The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat ★★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 1: Pioneers of Film - Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès and Alice Guy-Blaché

Unlike other forms of artistic output like painting, whose origins stretch all the way back to the forgotten realm of pre-history, we can put very specific dates on the beginnings of such modern artistic media as photography and filmmaking; in the former case, that's quite literally the year 1838 (the year the very first publicly available photograph was ever made), while with filmmaking it boils down to a series of rapid innovations by a host of different, competing organizations, all within the 1890s right when the Victorian Age was winding down. And even then, even in the very years that filmmaking was being invented as a medium to begin with, the very first people practicing it were already clashing over the issue which would continue to define the medium for the resulting 120 years and counting -- should filmmaking be primarily considered a process for documenting things, for delivering easy entertainment, or for producing high art?

Take the three filmmakers under question here in the first week of my Film School Dropout challenge, for example; for while they are far from the only people who were practicing in the medium in these years, they neatly illustrate the struggle between these three competing forces, and why it's so difficult to pinpoint one or the other as the "correct" way to think about moviemaking. The story starts with the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, former portrait photographers who took over a family business but were facing bankruptcy by the 1880s. This forced them into the world of inventions, where among other things they came up with the concept of perforations on the edges of negatives so to easily spool a series of them through a camera in rapid succession; and to demonstrate what could be achieved with such a contraption, in 1895 they filmed their first "moving picture," a 50-second shot of their employees leaving the Lumière factory at the end of a working day.

It's strips like these that essentially make up the entirety of the brothers' short and unimpressive career as filmmakers -- a shot of a train pulling into a station, a shot of people walking down a sidewalk, a shot of a man riding a horse -- precisely because the brothers were never able to picture filmmaking as anything other than a strict documentary process; they were ultimately scientists and engineers, not artists or storytellers, and in fact they quickly gave up on motion picture cameras as being "not commercially viable" soon after they had invented them, letting their competitors make all the further innovations while they turned their attention to what they considered to be the more financially promising world of color still photography. (Interestingly, although largely forgotten by history at this point, the Lumières were actually outputting demonstrated color photographs as early as 1900, and had a commercial product for sale on the market by 1907, although an expensive and finicky one that would not become commonplace until well after World War One. For what it's worth, their highly respected company was eventually bought by and enfolded into Ilford, which in the 1980s when I was a college photography major was still one of the biggest and most admired producers of silver-nitrate photographic paper and celluloid negatives.)

And that brings us to Georges Méliès, who although a fellow Paris filmmaker in the same years as the Lumières, was coming at it from nearly the opposite direction; Méliès was in fact a highly popular magician and stage performer, who became famous during the Victorian Age for a series of technical innovations he invented to pull off his illusions, including a clever series of levers, mirrors and "automata" (think Rube Goldberg devices) that allowed him to do things like portray a live, talking head that would disassociate itself from its body and "float" across the stage. Méliès was one of the people invited to the Lumières' very first private demonstration of their motion picture camera; and unlike most, he immediately understood how such a device could be used to augment the entertaining trickery he was already demonstrating in his live stage show, eventually traveling all the way to London to buy one from a competitor of the Lumières, since they considered their cameras proprietary inventions that they refused to sell to others (yet another reason they had such a short and unremarkable career in that industry).

Méliès started cranking out short films literally six months after first seeing the Lumières' demonstration, then six months after that established history's very first "movie production company," Star Films which would provide the blueprint for every movie studio that would come after; he put out an incredible 500 titles in the resulting twenty years, nearly all of which were devoted to the premise of providing easy escapist entertainment for his Vaudeville-loving audiences. This is where we get 1902's A Trip to the Moon, for example, considered by many to retroactively be the most famous movie from this entire period (once you factor in the loss and destruction of something like 90 percent of all the films that were originally made back then); and it was Méliès who also invented most of the world's first movie "special effects," such as double-exposing negatives so that a person could interact with himself on-screen, or physically splicing two sections of film together so that it looked like an animal had "magically" turned into a person and vice-versa. (And for what it's worth, Méliès was eventually screwed out of business by Thomas Edison [Edison? Screwing over a competitor? WHAT A SURPRISE], driven bankrupt just in time for World War One and eventually becoming the proprietor of a candy kiosk in a Paris train station; thankfully, though, even by the 1920s the world had developed its first "film historians," and Méliès became the very first subject of the film world's very first "director rediscovery and reappraisal," eventually getting a chance to attend a major museum retrospective of his work [which he called "the most brilliant moment of his life"] and becoming the recipient of a Legion of Honor medal in his seventies.)

And that finally brings us to Alice Guy-Blaché, who can quite definitively be called the very first female filmmaker in history, a fellow Parisian who was working in the same years as Méliès and the Lumières. And indeed, Guy actually started her career by nakedly ripping off several of Méliès' most famous early films (back in an age when copyright law hadn't yet been codified and enforced with the kind of strictness it is now), after first being trained in the brand-new career of "office typist" and then being hired as a secretary for photographer-turned-filmmaker Léon Gaumont. She too was one of the handful of people who had been invited to that 1895 Lumière camera demonstration (which, the more you research it, looks more and more like that fabled 1976 first-ever Sex Pistols concert, attended by less than 30 people but including future members of the Smiths, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Fall, and Simply Red, as well as the guy who founded Factory Records); and she too immediately saw the writing on the wall, going straight back to Gaumont afterwards and asking if she could start making movies as well during her off-time from being a secretary.

Guy used this time well, and like Méliès was involved with literally hundreds of productions over the course of her career; but unlike him, Guy brought a decidedly more artistic bent to her work, being the first filmmaker in history to regularly record dancers and historical dramas, and now considered by most to also be the first first filmmaker in history to start writing three-act narrative scripts. So in other words, if Méliès is the grandfather of the summer popcorn flick, Guy is the grandmother of the Oscarbait prestige pic; and thus have these two aims in moviemaking been in horn-locked struggle for the 120 years since, an unresolvable schism in what the "true" nature of film should be, that all of us have benefited from in the resulting century-plus.

Now, don't get me wrong, from a modern standpoint these early films are a trudge to get through, cheesy and often pointless and certainly way, way far away from what we now consider to be "good" filmmaking. But they're also nice and short, and of course invaluable historical documents about the beginnings of this medium as an artistic outlet to begin with; so if you're going to be serious about being a film buff, you really have no choice but to take in a wide sampling of these small and fascinating loops from the dawn of the filmmaking era. Although I won't be posting this writeup at all of their Letterboxd listings, I wanted to at least mention the couple dozen films by these three sets of moviemakers that I ended up watching to write this posting; they're all at least worth your time, and watching them all will give you a wide and deep overview of what each of their careers were about. Next week in the Film School Dropout challenge, we look at the natural progression that came after these early experiments; the rise of professional studios, the rise of full-length films, and the rise of the "movie star," as seen through the explosively fast popularity of slapstick comedy during the so-called "Silent Era" of the 1910s and '20s.

Lumière Brothers:
Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)
The Arrival of a Train (1895)
The Gardener (1895)
Horse Trick Riders (1895)
Blacksmiths (1895)
Snowball Fight (1896)

Georges Méliès:
A Nightmare (1896)
The Vanishing Lady (1896)
After the Ball (1897)
The Temptation of St. Anthony (1898)
Panorama From the Top of a Moving Train (1898)
The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)
Cinderella (1899)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)
The Impossible Voyage (1904)
The Conquest of the Pole (1912)

Alice Guy-Blaché:
The Cabbage Fairy (1896)
The Burglars (1897)
Danse Serpentine (1900)
Pierrette's Escapades (1900)
The Statue (1905)
The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906)
The Consequences of Feminism (1906)
Falling Leaves (1912)