Top 300 Silent films only includes two films from this period (Melies’ Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904) and Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913)).

Given that we go from The Great Train Robbery’s eight minutes of film to The Birth of a Nation’s three hours just over a decade later, I think overlooking the period 1904-1913 would be a significant oversight. I have always been interested to learn why the ‘standard’ length for a feature film became between 2-3 hours, and given that once we reach the mid-teens of the 20th Century the feature film’s length appears to have been determined, I am deeply interested in learning how film arrived at this decision, which remains in place today.

A question for any film buffs and historians: is there any particular reason why this period has not been ‘canonised’ and/or overlooked?

I will therefore attempt to track down ‘important’ films from this period and attempt to cover this ‘blindspot’. Any suggestions would be greatly welcomed.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

1903 - The Great Train Robbery - Edwin S. Porter

The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1903, established film as an attractive and lucrative form of entertainment in the United States. The Great Train Robbery toured the country for several years as well as being the premier attraction at the opening of the first nickelodeon in 1905.

It is also considered to be film’s first major Western and is our earliest example of a film being loosely based on historical events. The film’s plot derives from Butch Cassidy’s gang robbing a train heading towards Wyoming for $5,000 in cash; interestingly, the film itself was actually shot in New Jersey. Such stories were already hugely popular with American audiences and were found in dime novels and stage melodramas.

The Great Train Robbery’s technical and historic importance outweighs its artistic merits. It is a film which made several groundbreaking innovations (such as crosscutting), but I would argue that certain aspects of its historical importance have been overstated. For example, it has been suggested that The Great Train Robbery is the first narrative film. Our chronological approach to viewing film history debunks this myth, as Méliès’ 1902 film Le Voyage dans la Lune is quite clearly a sustained narrative.

The Great Train Robbery is Michael Bay’s wet dream: an extended action set-piece that spans the entirety of the film with a few brief respites. The first few minutes do generate an element of suspense and intrigue, but this is soon lost in a scene which involves the robbing of the passengers. The scene is overlong and drawn out, suggesting that Mr. Porter was not the greatest of editors.

It is important to observe that the American understanding of what the duties of a director entailed differed drastically to what a filmmaker like Méliès understood of the same term. The excellent ‘The Oxford History of World Cinema’ draws out the contrast:

Despite his nominal position, Porter only controlled the technical aspects of filming and editing while other Edison employees with theatrical experience took charge of directing the actors and the mise-en-scene... George Méliès, who also owned his company, did everything short of actually crank the camera, writing the script, designing sets and costumes, devising trick effects and often acting.

This brings us to one of Film: Ab Initio’s key issues: collaborative effort vs. auteur’s vision. At this early point in film history, I would argue that the latter is more successful. But this discussion will become more complex as the years roll on.         

The brutality of the violence on display in The Great Train Robbery may be unapparent to the modern viewer, but surely scenes such as where one of the passengers tries to escape and was shot down by one of the robbers would have had quite an effect on the contemporary viewer.  

It must be noted that there are certain set-pieces that the viewer cannot help but admire. For example, the brief fight that takes place on top of the train is a well-shot (see above) and greatly increases the atmospheric tension of the film, as is the picturesque scene where the robbers mount their horses (see below), a scene that will be replicated ad infinitum in almost every Western that follows.

Much has been made of the film’s final shot, which involves the actor George Barnes firing his gun (see below) at the audience, the shot was even replicated at the end of Goodfellas. This would undoubtedly have had quite an effect on the contemporary audience, but I would yet again suggest that its importance and effectiveness have been overstated.

A comparison of this shot with The Lumiere Brothers’ Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat will illustrate this point. Both ‘scenes’ provoked a similar level of fear in their respective audiences. Yet from a filmmaker’s perspective, the latter work is far more impressive. As discussed in the Lumiere’s blog, the Lumiere Brothers’ choice of composition greatly increased the sense of awe at the train’s eventual arrival. The final shot of the The Great Train Robbery on the other hand, simply involves the actor firing a gun straight at the camera.  

The Great Train Robbery’s importance on this list will become retroactively apparent as we observe the influence it has had on future Westerns. For now though, this blog reasserts that its importance may have been overemphasised.  

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Film's first Cinemagician: The Magic of Georges Méliès (1898-1905)

 In a recent interview, James Cameron stated what he thinks lies beyond 3D:

Imagine a movie in which the viewer is swept along by a narrative, following the action from place to place, but without the intervention of a camera. You can choose which character to watch in a scene, as if you’re an invisible witness standing there while a real event plays out. This is still years away, at a level of realism people would consider cinematic, but certainly not decades away.

The rapid advancement of film's visual trickery continues unabated. And if we retrace its evolution: from Avatar, through to the Matrix a decade earlier,  George Lucas’ first Star War trilogy, right back to Lang’s Metropolis to the final years of the 19th Century, we arrive at Georges Méliès, film’s first Cinemagician. 


The son of a shoe manufacturer, in 1895 Méliès was a successful magician and the owner of the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris. Méliès also happened to be a member of the audience at the first screening of the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinématographe on December 28, 1895.

Méliès was bewitched by the Lumières’ invention and asked them if they were prepared to sell their device.  When the brothers refused his offer, Méliès commissioned a lens maker, William Paul, to build a similar machine which, with some custom modifications by Méliès, would become known as his Kinetograph. 

In the second half of 1896, Méliès accidentally discovered something that would alter his perspective on film-making. Whilst recording a Lumière-esque scene (of a horse-drawn omnibus), his camera jammed. Fixing the camera after several seconds, he thought nothing of the incident. When Méliès processed the film, he was struck by the effect this incident had on the scene – the horse-drawn omnibus transformed into a hearse. Méliès discovered from this incident that cinema had the ability to both manipulate and distort space and time. He expanded upon his initial ideas and devised some complex special effects.

This discovery would result in him becoming the most creative and inventive filmmaker of the next decade. Over the course of the next few years, his trickster’s impulse for experimentation would result in his pioneering of indispensable cinematic techniques such as fade-out, super-imposition, double exposure and slow-motion.  

 Too often though, reviews of Méliès have over-emphasised the technical aspects of Méliès’ films at the expense of the other aspects of his film-making. This blog shall focus on these other aspects, beginning with a brief look at his early shorts, following which it will emphasise the importance of both Le Voyage dans la Lune and  Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible.

The Early Shorts

1898- Un homme de têtes (The Four Troublesome Heads)
1899- L'impressionniste fin de siècle (An Up-to-Date Conjuror)
1900- L'homme-orchestre (One Man Band)
1901- L'homme à la tête de caoutchouc (The Man With The Rubber Head)
1903 - Le chaudron infernal (The Infernal Boiling Pot)
1903- Le Mélomane (The Melomaniac)
1903- Le monstre (The Monster)

Superseding the many technical effects on offer in these films is Méliès the magician. So much so, that I would argue that two weakest shorts here are Le chaudron infernal and Le monstre, both of which suffer from Méliès’ physical absence. Both films lack the humour of the Méliès centric films, as well as lacking any points of interest beyond the technical wizardry on show. The later films Sorcellerie culinaire (1904) and Le diable noir (1905) are beset by similar problems, except on a grander scale (the films are twice as long as their earlier counterparts). The latter film is an excellent example of a Méliès film being admired primarily for its technical merits.

 Méliès’ on-screen persona however, manages to find the right balance between comedy and theatricality. His hyperactive energy seems to match the average length of these shorts (between one and two minutes) and his penchant for comic timing (a great example of this is his performance in Le Mélomane) surely makes him a precursor for Chaplin and Keaton. (Chaplin acknowledged Méliès’ influence on his work, and described Méliès as “the alchemist of light”).

Whether the film involves Méliès conducting an orchestra of himself (L'homme-orchestre - see above) or mechanically expanding the size of his head with a mechanical device (L'homme à la tête de caoutchouc), his charisma as a performer is self-evident.

However, it is in the following two films (both of which were loosely based on work by Jules Verne) that Méliès honed his craft in order to become a significant director. 

Melies’ two masterpieces

Cendrille (1899) and Barbe bleu (1901) are considered by film historians as key components of Méliès’ oeuvre and are well worth watching, but I have decided to focus on the following two films:

Le Voyage dans la Lune – (1902)

Le Voyage dans la Lune cost Méliès ten thousand francs to make, which in 1902, made it quite comfortably the most expensive film made to date. With its elaborate set pieces, sustained narrative, impressive cast (although Méliès himself was producer, director, set-designer, and leading actor, the nautically dresses girls who launched the cannon were from the Châtelet ballet and the lunar inhabitants, were played by acrobats from the Folies-Bergère) coupled with a running time approaching twelve minutes, this was an audacious piece of filmmaking from Méliès, his chutzpah is apparent throughout the film.

 The immediacy of images such as the celestial beings appearing in the astronomer’s dreams (see above) bedazzled contemporary audiences while also managing to resonate with the modern viewer. As with Méliès’ early shorts, it is his indefatigable energy which sustains the narrative force of the film.

However, whereas in the early shorts it was Méliès the magician carrying the film, it is now Méliès the director who is the driving force behind this film. This is apparent from the opening of the film, where a group of servants hand over telescopes to the astronomers, led by Professor Barbenfouillis at their Institute (see above). This opens the film with a colourful pageantry akin to that found at the opening of some of Shakespeare’s history plays among other things, providing the film with a sumptuous visual feast for both the contemporary and modern viewer to delight in. Nor is the visual majesty isolated to this particular scene, it can be found throughout this film.

I would like to shift the focus, however, to the allegorical aspect of the film. When the astronomers land on the moon, they meet a species called Selenites. The astronomers’ first instinct is to attack them with their umbrellas. The astronomers are subsequently taken prisoners and are presented to the king (see above). Professor Barbenfouillis breaks loose from his captor, attacks the king, who disappears into thin air. The astronomers then flee from the Selenites, find their ship and escape back to Earth.

At the time of the film’s production, the French colonial empire was second in size only to Great Britain, and was in the process of expanding. For example, only nine years earlier, the French had participated in the Franco-Siamese War, which resulted in the rapid expansion of French Indochina.

Therefore, one could view Le Voyage dans la Lune as an allegory of the dangers of colonial expansion. A counter argument to this interpretation would be that the astronomers at no point attempt to seize power from the Selenites, therefore the allegory does not quite work.

Although we do not see the astronomers take power from the Selenites, we do see them murder their king and swiftly leave the moon attempting to escape the repercussions of their actions. Not only does the film mimic the superiority complex and violent urges that both British and French colonialists demonstrated in their imperialistic ambitions, it also prophesises the problems that can occur when a colonial country withdraws from power. If we use the aforementioned example of French Indochina, the subsequent problems that Vietnam had after the French withdrawal are well documented.

Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible - (1904)

Le Voyage dans la Lune is often considered Méliès most important film; I would argue however, that Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible is of equal importance.

Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (watch the first part of the film below. Follow the links on youtube to watch the remaining two parts) employs a similar structure and plot to Le Voyage dans la Lune; the latter may have been a more groundbreaking film, but the former is an even more daring and imaginative film. Its running time is almost twice the length of Le Voyage dans la Lune. This is significant, because it allows Méliès to accentuate both the beauty and importance of certain scenes.

A good example of this is the scene in the interior of the machine shop where their ‘travelling machine’ is being built. The revolving wheel takes up the bulk of the screen (see above), but there is much other movement to be found in this scene, both from the machines and the men. But it is the various pistons, wheels and machines that dominate the scene rather than the men. It provides an evocative sense of what the industrialisation of major Western nations at the turn of the 20th Century entailed. It is colourful, chaotic and claustrophobic.

There is a sense that Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible is very much about the second wave of the Industrial Revolution and its limitations. Led by an engineer called Mabouloff (which translates as ‘Scatterbrains'), a group of travellers embark on an ‘impossible’ journey, which manages to entail a trip to the Swiss Alps as well as the sun (see above). You can draw parallels with their trip to the sun and Icarus flying too close to the sun. Perhaps Méliès is suggesting that man’s flirtation with technology will see it share Icarus’ fate.

Most importantly, the film provides sheer cinematic enjoyment. The group's escapades on the surface of the sun are particularly entertaining, and the brief touches of hand colouring provide Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible with an added dimension that enriches the viewer's experience of the film. The helpful contrast that the colour provides becomes self-evident when the travellers are on the submarine - there is now a clear demarcation of where the sea, boat and sky are (see above). 


Returning to James Cameron’s quote, it is clear that film is heading towards creating a complete immersive world that is independent of ‘reality’. Méliès began this journey, by accident, and was brave enough to develop and pursue distorting the concepts space and time on the human eye.

However, Méliès was not only a technical visionary; he also made two substantial films that are essential components of cinematic history.    

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The birth of cinema: A Review of The Lumière Brothers’ First Films (1895-1897)

The Lumière Brothers’ First Films

The Lumière Brothers’ First Films presents the viewer with 85 full-length films (each one running for 50 seconds)  filmed by the Lumières and their associates, selected from over 1,500 films in the Institute Lumière's archives.


Before discussing the films themselves, a brief look at the Lumière Brothers’ background will be helpful, given their pivotal role in developing film from both an inventor’s and artistic perspective.

In the summer of 1894, the Lumière Brothers’ father Claude-Antione (an artist, photographer and entrepreneur) observed a demonstration of Edison’s Kinetoscope. Sufficiently impressed by the device’s potential, he returned to his sons in Lyon, stating that they could do better than Edison – and their aim should be to ‘get that image out of the box’.

On 13th February 1895, the Lumières registered a patent for a device they called the Cinématographe (which can be seen in the picture above). They made two significant improvements on Edison’s device. Firstly, it was a lot lighter than the Kinetograph – which was a bulky piece of machinery that was resigned to the studio. This allowed the Lumière’s Cinématographe to be portable – and allowed them to have a far greater range of subjects and locations to shoot. Secondly, Edison’s peephole Kinetoscope meant that it could only be viewed by one person at a time. The Lumière brothers had invented a device which combined a camera with both a printer and a projector – allowing for the first commercial exhibition of on 28th December at the Grand Cafe on Paris’s Boulevard de Capuchines – a date widely acknowledged as the day on which cinema was born. (They also used a film width of 35mm, and a speed of 16 frames per second, which would be accepted as the industry norm until the talkies.)


The 85 films are narrated by the French director Bertrand Tavernier, who provides a humorous and insightful analysis of the Lumière’s films. He manages to balance amusing anecdotes with an incisive historical understanding of the films’ progression. Most importantly, his Gallic passion for the Lumière’s oeuvre is infectious.

The structure of the films is helpful; beginning with the earliest films shot by the brothers themselves, Tavernier goes on to introduce films which chronicled the city of Lyon and then the subject family life in general. It is interesting to note the rapidity of the Lumières’ success, and within a year they were commissioning their associates to shoot films in areas as diverse as Venice, Egypt and Indo-China. Even at cinema’s inception, there is a marriage between capitalist expansion and artistic expression.

The Lumières’ decision to name their device the Cinematograph, which in Greek means the writing of movement, is telling. There is a sense that a new language is being formed and explored in these early films – and many of the results are of great interest to the contemporary viewer.

Here is a closer look at four of the Lumières' films:

La Sortie des Ouviers de L'Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory)  

This film was shot on the 19th March 1895, and is described by Tavernier as the date when the history of invention stopped and the history of film making began. It documents workers (mostly female) leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon.

As with many of the Lumières’ films, the interest you derive from this film goes beyond that of historical documentation. The movement of the workers is random, chaotic and hypnotic. It is also a prime example of the observer effect, the idea that the act of observation influences the subjects being observed. Several of the women look directly at the camera, while others exaggerate their actions. This particular aspect of the relationship between the viewer and subject of the film will continue to fascinate and perplex observers throughout film's history.  

When the film was initially projected to audiences, the projectionist would initially freeze the first frame of the film, thus amplifying the amazement of the audience when the film began to run. Georges Méliès (whose films we shall look at next) was one of the audience members who was impressed: "I must admit we were all stupefied as you can understand. I immediately said, 'That's for me. What an extraordinary thing.'"

Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat (1895) (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat)

This film is Lumière’s most famous and well-recieved work, and has been described by many a film scholar as the first masterpiece of cinema. It also attracted cinema’s first urban legend: that upon the first screening of the film, the audience was so overwhelmed by the image of the train bearing down upon them that they fled the room in terror.

The Lumière Brothers are often seen as the fathers of cinematic realism, but what comes across in this film is their grasp of the illusory effects made possible by film, a trait normally associated with Méliès. The combination of mounting the camera towards the edge of the platform and the diagonal composition of the shot gives the audience the impression that they are standing in the train’s path and that it is heading towards them, giving credence to the aforementioned urban legend.

Le Jardinier (l'Arroseur Arrosé) (1895) (The Gardener or The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

This is cinema’s first comedy and suspense film; in researching the film, most observers state the former, but few have described it as being the latter. I would suggest that it does qualify as a suspense film. Commenting on the suspense genre, Hitchcock once said that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”.

As shown in the picture above, in this film; a young boy creeps up behind a man who is watering a garden with a hose pipe, and for several seconds he stands with his foot directly above the pipe. He then stamps on the hose pipe, and once the gardener points the pipe at his own face, he releases his foot from the pipe, subsequently spraying the man with water over his face.

It is during this ten second span that the film truly excels. The comedic timing of the whole prank is slightly off-tempo and the man’s subsequent chasing of the boy feels forced. But from the moment where the boy places his foot above the hose pipe, there is a sense of the aforementioned Hitchcockian anticipation, exhilaration even, that will be repeated over feature length movies for the next 115 years and beyond.

Smoking the Opium (1896-7)

This film involves a couple who are lying on a carpet and sharing an opium pipe in Japan. The viewer is immediately struck by the peculiarity of the camera’s extremely low setup in comparison to the films viewed so far; providing a glimpse of the relationship shared between this couple. The moment where their hands brush when the male character passes the pipe to the female character - see the picture above -  is acutely intimate. For the first time in cinema, the viewer is acting as a voyeur.

Although this film comes later in the careers of the two brothers and was filmed by one of their associates, there is an artistic thread that is apparent in most of the work on offer in The Lumière Brothers’ First Films: their cinematographic decision-making is both deliberate and effective. Whether it was their decision to employ a diagonal shot in Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat or the low setup employed here, the Lumière brothers were very much the first ‘auteurs’ of cinema.

Availability: Unfortunately, this film is both difficult and expensive to get hold of. In America it is being sold for $129.99 and in the U.K. it costs an incredible £399.99 (and that is for the NTSC import). Luckily, many of the individual Lumière films can be found on Youtube. But if you are a newcomer to the Lumière Brothers, I highly recommend trying to get a hold of The Lumière Brothers’ First Films (which I am told can be found online).

The idea behind Film: Ab Initio

The idea behind Film: Ab Initio 

The premise of this blog is that chronology matters, particularly in relation to film. Whether it involves evaluating the technological advances that began with Edison’s Kinetoscope and that continue to develop with contemporary blockbusters’ use of Performance Capture or simply chronicling a particular director’s development, there is much to be said for watching films in chronological order.

This blog intends to work its way through 1500+ titles (and counting) in chronological order from cinema’s inception and see what ideas, trends and theories can be nurtured and cultivated by adopting such an approach. However, it is important to stress that I do not intend this to be a static process whereby I simply give my thoughts in regards to various films for several years.

The eventual goal is to develop a community that can share ideas and provide valuable insights in relation to film. A minor example of this is that the majority of films that will be looked at are either from North America or Europe, and I would be grateful for any recommendations from the other major continents.
Please note that the list of films is by no means closed and if there any films which you think I have overlooked, do not hesitate to mention them to me and I will do my best to include them.

Determining the films for Film: Ab Initio

We live in an age of endless lists – particularly in relation to music and film. At the turn of the previous decade (all of four months ago), we were inundated with the films of the noughties. At their worst, such lists overemphasise the immediate in an attempt to appear newsworthy. An example of this being The Times of London’s decision to declare ‘There Will Be Blood’ as the second greatest film of all time in 2008, only for the same film to appear as the 63rd greatest film of the last decade a year later.

At their best though, film lists can both aid in retracing the steps of cinema’s development and affirm the canonisation of particular films. This blog drew most of its 1500+ titles from two lists. The first is Piero Scaruffi’s 1,000 best films of all time. When I first skimmed through the list I realised that there were a large number of films which it listed that I wanted to watch, but I was unsure as to how I would go about tackling such a large body of work. It was its decision to list the films in chronological order that gave me the idea to watch the films in this manner. The second list was a much more recent discovery – TSPDT’s (They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?) excellent 1,000 strong list, which was voted by critics, filmmakers and scholars.

The list for Film: Ab Initio contains the majority of these films, although some were excluded. Films from major directors such as Fellini, Ozu and Hitchcock that did not make these lists have also been included, as have films from minor lists and a select number of idiosyncratic choices.

I hope you enjoy this blog, I look forward to hearing from you!

If you have any ideas or questions, please email me at