Today was the start of the Film Theory module, headed up by Sharon Tay. After the usual 'check the handbook for more' spiel, we got to the meat of the matter; discussing the evolution and aesthetics of cinema over the time of its existence. As the first part of this journey, we returned to the origins of cinema to ask the question 'what can film do?' and 'what is film capable of'', what is the medium able to do by itself, and what can it made to do if pushed, akin to say a child or another art form.
Sharon should us a series of short films from these primitive days of the medium, beginning with the most famous 'early' film, Train Arriving at a Station (1895) by the Lumiere Brothers. It's self explanatory, but just the documentation of a seemingly mundane action already tells of the immediate power of cinema; to record in motion life itself, unlike the stills of a photograph or the embellishments/inaccuracies of a painting. Similarly supportive of this point was the next film Repus du Bebe (1895), which is about a mother and father feeding their baby out in the garden. These people are long since deceased, and yet here they are, immortalized forever on film. Quite a powerful notion, is it not?
Of course, documentation was not the only novelty of the formative years, as the next film Demolition d'un mur (1895) demonstrates; after a wall is smashed down by workmen, the film is then reversed so that it magically returns to standing intact. Not only does this tell us about the malleability/manipulative powers of the medium, but also sows the seeds for a more comical, humorous method to using the medium that would later be made a lot more famous by the silent comics like Keaton and Chaplin. Indeed, the potential for a more 'entertaining' type of film was birthed from likes of Georges Melies (whom Scorsese honored with his 2011 family film Hugo), veterans of theatre, magic and traveling shows who were used to putting on elaborate shows with seemingly basic means. To demonstrate this, we watched an excerpt from one of his films, The Impossible Journey (1904), which concerns a train and its passengers doing just that, taking a trip to outer space. With use of elaborate sets, optical tricks, make up and forced perspective, all tools based in the realm of stage magic, such as the old Phantasmagoria shows of the previous century, Melies is able to create a fantastical 'other world' for the audience to see and experience.
Briefly returning to the novelty aspect of documentation with the rather bluntly titled Rough Sea At Dover (1895), we then ventured onto the beginnings of film being made to actually tell a proper story, or at least one with a definite structure and point as opposed to the pure spectacle of Melies and his ilk. Rescued by Rover (1905) is a very straightforward short about a smart dog who rescues a baby from an evil gypsy after taking it from its, humorously, easily distracted mother. The use of identifiable characters, a sense of progression in terms of drama/tension over the baby, and a more active use of editing and location changes (temporal and spatial continuity) is being built as early as 1905. Similarly advanced, That Fatal Sneeze (1907) is a comic misadventure of a boy who gets back at his dad with sneezing powder, each disaster relating to a nasal evacuation getting progressively wackier and bigger as the film goes on.
Of course, not all early stories were merely light hearted fair as Historie d'un crime (1901) showed, with its dark little tale of a criminal who gets caught and sent to the guillotine, or even fictitious at all, with early 'documentaries' with a definite agenda like Visit to Peek Frean and Co. Biscuit Works (1906), which shows the workings of an early 21st biscuit factory and all the machinery involved. Of course, the cheek still crept back with the rather amusing The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903), which though very short, tells the gleeful tale of a young shoe clerk who gets a little too frisky with a female client, and gets a firm walloping for his troubles. In the end, what this all demonstrates is just how, even at its inception and formative years, filmmakers, most of whom were either technicians or stage veterans, saw potential in the medium for great versatility, and so diligently experimented, yielding some rather fascinating results for us to watch all these decades later. If future weeks yield such a wealth of fun insights, this promises to be quite a module...