Orphans of the Storm – DW Griffith (1921)

There’s a tornado of misinformation twirling within America, but that’s okay because America’s twirling towards freedom.

Kang

Here are some self-claimed facts by director DW Griffith –

  • the discoverer of narrative film.
  • an introducer of the feature.
  • and inventorer of close-ups and other film techniques.

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Intrigued, I decided to brush up on Griffiths most notable and influential films and found his reputation is in fact legendary*

lochness

legendary* should be read as myth.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) was inventive, daring and very uncomfortable.

birth_of_nation

Mostly because I was removed from a screening by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People while dressed as a clansman.

NAACP don’t do Cosplay.

Intolerance (1916) was ambitious but mostly intimidating.

“Bow before me you shits!”  - Griffith on Hollywood.

“Bow before me you shits!”
– Griffith on Hollywood.

Broken Blossoms (1919) promised to be fun for everyone*

everyone* should be read as white people.

My roommate Cheng, who I made up for this article, heard the story centered on his Buddhist traditions decided to join me in setting up the projector. We made a pot of green tea and let the opening credits roll …

“Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.”

I guess the original title, “The Chink and the Child” would have been in bad taste.

Cheng walked out “0” minutes into the 90 minute feature. Not because he was Chinese and very offended, but because he was Chinese and had a lot of opium to smoke that night in his den.

Destructive stereotypes shouldn’t be a directors style.

Destructive stereotypes shouldn’t be a directors style.

Mr. Griffith had his problems which makes it easy to throw stones.

Also, focusing on the shortcomings of those who achieve great things has always been a cultural phenomenon.

Some don’t agree with Tom Cruise’s personal beliefs so avoid his movies.

That’s not cool because his a badass actor.

That’s not cool because his a brilliant actor.

Mel Gibson is fucking insane.

He also tells the heck out a story.

He’s also an amazing storyteller.

My point is, you don’t have to agree with someone’s personal views to recognize their contribution to the game.

The marathon ended with Orphans of the Storm (1921) and like his other work clearly showed DW’s fluency in a cinematic language he helped develop.

Long time collaborator Lilian Gish.

Long time collaborator Lillian Gish.

Griffith might not have invented the things he claimed, but his contribution to the medium can never be denied.

His films should be watched and studied by today’s filmmakers in their duty of creating more expressive and challenging cinema.

DW and gang

Griffith fiercely believed in the friends he worked with and his genius was described as an ability to recognize the potential in others. His long time cameraman Billy Bitzer, said that whenever he judged a particular shot impossible, Griffith who stood by his side would say, “That’s why you have to do it man.”

That’s badass.

DW Griffith (1875 – 1948) - Motivator, Collaborator and Filmmaker

DW Griffith (1875 – 1948) – Motivator, Collaborator and Filmmaker

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The Phantom Carriage – Victor Sjöström (1921)

A “film for filmmakers”, The Phantom Carriage has strong cultural influence for its fresh style, ambitious narrative and eerie atmosphere. It’s innovations were considered radical at the time which resulted in a very spooked audience.

PhantomCarriage

Check out these reactions from a test screening.

“Oh, snap yo! Death be taking names son!!”

“Oh, snap yo! Death be taking names son!!”

That’s how Swedish adolescents spoke in the 1920’s.

Director Victor Sjöström (pronounced ??) used creative special effects to dream up a nightmarish spiritual world.

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He also played the condemned David Holmes.

However, these effects were made special by the weight of an ambitious story.

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Based on the novel by Selma Lagerlöf (pronounced ??) this morality-tale aims to bring to light the destructive ills of a dark time.

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Primarily alcoholism, and the devastating effect it has on the family unit and the human soul.

Secondarararily, the spread of infectious bacteria. In name, Tuberculosis.

“Germs are not for sharing” - The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.

Germs are not for sharing.

The Phantom Carriage also held a deep influence among many prolific filmmakers.

In a scene, paid homage to by Stanley Kubrick, a father violently tears down a door standing between himself and his cowering family.

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And the trophy mug for axe wielding lunatic goes to….

David Holmes versus Jack Torrance for “Worlds Greatest Dad” mug.

David Holmes versus Jack Torrance. Who would win?

Also concerning influence, fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman credits the The Phantom Carriage as his inspiration for film-making.

We all need a mentor.

We all need mentors – Bergman and Sjöström.

Bergman had seen Phantom at a young age and described the event as a profound moment in his life –

“I was deeply shaken by that film. Not that I understood it or anything. Rather I was struck by its enormous cinematic power. It was an entirely emotional experience.”

Awesome.

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Experiencing something emotionally, rather than understanding it intellectually is an interesting statement.

Why do we tend to overdose on analysis? One reason suggests it’s the safer option, as emotion can’t be confined to a lecture room or neatly defined within a textbook. Emotion can however, be uncomfortable, threatening and plain ol’ ugly at times.

And remember children…

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There’s no surprise that it’s so actively suppressed within our culture. It’s unmanly to show grief, unladylike to be seen as promiscuous and inhuman to express anger. All basic emotions, all dangerous enough to get you medicated.

Sorry Pink Floyd but there is no comfort in being numb.

Sorry Pink Floyd fans but there is no comfort in being numb.

Like Terrence McKenna said…

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So when art, like a crowbar, tears the roof off the sucker to reveal our animal souls we don’t dare look inside. We attempt to hide behind the wall of our analytical mind…

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but their are those who gaze.

Most of us want to experience life at a safe distance. We want to live vicariously through books, music and cinema. When the curtains pull back and the lights go out, the movie theater can be a healing place. An audience is allowed emotional ventilation without judgment.

No doubt the culture needs fresh ways of thinking but until we progress…

I’m thankful for our therapy in the dark.

Victor Sjöström (1879-1960) -  Counselor, Teacher, Filmmaker

Victor Sjöström (1879-1960) –
Counselor, Teacher, Filmmaker.

Within Our Gates – Oscar Micheaux (1920).

Cinema can be a powerful tool.

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It can uplift broken communities as seen in the race-films of the 1920’s, or be used to dehumanize the powerless so callously and artistically expressed in DW Griffith’s epic

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Unlike Birth and others like it, there were no destructive stereotypes portrayed by white actors in black-face seen in the silent feature Within Our Gates.

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Rather, the director Oscar Micheaux (pronounced Me-Show), employed influential black artists of the time who crafted scenes of honesty, dignity and affection.

Blues singer Evelyn Preer in her breakthrough acting role.

Blues singer Evelyn Preer.

Emerging within motion pictures we’re stories about African-Americans seen through the lens of black filmmakers.

OM

Oscar Micheaux used the screen to show his audience a greater world.

By creating intelligent and independent lead roles for women and men, he served to end the hideous caricatures rife within America.

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Many artists stood as great advocates for the abolishment of ignorance.

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Micheaux’s writing explored characters who broke free from destructive chains of oppression through hard work, perseverance and education.

Paul Robson - singer, sportsman and civil rights activist in his debut performance.

Paul Robson – singer, sportsman, actor and civil rights activist.

Although under-financed the integrity of his films were never compromised. As a director he rarely attempted to boast scenes of technical hoorah because that’s not the point of social commentary.

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This is an inspiring example of story being used with compassion to critique negative behavior and drive forth positive change.

I don’t pretend to understand the discouragement a young Oscar faced while trying to be heard as an ambitious filmmaker, but I believe he was driven by an unflinching belief in the potential of cinema.

The lesson Oscar Micheaux and artists like him leave behind is this –

Your voice is important.

If the movies being made don’t reflect what you love about cinema, pick up a camera and be the change you want to see in the world.

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) –  Warrior, Entrepreneur and Filmmaker

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) –
Activist, Entrepreneur and Filmmaker.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Robert Wiene (1919)

There’s a lot to love about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – murder and torture and ghouls, oh my! But what’s staggering about this silent classic is how well it’s art-design drives forth the twisted narrative.

Horror, awakens!

Horror, awakens!

So what seethed under the cultures skin that inspired the visual mayhem of German director Robert Wiene?

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Well, it’s all in the schokolade… I mean context!

UterSimpsons

Yes, the sweet, sweet cultural context.

There was a time when conservative art simply served as a mirror to beautiful people.  

Georges Seurat -  Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte.

Georges Seurat anyone?

Scenes often boasted the benign amusements of aristocracy that most folk found profoundly uninspiring.

Homely woman on coach.

Homely woman on coach.

A dudes dong.

A dudes dong.

This resulted in a collective “fuck you” from artists whose reaction was most apparent in the early twentieth-century.

The youth screamed for new noise and with the cultural impact of a crashing vorschlaghammer gave way to the “ism”.

Surrealism.

Surrealism.

Dadaism

Dadaism

...schism?

…schism?

One such movement sought to portray emotions rather than imitate physical reality and became known as Expressionism.

The Widow -  Kathe Kollwitz

The Widow – Kathe Kollwitz

Although crude, expressionism used extreme distortion to underline an emotional experience.

This was a reaction to the dehumanizing effect of war, industrialization and the cancerous growth of cities.

Die Brücke -  Fritz Bleyl (1905)

Die BrückeFritz Bleyl (1905)

The stories of Expressionist Films often dealt with themes of betrayal, alienation and madness.

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (1919)

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (1919)

The deranged architecture, perverted landscapes and darkened characters orchestrated by Hermann Warm and Hans Janowitz speak of the world but more so the protagonists afflicted mind.

krauss

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an amazing example of powerful cinema executed with furious style and originality.

A lesson to modern filmmakers in seeking inspiration from art movement of their time rather than serving the interest of box office success or trends in contemporary movies.

For their daring vision, experimentation and exploration of storytelling we say Danke Schön!

Robert Wiene (1873-1938) -   Modernist, Expressionist, Filmmaker

Robert Wiene (1873-1938) –
Collaborator, Expressionist, Filmmaker.

Les Vampires – Louis Feauillade (1915)

anarchyred

Lawlessness had been a genuine threat to the Bourgeoisie whose anxiety and paranoia of the early 1900’s was made very real due to individual anarchism.

Agents of chaos.

Jules Bonnot among comrades.

Feuillade (pronounced Foo-Yaad), perhaps inspired by the balls to the wall escapades of one such anarchistic group, the so called Bonnot Gang, wrote Les Vampires in the style of popular pulp magazines.

Unlike the short-lived capers the French filmmakers run-and-gun career spanned over 20 years having directed around 700 films. There’s no typo, that “seven” was followed by two freaking digits!

The film series would be his best known work. A 10 part crime-thriller clocking over a whopping 6 hours, exploits much of the fears at the time and isn’t at all about lesbian vampires.

xena-2
No lesbians.

blade-2
No vampires.

Les Vampires is in fact about a crime syndicate that deal in; abduction, murder, beheading and the supernatural – so clear the schedule and grab some cheesy nachos!

"Who? What? When? Where…?"

“Who? What? When? Where…?”

The series begins with an investigative report on a criminal secret society.

Philipe Guérande-2
Philipe is the crack reporter.

Oscar-Cloud Mazamette-2
Mazamette brings the funny as his side-kick.

While the crime-solving duo hold their own through death defying shenanigans it’s Irma Vep’s performance that leaves an imprint.

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She’s charismatic and hypnotic but mostly just fucking weird to watch in the most awesome way.

Irma giving French audiences a boner.

Each episode has the viewer craving her next appearance. Only because it meant some poor so and so was getting shot, stabbed or strangled by her murderous lunacy.

I’d like to think these were the movies a young Agatha Christie would get finger-blasted to on date night.

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The 1920’s saw a changing woman in a world between wars. The actor Musidora embodied this female uprising in Irma’s dark sexuality, serpentine danger and “dance till you drop” attitude”.

anagram

Some douche discovers it’s an anagram.

I’d imagine Feauillade would stop this analysis here saying this isn’t an exploration of the femme fatale – this is entertainment.

He’d be right.

By genre the thriller seeks a visceral response from an audience; anticipation, surprise and terror are its measures of triumph. The analytical mind just gets in the way.

Les Vampires turns Paris into a labyrinth of trap doors, secret hallways and masked bandits all serving to electrify the viewer. There’s no room for over-thinking which resonates in Louis statement, “A film is not a sermon nor a conference, even less a rebus, but a means to entertain the eyes and the spirit.”

And to that, we your fans say touché you brilliant French bastard.

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Louis Feauillade (1873-1925) Poet, Pioneer and Film-maker.

The Great Train Robbery – Edwin S. Porter (1903).

Rootin’, tootin’ and a whole lotta shooting!

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Rarely does a modern audience consider a film in the context of its time, and so even the most innovative triumphs are lost on a generation that’s so hard to please.

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Let’s compare two reviews  –

“…absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made”
Thomas Edison, Edison Company 1905.

“BORING!!1 The gayer prequel to brokeback mountain.”
– ArseRaptor, Youtube commenter 2012.

In fairness to ArseRaptor, Edison’s appraisal might be biased as the film was developed by his own company. The point is, to fully appreciate these “moving pictures” we need to place ourselves in the nickelodeons of the time.

Price of admission - a nickel.

Price of admission – a nickel.

An audience from the turn of the century were accustomed to scenes from actual life.

Étienne-Jules Marey
Étienne-Jules Marey – Flight.

muybridge2
Eadweard Muybridge – Man with pickaxe.

These are examples of photographic motion that served only to capture scenes from real life.

For films like The Great Train Robbery, two things that have never been considered had to come into play – narrative and fiction.

Edwin S. Porter achieved this by inventing the tools of his trade which led to groundbreaking techniques; –

  • Multiple scenes
  • Edits
  • Several locations
  • Simultaneous action
  • Subplots
  • and contradicting points of view.

For Little Johnny Appleseed’s efforts in saving a nickel, this would’ve been like getting hit in the head with a brick.

The_Great_Train_Robbery_0018

GTR’s climactic chase scene.

Porter’s style would have been considered radical film making at the time, but his technical advances served the narrative.

Differences between story and narrative can be discussed to no end but it boils down to;

Story = an event

Web

A simple pixelated enemy.

Narrative = a collection of related events.

Space_Invaders_Wallpaper_XD_by_xTAMAGOTCHI

A force to be reckoned with!!

The Great Train Robbery saw the emergence of a collection of related events –

  • Bandits force a Telegraph Operator to make a trains unscheduled stop.
  • Masked men board train.
  • They kill a man onboard and open the safe.
  • The train’s stopped and passengers robbed.
  • Bandits mount horses and escape.
  • Meanwhile, the Telegraph Operator calls for assistance.
  • The message arrives at a saloon and everyone grabs their rifles.
  • The bandits are chased.
  • There’s a shoot out and the guilty killed.

A neat and tidy 14 shots.

Compare this to the arrival of a train by the Lumiere Brothers which screened a few years earlier. The Great Train Robbery demonstrated with astounding technical ability the potential of cinematic narrative-telling.

Edwin S. Porter was a game changer.

Look into his moustache and bask in its stoic wisdom.

edwin-s-porter

Edwin Stanton Porter (1870-1941) – Experimenter, Innovator and Filmmaker.

A Trip to the Moon – Georges Méliès (1902).

A fantastic beginnings.

Our voyage through cinema opens with alchemical symbols and magic orchestrated by the wonderful wizardry of Méliès.

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It’s staggering how story told over a century ago, can still be so god-damn exciting through sheer imaginative innovation. From high-concept narrative, audacious costume and adventurous set-design this journey sets an inspiring example for cinematic storytelling.

Loosely based on two separate novels by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne the short film runs a cool 15 minutes and is considered the first important work of science fiction.

Méliès was able to craft engaging visuals through invention, collaboration and intense passion. The audience can feel his creative energy burn behind each orchestrated shot – something we only see in a handful of today’s filmmakers.

This daring tale also introduces an early example of pataphor.

Padawan?

20070922160736!AniPadawan

This is a Padawan.


No, pataphore.

Let’s explain.

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Okay, remember the iconic scene where the rocket crashes into the moons face?

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Cut to, a safe landing on a faceless moonscape.

Hmm, two scenes suggesting an inconsistent reality?

If presumed intentional and not gross error in continuity this raises the glaring question – pourquoi?

Enter mind of French surrealist Alfred Jarry, who suggests this irregularity was in fact an ancient storytellers tool allowing visual extensions of metaphor and consequently coined the term “pataphysics”.

So, two scenes creating an incongruent reality is considered a “pataphysical concept.”

I love the brain tickling of pseudo-philosophy as much as the next dude, but when the credits roll at the end of A Trip to the Moon what you take home is a rekindled love for early cinema.

If these words could reach that great theater in the sky I would raise a heart full of thanks to George Méliès and for the magic he left behind.

Georges Méliès (1861-1938) –
Illusionist, Dreamer and Filmmaker.