Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Look Back at the Early Days of Cinema

The first part of a 15-episode documentary called The Story of Film: An Odyssey aired on Turner Classic Movies last night, along with some of the early movies referenced in this piece of the documentary, which covered the period from 1895 to 1912. If you're among those who think there were no films before 1912, last night's episode was a revelation. Along with the documentary, last night we got a trio of short films directed by French movie pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché and Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, among other treats.

The footage of important bits of film history as well as memories that went along with them were very moving, and a highlight of the documentary, especially when you hear commentary about D.W. Griffith and the messages behind his Birth of a Nation and then get to see the film itself to compare and contrast. Narrator Mark Cousins, a film critic from Northern Ireland, notes that film art is "a lie to tell the truth," a theme that echoes throughout and is almost turned upside-down by Birth of a Nation. It's certainly thought-provoking if you are a student of film or theatre, where scholars have been arguing about truth and lies, reality and fantasy since Plato.

It's also an extraordinary undertaking for TCM to pull so many little-seen films out of the storage lockers of history to accompany the pieces of the documentary. As TCM's materials tell us, "By December, the entire festival will include 119 movies from 29 countries, many of them TCM premieres."

If the documentary has shortcomings, for me they lie in 1) Cousins' accent, which has such a distinct cadence and incessant rhythm that it becomes hard to listen to him the entire length of the program, and 2) Cousins' very specific opinions, which place European and Asian cinema far above films and filmmakers from the United States (and especially Hollywood). He talks about art versus commerce and what he sees as the failure of the form when American moneymen got their hands on it, which is certainly a valid opinion, but he returns to it a little too often. Still, it's illuminating to see early French, Swedish, Russian and Japanese films as well as American efforts, and you won't have any trouble figuring out Cousins' point of view as he traces the early influences in the world of cinema.

The remaining 14 pieces of The Story of Film will air on Monday nights at 9 pm Central all the way through December. The September 9 episode will cover 1918-28 in the US, with 1918-1932 and a more worldly focus on September 16, with the arrival of sound and the 1930s in Part IV on the 23rd, and the effects of World War II in Part V on September 30. Check out the TCM schedule for details.

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