Prologue To A Binge Of Cinematic History
When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, “No, I went to films.”
– Quentin Tarantino, 2004 BBC interview with Andrew Walker
Part 1: The Motion Picture Is Born (Creation To 1894)
The exact moment in history at which the first ingredient in the recipe for cinema came into existence could be argued to be several different times in mankind’s past. Perhaps it was when the good Lord above created man and woman, and for whatever reason instilled a sense of creativity and thus storytelling into our beings. This instinctual passion and desire by us to create tales can be seen throughout humanity’s artistic expressions. From cave wall paintings when we were hunting for food and in constant migration, to the evolution of music through the ages, to the plays some of our ancestors decided to write and act in during the Elizabethan era, to all the many novels that have been written in human history, or the many pages of poetry we’ve read. Tales we pass on throughout time and then invent new ways to tell with each passing generation.
Or, if you subscribe to the theory we’re all godless heathens, you might prefer to think that it started when Aristotle, hundreds of years before Christ, observed an aftereffect of light in his eyes after gazing into the sun. Aristotle would then be followed by other poets, philosophers, and even astronomers and geographers in the ancient world, such as Titus Lucretius Carus of Rome and Ptolemy of Alexandria, who pushed the theory of a “persistence of vision” – rediscovered in the 1820s by Peter Mark Roget, the Frenchman who authored Roget’s Thesaurus. In the 1830s, Belgian scientist Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau followed this theory to create a spinning wheel device called the Fantascope that made pictures appear to move when one looked into it while spinning its small lever. Plateau’s device was imitated and re-created in various other ways by other inventors of the time such as William George Horner and Pierre Desvignes – incidentally all named their devices a something-scope. By 1878, the decades of trying out different types of these devices finally saw its first major breakthrough when British photographer Eadweard Muybridge was contracted to take the first pictures of motion – a galloping horse at the race track. This achievement of his suddenly meant that these devices didn’t just have to show a small drawing becoming animated, but now actual “real life” scenes shot by a camera could be duplicated and watched again and again. Moving pictures, or as we know them as “The Motion Picture” had come into being.
As for myself, I think cinema was created by a little of everything in a perfect storm of creativity from our esoteric selves and ingenuity through our rational selves which came together to create yet another way to tell our stories. And after the motion picture was created in 1878, boy did a lot of folks want to get in on that action right away. I could write a whole other article on all the different early prototypes of the motion picture camera. So many something-scopes came and went as different inventors from all around the world tried to find a way to improve the other devices and showcase the moving image in better ways for the beholder.
From 1878 to 1891, these devices were exclusively tried out by the inventors and whoever happened to be around to get to peek at them. However a few important films of the time are still available to us now thanks to the power of the public domain and YouTube. The first motion picture, the one of the galloping horse shot in 1878, is known as Sallie Gardner At The Gallop (AKA: The Horse In Motion) – it lasts a mere twenty two seconds. The oldest surviving films after that are known as Man Walking Around A Corner shot in 1887 and Roundhay Garden Scene, an 1888 home movie of sorts that lasts only a little over a minute. Also in 1888, that inventor of inventors himself, Thomas Edison, had begun to explore the possibility that he could himself come up with a better way to present motion pictures, and began years of work on what would become known as his Kinetograph – though William Kennedy Laurie Dickson did the heavy lifting in actually putting it together. This was the first true motion picture camera and Dickson began tests that are actually still available for us to watch in places like YouTube to this day. This set of films are known as the Monkeyshine series of films – small minute or less flickers of motion as the camera came to be perfected. By 1891 it was ready to be shown to the public.
The first film shown to the public was 1891’s Edison Greeting, a simple clip of Dickson smiling and waving his hat around. In 1892 in France a public showing of the small four-minute film, Pauvre Pierrot, was shown – the first ever animated film in existence. In 1893, the first staged film with acting involved was shot and shown in the one minute film Blacksmith Scene, about blacksmiths at work. And then in 1894 Edison had the first copyrighted film, a two second clip of a sneezing man known as Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze. Also in 1894, Edison actually pulled off the first ever use of sound and scoring in Dickson Experimental Sound Film, a simple fifteen second scene of two men dancing to music that actually caused some controversy as some thought it alluded to a homosexual relationship on camera. Unbelievably, the use of sound in cinema would not be greeted too well until decades later.
All of these advancements that took place from 1878 until 1894, in which the motion picture was created, the motion picture camera followed, and movies began to be shown publicly and copyrighted, paved the way for cinema’s first age. Many a film historian would argue that 1894-1895 was the starting point for “the movies”. From this point the inventors were starting to get pushed aside as the first filmmakers and innovators started experimenting with this craft. One wonders what they would have said if they knew that what had begun as small moving pictures to look into a small toy would eventually become, in the next century plus, a multi-billion-dollar industry that would produce stories that would become as important to culture and life as the most classic of novels. That a whole new medium of storytelling, of documenting reality, and of a way to connect with others had come into being. Cinema had been born and it was here to stay.
Part 2: A Binge Of Cinematic History (1894 To Present)
You may have not realized this by now, even after I wrote about my thoughts on cinema’s showing in 2019, wrote about the then coming 92nd Oscars, and wrote an entire ten part series highlighting my favorite movie from each year over the last hundred years of cinema, but I’m kind of a big fan of movies. Cinephile, film junkie, avid watcher, whatever else it is you’d refer to me as, I am an unapologetic addict of the medium of film in narrative form. This love for movies has been around since I ever remember being, from growing up in Puerto Rico up until the age of five and being introduced to Disney classics my parents rented for us and discovering Godzilla on television. My first experience in a theater I can remember was a preschool field trip to go see Aladdin, back when it first opened. Soon after, my aunt from my father’s side would always spend the weekend packing me, my brother, and my oldest sister to the local theater and watching the newest kids’ film coming out for the week.
When we moved to the States, one of the first things we did was go and see some new animated movie called Toy Story on the big screen, and I was introduced to the concept of multi-screen theaters. This was followed up by years of my parents taking us to the local dollar theater and watching a new movie almost every weekend – typically animated movies, sci-fi flicks, and of course the odd Will Smith blockbuster (He was huge in the nineties, kids). I caught up on some classics, usually limited to the bucket list movies we all watch like Jaws or Star Wars through television, and then my brother and I discovered horror. My mom raised us pretty strictly on what we could watch but eventually she gave up on stopping him and me from using the Sci-Fi channel, the Mystery Science Theater show, and the local Blockbuster’s rows of classic movie rentals to watch other giant monsters, aliens kidnapping damsels in distress, and of course the classic Universal monsters that in time would become my go-to watch for Halloween season. By the time we were in our teens we started to look into the more hardcore stuff and watch Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, among other modern monsters. This period of horror movie bingeing is likely why Halloween is my favorite holiday and fiction I write tends to take a supernatural turn.
Then came the moment that really opened me up to all sorts of tastes in movies, and that was when during High School when I discovered Robert Osbourne and Turner Classic Movies. Oh, in the past I had been aware the network existed and caught a creature feature every now and then when I noticed they were playing one, but after I started noticing the Oscars and becoming more curious about the history of cinema, I realized I needed Osbourne to show me what I’ve been missing out on. I noticed that every weekend he and Carrie Fisher would get together for a series titled “The Essentials”, in which they would present important films throughout cinema’s history. Through my final year in High School and afterward I discovered my love for films like Meet Me In St Louis, My Fair Lady, and on Christmas week 2008 I first saw the film that has remained my all-time favorite since, The Shop Around The Corner. Eventually Fisher would leave the series but Osbourne was always there to greet you and spill some factoids about the movie you were about to see, and then a classic came on that you had never seen before and there you were finally getting to see what all the hype over it was about.
Eventually I met my wife, moved out of my parents’ house, went to tech school, got a job and a place to stay, and married. Through it all I kept devouring classic movies when I could, and even started discovering the silent era of movies. I started to use my free time during the weekend to keep in touch with new movies so that I knew what I was talking about come award show time. A lifetime of movie watching experience is the background to my ten-part series on my favorite films from each year in the past century of cinema. Writing that series and “marking out”, as they say in the wrestling business, over each of those films was a very fun experience that took me through decades of movies and various ages of film.
The Quentin Tarantino quote I placed at the start of this article speaks to me, and maybe you the reader as well, because it’s how us movie fans really discover film. Nothing against folks who spend their money on film schools or picking apart every shot ever done in movie history, but most cinephiles go to the films themselves. They watch hours and hours of narratives play out before them that invoke all sorts of emotions and leave them wanting to watch their favorites again and again or tell friends why they need to drop everything and watch this new movie they just saw. They get on Letterboxd and they make lists of films they want to watch or rank those they have. They don’t have to pay to go get taught what film brings to the table; I’d argue we figure it out the best through just watching the movies for ourselves. In the same way a writer is served well by reading consistently or a sports team learns through the trial and error of winning and losing games.
Since my ten-part series on favorite movies ended, I’ve found myself feeling a tad empty when it came to writing non-fiction pieces on here. Oh I enjoy talking about the latest on the election every now and then, but talking movies is infinitely more fun. And as I read comments from others on films they’d recommend or I stopped to think about some of the films that I haven’t watched in so long and at a different point in my life when I had different tastes, I started to wonder if bingeing my way through cinema’s most important films was an option I could look into. And of course given I have this platform, why not go ahead and document my adventure through film history as well?
So over at my Letterboxd, I started a list which will be a work in progress until this series ends, that will help me keep me track of this ultimate bingeing of classics and important movies. Now, keep in mind that unlike the favorite movies of each year series, this isn’t something I can guarantee to be updated each week as I spend my weeknights working on fiction, and my Friday evenings and Saturday mornings on new movies. Not to mention other life stuff. I calculate it could take me a year or even a little over than that to complete this undertaking, but when an update is warranted I will add a new part to the series on my progress. My goal is to progress through the binge as quickly as humanly possible but not to pressure myself into burnout either. And I promise future parts won’t necessarily be as long-winded as this introduction had to be.
Now, keep in mind I’m going off lists other trusted cinephiles have made, as well as personal preference and curiosity. I’m also making a strict rule to watch every Academy Award best picture winning movie, something I haven’t pulled off yet. Not only do I want to watch films I saw ages ago, I also want to finally get around to some I haven’t ever gotten to. Asian cinema will be more common than European cinema when I touch on foreign films, because as a personal preference I tend to enjoy the former more. Asian cinema feels much more like my cup of tea (Well coffee, I don’t drink tea), whereas European cinema personally has always felt to me like an uncomfortable wet rag (Sorry to the European cinema fans reading this). As for American films, I’m touching on all the important ones but will likely miss a few here and there and I’ll probably place a preference on certain favorite genres, series, actors, and directors.
Unlike in my ten-part series from before, I’m not going to just list ten films and talk about them, so much as I’m just documenting my progress and jotting down my impressions – half quickie reviews and half diary. I’d also like to make this a template for anyone who wants to follow along for films they may want to watch to get a full grasp of the biggest and most important movies through the last century plus. You could add and subtract a few movies from this series, but overall the goal would be the same in bingeing through cinematic history. But before I finally relieve you of this long read, let’s wrap it up on looking through how cinema’s early days went about so I can start the bingeing already…
Part 3: The Dawn Of Film (1894 To The 20th Century)
Now that the inventors had made motion pictures possible, the actual use of them was up for grabs. Whereas today we pack theaters (well, at least we used to) or stream films from home, movies in their early day were quick little exhibits, first as things to watch through a small toy, and then eventually with projectors. Movies were attractions, cute little things you peeked at to take a breather, much in the same way you may spend some time watching a show to cool down at the theme park. Nevertheless small entertainment aside, early filmmakers were like kids with toys, ready to experiment and advance the medium.
In 1894 Carmencita showcased the first female on screen in what was the first of many films of dancers. In 1895 a similar film, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, became the first hand-tinted color movie. In that same year, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,showed you could do special effects and transport watchers to a past time, with an acted-out beheading taking place in the short narrative. Also that same year came the first comedy in The Sprinkler Sprinkled and the first sci-fi in The Mechanical Butcher. In 1896 we got our first ever filmed kiss and arguably the first romance in The Kiss; as well as the first female-directed film and arguably the first fantasy in The Cabbage Fairy. As early as 1897, the first film with nudity and arguably the first “adult” movie, After The Ball, was shot. As you can see, the firsts of film were coming fast, and this is without mentioning small clips of Venice strolls, trips to the Eiffel tower, lifeboats, and oncoming cars or trains, that helped to create the camera techniques of moving, panning, tilting, close-ups, POVs, continuous shots, and more. Filmmakers seemed to be learning new ways to shoot movies with each passing new year.
Genres that would come to be staples for film were starting to spring up with their first evers. Small, short films premiere: the first Christmas movie, the first religious film, the first detective film, the first heist film, the first gangster film, and the like. These exhibits of short stories through moving pictures seemed to be getting a little longer as well, and suddenly more mass showings for the public had to be done to replace intimate quickie showings. In time, the movie theater would become every bit part of the movie-watching experience. Then in 1906 history was made when the first feature-length movie, The Story Of The Kelly Gang, premiered in Australia. That’s right Australia owns bragging rights for the first true movie ever made — I know, blew my mind too when I learned that through my research. However a majority of the film has been lost to time and only a snippet, fifteen minutes of footage from what I’ve found, remains. That said other movies would follow as film became something to engross yourself in for a significant period of time. From 1878 to 1906, in a little less than three decades, motion pictures had gone from a few seconds of a horse galloping for one person looking through a toy, to a narrative that could last an hour when watched by a crowd via projection.
Between 1906 and the silent movie era of the 1920s, film would keep growing as more and more of the public started to take note that such a thing existed, and once they had the experience they liked it. This would be a time that would set the stage for Hollywood’s coming dominance, for the different film industries around the world, and the canon of film that we know of today are generally regarded to have started with the roaring twenties. But before we can explore the twenties, I want to binge some of these classics that came before feature-length films became a thing. Movies that left such a mark that even at over a hundred years old and part of a different era from what we considered a full film, their images remain with us to this day — the first ever classics if you will.
In the first part of this series, I’ll be visiting a haunted castle, taking a journey to the moon, witnessing a train robbery, and getting to know an animated dinosaur. The pre-Hollywood era of film is my first stop on this ultimate binge through cinema history. We’re talking about some of the oldest classic movies in existence, which would build the foundation for the modern feature-length films.
Part 4: Extras And Notes
Thanks for sticking it out on such a long introduction; as I stated before future parts won’t be so bloated. I want to thank the website Film Site, which provided a lot of the research I used to recount the history of the earliest days of cinema in the first and third parts to this piece. The site is also a great resource for anyone interested in building their own watch list of must-see movies. I also would direct you, the reader, to this playlist of YouTube uploads of the films mentioned in the first and third part of this piece, if you want to see for yourself some of these historic mini movies, as well as others not mentioned here. Some films on that playlist could have arguably made it on as the first films I’d binge for the next part of this series, but I ultimately decided to stick with the most popular of the early films, and I can’t wait to get to write down my thoughts about those that I did choose. Until then, let’s go watch some movies…