Anyone who remembers Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) has had a short introduction to the weird, innovative, and sometimes pretty awkward world of the first few years of film history, what Tom Gunning has defined as the “cinema of attractions”. One of the thing that strikes me the most about the few films we can see from this era (and there isn’t much left, as 75% of all silent films are estimated to have been lost forever) is how awkward they can be. You can definitely feel how the first filmmakers were trying to figure things out. At the same time, it can be delightful to see how innovative they could be in this process. This post is a little exploration of the world of early cinema and of what we can learn from it – even from the prospective of contemporary filmmaking. Do you get easily bored by silent, black and white single-shot films made by people who had no idea what continuity editing was? Don’t worry, they are all pretty short anyway. If you really can’t make it through all of them, just go to the cat video at the end.
1) Special Effects Can Be Created With No Money
The Lumiere Brothers’ Demolition of a Wall (1895), made during cinema’s official birth date, is famous for being the first example of reverse-motion in early cinema. Their subject choice is quite fitting: we are not surprised by how little time the wall takes to fall, but the fastness with which it gets restored when the film is played in reverse is really striking, as it plays with our perceptions of movement. The dust created by the demolition of the wall functions almost as the smoke for a magic trick, and it is fascinating to watch it being absorbed by the wall during the reverse-motion bit. It is also an early example of a very cheap special effect (hopefully, the Lumiere brothers had to get rid of that wall anyway).
2) You Can Be Meta And Funny at the Same Time
The first film to use an extreme close-up, The Big Swallow (1901) is a great example of how early cinema audiences were constantly aware of the fact that they were watching a film. This proves that self-referentialism in film isn’t at all new, or artsy, or innovative. It can be, however, really funny, as this example by British director James Williamson shows.
3) Parallel Editing is Something We Learn to Understand
Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1903) was long considered the first example of parallel editing in the history of cinema. If you look at this version, however, you’ll notice that there is no parallel editing at all. Instead, minute 5:10 sees the repetition of the action in the previous shot, now shown from a different location. Film historian Charles Musser concluded that this was the original version to be shown in 1903, and that the one with parallel editing was released later as a re-editing. While parallel editing is for us a straightforward practice, early cinema filmmakers feared that audiences used to watch plays taking place in a single location would not understand the change of location during a continuous action. Instead, they thought audiences would need to see the same action from two different perspectives. Only over the next few years, after audiences got accustomed to editing, parallel editing started becoming a standard practice.
4) Titles Can Confuse as Much as Explain
As Tom Gunning explains, early cinema audiences didn’t really think that they were going to be run over by the moving vehicles they saw on screen. Made 5 years after Lumiere Brothers’ famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, Cecil M. Hepworth’s How it Feels to Be Run Over (1900) expands on the previous film by literally showing the car attacking the camera and the spectator. But what interest me more in this British film is its very early example of intertitles. After the screen goes dark, we see a triple exclamation mark, followed by one exclamation mark, and by the mysterious writing: “Oh! Will be pleased”. It turns out that the original writing was: “Oh! Mother will be pleased”, which does make a little more sense. But the way the words are presented, handwritten and one quickly after the other, with the exclamation marks at the start, is quite different from the static, clear intertitles that would become the norm during the next 27 years of silent cinema. Perhaps the filmmakers hadn’t realised that reading intertitles that quickly is actually quite difficult. Or maybe they did, but they wanted to express precisely the erratic speech of someone who has just been in a car accident. From this perspective, I actually quite like that the only version of the film I was able to find on Youtube has one missing word.
5) You Can Use Camera Transitions Expressively
The BFI National Archive presents us Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903), the first film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children book. From the very unimpressed Cheshire Cat (more about cats later), to the lovely title shot, to the highly decayed state of the images which almost makes them more hallucinatory, there is a lot to notice and like. While some of the transitions are definitely pretty awkward for modern standards, the final, long dissolve signifies very appropriately that Alice is waking up from her dreamy vision.
6) Camera Movement Works Best When Juxtaposed with Stillness
British filmmaker George A. Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) marks the beginning of narrative editing. Its 3 shots flow well together, and the dark frames between them are justified by the fact that the train is moving inside and then outside of the tunnel. It also contains an example of early cinema’s phantom ride, in which a cameraman was strapped to the front of a moving vehicle, showcasing the movement of the vehicle without needing to manually move the camera at all. Despite being a very short-lived genre, phantom rides have played an important role in the development of the tracking shot. Here, the effect is particularly striking because at the start of the sequence there is no camera motion. We only see the train coming towards us, in what initially seems just a copy of Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. However, while the train keeps moving towards us, the train that the camera is placed on starts moving, too, going in the opposite direction. It is a very effective way to play with the ideas of stillness and movement.
7) Have Fun With Your Props
George A. Smith’s As Seen Through a Telescope (1900) is a very early example of the use of point-of-view close-ups in a coherent narrative. The circular black mask is justified by the fact that the point-of-view shot shows what the older man is seeing from his telescope. However, other films used masks, too, to make the audience understand how close-ups worked. Apparently, it was difficult for viewers to realise that what they were looking at was simply a closer view of something they could already see in the frame. We can be alternatively amused at the film (they’re showing a woman’s ankle! How dare they!), or annoyed by its voyeurism and objectification of female bodies. But what I also find interesting is how the film starts with a man aimlessly looking at the sky through a telescope, and ends up with him looking at the apparently really erotic view of a woman’s ankle, using the prop in an unexpected way.
8) Cat Videos Have Been a Thing for Over a Century
3 Years after As Seen Through a Telescope, George Albert Smith presumably felt that early cinema audiences were ready to understand the cut from a medium shot to a close-up without needing a circular black mask to differentiate the closer shot. I find it quite appropriate that the first film to attempt this more sophisticated type of editing would be, well, a cat video.