18 MAY, 2012
By: Maria Popova
How the seventh art went from magic lanterns to state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery in 100 years.
When a small handful of enthusiasts gathered at the first cinema show at the Grand Cafe in Paris on December 27, 1895, to celebrate early experimental film, they didn’t know that over the next century, their fringe fascination would carve its place in history as the “seventh art.” But how, exactly, did that happen? In 100 Ideas that Changed Film, Oxford Times film reviewer David Parkinson and publisher Laurence King — who brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design and the epic Saul Bass monograph — offer a concise and intelligent chronicle of the most influential developments since the dawn of cinema.
From technologies like magic lanterns (#1), the kinetoscope (#3), and the handheld camera (#78), to genres like slapstick (#21), poetic realism (#50), and queer cinema (#97), to system-level developments like the star system (#23), film schools (#38), and censorship (#48), to cultural phenomena like fan magazines (#31), television (#63), and feminist film theory (#86), the book blends the illuminating factuality of an encyclopedia with the strong point of view of a museum curator to reveal, beneath this changing flow of technologies and techniques, cinema’s deeper capacity for playing on universal emotions and engaging our timeless longing for escapism, entertainment, and self-expression.
Parkinson promises in the introduction:
What follows is as much a chronology of business opportunism and technical pragmatism, as a celebration of artistry, social commitment, and showmanship.
Idea # 1: MAGIC LANTERNS
Images from a set of 24 glass slides based on Sir John Tenniel’s original drawings for Alice in Wonderland
These optical lanterns contained the principal elements later found in film projectors: a source of illumination; a mechanism for moving frames through the light-proofed casing; and lenses for condensing and projecting images onto a distant screen. As an early form of mass entertainment, they also anticipated the storytelling experiments of later filmmakers.
Idea # 20: SERIALS
Betty Hutton relives the glory days of the silent serial in The Perils of Pauline, a 1947 biopic of the legendary chapterplay heroine, Pearl White.
Over 470 serials were produced in the United States between 1912 and 1956. In telling continuous stories in 10-15 weekly episodes of 15-25 minutes each, chapterplays, as they were also known, helped turn moviegoing into a habit.
Idea # 28: GENRE
Alfred Hitchcock so excelled at the thriller that he was nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense’.
Idea # 36: EXPRESSIONISM
This poster for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) conveys the angularity of the stars and Walter Röhrig, Hermann Warm and Walter Reimann’s sets.
Employing exterior or objective representation to convey interior or subjective stats, the silent Schauerfilme (horror films), Kammerspielfilme (chamber dramas), and Strassenfilme (street films) produced in Weimar Germany between 1919 and 1929 continue to have a major influence on world cinema.
Idea # 44: MUSICAL SCORES
Riffing on the notes E and F, John Williams's 'shark' theme proved crucial to ratcheting up the suspense in Jaws (1975).
Idea # 52: B MOVIES
Shot in just three weeks, Jean Rollin’s Lèvres de Sang (1975) is a superior example of the erotic European horror Bs produced in the 1960s and ’70s.
Idea # 54: SHORTS
Ben Turpin crosses Charlie Chaplin in Essanay’s two-reel lampoon of showbiz types, His New Job (1915).
Idea # 61: THE BLACKLIST
A protest supporting the Hollywood Ten – Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo.
The impact of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee’s investigation into Communism in HOllywood can never fully be assessed: after all, it’s impossible to assess the caliber of scripts never written and performances never given. Nevertheless, the witch hunt that took place between 1947 and 1952 represents the studio system’s darkest hour.
Idea # 70: TRAILERS
Alfred Hitchcock fronted an amusing five-minute lecture with a shock ending to trail The Birds (1963).
Idea # 73: CANNES
Poster from the 1953 festival showing the original Palais des Festivals, which was inaugurated on La Croisette in 1949 and demolished in 1988.
Idea # 86: FEMINIST FILM THEORY
Dorothy Arzner depicted strong, independent women in The Wild Party (1929), Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940).
The audience for Hollywood features was predominantly female into the 1950s, yet the studio front offices were exclusively occupied by men. Feminist film theory posed a radical challenge to this gender imbalance in the 1970s — but has anything really changed?
Idea # 97: QUEER CINEMA
Written by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan, Girls in Uniform (1931) had an all-female cast and featured same-sex romantic situations, a rarity at the time.
Homosexuality was illegal in many countries for much of cinema’s first century. Consequently, the representation of openly gay or lesbian characters in mainstream films was nigh on impossible until the late 1960s launched a revolution in the West, not just in the way films were made but also how they were interpreted.
From the trick films (#6) of cinemagician Georges Méliès to the experimental cinema (#42) of Maya Deren to the rise of animation (#55), 100 Ideas that Changed Film is an indispensable guide to one our most expressive and resonant forms of storytelling.
Images courtesy of Laurence King