Day 690: Cinema’s First Heavyweights

originally published November 20, 2013

Before Tarantino was planting cameras in car trunks and Scorsese was building coke-sniffing montages around classic Rolling Stones singles, someone had to figure out how to put it all together. And so begins the hunt for the first real cinematic visionary.

As with any topic that expensive schools feel is worthy of a possible major, there is plenty of room for debate, and the list of important names from the earliest days of film is long. But it takes only a minor exercise in whittling to trim down to the real heavyweights, the folks whose signature strokes on the art form still resonate today.

These are the elite few that every film student must commit to memory, for without them, we could never drool over Wes Anderson’s remarkable symmetry or Stanley Kubrick’s one-point perspectives. And without the ability to endlessly proselytize to the Madea-loving masses about the quality alternatives, film students would be lost.

The first director of film happened to be the guy who was inventing the technology. Thomas Edison pointed a camera – actually to give proper credit it was William K.L. Dickson and William Heise who pointed the camera – at an actor. Edison wanted to test his new cylindrical Kinetoscope; he never intended for the films to be viewed publically. But here they are – Monkeyshines #1 and #2, most likely the first films ever to be shot in the US. The base of the mountain; the beginning of the movies.

Edison maintained a massive presence throughout the first two decades of film production, using his precious patents to keep the would-be artists out of the game for as long as legally possible (as previously discussed). His films were mainly technical demonstrations; Edison had no desire to make a mark in the entertainment sphere. His studio produced The Kiss, a 47-second spool of 1896 film that shocked audiences with its graphic pornography, namely a fully-clothed couple kissing.

After the war Edison dissolved his studio and sold its parts. But he kept the patents. The guy wasn’t stupid.

While Edison showed off what his cameras could do, we have to jet over to France to find people who were showing off what cinema could do. The Lumière Brothers – Auguste and Louis – created the first ‘film’, which was nothing more than a bunch of people exiting their factory. But it was in Paris that movies were first splashed onto a screen – this was like the Avatar of 1895.

L’Arroseur Arrosé is the first comedy film, made that same year. It shows a kid stepping on a gardener’s hose, causing the gardener to inspect the nozzle end close-up, only to get sprayed in the face. Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat was nothing more than a train pulling up right beside the camera, but the audience reaction was (allegedly – this is a questionable urban myth) one of panic, as the train appeared ready to leap off the screen. Even if the panic story is bogus, this film did inadvertently show off the value of the long shot, medium shot and close up.

The Lumière brothers didn’t see a future in cinema, and sold off their equipment to others who did.

One of the lucky benefactors of the Lumière brothers’ disinterest was Georges Méliès, a Parisian illusionist and stage designer. If you’ve seen the film Hugo (which, if you haven’t, you must), you know that Méliès was the first true artist of cinema. It made all the difference to have a showman rather than a technician approach the medium.

Méliès invented the dolly shot to give his camera some motion. He used edits to make people appear and disappear at will. And most importantly he concocted strange and fantastic tales and figured out how to stage them in front of a camera. A Trip To The Moon is about as iconic as a pre-WWI film can be, famous for its man-in-the-moon rocket landing, but also notable for the weird moon-men battle and the way the astronauts return home (via gravity).

Méliès’ films were mostly lost or “reclaimed” to make boots for the war, and the man was driven out of the business by a rotten business deal with Pathé. The depiction of him as a novelty salesman in Scorsese’s film is actually pretty close to correct. Luckily the French film world eventually honored him and took care of him for the last few years of his life.

Edwin S. Porter got his start with Edison’s film company, and was the visionary who imported some of the funky European twists on the medium into American cinema. With Life Of An American Fireman Porter invented cross-cutting, alternating between two scenes: the outside of a burning house and an inside bedroom where a fireman was staging a heroic rescue. This effectively transported the potential of film beyond what could be done on a stage or by seeing something in real life.

1903’s The Great Train Robbery took the western genre out of its literary prison and projected a twelve-minute narrative that took full advantage of the story-telling possibilities of cross-cutting. Remember that last shot of Goodfellas, when Joe Pesci fires six shots right at the camera? That was a tribute to this film, which ended by showing one of the bandits firing point-blank at the camera. In 1990 it was a great way for a gangster flick to segue into the closing credits. In 1903 people freaked the hell out – it was too real.

Porter became chief director of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, directing big-name features – a thing he never felt comfortable with. But Famous Players eventually became Paramount Pictures, so this remains yet another important snippet of Porter’s legacy.

Most people who take a film history class wind up with a decidedly bitter memory of D.W. Griffith. This might be because his first landmark achievement was the 3-hour epic Birth Of A Nation, a Civil War-era tale that depicts black people as the enemy and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Griffith’s influence fortunately stretches beyond that one unfortunately important piece of film; he was the guy who wanted to bring what we would later call ‘Hollywood Magic’ to the screen. He’s also the only person on this list to have made their mark after the heart of film production had made its way to the west coast.

Griffith made a handful of other epics: Broken Blossoms (which was based on a short story called The Chink And The Child, but I’m sure that’s just a racist coincidence), Intolerance (which tells four concurrent stories from four historical eras), and Way Down East (a romantic drama). He also joined forces with the biggest stars of the time – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford – to found United Artists, the first artist-run film house of the studio era.

D.W. was the first superstar director, if not necessarily the first to heavily shape the medium. Take your pick – I’ve included links to all of these movies, even the extremely long Griffith flicks. Who is the true heavyweight of film history?

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