Welcome to MoMA Voices, a new section of MoMA.org that will expand in the coming weeks and months to open up a dialogue with our visitors and provide them with different views of modern and contemporary art and the Museum.
Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA's Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film.
The following post accompanies the "Two Danish Innovators" program, which screens on October 28, 29, and 30 in Theater 3.
Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) has been called "the first real auteur film." Actually, it appears now to have been a collaborative effort between director Stellan Rye (1880–1914), cameraman Guido Seeber (1879–1940), and star Paul Wegener (1874–1948), whom the same critic (Klaus Kreimeier) dubbed "the first modern German film actor." Although the Danish Rye died fighting for Germany early in the First World War I, Seeber went on to photograph the 1914 version of The Golem and G. W. Pabst's The Joyless Street and Secrets of a Soul. Wegener, a Max Reinhardt protégé, acted in or directed (or both) The Golem and its more famous 1920 remake, along with several Ernst Lubitsch films, Rex Ingram's The Magician, and numerous films for the Nazis. In 1926, Henrik Galeen took Hanns Heinz Ewers's story for The Student of Prague and remade it with the great Conrad Veidt as Der Student. Ewers was later the chronicler of Nazi icon Horst Wessel, who was made famous by Wegener's 1933 film performance.
Rye's film was a clear forerunner of the German Expressionist style and psyche, making it all the more a pity that he died so young, a tragedy that perhaps rivals Jean Vigo's death at twenty-nine. Although shot in naturalistic locations in Prague, Rye's imaginative facility with the camera evoked the Faust legend, E. T. A. Hoffman, and Edgar Allan Poe. If Rye had lived a normal lifespan, he might have been confronted with the choice between his native Denmark and his proto-Nazi compatriots and collaborators.
Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (The Mysterious X) was the first film of Benjamin Christensen. Although it wasn't Sergei Eisenstein's Strike or Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, it had a huge impact on 1913 audiences. Upon its release in America under the title Sealed Orders, one critic hailed it as "a revelation in dramatic motion pictures. It sets a new and hitherto but hoped for standard of quality. It emphasizes...the absolute superiority of the screen over the stage and opens up a vista of coming triumphs for the motion picture." None other than fellow Dane Carl Theodor Dreyer called Christensen "a man who knew exactly what he wanted and pursued his goal with unyielding stubbornness.... People shrugged him off as a madman. The way things have turned out (as of 1922), it is clear that he was the one in touch with the future."
This "madman" originally studied medicine but became an opera singer and actor. He stars in many of his own films, including The Mysterious X, and Dreyer's Mikael (1924). It is fair to see Christensen as the Danish counterpart of D. W. Griffith and Victor Sjöström in the decade of the 1910s. He was a master innovator of lighting techniques that would be highly influential on German Expressionism. Film historian Ron Mottram admires Christensen's superb editing and cites the scene in the old mill as "one of the earliest, genuinely sophisticated examples of a scene built from the juxtaposition of its constituent elements."
(Christensen's more well known masterpiece Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages), which he made in Sweden in 1922, is a must-see in our To Save and Project series. The restored and tinted print will be shown November 8 and 13.) Filmmaking opportunities in Europe were disappointingly scarce even in Germany (six films in thirteen years) for a director as independent-minded as Christensen, and he, like Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, was lured to MGM. This was hardly a director's paradise, but Christensen managed to make six films there in three years. Mockery, a 1927 Lon Chaney vehicle, displays many of the lighting effects already evident in The Mysterious X. He returned to Denmark for four talkies and spent his last decades managing a suburban Copenhagen cinema. One wonders if he read Les cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, the pages of which were propounding the auteur theory that he had espoused decades earlier. The year of his death, 1959, was also the year that the theory's two most famous proponents, Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), released their first features.
The Museum's print of The Mysterious X does not have intertitles. We hope the following synopsis will prove helpful:
When war breaks out, a naval lieutenant (played by Christensen) receives his sailing orders. As he is preparing to leave, his wife receives a note from a Count Spinelli, who has been unsuccessfully trying to start an affair with her. At a weak moment, however, the wife had given Spinelli a photograph of herself, which she fears her husband will find out about and misconstrue. Matters are complicated by the fact that Spinelli is a spy for the enemy. On the day that news of the mobilization comes, Spinelli visits the lieutenant's home while he is out and manages to unseal and read the sailing orders. The lieutenant returns home, finds Spinelli there, and accuses his wife of infidelity. He then leaves for his ship. Spinelli, meanwhile, sends news of the sailing to the enemy via carrier pigeon. The message is intercepted by friendly forces, and the lieutenant is accused of treason. He is arrested under orders from his father, who is admiral of the fleet. The wife eventually discovers the truth, and word reaches the prison where the lieutenant is being held, just as they are about to execute him. The lieutenant realizes that he has misjudged his wife, and they are reunited.
An addendum to my comments on Georges Méliès a few weeks ago: My colleague, Wendy Woon, and her son, Ethan, have brought to my attention a tres charmant graphic novel in English for us kids of all ages. Bryan Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret provides a lovely depiction of what Méliès's late stint as a Montparnasse train-station toy-stand entrepreneur might have been like.
In addition to Häxan (see above) and Sjöström's The Phantom Chariot (November 7) in the To Save and Project series, try to catch the following in MoMA's Nuts and Bolts series: Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine (November 2), Fritz Lang's Metropolis (November 4), and Paul Wegener's 1920 The Golem (November 8). All of these would have been in our series, were the Museum not already showing them. The L'Herbier film is particularly recommended because it is rarely seen.
Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA's Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film.
The following post accompanies the "The Scandinavian Connection" program, which screens on October 21, 22, and 23 in Theater 3.
Although Urban Gad (1879–1947) made a few films in Germany in the 1920s, during the golden age of Expressionism, his career had petered out by 1927. He clearly was not playing in the same league as Murnau, Lang, Pabst, Leni, Wiene, etc., and though an argument could be made that he anticipated some trends in Expressionism and that his use of eroticism was ahead of his time, his most significant contribution was the discovery of Asta Nielsen (1883–1972). Working in Germany, mostly with her then-husband Gad, Die Asta developed a restrained style of film acting, comparable to American counterparts like Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh. (To fully appreciate the achievement of these women, one should check out the staginess of Sarah Bernhardt's film appearances from this period, although an elderly Eleanora Duse in Cenere managed quite well.) The actress performed Strindberg, Ibsen, Wedekind, and a cross-dressing Hamlet, but her most familiar role to Museum audiences would be in G. W. Pabst's The Joyless Street (1925), the film that precipitated Greta Garbo's coming to America. After appearing in just one talkie, she began a forty-year retirement (later to be topped by Garbo's half-century "reclusion"), but it should be noted that at the age of seventy she undertook a second career, becoming a gifted collagist.
Victor Sjöström (1879–1960) began his career while D. W. Griffith was still at Biograph (Ingebord Holm was Sjöström's second film), and in several ways his films seem more sophisticated and adult than those of his American rival. In many of his best works (Terje Vigen, The Outlaw and His Wife, The Phantom Chariot), Sjöström relied on a very gifted leading actor: himself. This established a precedent for the likes of Charles Chaplin, Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles, and others. It also led ultimately to his marvelous performance in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957). Like his fellow Swede, Bergman, Sjöström's vision of the world was less than cheerful, although his work still has its comic moments. (The great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer probably surpasses them both in the Scandinavian-somberness department). Ironically, in light of his Hollywood period (which we will deal with later in the series), Sjöström had spent his childhood in America. What might his career been like if he hadn't returned to Sweden in the 1890's, just as films were beginning?
MoMA's print of Afgrunden (The Abyss) features Danish intertitles. The film will be accompanied by voiceover translation from the Danish by Jytte Jensen and Maria Lund.
MoMA's print of Ingeborg Holm includes Swedish intertitles. The following is a synopsis of the film.
A widow is sent to the poor house, and her children are boarded out to foster families. When her youngest child fails to recognize her, she breaks down and is committed to the insane asylum, until her oldest son presents her with a photo of herself as a young woman, and she regains her wits. Based on a play by Nils Krok, a member of the poor-relief board in the city of Helsingbord, the film provoked an unexpected sensation, and was dubbed "unwholesome cinematography." Sjöström's company tried to get off the hook by saying that the film depicted conditions in rural areas, not Stockholm, but argued for film's social responsibility in "arousing sympathy for the less fortunate members of society." Here Sjöström again anticipated Griffith, who was later to make similar arguments for the cinema's potential to change the world. The debate ignited by the film (which proved to be a commercial success) did, indeed, fuel modernization of Swedish relief laws.
Fortuitously, some of my colleagues have programmed some films in forthcoming weeks that we might otherwise have included in this cycle, thus freeing up some valuable slots for other films. Don't miss MoMA's new restoration of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North on October 25 and 31 (part of the seventh annual To Save and Project. This is the first lyrical and personal (auteurist) documentary, beginning a tradition that carries through to the likes of Ken Burns today. Also featured in To Save and Project is Sjöström's masterpiece, The Phantom Chariot (1920), which screens November 7 in a newly restored and tinted print. If you like Bergman, you'll love The Phantom Chariot, and you'll have a deeper understanding of the Swedish filmmaking lineage. Finally, I would like to call your attention to Thanhouser: 100 Years on October 26, an homage to an unpretentious little studio in New Rochelle that turned out some charming films in the early years of the twentieth century.
Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA's Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film.
The following post accompanies the "D. W. Griffith at Biograph" program, which screens on October 15 in Theater 3 and on October 16 and 17 in Theater 2.
Henri Matisse said, "My purpose is to render my emotion... I think only of rendering my emotion."
Film history textbooks dutifully catalog the elements of cinematic grammar and expressiveness that D. W. Griffith invented or refined in his five years at Biograph (in collaboration with his cinematographer G. W. "Billy" Bitzer [1872–1944], who worked at the Museum Film Library late in his life, providing invaluable information on the Biograph films and preparing a posthumous autobiography)—a virtually endless list that includes close-ups, fades, masking, parallel editing, the moving camera or dolly shot, backlighting, changing camera angles, restrained histrionics through the cultivation of a stock company of professional film actors, "spectacle," etc. Yet the salient point is that all of these essentially manipulative techniques served a larger purpose. Griffith's great genius was his intuitive understanding of the inherent power of the movies to render emotion, to evoke feeling. No medium, before or since, has so thoroughly facilitated art's capacity to touch that raw nerve, the primal and authentic human essence, and Griffith was the first filmmaker to fully grasp and exploit this fact. Fashions and conventions come and go, but at their best Griffith's films—like all great art—are deeply felt expressions of what we are, of what it is like to be human.
The Museum's film collection contains several hundred of Griffith's Biograph films, most of which are not presently viewable due to lack of funding (although inroads have been made thanks to a generous bequest from Lillian Gish). We may with some justification compare these films with prehistoric cave paintings; as Historian Richard Brookhiser wrote, "Cro-Magnon man painted magical images on cave walls that seem to move. Now people head into caves to watch images that actually do move; some of them are magical." Griffith was the first to capture the true magic of the moving image, a conjuration that has moved us for more than a century.
More on Griffith's gifts and limitations will be discussed in forthcoming weeks.
Image: A Corner in Wheat. 1909. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith. 35mm print, black and white, silent, approx. 15 min. Gift of Actinograph Corp. Preserved with funding from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation
The following post accompanies the "Georges Méliès and His Rivals" program, which screens on October 7, 8, and 9 in Theater 3.
I see Georges Méliès as a link in a continuum that runs from Jules Verne through film artists like Walt Disney and Tim Burton. Verne actually survived until 1905, enabling him to be well aware of Méliès in his heyday, and it can be hoped that the younger filmmaker found a way of expressing his gratitude to the older novelist for inspiring some of his best work. Méliès (1861–1938) died just a few weeks after Disney released the first of his epic fairy tales, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (For the record, Uncle Walt was around for the first eight years of Tim Burton's life. We are, of course, highlighting Burton's career in a major exhibition beginning next month, and my colleague Jenny He's description, "a director of fables, fairy tales, and fantasies," could as easily be applied to Méliès as to Burton.) One should also take note of Karel Zeman (1910–1989), the Czech animator/director whose feature films like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1957) and Baron Munchhausen (1962) explicitly evoke Méliès's style and subject matter.
The Beaux Arts student-turned-magician-turned-director was so successful for well over a decade that he inspired several imitators. Ferdinand Zecca was discussed a few weeks ago, and his (with Segundo de Chomon) Excursion dans la lune (the last film in this program) is clearly a rip-off of Méliès's immensely popular Le Voyage dans la lune (the first film in this program). Chomon (1871–1929), a very adept special-effects and animation innovator, would photograph Giovanni Pastrone's 1914 epic Cabiria (famous for its fluid camerawork), which we will be showing in November. Gaston Velle (1872–1948) is another of those significant but nearly forgotten figures in the early history of the cinema. Also a former magician, laboring in the shadows of Méliès and others, he made many accomplished films in this period that are not easily distinguishable from those of his colleagues. In fact, the credit for some of the films in this program is open to some dispute. (For those with a serious interest, the definitive work on early French cinema, in English at least, is Richard Abel's immensely thorough The Cine Goes To Town.) Art history scholars will be familiar with the problems of attribution as related to master, student, or forger. In any event, these films speak silently for themselves, especially in beautifully tinted prints that evoke an unrecoverable innocence soon to be lost in the mud of the Great War.
In spite of their energy and imagination, these films eventually wore out the audience's goodwill. Méliès was a man of his time. Like the literary works of his American contemporaries L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900) and Garrett P. Serviss (Edison's Conquest of Mars, 1898—one of my favorite guilty pleasures, in which the Wizard of Menlo Park kicks some Martian butt), Méliès's fantastical vision was overtaken by reality. He was in full command of cinematic resources as he saw them, and he earned an honorable place in film history. Like Alice Guy-Blaché, he faded away, although he, too, received the Legion of Honor. At the end, he was hawking toys in the Montparnasse train station. One might envision him adding a bit of performance and prestidigitation to delight his young customers. Ultimately, one can no more fault Méliès for not being D. W. Griffith than one can Verne for not being Hugo or Zola.
Image: Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). 1902. France. Directed by George Méliès
The following post accompanies the "Lesser-Known Pioneers of Cinema" program, which screens on September 30 and October 1 in Theater 3 and October 2 in Theater 2.
A great number of films were made before D. W. Griffith came along in 1908, and a great number of these have been lost. So piecing together the puzzle of this early period is always going to be unsatisfactory. Still, enough survives to try to give some credit to at least a few of the worthy pioneers.
Ferdinand Zecca (1864–1947) would turn out to be a rival of Georges Méliès (whose work will be screened next week). Much of his work was "derivative" (stolen), and he finally found his true calling as head of Pathé, a career path that included a distribution stint in New Jersey. In a matter of months, Alice Guy (after 1907, Alice Guy-Blaché) (1873–1968) went from being a secretary at Gaumont to becoming the world's first female director. At one point she was, in effect, the production head of that venerable studio—the only studio from the period that's still in existence today. Coming to America, Alice and her husband Herbert Blaché established their own studio, Solax, in Flushing, Queens. She continued to make films for various studios after Solax (like Edison, Biograph, Thanhouser, and others before it) failed. Following her divorce in 1922 she returned to France where she had been all but forgotten. After failing to get work, she lived out her long life mostly unknown, although she did receive the Legion of Honor in 1953. She finally died in Mahwah, New Jersey, at age ninety-five. Frankly, little is known of her films (MoMA has hardly any in its collection), but this will soon be remedied by an exhibition of restored films to be exhibited at the Whitney Museum beginning on November 6.
Religious subjects were popular with film audiences, who perhaps had to rationalize their patronage of this lowly art form with higher aspirations. Both of the two Christ films in this screening (by Zecca, 1902, and Guy, 1906) are probably more typical of the limitations of the period than of either director's later output, and it is hard to draw any major conclusions on either director's talent. Both engage in respectful tableaux that emphasize the static nature of the camerawork and the overly grand gestures of the actors. The use of exteriors helps lend authenticity, and sometimes the elaborate sets contribute to a fairly imaginative effort at creating depth of field. For delicate sensibilities, the scourging of Jesus is like a walk in the park compared to the standards later set by Mel Gibson. Méliès-esque special effects like superimpositions, used elsewhere for magic and comedy, here become means of expressing the sacred and holy. Contemporary audiences probably found both films ambitious and spectacular, and one assumes that many a pastor went to considerable trouble to show them in their churches whenever attendance at their sermons flagged. (One wonders if they would appreciate the irony of the cinema's soon becoming the alternative religion of the twentieth century.) A similar phenomenon would occur in the 1960s, when a non-theatrical distributor by whom I was employed made a mint from Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to Saint Matthew, in spite of the director's Marxism and homosexuality.
J. Stuart Blackton (1875–1941) was born in Britain, but he had a fortuitous meeting with Thomas Edison as a young man in New York. With two other men he formed the Vitagraph Company, which soon led to the construction of a glass-enclosed studio in Brooklyn. (The building still stands on Avenue M). Vitagraph's output was eclectic, ranging from pseudo-newsreels to animation, and Blackton pioneered comedy before Mack Sennett. As film historian Ephraim Katz suggests, "Next to Griffith, Blackton was probably the most innovative and creative force in the development of the motion picture art." He also brought culture and respectability to film through literary adaptations. His 1909 The Life of Moses is generally considered the first feature film, although it was released as a five-part serial. He was influential in experiments with sound and color film, but was forced to retire when Warner Bros. acquired Vitagraph in 1926. As with so many others of the time, his status as an auteur is hard to evaluate, and like Thomas Ince, he had a diverse portfolio that often included being a director, producer (closely supervising the nominal director of important films), actor, animator, editor, and entrepreneur. Which hat he may have been wearing on a given day on a given film is difficult to ascertain. Albert E. Smith, Blackton's business partner, summed things up by saying, "Griffith was like an artist who paints one picture—Vitagraph was like a magazine or a newspaper, who has a clientele that it must furnish a supply to regularly." Highly recommended is Anthony Slide's book The BIG V: A History of the Vitagraph Company.
In any case, The Automobile Thieves (aka The Bold Bank Robbery) and Francesca di Rimini should be seen as a token marking of Blackton's place, rather than as a measure of his talent. The former film reflects the popularity of crime films (seven years after Porter's The Great Train Robbery), with its excessive gunplay and moving-camera chase scene, as well as a suggestion that the automobile was still as novel as movies themselves. Griffith's The Lonely Villa (1909) was already further advanced, and he would lend more sophistication, credibility, and close-ups—not to mention fewer histrionics—to the genre with The Lonedale Operator (1911) and An Unseen Enemy (1912). Look for the shadow of the cranking cameraman, an indication of how casually these films were produced. Francesca, one of Vitagaph's popularized "classics," has the earmarks of a low-budget Victorian stage production.
Wallace McCutcheon, the Biograph house director before Griffith, is of slight importance. As Eileen Bowser has suggested, his At the Crossroads of Life "is of interest chiefly because it shows the primitive state of most film-making at the time." She suggests that Griffith might have drawn on his personal experience as a stage actor in writing the scenario and (over)playing the stage-door seducer. (McCutcheon was to return to his own theatrical roots shortly.) The film comes alive for a single exterior shot and clearly illustrates how quickly Griffith would, in the months ahead, transform the medium. Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker is unabashed in its use of caricature, but this was to remain a staple of melodrama even into the sound era. Some of the ugliness of life is reflected in the ugliness of the mise-en-scène, but there is a certain redemptive quality to the film in having the kindly old Jew, however stereotyped, come to the rescue. It is also an instructive lesson in film preservation to see the effects of nitrate deterioration, which decimated much of the imagery before it could be salvaged by transference to a more durable film stock. Only weeks after At the Crossroads of Life, Griffith would cross his personal Rubicon and move behind the camera.
The following post accompanies the "A Portrait of Edwin S. Porter" program, which screens September 23, 24, and 25 in MoMA's Celeste Bartos Theater (Theater 3).
Charles Musser, director of Before the Nickelodeon and now a distinguished professor of film, has ties with The Museum of Modern Art going back to his undergraduate days. His The Emergence of Cinema and Eileen Bowser's The Transformation of Cinema (both in the Scribner series A History of the American Cinema) have become standard works on this period. Eileen, for many years a curator in MoMA's Department of Film, is now retired. Blanche Sweet, a good personal and professional friend who died in 1986, stars in several of the D. W. Griffith films coming up in succeeding weeks.
As Musser's film explains, Edwin S. Porter was a kind of jack-of-all-trades who accidentally stumbled into being the first director of note in American film. Although it is questionable that he ever saw himself as an artist, his presence in the early days of the medium, when truly interesting things were happening, makes it unfair to totally dismiss him. His later career lasted until 1916 and included some twenty features, mostly codirected with others (further diluting any possible auteurist claims). Among these were the now infamous The Count of Monte Cristo, starring James O'Neill (the film version of the stage role that figures so prominently in his son Eugene's great Long Day's Journey into Night), and the Mary Pickford vehicle Tess of the Storm Country.
Much of Porter's output for Edison was derivative of the immensely popular trick films of Georges Méliès and others being imported from France. What remain of genuine consequence are Porter's "actualities" (with subjects ranging from McKinley's assassination to priceless documentation of turn-of-the-century Coney Island) and two films duly noted by Musser: The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery—which was acquired by Iris Barry for the Museum's fledgling "film library" in the mid-1930s. The former film was ahead of its time in its editing techniques, and the latter anticipated spectacular Westerns to come, even though Porter and his crew got no farther west than the other side of the Hudson River. The Great Train Robbery's logical, well-paced narrative flow was atypical for its time and set the stage for D. W. Griffith to improve upon its example five years later. Griffith himself appears in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest, though he was soon to be rescued from such thankless roles by moving behind the camera at Biograph. History does not record whether Porter and Griffith had any further relationship, as one descended into obscurity while the other climbed to the top, but the index to the D. W. Griffith Papers (the director's correspondence and business records) contains no entry for Edwin Stanton Porter.
Image: The Great Train Robbery. 1903. USA. 35mm print, black-and-white with color tinting, silent, approx. 11 min. Acquired from Don Malkames. Preserved with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts
The following post accompanies the "Actualities and Glimmerings of More" program, which screens September 16, 17, and 18 in MoMA's Celeste Bartos Theater (Theater 3).
The Lumière brothers, Louis (1864–1948) and Auguste (1862–1954), are probably the closest we will ever come to identifying the first auteurs. Their role as "directors" largely consisted of finding a subject that interested them, plunking their camera (Cinematographe) down, and turning it on. This ultra-simple method was soon discarded by others as antiquated, although Andy Warhol brought it back (to considerable acclaim in some circles) some seventy years later. By sending film crews around the world to photograph the commonplace and the exotic, the Lumières effectively shrank the globe in ways never before deemed possible.
One of the things that intrigues me in seeing the people in these films—now 115 years removed from us—is that some of them, the middle-aged ones at least, may have shaken Abraham Lincoln's hand; some of the elderly may have seen Napoleon marching through Paris. And yet, here they are, looking and moving much as we do, denizens of a world almost as strange to us as ours would be to them. They have achieved some level of immortality, and they embody one of the best arguments for film preservation: keeping our past alive.
The role played by Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931) in the development of early cinema seems more in the realm of mystery than romance, more about profit and litigation than art. Edison's focus on film was peripheral compared to many of his other endeavors, and he mostly left the field to associates like George Eastman (who invented the 35mm perforated celluloid film still used today) and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (who built Edison's Black Maria studio and more or less "directed" the first films Edison showed in his Kinetoscope peepshow parlors). Eastman went on to be a major philanthropist, and one of our sister film archives in Rochester is named after him. Dickson left Edison for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company—Biograph, from whence sprang D. W. Griffith and the beginnings of modern cinema. Edison, "The Wizard of Menlo Park," went on to sue everybody not under his control, and he finally left the film industry when antitrust action and the artistic inclinations of others made it no longer lucrative. For those who have never been there, the Edison Laboratory in Orange, New Jersey, is well worth a visit, and the Edison Tower now stands atop his original Menlo Park location.
Max Skladanowsky (1863–1939) was the German pretender to the Lumières' throne. This graduate of Magic Lantern shows invented a cumbersome and not-very-efficacious projection system that provided Berliners with their first taste of the movies. These short films, whose existence in the Museum's collection is a product of MoMA's cofounding role—with the archive in Berlin under the Nazis and others—in the International Federation of Film Archives, were once classified as Skladanowsky Primitives, and they live up to the moniker.
Robert William Paul (1869–1943) and Cecil Hepworth (1874–1953), key figures in the early days of British cinema, are both exemplars of the inventor-turned-director route to auteur status. After a flurry of innovative experimentation, Paul gave up the movies in 1910. Hepworth, on the other hand, survived until the coming of talkies, making some thirty features along the way. Rescued by Rover contained plot elements that would serve D. W. Griffith three years later in his debut film, The Adventures of Dollie, and would inspire many subsequent animal-loving directors. (For an example, don't miss two bravura performances by Shep the Thanhouser Collie in our Thanhouser: 100 Years film program, opening October 26.)
Image: The Waterer Watered (aka The Sprinkler Sprinkled, or Watering the Flowers). 1895. France. Directed by Louis Lumière. 35mm print, black-and-white, silent, approx. 45 sec. Acquired from the artist
The following post accompanies the "Pre-Cinema" program, which screens September 9, 10, and 11 in MoMA's Celeste Bartos Theater (Theater 3).
The intricacies of the auteur theory can be pretty convoluted and burdensome to anyone who just wants to see a good movie, but permit me to elucidate just a little. The Cahiers du cinema folks (André Bazin, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others) were ostensibly reacting to the French cinema's "tradition of quality," which since World War II and even before had been churning out craftsmanlike but impersonal films. In the service of these attacks, Hollywood was invoked as a model system in which "auteurs" like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Raoul Walsh could produce films that were not only commercially viable but also expressed the distinctive personality of the director. Little attention was paid to the impersonal craftsman responsible for most Hollywood films, but the theory attained legitimacy by focusing on a broad view of certain directors' careers where discernible patterns, themes, and visual style could be cited, much as one would with a writer or painter. Andrew Sarris (to whom this series is dedicated) Anglicized and popularized the theory in the pages of The Village Voice. Despite fierce opposition that survives in some circles to this day, the auteur theory has become the prevailing approach to film criticism.
I am not sure what prompted the Naval Photographic Center to undertake Origins of the Motion Picture in the lull between Korea and Vietnam. This little film (based on Martin Quigley Jr.'s book Magic Shadows), however, is surprisingly informative in sketching eight centuries of invention into a mere twenty-one minutes. Museum regulars will recall several illustrated lectures in recent years by David Francis of the Magic Lantern Society. For serious scholars, the MoMA Library holds the Merritt Crawford papers on microfilm. Merritt Crawford was an early twentieth-century scholar who corresponded with many of the key nineteenth-century innovators.
Eadweard Muybridge is the key crossover figure between photography and film. He survived for nearly a decade into the era of cinema. So, although he technically never made a motion picture, he was well aware of what his experiments had facilitated. There is much literature available, but I particularly recommend Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.