Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Top 10 Films of the 1900's



Film’s first full decade was remarkable by any art form’s standards. The one common thread that the thematic kaleidoscope these films share is that they all value exploring new ideas and uncharted artistic territory as much as they did narrative and form. It rivals any decade in film’s history for innovation and unbridled creativity.



For example, the constraints of time (no film on our list runs over eighteen minutes) meant that limitation did indeed breed innovation; this, coupled with the rapidly expanding technology of film itself, meant that film was a fertile breeding ground for a plethora of ideas and genres.



The century began with actuality films and trick films as the two most popular genres. By the end of the decade, these genres popularity’s faded away, as genres such as prestige films (i.e. adapting a Shakespeare or Dickens text), tragedies and romantic comedies began to captivate their audience.



The following list was quite difficult to compile as the decade contains a number of films which deserve greater attention and acclaim (and given that the list has been limited to the films I could find on Youtube and the Silent Shakespeare DVD, I am sure that there are a number of other excellent films form this decade that also deserve to be discussed).



Surprisingly, the two most famous films of the decade, Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Voyage to the Moon) (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) do not make it on to the following list. This decision was not made to raise controversy.



Instead of stating that the films’ technical innovations were the most important criteria for judging the following films, the major criterion in judging these films was the same as would be applied to a film released today: how enjoyable was the film, what interesting ideas/concepts did it tackle, etc.



This in turn makes the films more relevant and more accessible to audiences, as every film on this list makes for compelling viewing, regardless of their historic background. I do not believe that these films only exist to be watched by silent film fans. And thanks to Youtube, these films now have a far greater audience than they have had since they were released over a hundred years ago.



Given the nature of this blog and the chronological approach it is taking towards viewing film, I feel like it would be cheating if I gave any retrospective thoughts on any of the films in isolation. Therefore, under each film you fill find excerpts from the articles I wrote on that particular film (the titles of each film all have hyperlinks which will take you to the main article on each films), as well as the thoughts that certain readers have left in regards to that particular film. As I have said elsewhere, the aim of this blog is not to merely to convey my thoughts, but to start a conversation in regards to these early films. So on that note, please leave your own Top Ten films of the decade in the comments section below.



Corner in Wheat is the first film on the Film: Ab Initio list to tackle a contemporary political issue on film.
The film portrays three different elements of the corn industry: the growers, the speculators and the eventual buyers of wheat. The ease with which Griffith moves between the three different worlds is impressive. In particular, he makes the most of the technique first seen in The Great Train Robbery, crosscutting. This allows him to juxtapose the plight of the working men struggling to afford the bread with the lavish opulence of the successful speculator who attends a dinner with his society friend
Rob: The film as a whole (unlike Milton's superbly tragic verbal characterisation of Satan, say) operates in a purely visual way - the opening juxtaposing the dignified vertical plough lines of the farmers with the buzzing shirt cuffs of the owners; the second sequence mirroring left/right two tables: opulent feast and barren bread. This makes the choice of such a visual 'downfall' perfect, and brilliantly symbolic. 
 


It is not an over-exaggeration to state that Panorama from the Times Building, New York provides the audience with a new way of seeing. Panorama is similar to some of the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘actualities’, except that it provides us with a breathtaking view of New York from the top of the Times Building. Within the space of a decade, film has gone from a still shot of workers outside the Lumiere Brothers’ factory to a daring aerial shot of a substantial part of New York. 
Christian Hayes: Writers online don't write often about non-fiction but it's a major part of silent film production, there is so much of it, and this is a great example. There is something about the design of New York, the rigid shapes of the buildings, the layers of corners in the background and foreground, and the puncture-holes of windows that dot every building - that is endlessly fascinating, and it's in this period that modern New York we know was born.





The tone of Nerone is different to any film that we have observed so far, it is the first tragedy that we have encountered...
The most imaginative moment of the film comes towards the denouement of the film, as we see Nero lying on a chair, with his imaginative thoughts unfolding in the background; a pastoral scene gives way to what appears to be Rome on fire, causing Nero to collapse in fear of his own thoughts.
It is as powerful a scene as we have witnessed in any film so far, and makes great use of the medium of film to explore the apocalyptic visions the film’s protagonist. 



There is a lot more to Edwin S. Porter’s oeuvre than just The Great Train Robbery. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend may well have been another forerunner for the surrealist movement.
In the latter moments of the film, such as where the protagonist’ bed is flying through the city, it is clear that the protagonist is dreaming. But at the moment where he approaches the lamppost, the two worlds amalgamate with one another, and it is at this moment that the initial defamiliarisation occurs. This is also the film’s most exhilarating moment. The energy of the protagonist combines with the dizzying whirling of his surroundings to draw the audience into his drunken revelry and subsequent dreaming. 



 In Le baromètre de la fidélité, we have the great comic of this era attempting to expand on the slapstick humour he perfected in films such as Début d'un patineur, thus allowing him to take advantage of film’s rapidly increasing length.
Rob: What a sublime opening shot. Taking up a quarter of the screen time of the entire piece with that gliding river scene suggests a deliberate artistic consciousness that was harder to spot in some of the earlier Linder films... Again, it seems that film is entering its first mini-maturity here.
The moment that camera dips under the tree branch, in particular, is stikingly ahead of its time. A similarly mobile camera still takes the viewer by surprise in Murnau's 'Sunrise', 18 years later!



Cohl’s film did manage to lift ‘cartoons out of the realm of trick films and started them on the path toward animated features’. In Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, we are presented with separate vignettes of various characters. In Fantasmagorie, there is a remarkable fluidity throughout the entire film; each scene effortlessly interweaves with the next.
Fantasmagorie confirms the notion which Humorous Phases of Funny Phases suggested: animation is a distinctive branch of film that differs significantly to the moving picture. The films’ rapidity and ability to shape-shift demonstrates that animated film can perform different, and on a certain level, more impressive, visual tricks that those found in Méliès’ or Porter’s films.
 

Living in an age of twenty four hour news media, we have become somewhat anaesthetised to the impact of the moving image (Of course I do not mean that we are not moved by terrible events such as the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I simply mean that we do not fully appreciate the fact that we have access to such images) in regards to natural disasters. But before this earthquake, all we had to rely on were eyewitness accounts of such terrifying events. Film would allow such events to be captured as they were, rather than how they were experienced by a limited group of people.
Rob - Amazing film...
"The latter half of the post-earthquake film feels as though we are watching the first zombie film. A mass hoard of people walk by the camera and appear listless and lifeless. The moving image not only created a new art, but also managed to alter the eye of history."
That is the most haunting thing I've read on this blog.


There are certain films that only make a notable impression on their audience after the film has concluded. They do not radiate brilliance throughout as many of the great films do, but their appreciation greatly increases when they considered in their entirety: Louis Feuillade’s The Fairy of the Surf is one of these films.
Another reading of the film is that it is an allegory for the battle between reality and the imagination. The Prince represents reality and the fairy represents the imagination.  As the Prince captures the fairy and marries her, it appears that reality is harnessing and taking control of the imagination. Yet as the imagination has a violent reaction against reality and realises that it cannot exist on this plain so must return to her river of imagination, reality secedes its attempt to control the imagination and enters the world of the imagination. It is on this plain that the two are able to happily coexist (see image below); the allegory serves as an excellent lesson for any artist, and may also function as Feuillade’s mission statement for what will be an extremely successful decade for him.
Rob: I'd have never guessed that 7 minutes of such strangeness and beauty were just sitting there on YouTube. Thanks for bringing this one ashore.
The two worlds in this film - the land castle, and the sea - are both handled with visual flair, aren't they? 

The blazing light surrounding their little boat is unnerving, too. The strange 'grain' seems almost prophetic of the Trinity test, 36 years later....
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFZvCJYDme0&feat...

 

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...
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.




  1. The Story of the Kelly Gang – 1906 – Charles Tait
The climax of the film is the most thrilling we have witnessed of any film thus far; unfortunately, it also one of the most damaged sections of the film. However, the distortion of the damaged reel seems to enhance the dramatic denouement of the film. In this climactic scene, Ned Kelly makes his last stand, wearing metal armour (see picture below) to protect his face as he is finally captured by the police. The scene can be seen to symbolise the shift from a semi-anarchic, chivalrous period to the more functional, bureaucratic (and sometimes totalitarian) modus operandi of the 20th century. The armoured plating is an outdated, futile yet heroic method for Ned Kelly to make his last stand. His tale will endure, but the ways of the outlaw bushranger ended with him. This aspect of the film may have resonated greatly with the audience, as the film was shown around the country for close to a decade.
By focusing on the sections of the film that have endured, I would argue that even in its current state, The Story of The Kelly Gang is a seminal film which must be brought to the forefront of debate of the early silent era. In terms of both importance and enjoyment, it stands alongside any film we have witnessed so far.
Rob: Well, all hail Charles Tait! 
This is the most impressive find I've come across on this blog so far -- a really powerful film, dating back 104 years, that I have NEVER heard mention of anywhere before. 

The celluloid image has a unique power over reality, and I think that even the (slower) first half of these fragments are worthwhile in 2010, offering the strange sensation of a sepia Civil War photograph hobbling into life... In my opinion, there is always a case to be made for abandoning the Quest for Authenticity, and reveling in the 'weirdness' of an Inauthentic vision of the past such as this. I might even be tempted to speculate that this 15 minutes of distorted footage on YouTube is greater than the c.70 minute film that spawned it.


 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

1909 - Corner in Wheat - D.W. Griffith




Corner in Wheat is an unsettlingly deceptive film. On its surface, the film appears to stake a claim for being described as Griffith’s first masterpiece (particularly during the first half of the film). The film’s greatest strength is its subject matter. Over the last two years, we have seen an increasing number of films attempt to elevate film’s cultural status by tackling ‘prestige’ genres and writers, such as tragedy and Shakespeare. 



Corner in Wheat is the first film on the Film: Ab Initio list to tackle a contemporary political issue on film.
The film portrays three different elements of the corn industry: the growers, the speculators and the eventual buyers of wheat. The ease with which Griffith moves between the three different worlds is impressive. In particular, he makes the most of the technique first seen in The Great Train Robbery, crosscutting. This allows him to juxtapose the plight of the working men struggling to afford the bread with the lavish opulence of the successful speculator who attends a dinner with his society friends. The film’s primary focus is the speculator, known as the Wheat King.

It is extremely interesting to not how little the image of corporate America has change over the last one hundred years. The first time we meet the Wheat King, he is surrounded by men who are all dressed in similar attire. This reminded me of the agents in The Matrix, which was released exactly ninety years later (see the two pictures below). As Aristotle once said, “It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world”.

    

With his raised left eyebrow and grinning eyes, his role as the film’s ‘villain’ is established immediately by Griffith. As the film them moves to the Wheat floor where all the trading takes place, the heightened movement of the actors combined with their parting for the wheat king as he arrives made me think of John Milton’s hell in Paradise Lost:

With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal. But his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him: round he throws his baleful eyes,
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.
(Book I l. 46-58)



The Wheat King’s ‘obdurate pride and steadfast hate’ are on full display when he physically accosts a trader (see image above). The cramped, claustrophobic room (see image below) could not be more different to the vast open space where we see the solitary farmer ploughing his weed earlier in the film. The ‘adamantine chains and penal fire’ may not be visible, but the audience is certainly given the impression that they embody this scene on a metaphorical level.



At this point in the film, I was taken aback by the complex narrative structure and was convinced that Corner 
in Wheat may well be a more than worthy predecessor of both Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood; with all three films portraying ruthless American industrialists who embody the darker side of the American Experiment.



Therefore, I could barely conceal my disappointment when the Wheat King falls down a grain elevator and is killed by the very wheat that he was speculating on (see image above). In an instant, the film went from a complex examination of a Faustesque character to a simplistic Biblical parable on the excesses of greed. And returning to the aforementioned Milton quote, the Wheat King is an archetypal villain; he may have ‘obdurate pride and steadfast hate’, but unlike Milton’s Satan, he lacks the ‘lost happiness’ and ‘huge affliction’ that makes Milton’s character such a powerful and memorable character.



Hence when I saw the following over at the excellent Silent Volume, I was more than intrigued:
I’ve never forgotten the image of the Wheat King writhing at the bottom of the grain elevator as the stream of grain buries him. He’s a greedy bastard and he smothers.

Do we really need more nuance? Do we want more? Exploring why the Wheat King could become ‘king’ of anything in a democratic society might deny us the opportunity to convict him fully. It’s so cathartic to set a blatant villain in sharp relief to blatant victims—those victims being us, of course. Griffith knew it in 1909, and we know it now. Nevertheless, there is a deeper lesson to be learned from Corner in Wheat, if we’re prepared to look for it.

I think it is too easy to be satisfied by an image in art that plays to our political rather artistic impulses. For example, Oliver Stone was roundly criticised for not having such a moment in his biopic on George W Bush. To think up an example, the image of the Mission Accomplished banner falling on W’s head may have provided momentary satisfaction in Stone's film for those of a certain political persuasion. But art does not exist so that we can indulge in wish fulfilment. Rather than finding the Wheat King’s demise cathartic, I felt that it narrowed the spectrum of what the film was trying to convey, and this sentiment worked retrospectively too.



Whereas earlier I praised the film for juxtaposing the Wheat King’s high society lifestyle with the people who could not afford to buy bread (see the two images above); now, these scenes seem emotionally manipulative retrospectively, willing on the audience to act like a Roman mob and feel pleased with the Wheat King’s violent demise.



And although I think Silent Volume is correct to draw a parallel with today by later comparing the film’s events with what happened with AIG today, I think he has drawn the wrong conclusion. The legacy of Griffith’s decision to adopt an oversimplified moral stance and use crass juxtaposition of conflicting images can now be found daily on news channels to distort and over-dramatise insubstantial issues into full blown crises. The moral of the film is not that greed is bad, but rather that the moving image can greatly reduce the ambiguity of the written word and oversimplify a complex discussion.

As with many films, Corner in Wheat disappoints after a most promising beginning. There is no doubting Griffith’s broad scope and ambition with Corner in Wheat, but ultimately the film reveals its philosophical core to be as complex as a medieval morality play. And given the delightful allegory that Feuillade has constructed in the same year with The Surf of the Fairy, it is hard to excuse the film’s melodramatic simplicity on the grounds that it was an early silent film. 


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

1909 - A Midsummer Night's Dream - Charles Kent & J. Stuart Blackton




If 2009 may have been the year of the vampire, 1909 was certainly the year of the fairy. The appearance of Puck and the other fairies in this first cinematic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream means that three of the four films we have looked at so far have involved fairies. Puck’s mischief making in this film has more in common with the playfully troublesome fairies in Princess Nicotine than the benevolent fairy in the Fairy of the Surf.



Thanks to Tinkerbell and the tooth fairy, we assume that fairies have positive characteristics. However, fairies used to be associated with the following:
Much of the folklore about fairies revolves around protection from their malice, by such means as cold iron (iron is like poison to fairies, and they will not go near it) or charms of rowan and herbs, or avoiding offense by shunning locations known to be theirs.[6] In particular, folklore describes how to prevent the fairies from stealing babies and substituting changelings, and abducting older people as well.


The representational nature of the fairy has therefore shifted more than any mythic creature and is a suitably apt mascot for early film. Although film was gaining credibility and recognition by 1909, there was no certainty as to whether it would develop as a major art or what effect it would have on its audience. From the films that we have looked at so far in 1909, it has become apparent that the year sees film beginning to find the technical means to match its loftier ambitions for its further development. The uncertainty of what film may represent during this period correlates with the uncertainty of what fairies represented (which ranges from demoted angels to demons). I suspect that there are a number of issues and interpretations that can be raised here, but I will delay mentioning them to see how the symbol of the fairy develops over the next decade.


The film itself differs significantly from the first Shakespeare play we looked at, The Tempest. Firstly, unlike The Tempest, it was made across the Atlantic by Vitagraph. They were developing a niche of making prestige films based on esteemed cultural sources such as Shakespeare.



Unlike the 1908 version of The Tempest, A Midsummer’s Night Dream is at times guilty of being ‘stage bound’. This is particularly true of the opening scene, where it feels as though the camera is merely filming a theatrical adaptation of the play on a set rather than attempting to create a movie that can attempt to stand independently of its source. And given the limitations of a ‘one-reeler’ such as this in conveying the entirety of a Shakespeare play, this is a significant setback.



An even greater problem with the film is that around a third of it is missing, including one of the play’s finest moments, Bottom and his motley crew’s take on Pyramus and Thisbe. Given that the film is attempting to be a play on film, this only serves to confuse and alienate the audience, as the missing plot developments result in a surviving film riddled with inconsistencies. This may be a tad harsh on the film, but if it had been more visually imaginative and braver in interpreting its source material, the film would have been a far greater success.   



The film may be more flawed than most of the ones we have looked at so far on the Film: Ab Initio list, but it does have some amiable qualities. The performance of Puck is delightful; energetic, colourful and playful, her first appearance breathes life into what until her arrival had been an insipid take on Shakespeare’s play (see image above). The film also decides to replace the role of Oberon with a female fairy called Penelope. We can only speculate as to why Vitagraph decided to make such an adjustment, but this decision adds a level of intrigue that benefits the film.



And finally, I am normally quite sceptical when it comes to most modern audio commentaries on films, but the commentary for this film and the Silent Shakespeare DVD in general is worthy of praise. Judith Buchanan provides us with an insightful, passionate look at the film, revealing useful pieces of information, such as the fact the film’s release may have been delayed so that it could be released on Christmas Day or the fact that Hermia, played by Julia Swayne Gordon was Vitagraph’s principal leading lady in this period. If only more early silent films had such useful commentaries!




Monday, 23 August 2010

Film's first fairytale - 1909 - La fée des grèves (The Fairy of the Surf) - Louis Feuillade




There are certain films that only make a notable impression on their audience after the film has concluded. They do not radiate brilliance throughout as many of the great films do, but their appreciation greatly increases when they considered in their entirety: Louis Feuillade’s The Fairy of the Surf is one of these films.

The film disguises itself as what we would today call a costume drama, but the film invites far more complex readings than its genre may suggest.



Before discussing the various readings the film invites, Feuillade’s developing directorial skills should be discussed. In The Fairy of the Surf, Feuillade pulls of a feat that no film has managed to do so thus far, achieve a smooth transition between a ‘natural’ exterior and an interior.



Although films shot in cities have successfully managed such transitions, films which have been partly shot outside of a city have either failed in portraying the transition, or more often than not, avoided it all together (see The Tempest (1908) and Stenka Razin (1908)). As Prince Sigismond walks the fairy up the stairs of his castle and they enter a large hall (see image above), the shift between the two locations is seamless. We may take for granted what we now considered to be a routine and mundane switch, but it is early directors such as Feuillade who enabled later directors to perform such movement with ease.



The film also contains a sublime shot (see image above), which should be categorised as what Kurosawa termed as ‘pure cinema’. As the Prince and his friend capture the fairy from the river, their boat heads back towards the shore; as their boat shits direction, the entire frame is engulfed by a blaze of light. It is a shot of terrifying beauty that recalls one J.M.V’s dazzling portrayals of sunlight. As Picasso once said, "Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun." Even in his earliest films, Feuillade hints at the flair and control that he will exhibit in his later films.



The colouring of the costumes is done particularly well (see image above). In certain films from this era, colouring can be overdone and diminish a particular film’s visual qualities. Here, however, the colouring of clothing is subtle and enhances certain scenes, such as when the various couples make their way to the wedding, and the colouring of the ladies’ dresses highlights the grandiosity of the occasion (see image below).



The film also manages scenes with large groups of people in a more convincing manner than has been attempted in previous films (this improvement undoubtedly owes a debt to the constant technological innovations of film as well). Each individual’s body is decipherable, as is their movement. Feuillade’s decision to employ the technique of slow motion as each couple leaves the wedding after the fairy and the prince leaves highlights his ability in regards to orchestrating the movement of a group of people (see image below).  



The plot of the film is simple; Prince Sigismond and his friend capture a fairy from the river next to his castle, and the Prince convinces her to marry him. After they marry, she faints as she realises that she cannot live away from the river and collapses (see image below). She begs her new husband to allow her to return to her home. As he begs her to stay, he finally gives up and decides to go with her. The final scene involves them sitting on an underwater throne together.



At a basic level, we have a simple love story. But rather than the fairy forsaking her world for her prince, the opposite happens. Given the combination of the love story with sparing use of visual trickery, The Fairy of the Surf is clearly a loose forerunner for films such as Avatar. However, the film’s aforementioned completeness and retrospective satisfaction lends itself to any number of fairy tales.



Another reading of the film is that it is an allegory for the battle between reality and the imagination. The Prince represents reality and the fairy represents the imagination.  As the Prince captures the fairy and marries her, it appears that reality is harnessing and taking control of the imagination. Yet as the imagination has a violent reaction against reality and realises that it cannot exist on this plain so must return to her river of imagination, reality secedes its attempt to control the imagination and enters the world of the imagination. It is on this plain that the two are able to happily coexist (see image below); the allegory serves as an excellent lesson for any artist, and may also function as Feuillade’s mission statement for what will be an extremely successful decade for him.


Sunday, 22 August 2010

The first romantic comedy - 1909 - Le baromètre de la fidélité (The Fidelity barometer) - Georges Monca




1909 was a pivotal year in film history. Film was moving away from the trick film as well as witnessing directors attempt to tackle more complex themes and genres such as tragedy. In Le baromètre de la fidélité, we have the great comic of this era attempting to expand on the slapstick humour he perfected in films such as Début d'un patineur, thus allowing him to take advantage of film’s rapidly increasing length.

This would involve engaging in a different type of humour than that found in his earlier slapstick films. The humour in his earlier films is immediate and obvious, whereas in Le baromètre de la fidélité the film’s comedy simmers for the majority of the film before coming to a highly amusing end.

Film historians rightly comment on the technical innovations that various early silent films employ. But the narrative techniques that film develops during this period are often overlooked; for example, in Le baromètre de la fidélité, Linder opens the film with detailed exposition, giving the scenario that the film focuses on greater weight.

In this opening scene, we see Linder and his wife happily canoeing down a river in wedded bliss. When we meet them in the next scene, they are clearly bored and frustrated with one another. As the two scenes are juxtaposed with one another, the frustration they experience in the later scene becomes both heightened and comic. If Linder had made this film a few years earlier, he may not have been able to employ this useful device.



The opening scene is also shot in an exotic, open location that is deliberately contrasted with the claustrophobic exterior of their living room in the next scene for another reason as well. The exotic location of the opening scene will have impressed contemporary audiences and added another layer of interest for them. Whereas Melies continued to work within the confines of the trick film genre, Linder was a more pragmatic operator who was happy to absorb and explore techniques and subject matters that were outside the confines of slapstick humour. It is therefore unsurprising that he would become film’s biggest star by the turn of the century.

Once the film moves from its exotic location to Linder’s living room, the film centres on a fidelity barometer. I have googled this unusual term and cannot find any precedent for it in an article online. (Can any French readers tell us if this device had been employed by a French writer before Linder?) The Linder’s are given a long tube filled with clear liquid and told that their fidelity is proven as long as the liquid stays clear.

It is clear that the setup will result in disaster, but it is the way that the film goes about delivering its climax that is both satisfying and amusing. Yet again, Linder’s physical movements are impeccable in these final movements, every gesture is so considered as he manages to deliver his inimitable performance without ever over-exaggerating or playing down a particular comic moment. Linder succeeds where so many other actors fail in silent film: communicating with his audience without them ever wishing he was able to utter a single word.

Although we would struggle to find a fidelity barometer in a modern day romantic comedy, the entire structure of Le baromètre de la fidélité is genre specific to the romantic comedy, with several considerable exceptions. As with film of the same year Princess Nicotine, the humour is dark and sassy. Its brand of humour makes it a forerunner for the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. The film oozes with a level of charm and cheekiness that you will rarely find in a modern romantic comedy; for example, the lack of moralising makes a most welcome change.

For a man who had and would continue to make his name in the slapstick genre of comedy, Linder is remarkably at ease in what can be considered as one of the first romantic comedies.





Saturday, 21 August 2010

The last great trick film? - 1909 - Princess Nicotine - J. Stuart Blackton




Just as rapid technological innovation lead to film having the ability to tackle more ‘serious’ genres such as tragedy, the medium’s increasing length also meant that film’s earliest topics were now of less importance. The Lumiere Brothers’ actuality film no longer had the effect of wowing audiences simply because they were witnessing the moving image for the first time. The trick film too, was becoming a less important genre and would eventually desist altogether.

(Although there is a convincing argument to be made that many of the action films made since the eighties are the natural extension of these early trick films: i.e. the primary emphasis of these films are visual trickery, although most of these later films lack the wit and charm of these early trick films.)



As influential as Méliès has been on many of the filmmakers of the last thirty years, his influence on his immediate peers is less apparent. Princess Nicotine, along with Blactkon’s earlier trick film, The Thieving Hand, are clear examples of trick films that have been heavily influenced by Méliès, However, as we navigate the next decade of film making, his influence and popularity both temporarily wane.

The extraordinary settings of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904) (if you want to read more about Méliès’, check out this review of both films as well as other films made by Méliès ) allowed both films to entertain and delight audiences at fourteen minutes and twenty four minutes respectively.  



However, as Méliès and other like minded film makers would discover over the next few years, audiences' interests would change dramatically; film was no longer seen as a gimmick; instead, it was now considered by some to have the potential to function as an art form.

Princess Nicotine identifies the primary problem that makes it abundantly clear why the trick film’s popularity was waning in 1908: film’s increasing length. Outside of Méliès’ two aforementioned masterpieces, it is hard to find a surviving trick film that was an unqualified success which lasted for more than ten minutes. The problem was that there was a limited selection of camera tricks that one could use. Princess Nicotine used every stage and camera trick that was available at the time, and still only managed to thread together a film that lasts for five minutes. Within five years many films would run for over an hour, making it impossible for a trick film to possess the sustained quality of a film like Princess Nicotine.

As with Blackton’s earlier trick film, The Thieving Hand, Princess Nicotine incorporates surreal and fantastical elements to an ordinary situation to entertain his viewers. Princess Nicotine involves an Edwardian man discovering two ‘tobacco fairies’ (see image below) among his smokes and the fallout that ensues.



I was surprised by the devilish amount of sassiness and wit that Princess Nicotine offers its audience; the fairies in the film are more Christopher Marlowe than Walt Disney, and all the better for it. The Smoker, who is played by Paul Panzer, is charming, but lacks the subtleties in body movement that Max Linder displayed in his film on the topic of smoking, Le Premier Cigare D’un Collegien.

What makes Princess Nicotine stand out from most other trick films is its narrative pacing. The tricks on display do not feel gratuitous; each one raises the comic stakes of the faux battle between the two parties, with the film ending on a dark but humorous note. 




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