Tag Archives: Silent Film

Tripping 1902 Style: “A Trip to the Moon”

So, internet, at YouTube’s behest, I watched “A Trip to the Moon.” It’s another French one, which may explain a certain amount of the trippiness of this 12-minute film. Trippiness is apparently a long, proud tradition of the French.

This film, directed by Georges Melies, begins with a meeting a astronomers. They’re planning a trip to the moon while all dressed as the wizard from “Fantasia.” Seriously, I kinda thought they were meant to be wizards. Apparently, they all have names, but this is not ever made clear to the audience. Melies is quite well known for his use of special effects, which can be seen in the opening, as telescopes were replaced with stools for the sit-down part of their talks.

Anyway, they decide on a plan and that plan is to shoot themselves to the moon in a hollow bullet, which is fired through an inverted telescope-looking gun with the help of hot chicks in booty shorts. There are a few things of note in this scene. Firstly, it’s really interesting, since they’re kind of standing on a platform directly above these little houses. It doesn’t succeed in quite creating the proper dimensions for depth, which I believe is intentional. It gives the scene a nice, surreal edge from the get-go. Secondly, the astronomers are wearing vaguely anachronistic clothing. They have the capri pants/knee-high socks look that you associate with the 18th century. Lastly, the hot chicks in sleeveless tops and booty shorts do not shave their underarms. This shouldn’t be surprising, since modern shaving is the product of a slightly later time, but it still briefly blew my mind.

Once they land on the moon, whose face is an actual human face as they approach, the astronomers are met with a landscape of rocky mountains. They decide that what they need to do immediately upon reaching to moon is to go nigh-nigh. This scene is probably the most interesting in the film. They do some kind of time lapse effect while the men are meant to be sleeping. Apparently, the director of this is quite famous for his early use of things like this and it’s quite interesting to watch.

Our heroes then fall into some kind of jungle with giant mushrooms and meet the moon natives. These creatures apparently become clouds of smoke if you hit them real hard, so that’s what the astronomers do. They’re actually taken to and kill the king (queen? president? Who knows!) of these moon creatures. Apparently, this is meant to be a satire of imperialism. As someone who’s spend her life steeped in movies about vicious aliens, I definitely didn’t get this. This satirical theme is continued as they leave the moon (accomplished by one of the dudes jumping on a rope and pulling the bullet vessel off a cliff, which causes it to fall to Earth). One of the aliens grabs onto the vessel. Once they get to Earth, they beat him up and then have a parade. Again, watching it the first time with no prior knowledge, I didn’t pick up on this. But I can kind of see that.

While watching this film, I was simultaneously bemused and amused. I clearly didn’t properly get it, since I spent most of the time wondering how much of what was in it was considered plausible in 1902 (answer: not a lot) rather than looking for social commentary. This one was noticeably better than the horror film I reviewed a few months back. I think this shows not only the strides that film was making at the turn of the last century, but also what you can do when the director is an actual illusionist. Certain effects, like the telescopes becoming stools as I mentioned earlier, were a bit clunkier than those that were closer to traditional illusions, like people disappearing in smoke and whatnot.

I would definitely recommend this one. It has an actual plot and is just really trippy and interesting. Go watch it. It’ll be 12 minutes well-spent.

The Horror!: “The Devil’s Castle”

This time, a movie with plot! I mean, sort of. This film, officially titled “Le Manoir du Diable,” is known as the world’s first horror movie. Despite this, it has a very light tone and is more funny than scary. Unlike the previous two films I have posted, which were films of moments of daily life, this is a fictional film. As such, it has something of a narrative element to it. Not a major narrative element. But there’s something more there. I don’t really have a thesis with this one, so I’m just gonna go through the film and highlight what I found fun or interesting.

In the beginning, a bat turns into a human. I assumed that this would be some sort of vampire. But then! He starts to doing magic. So, either he is a vampire-wizard or just a wizard. So perhaps they had different feelings about what creature could transform into bats. He immediately starts making things appear. I’m not sure if he uses a wand to do this or just his hands. I think he draws something on the ground with a sword. Anyway, to the main point, they really like the appearing effect in this one. The first 40% is the wizard dude making things or, more commonly, people appear. I’m not entirely sure what all of these are meant to be. The first one is a hunched-over guy, who might be meant to be a human with a hunchback or maybe some kind of goblin. Then wizard dude pulls a hot chick out of a cauldron.

Then! Plot twist! Two guys walk in! They appear to be some sort of guards, maybe? Anyway, a goblin/devil thing appears and starts poking them in the butt. Good to know poking people on their behinds for comedy’s sake has a long legacy. After the shorter one leaves, the taller one, who’s definitely the hot one, what with his fancy hat and better facial hair, remains. He keeps trying to pick up and/or sit on a bench. He’s weirdly undeterred by the fact that it keeps disappearing. He sits down next to a skeleton that he tries to kill(?) with a sword. Then it turns into a bat because it’s secretly the wizard! They have some sort of showdown. Which somehow involves the hot chick coming back and the hot dude immediately tries to romance her. Because that’s what happens. But! She’s really a witch, as signified by a light-colored cloak/sheet appearing on her. Then more witches come.

These witches seem to signal some kind of final phase of the battle. The witches keep doing swirly things. The shorter dude makes an appearance for a few seconds, then seems to disappear again. The witches descend on the taller guy. He then somehow gets out and then the witches disappear. The hero thinks it’s over, but no! It’s the return of wizard dude! The hero retreats and grabs a cross, which must have been hanging on a wall in that room, and vanquishes the wizard.

Overall, I find this one quite fun. It’s a bit confusing, since I’m not really sure what’s going on all the time. But it’s clear that there’s a dude and he fights a wizard. I like this film’s obsession with things appearing and disappearing. It’s a good use of the medium, as it was at the time. You can’t have things just appear and re-appear on another side of the room in a theater without some very careful staging and lots of trap doors. But it’s really easy to do in film. In this 1896 film, it’s really abrupt, but it’s good for its day.

Clips of Life: The Lumiere Brothers’ First Ten

Sorry, internet. I got distracted yesterday baking cupcakes and completely forgot. Apologies.

The first commercial films were created by two brothers in France in the 1890’s. Auguste and Louis Lumière were the sons of a photographer. Louis began his career developing a commercial grade of film. Once he had the technique, he opened a factory producing these plates. He and his brother would later be inspired by his father’s visit to showing of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope to work on combining this animation with film. After patenting their successful combination in 1895, they began working on their first run of films. Their film “La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière” (“Workers Leaving to Lumière Factory”) is considered to have been the earliest motion picture.

In this year, the brothers made a run of ten films. These documented aspects of daily life in France. What I find interesting is the focus on people leaving things. They have two films of workers leaving their factory and another one of some people leaving a boat. My initial reaction was that it was a strange preoccupation of the brothers, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if what we’re seeing is a the establishment of something important to the film industry. I once took a class on anime in college. One of the things we discussed was the difference in the type of motion that is characteristic of each medium. While anime is characterized by sliding motions, due to the nature of the layers of drawings moving against one another, film’s niche is really ballistic motion. With film, you can capture something as it moves towards you. You get a bit of this in most of the films seen here.

(Also, as a fun fact, the train film they did in the link below is the first movie to have played in the Ottoman Empire, according to some source I used on a project last year that I don’t remember.)

I also like these because they show simple moments of people’s lives. It cut through our notions of what the past was like and shows us moments of people’s lives as seen by at least two of their contemporaries. I find this most interesting when it comes to gender roles. A lot of people assume that women didn’t work prior to the last several decades. The films of workers leaving a factory show quite clearly that the majority of employees were female. We also see a couple feeding their baby. The husband is at least involved in this activity as the wife, who is drinking tea. Also, this video shows that graham crackers were a thing in the late nineteenth century. I knew this intellectually, but I still found it shocking when I actually saw it. The fact that these moments are just so mundane is something I find comforting. It’s good to remember that people in the past had lives that contained these very simple, familiar moments.


A Whirl of Invention: “Roundhay Garden Scene”

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by emergent media. I’ve been drawn to film recently. This is probably due to the fact that my classmate and I decided to do our final Turkish project on film and film translation and I ended up with the section on the history of Turkish cinema (long story short, it rose, became super prolific, then it was the 90’s and it was not a priority. It’s getting better now). I’ve decided to dedicate a sizable portion of my contribution to the reboot of The Potted Lid to watching copious amounts of silent film and commenting on them. I will warn everyone now: I am not a film studies student or anything close. I am simply an enthusiastic amateur who may not always have the time to research each of the films I watch. My opinions may not be super well-informed. That being said, if someone out there has more expertise, please feel free to comment and correct my ramblings. And if you have no expertise in this subject, please comment anyway and we’ll ramble together.

Let’s start at the beginning, then. The earliest bit of film I could find is “Roundhay Garden Scene.” It’s just over 2 seconds long and can be found Roundhay Garden Scene.

What I find most interesting about this is where the black spaces are. By my understanding, the black bars that appear at the top and right of this scene are imperfections on the individual frames. I understand, then, how the one at the top happens, but I find how consistent the one on the right is to be confusing. I have a feeling this is a very basic thing in film, which seems to mean that I can’t figure out why certain imperfections last over the course of multiple frame or why this one seems to move upward. It could be part of how film was developed, which I also know little about.

Outside of my lack of understanding this aspect of film, I’m fascinated by the way each person has chosen to move. The man in the foreground looks like he’s just exaggerating a regular walk, but everyone else seems to have committed to odd forms of movement. The woman in the light colored dress moves backwards before turning her back on the camera, while the man in the background starts with his back to us , then turns forward. His coats are flying pretty impressively for walking around a garden. I still haven’t been able to figure out if the woman in black is just turning along with the second man, with her acting as the pivot of the turn, or if she’s just swaying back and forth and then starting to spin in the last fraction of a second. The men seem to have exaggerated their movements more, but everyone’s clearly doing something that should be a noticeable movement on the film.

Even though this is incredibly short, I’ve grown quite fond of it. According to the Wikipedia article on this clip, the individuals in the film are the cinematographer’s son, the former’s friend (the woman in the light dress), and his in-laws. I find that there’s something very human about the awkwardness of it. It seems like the natural result of your dad/friend/son-in-law saying “hey, I’m gonna try out this new thing, everyone move around!” I like how it gives you a small glimpse of the tiniest of moments between a few people playing with the hip new technology.