Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A short history of the movies, in case you need it

From All Movie Guide: European Cinema -- by Wheeler Winston Dixon

For the first half of the twentieth century, cinema was the centerpiece of popular culture not only in Europe, but in the United States as well. It is worth noting that the cinema originated, in large part, in Europe, despite the American Thomas A. Edison's later refinements to the original designs of others. Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince produced the films Roundhay Garden Scene and Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge in 1888, which were shot with a single-lens motion picture camera, in Leeds, England, and still survive in fragments today. Director Alice Guy shot the first scripted film in France in 1896 for producer Leon Gaumont, entitled La Fee aux choux, or The Cabbage Patch Fairy. The running time of this film was a mere 60 seconds, and depicted a young couple "finding" their newborn baby in the cabbage patch (much in the same manner that American babies are supposedly "delivered" by the stork). At the same time, Auguste and Louis Lumiere were producing their "actualities," short films that depicted real life events, and the fantasist Georges Melies was busy making a wondrous variety of special effects extravaganzas, most notably Le Voyage dans la lune (1902; A Trip to the Moon).

The Lumiere Brothers are credited by most historians with the first public projection of motion pictures on December 28, 1895, although numerous other private projections had been given before that date, including the Englishman William Friese-Greene, the Germans Max and Emil Skladanowsky, and the French inventors Henry Joly and Jean-Aime LeRoy. In any event, with Guy, Melies and the Lumiere brothers leading production in Europe, by 1904, there were literally hundreds of existing films, both documentary and fictional, competing for the public's attention. Edison's American films, especially The Great Train Robbery (1903) further demonstrated that there was a ready audience the genre film, and in 1905, the Englishman Cecil Hepworth directed the suspense thriller Rescued by Rover, in which an abducted baby is rescued through the efforts of the family dog.

In the United States, D. W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter and others pursued a more commercial path in the new field of motion pictures, while their European counterparts embraced the possibilities inherent in the new medium for artistic expression. In France, Alice Guy, who married Herbert Blache in 1907, directed literally hundreds of short films for Gaumont before departing to the United States to set up her own company, Solax. Ferdinand Zecca, hired by Guy to assist in producing films for Gaumont, soon struck out on his own as a director. The comedian Max Linder made a variety of influential comic shorts, while Louis Feuillade enthralled audiences with his serials Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916).

In Italy, Luigi Maggi produced the early spectacle Gli Ultimi giorni di Pompeii (1908; The Last Days of Pompeii), which was an immediate hit with the public, and led the way for Mario Caserini, Enrico Guazzoni, and Giovanni Pastrone to create equally opulent historical dramas, such as Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1912) and Caserini's 1913 remake of The Last Days of Pompeii; even at this early stage, remakes were becoming increasingly common. The most notable of these early Italian spectacles was perhaps Pastrone's Cabiria (1914), running a full 120 minutes, or twelve reels in length, made one year before the American feature-length D. W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation (1915) caused an international sensation.

But cinema production in Italy, Germany, France, Denmark, and Norway, all of which already had their own prosperous national cinema industries, was almost fatally interrupted by World War I (1914-1918), which brought European film production to a virtual halt. Unable to see the value of film production, either for propagandistic indoctrination or escapist entertainment, European governments cased to support the production of indigenous films, and the American studios swept in to fill the gap. Indeed, the European cinema has never really recovered from this hiatus, which allowed the Hollywood studios to flood international markets with commercial genre films that soon became audience favorites, a pattern that persists to this day.

The Norwegian production company Nordisk, which was founded in 1906, made 124 features in 1916; in 1928, the company produced only one film. Many European directors and actors went to America in search of better career prospects. Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjostrom, German directors Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau, among others, left for Hollywood, meeting with varying degrees of success in their later careers. In France, a country with one of the strongest traditions of independent filmmaking, such artists as Jean Renoir, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance and others remained true to spirit of experimentation in their work, refusing to join the American exodus. Luis Bunuel teamed with Surrealist artist Salvador Dali to create the scandalous short film Un chien andalou (1929; An Andalusian Dog), while Cocteau created an international sensation with his free-associational feature film Le Sang d'un Poete, (1930; The Blood of a Poet), one of the first European "talking" films.

In Germany, Fritz Lang burst on the scene with the two part melodrama Die Spinnen (1919/1920; The Spiders), and then followed this success in rapid succession with Der M¸de Tod (1921; The Weary Death), the two part criminal mastermind thriller Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922; Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler), the epic two-part fantasy Die Nibelungen (Kriemhild's Revenge and Siegfried (both 1924); and perhaps most famously Metropolis (1927), which remains one of the most copied and influential science fiction films of all time. Lang adapted to sound easily in 1931 with M, the story of a serial child killer that propelled Peter Lorre to international stardom.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928; The Passion of Joan of Arc), one of the last silent films produced in Europe, was equally popular with international audiences, particularly for the stunning performance of Maria Falconetti in the title role. Russian cinema, which had been trivial and banal under the Czarist regime, exploded with a vengeance during the Revolution, producing the newsreel "Kino-Eye" films of Dziga Vertov, as well as Sergei Eisenstein's propaganda masterpieces Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin) and Stachka (Strike; both 1925). Shortly after this, Stalin nationalized the film industry in 1927, putting it under the control of the mediocre bureaucrat Boris Shumyatsky, who effectively brought Soviet film into an era of melodramatic genre films, which persisted almost until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the 1930s, European national cinemas became more rigidly defined, with each country pursuing their own particular vision of what audiences wanted to see. In Britain, Alexander Korda's London Films produced The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), starring Charles Laughton, who won an American Academy Award for his performance in the film. Alfred Hitchcock began turning out a succession of highly effective thrillers, such as Murder! (1930), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936) and Sabotage (1936), until he, too, left Europe for Hollywood and a glittering American career, beginning with David O. Selznick's production of Rebecca (1940). Documentarians John Grierson and Paul Rotha also flourished in the UK, as did the experimental filmmaker Len Lye, with his short films Rainbow Dance (1936) and A Colour Box (1935).

In France, Jean Renoir, son of the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, sold some of his father's paintings to begin a long and distinguished career in cinema, becoming one of the medium's most accomplished directors. With such groundbreaking, direct-sound films as La Chienne (1931; The Bitch), Boudu sauvÈ des eaux (1932; Boudu Saved From Drowning), La Grande illusion (1937; Grand Illusion) and his exquisite La RËgle du jeu (1939), Renoir cemented for himself a position as one of the cinema's great humanists. RenÈ Clair begin his career with the surrealist short Entr'acte (1924; Intermission), rapidly moved into science fiction fantasy with the featurette Paris qui dort (1925; The Crazy Ray), before easily conquering sound with the romantic musical comedies ¿ nous la libertÈ (1931; Freedom for Us (1931), Le Million (1931, The Million), and Sous les toits de Paris (1930; Under the Roofs of Paris, all of which combined the tightly synchronized musical scores with plotlines that gently ridiculed the bourgeoisie. Clair, too, would later try his luck in the US, with mixed results. Jean Vigo created two masterpieces before his untimely death at the age of 29; L'Atalante (1934), his only feature, dealing with the romantic misadventures of a young couple on a houseboat, and the ferocious ZÈro de conduite (1933; Zero for Conduct), an all-out attack on the French public school system, which was banned for many years after Vigo's death in 1934.

In Italy, Benito Mussolini presided over the consolidation of the country's three major studios into one gigantic corporate entity, and then set about building Cinecitta, one of the world's largest film studios, in 1935. During this period, such directors as Alessandro Blasetti, Alberto Lattuada, Renato Castellani, future Neo-Realist Roberto Rossellini and others created a series of remarkably successful commercial films, made all the more bland by the tight government censorship Mussolini imposed on the industry. The Italian cinema during this period offered visions of escapism and luxury that were devoured by the public, especially the so-called "telefono bianco" ("white telephone") films, which were much like today's soap operas in their unrealistic presentation of social problems.

In Germany, UFA film became the Nazi's private preserve, and much of the talent that would fuel the later "film noir" ("black film") movement in the United States fled the country in the early 1930s. In 1933, the obstinately anti-Nazi Fritz Lang was offered the directorship of the newly Nazified UFA Film (Universum-Film A.G), the gigantic national German film corporation, but immediately fled the country, eventually landing in the United States, where he enjoyed a long and highly successful career. Along with Lang, such brilliant directors as Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Max Ophuls, Curtis Bernhardt, Edgar G. Ulmer and many others left Germany before the Nazis seized complete control.

Those who stayed behind, including Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, who had served as the director's scenarist on Metropolis and other of Lang's films, along with Fritz Hippler, Viet Harlan, and Leni Riefenstahl, eagerly served the Third Reich as writer and directors of vicious anti-Semitic films. Riefenstahl, in particular, became notorious for her propaganda film Triumph des Willens (1934; Triumph of the Will), which favorably documented the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, as well as for her two-part film of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia - Fest der Volker (1938; Olympia - Festival of the Nations) and Olympia - Fest der Schonheit (1938; Olympia - Festival of Beauty). Riefenstahl's films have been praised for the brilliance of their editing, and the plasticity of their approach to the film medium, yet Riefenstahl herself remained indifferent to the social impact of her films, and refused to accept responsibility for her part in advancing the aims of the Nazi regime, right up to her death in 2003.

As World War II approached, Europe was thrown into a panic. As Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, France and other nations fell before the Nazi onslaught, writers, directors, producers and actors either fled Europe for the relative safety of England or America, or else joined what has become to be known as the "resistance" cinema. In France, Jean Cocteau managed to steer a relatively neutral course through the Nazi occupation, managing to appease the occupying German forces, while still furtively working to help the underground. Robert Bresson's luminous Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945; The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne) and Les Anges du peche (1943; Angels of Sin) were veiled criticisms of the Vichy regime.

In Italy, Roberto Rossellini, working in secret, with minimal equipment and short fragments of raw film stock, created one of the most searing indictments of a totalitarian regime, Roma, citti aperta (1945; Rome: Open City), marking the beginning of the Neo-Realist movement, which rejected the traditional trappings of Hollywood productions, including stars, lavish sets, and fictional stories with happy endings. Neo-Realist films were shot on the street, using existing lighting, non-actors, and actual locations rather than studio sets. The impact of Roma, citti aperta is hard to overstate; for the first time, it seemed possible to make films outside of the Hollywood, or studio model, and still have an international impact.

Rossellini's film was followed by a group of Neo-Realist masterpieces, including Vittorio de Sica's Ladri di biciclette (1948; The Bicycle Thief), and Umberto D (1952), depicting the harshness of everyday reality for young and old alike. While the new style caught on, the Neo-Realist movement itself was over relatively quickly, due in large part to the Andreotti Law, passed in 1949, which attempted to censor films that did not present Post-war Italy in the best possible light, by denying them export permits and government tax breaks.

At the same time, European governments grew increasingly alarmed at the international dominance of the Hollywood cinema. In 1947, Britain slapped a 75% tax on imported films, prompting British producers to create a series of cheaply produced films for home consumption, tagged as "Quota Quickies," feature films made on 6-day schedules for 5,000 pounds, running little more than an hour in length apiece. These films proved a vital training ground for numerous actors and directors who would go on to greater things.

The postwar environment in the United States became increasingly polarized as Cold War hysteria gripped the nation's capital, and subsequently Hollywood, forcing many talented American directors, most notably the director Joseph Losey, to flee the country for better working conditions abroad. Television, experimentally introduced in Europe before the war, emerged in the early 1950s as a real threat to conventional moviegoing. Cinema attendance dropped dramatically, as people stayed home to watch live programs and classic films in the comfort of their living rooms. The American cinema fought back with CinemaScope, 3-D films, and gigantic spectacles; European films became, by contrast, both smaller and more regionally focussed.

In Sweden, Ingmar Bergman began to direct a series of deeply personal films for Svensk Filmindustri, the state-owned film studio, which quickly became international art-house hits. Such classic Bergman films as Sommaren med Monika (1953; Summer with Monika), Sommarnattens leende (1955; Smiles of a Summer Night), and especially Det Sjunde inseglet (1957; The Seventh Seal) gained Bergman as the distinction of being a deeply individualistic director, who probed the depths of the human psyche. In addition, Bergman's works demonstrated that with state-funded production, directors could make more personal and daring films that still appealed to audiences, unlike the Hollywood model, which was dominated from its inception by commercial considerations.

Britain scored on two fronts; Ealing Studios created a series of highly successful Post-war comedies such as The Ladykillers (1955), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which made stars of such actors as Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Dennis Price. At the same time, Hammer Studios, effectively tapping into the public's appetite for more graphic horror films, mounted a series of superbly executed supernatural thrillers, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and then moving on to Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) and other classic horror icons, all photographed in suitably blood-drenched color. Jean Cocteau continued his love affair with the cinema with the superb Orphee (1949; Orpheus), a poetic retelling of legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Death's agents cats as the members of a motorcycle gang. Robert Bresson refined his austere, spare style still further with such minimalist masterpieces as Pickpocket (1959), Un condamne a mort s'est Èchappe (1956; A Man Escaped), and Journal d'un cure de campagne (1951; Diary of a Country Priest).

However, it was Neo-Realism's freewheeling spirit of improvisation and low-budget production that influenced the next great movement in European cinema, the New Wave, which was based in France, but rapidly spread throughout Europe. Starting as critics for the journal Cahiers du cinema (literally, The Notebooks of Cinema) in the early 1950s, future directors Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais and Eric Rohmer began making films in the late 1950s, with Varda's La Pointe courte (1956) leading the assault. Truffaut's semi autobiographical Les Quatre cents coups (1959; The 400 Blows), Godard's crime thriller A bout de souffle (1960; Breathless), and Alain Resnais' cinematic puzzle L'Annee derniere a Marienbad (1961; Last Year at Marienbad) all attracted international attention. Godard and Truffaut, in particular, proved both influential and prolific, with Godard the polemicist of the movement, and Truffaut the unabashed romantic.

Made on modest budgets with minimal crews, the deeply personal films of the French New Wave caused a sensation in Europe, and soon inspired similar works in England. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Room at the Top (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) all exemplified the new spirit of "Free Cinema" adopted by younger British filmmakers. American expatriate Joseph Losey directed his acerbic examination of the British upper classes, The Servant (1963), while another American, Stanley Kubrick, created one of most memorable films of the era, Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). On a more commercial note, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) showcased The Beatles, James Bond first appeared in Dr. No (1962), and Carry On Sergeant (1958) launched a long-running series of British low-comedy films.

In Italy, Federico Fellini, who had been working steadily since the 1950s as the director of La Strada (1954; The Road), Il Bidone (1955; The Swindlers), Le Notti di Cabiria (1957; Nights of Cabiria) and other art house films, broke through in the international market with the scandalous La Dolce vita (1960; The Sweet Life), which depicted Rome as a hotbed of tabloid journalism, social corruption and celebrity seeking parasites, and coined the word "papparazi." Michelangelo Antonioni explored his favorite theme of existential human emptiness in such films as L' Eclisse (1962; Eclipse), La Notte (1961, The Night) and his most ambitious film, L' Avventura, (1960; The Adventure). The Marxist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini created perhaps the most moving religious film ever made, the cinema verite Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964; The Gospel According to St. Matthew), while Bernardo Bertolucci made his deeply accomplished coming of age film, Prima della rivoluzione (1964; Before the Revolution) at the astonishing age of 24.

In Eastern Europe, Stalin's death in 1953 presaged the beginning of a new freshness in Soviet Cinema and its then-satellite nations, with the production of Letjat zhuravli (1957; The Cranes are Flying) in the USSR, and Andrzej Wajda's Kanal (1957; Canal) and Popiol i diament (1958; Ashes and Diamonds) in Poland. Roman Polanski, another Polish filmmaker who graduated from the state-run Lodz film school, created a sensation with the psychological suspense thriller Noz w wodzie (1962; Knife in the Water), and then rapidly departed for the UK, and later Hollywood.

In Hungary, Miklos Jancso created a series of compelling films, highlighted by a ceaselessly moving camera, in Csend Ès ki·lt·s (1967; Silence and Cry) Csillagosok, katon·k (1967; The Red and the White) and other films that questioned state censorship. The Czech New Wave, which flourished from 1960 until 1968, was highlighted by directors Vera Chytilov·, whose feminist film Sedmikrasky (1966; Daisies) was a film festival favorite, and Milos Forman, whose early films Cerny' Petr (1964; Black Peter) and L·sky jedne plavovl·sky (1965; The Loves of a Blonde) paved the way for a long career in Hollywood. In Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev's playful Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T. (1967; Love Affair; Or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator) signaled a new sexual frankness in the Eastern European cinema.

In France, a revolution was brewing. Godard, always the most political of the New Wave filmmakers, formed the Dziga Vertov group to make small "cinetracts" that helped foment the Events of May in 1968, when Godard, Truffaut and other filmmakers closed down the Cannes Film Festival, and 10 million French workers went on strike. It was a signal that the young were no longer to be ignored, and a rare moment when cinema actually served as a tool to effect social change. As the 1970s progressed, however, cinema in Europe entered a period of retrenchment, with the New Wave becoming increasingly more commercial. Godard left the field altogether, making 16mm short films and features for more than a decade before returning to commercial production with Numero deux (1975; Number Two).

By the 1980s, the scene had switched to Germany, where the renegade filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, along with his colleagues Jean-Marie Straub, Daniele Huillet, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlondorff and numerous other young filmmakers created "Das Neue Kino," or The New German Cinema. Of all the filmmakers, Fassbinder was both the most inventive and the most prolific, creating 42 features, including a mammoth 14-part, 894-minute mini-series, Berlin Alexanderplatz, before his early death in 1982. Born in 1945, Fassbinder started an actor in theater and film productions before striking out on his own with a series of highly idiosyncratic melodramas modeled after the American director Douglas Sirk, melded with Fassbinder's own Queer aesthetic.

Fassbinder's most famous films include Die Bitteren Traanen der Petra von Kant (1972; The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), Der Haandler der vier Jahreszeiten (1972; The Merchant of Four Seasons) and Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (1971; Beware of a Holy Whore), although his amazing versatility and productivity make all of his films of deep interest.

Straub's most famous film is arguably Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968; The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach), using period costumes and instruments to create a wholly engrossing vision of J.S. Bach's life through the eyes of his second wife; Wenders' Der Himmel Ober Berlin (1987; Wings of Desire) is a fantasy set in the then-contested territories of East and West Berlin; Herzog's Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972; Aguirre, The Wrath of God) is an uncompromisingly bleak vision of the vicissitudes of human existence.

In the 1980s, the Polish filmmakers Agnieszka Holland (Bittere Ernte [1985; Angry Harvest]), Andrzej Wajda (Czlowiek z zelaza [1981; Man of Iron]) and Krzysztof Zanussi (Kontrakt [1980; The Contract]) continued their criticism of the Soviet system, while the mystic Andrei Tarkovsky created a series of compelling parables that also critiqued the collapsing Soviet regime, including Nostalghia (1983), Stalker (1979) Zerkalo (1975; The Mirror) and Solaris (1972). In Yugoslavia, now Bosnia, the maverick filmmaker Emir Kusturica directed Dom za vesanje (1988; Time of the Gypsies) and Otac na sluzbenom putu (1985; When Father Was Away on Business), before creating the epic political satire Underground (1995) after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s, a group of young directors who had made their first films in the 1970s and 1980s took their place on the European stage, including Chantal Akerman, from Belgium, whose feminist vision in such films as La Captive (2000; The Captive), Nuit et jour (1991; Night and Day) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) made her an international icon for women in the cinema; Paul Verhoeven, whose early films include De Vierde man (1983; The Fourth Man), Spetters (1980) and Soldaat van Oranje (1977; Soldier of Orange) secured him a place in Hollywood as the director of a series of special effects blockbusters; and Olivier Assayas from France, whose ultra-retro Irma Vep (1996) is partially a homage to Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les Vampires.

Other directors of note in recent years include Alain Tanner from Switzerland, Aki Kaurismaaki from Finland, and Bille August from Sweden. The studio classicists Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory mounted a series of lavish costume period films, including Howards End (1991) and The Remains of the Day (1993) which have enjoyed wide audience appeal, and Derek Jarman (1942-1994) emerged as one of the most activist directors championing the cause of Queer Rights, most notably with Caravaggio (1982) and his late film Edward II (1991).

In the late 1990s and the early part of the new century, filmmakers continued to push the envelope even more, with such films as Michael Haneke's brutally sadistic Funny Games (1997), Catherine Breillat's frank depiction of sex in Romance (1999), Coralie Virginie Despentes' sexually explicit Baise-moi (2000; Rape Me), and Gaspar Noe's drama of rape revenged, Irreversible (2002; Irreversible). The European ratings system, what was left of it, collapsed, as filmmakers demanded the right to depict the entire range of human experience on the screen, without censorship.

As the cinema industry enters the 21st century, there are two new factors to contend with; the rise of computer generated imagery, which makes conventional special effects, settings, and props obsolete; and digital cinema itself, which uses digital video tape to record the images before the camera, thus doing away with film altogether. Agnes Varda, the first person to launch the French New Wave, struck a bold blow for the reinvention of the cinema with Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000; The Gleaners and I), a documentary feature film shot entirely on digital video with a small, hand-held portable camera. The film was an immense commercial and critical success, and opened the possibility of filmmaking to an ever-wider range of auteurs.

In the next few years, we will see that the cinema, as we know it, resides firmly in the 20th century. Already, video games and cable television have siphoned off a large part of the cinema audience, which has become progressively younger as their parents stay home to watch the burgeoning choice of offerings on digital cable television. Europe lags behind America to some degree in this regard, and its reverence for the past, and for the culture of the cinema, as evidenced by The British Film Institute in London, La Cinamatheque Francaise in Paris, and The Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam readily attest.

The 21st century will bring to us an entirely new form of moving image production, using digital videotape, computer generated imagery, and interactive productions that mimic the video games so popular with today's youth. But one thing is certain. The films of the past will continue to inform the films of the present, as remakes, sources of visual inspiration, and touchstones that guide us back to a past more anchored in the real. The cinema in Europe is poised on the cutting edge of something entirely new, both in terms of delivery systems (cable, satellite, DVDs, and the like) and content. With the formation of the European Union, and the adoption of the Euro as the near-universal currency of the continent, the new European cinema promises to be both commercially competitive, and artistically adventurous.


At 3/15/2006 2:07 AM, Blogger Medienberatung said...

Following Weblog informs about the german scriptwriter Thea von Harbou:

There is also a tillage-possibility for a book about the author.


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