The History of the Movies

Le Voyage dans la Lune (Georges Milies, 1902)

Somebody asked me an interesting question. How would one go about deconstructing film history into just 10 movies? For example, if you wanted to teach an audience about the history of cinema over time in just 10 landmark films, which films would they be?

A question like this is too broad and involved to limit to 10 films in my opinion. Really, the films you choose to include as landmark examples of film history depends on which audience one is relaying this information to. For a European audience, would the advent of a landmark post-modern Chinese social criticism like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern matter? That film, to a Chinese audience of film scholars, matters a whole lot, and would be seminal in a discussion of film history.

To answer the question though, I’ll give my selections in respects to an American audience of film students:

Le Voyage dans la Lune (Georges Milies, 1902) – The birth of cinema as a medium of art and imagination. There is no true beginning of cinema as we know it today until Milies’s landmark sci-fi fantasy film. A brilliant work of pure imagination, the film became the first known relic of combining both incredible vision, beautiful art, and provided its audience with wonder, curiosity as well as entertainment. I believe Le Voyage dans la Lune was the first example of a “complete film” ever made.

It Happened one Night (Frank Capra, 1934) – Pinnacle of genre cinema; the screwball comedy, romance. If there was a movie that signified in America, the beginning of the perfect movie to take a date to, it has to be Capra’s It Happened One Night. Not only that, this movie could be seen as the beginning of an entire genre of romantic comedy films as well as the beginning of making the “genre” the centerpiece of a film.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1945) – The film noir movement, the only significant pure genre movement of cinema. There were movements of style and movements of cinema politics, but the “noir cinema” was the only real film movement which centered itself around a genre. From the shadows of window-panes, to detectives smoking cigarettes in their offices, to damsels in distress walking alone in an alleyway on a rainy night, noir cinema was incredibly influential in the way it manipulated the space, frame, and lighting of a cinematic world to convey a story. It has been re-defined, and re-imagined over and over again, and it’s beginnings are a landmark moment in the history of Western cinema. No better example of this than Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961) – The birth of film experimentation. This was a radical endeavor. Film experimenters are never as appreciated as mainstream filmmakers, because experimenters’ endeavor is purely of discovering the definition of “cinema” itself, and then seeing how far it can be pushed. The Godfather of experimentation, Stan Brakhage, painted, scratched, glued, colored, cut, and pasted all over the film celluloid, and his films are as much cinema, as they are paintings, as they are sculptures. He singlehandedly gave cinema another dimension, that of a tangible accessibility from the filmmaker, directly to the viewer.

Bonnie & Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) – Film taboo, sex, and violence on screen, and Hollywood continuity editing. Violence and sex in cinema can be traced back to Bonnie & Clyde, a film filled with the stuff. It became the landmark film for pushing the limits of censorship and allowing free expression on cinema to depict even the ugliest and the most shocking events of life. Moreover, Dede Allen, the film’s editor, revolutionized “continuity editing”, which was a style of editing which conveyed notions and ideas via cuts but at the same time, made those cuts invisible to the viewer. In a sequence, Bonnie looks down, *cut* to Clydes gun, *cut* back to Bonnie. This simply cut conveyed that the gun was in fact, what Bonnie was looking at. Seems obvious now, but it was a revelation back then.

Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968) – The dawn of the independent filmmaker, outside the studio system. Finance your own film! Sounds like a Kickstarter slogan, but hell, John Cassavetes had been doing it since the 60s! Faces is a great example of a filmmaker not needing the big-budget Hollywood system to make his own stories. He paved the way for filmmakers to fund their own movies and make their own stories. You want to be a filmmaker? Wrong! You are a filmmaker! Cassavetes’ Faces proved, for the first time, this was possible.

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) – The dawn of the BLOCKBUSTER. You see that popcorn? Those summer nights when you can’t go anywhere, but you want to do something exciting? Steve Spielberg’s Jaws changed the game for Hollywood and America. Cinema became a commodity. It was torn back down its roots of the Milies’ days and stuck with a big fat price tag. Audiences could now see cinema as the greatest form of entertainment in the known world. Filmmakers could now see it as a way to tell their favorite stories, and make a killing doing it.

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988) – Apex of documentary filmmaking. Morris’s The Thin Blue Line showed the power of the documentary. The power of investigation. His movie actually helped set a man free. A landmark event where cinema stretched out into the real world and made a difference. It showed that a filmmaker with a goal could accomplish anything.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) – Post-modernist cinema. Storytelling was no longer enough… in fact, screw the story! Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction began the era of self-referencing. Movies were now meta, they were about other movies, they were mixes of genres and tropes and characters. The lines between art and entertainment were erased and the lines between “sophisticated filmmaking” and “pulp” were shattered. A new era of filmmakers who were geeky fanboys as much as they were filmmakers.

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) – Digital replaces celluloid. The latest technological advancement allows filmmakers to do everything through the digital realm. While purists still fight for the tangible nature of film stock, many have realized that digital is not only the way forward, it is the way to a deeper understanding of media’s connection to the human being, and how communication can be changed indefinitely via a digital platform.


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