Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fixed-camera Fantastico-rama

Fans of this blog know my love of the pre-1915 era—that is, the period of filmmaking swept away by the blockbuster success of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Birth showcased Griffith’s mastery of the moving camera, along with many now-standard editing tactics. Though the film was less a breakthrough than a synthesis of techniques Griffith and others had been discovering and experimenting with for several years, its influence is unquestioned. Thanks to Birth, and a few others masterpieces, such as the Italian epic, Cabiria (1914), silent films of the early-teens look much different from those produced in the second half of that decade, and beyond. The older films are generally shorter; they retain the ‘staginess’ of their aesthetic predecessor, the theatre, and their cinematography, such as it is, assumes an audience fixed in place, as a theatrical audience would be. Close-ups, pans and zooms are rare in these films. Actors, for the most part, appear in medium- or long-shot, and are rarely identified. Limitations abound.

So why are these films worth watching? Well, because I think they’re cool. But more importantly, they’re unappreciated. I reject as incomplete the standard tack presenters take when showing these films today—that is, that they’re an early, naive step toward proper filmmaking. Please. All art depends in part on technology to continue its development, and while these films are certainly ‘primitive’ even by Griffith’s standards, they deserve to be defined by what they do well, not just by what they lack. They are surreal, funny, and at times, psychologically complex. They’re a glimpse into the past, yes; a view of filmmaking in simpler days, yes; but they’re also movies made according to different rules, and with different goals in mind. And if this particular branch of the cinematic tree seems hopelessly old-fashioned, remember that the YouTube generation, with its webcams and brief recording times, is bringing us right back to where it all started.

With that trumpet-blast still ringing in your ears, here’s an introduction to eight fixed-camera films I think are worth a look... in no particular order, of course:

1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)
Based on the adult-oriented stage play, rather than the children’s book, this is Oz as you haven’t imagined it before. Dorothy takes a background role before a swollen cast that includes Imogene the Cow and a giant cat. Not to be confused with Larry Semon’s 1925 silent atrocity.

2. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
French pioneer Georges Méliès’ most famous film is probably the best known and most widely available fixed-camera flick on earth. Plotted, acted and directed at Mach 10, the movie incorporates many elements sadly missing from later science fiction epics, e.g. dancing girls, exploding aliens, and umbrellas that turn into giant mushrooms. Méliès was a stage magician, set painter and cartoonist, so amazing visuals are a given here.

3. The Fur Hat (1907)
French director Alice Guy succeeded where her contemporaries bombed: she made a fixed-camera comedy that was as funny as everyone expected it to be. The cast of The Fur Hat stay within the bounds of vaudeville/music hall farce, but somehow realize they’re in front of a camera, not a live audience. Result? The gut-busting-est mime-work you’ll ever see.

4. The Mothering Heart (1913)
Not Lillian Gish’s greatest role, but certainly her scariest. D.W. Griffith’s relatively static camera and strange cutting leaves the actress plenty of opportunity to deliver her unique brand of weird. The character she creates—a suffering wife of a philandering lout—grows steadily less steady as the picture progresses. Her emotional breakdown reveals the edgy core of this seemingly conservative short film.

5. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Bloodthirsty robbers? Check. Daring escape? Check. Vigilante posse? Already saddled, check. A climactic shootout completes this film’s credentials as the prototype Western. Edwin S. Porter’s lead-footed direction aside, The Great Train Robbery remains watchable, and the closing shot is a crowd pleaser to this day.

6. His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914)
One of my favourite films. His Majesty draws inspiration from later books in the Oz series, mixing characters old and new in one bizarre setting after the next. The movie never drags, despite a running time of one hour—no mean feat for this type of filmmaking. I love watching how His Majesty’s production team solves storytelling challenges through stagecraft, rather than cinematic art. Theatre men made this film, and though their way was doomed, they proved here what their methods were capable of.

7. Richard III (1912)
Shakespeare is meant to be silent, but rather than focusing on what’s missing, try to enjoy this one for its unique set design, which employs traditional stage-forms in ways only a movie camera could make successful. This is a transitional film in the fullest sense.

8. Frankenstein (1910)
The Edison Company’s only horror film languished in the hands of a private collector for decades. He’s now dead, but the film, appropriately, has risen again and remains an intriguing take on Shelley’s story. Frankenstein gets pretty psychological over the course of a single reel, perhaps more so than the famous 1932 remake. This one’s Monster is also a lot less sympathetic, but then, how much could you pity the very embodiment of your own evil?


  1. Have you ever read Samual Golwyn's biography? It is a great book and actually shined a lot of lite into the early era of film making something i'm sure you now something about. You can find it here...

  2. Thanks for the tip. I just finished a Clara Bow bio and could use a new distraction. Hell, it's either that, or the news.