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The Story of Film: An Odyssey — Chapter One, “The Birth of the Cinema”

This fall, Turner Classic Movies will play host to The Story of Film: An Odyssey. This fifteen-part documentary, which originally aired on British television back in 2011, is the brainchild of film critic Mark Cousins, based on his 2004 book of the same name. The documentary provides an overview of the history of cinema worldwide, and a new episode will air each Monday through December. In addition to the screening of every chapter of the documentary, TCM will present a selection of films—both feature-length and short subjects—that are either discussed during that episode or that are related to the time period covered within that segment.

Here at The Moviola, we will be covering the documentary every week, providing you with an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the first installment, “Birth of the Cinema,” which premieres tomorrow, September 2nd, at 10PM EST.

a trip to the moon

LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (1902), Georges Méliès

In presenting The Story of Film, Mark Cousins has a daunting but ambitious goal: to take the whole of world cinema and attempt to break it down into manageable chronological segments that purport to give a comprehensive history of the movies. It seems an almost impossible task. Devoting a mere sixty-five minute segment to the first twenty or so years of what we know as “cinema,” it is inevitable that important elements of the story, by necessity of time restraints alone, will be left out—notable filmmakers, brilliant works of cinematic art, innovators and trailblazers and movie magicians of varying sorts. To include them all is simply inconceivable.

While some of the exclusions (namely—at least for this animation fan—any mention of the influential artists in that particular genre) are somewhat disappointing, this first segment of The Story of Film nonetheless does an admirable job of presenting an overview of the worldwide origins of cinema while drawing parallels between those early pioneers and the work of later filmmakers. Cousins takes viewers on a visual tour of early film, from Thomas Edison’s factory in New Jersey to that of the Lumiere brothers in France, and examines how the technological marvels of the “moving pictures” provided the opportunity for filmmakers to express themselves artistically through this new medium.

Though Cousins’ narration—a soft monotone with an upward inflection, soaked in Northern Irish flavor—takes some getting used to, eventually the allure of the material wins out over any annoyance factor. The documentary intersperses clips of the first flickering film images with those from later movies, showing how the visual language of cinema was born and how it eventually evolved into the hallmarks and tropes we recognize today. As Cousins aptly points out, it’s a universal language that is wholly unique to film, one that created such intrinsic elements as flashbacks and the “cut,” which had no precedent but eventually became the indispensable building blocks of modern cinema.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), D.W. Griffith

To those unfamiliar with the origins of cinema, the documentary provides a sound overview of the early days of filmmaking. While Cousins focuses on some of the usual suspects–Georges Méliès and the special-effects craftsmanship of Le Voyage dans la lune (1902); Edwin Stanton Porter’s groundbreaking cutting efforts in Life of an American Fireman (1903); the silent epic spectacles of D.W. Griffith–he also shines the spotlight on a number of unsung pioneers of the craft. We see the light-infused beauty of Benjamin Christensen’s Danish films; the naturalism of Victor Sjöström’s films, both in Sweden and in the United States; the lyrical short films of the first female film director, French-born Alice Guy-Blaché; the inventiveness of writer/director Lois Weber. Cousins examines the work of these filmmakers through a critical lens, relating how even the most seemingly innocuous moments in any given film are actually inspiring moments of storytelling genius, utilizing cuts, camera angles, and “tricks” to transcend traditionally static theatrical presentation in favor of more dynamic movement and cohesive narrative. We tend to take such now-standard elements for granted, but watching the selected clips from these filmmakers through Cousins’ eyes, we see just how revolutionary they actually were in their own time.

The Story of Film also presents us with the origins of the Hollywood machine and the “movie star,” which made global sensations out of early actors such as the “Imp Girl,” Florence Lawrence. Cousins posits that Lawrence, the first movie star, set a “pattern” for film stardom: “hype, fame, tragedy” (after her career fizzled, Lawrence committed suicide in 1938). According to Cousins, the star system helped center films on the performances of actors as opposed to the setting, highlighting the thoughts behind actions and making psychology a “driving force” of cinema (but particularly American films, he helpfully points out).

Cousins rejects the cynical notion that the essential purpose of the movies is the pursuit of the almighty dollar. “Visual ideas, more than marketing or money, are the real things that drive cinema,” he professes here. The Story of Film goes a long way toward demonstrating the truth of this statement by demonstrating just how those “visual ideas” first came to be. And while it is far from exhaustive, it provides a solid examination of the roots of an exciting new art form. Combined with the related films that TCM will air alongside this episode (see list below), this first segment of The Story of Film presents us with a condensed film history class, allowing us to see for ourselves how the work of those innovative early filmmakers would develop into more than a century’s worth of pure, unadulterated movie magic.

The Phantom Carriage (1921), Victor Sjöström

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921), Victor Sjöström

Following is the schedule of films and shorts that will accompany this first installment of the documentary (all times are Eastern).

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 2nd

8PM: Films from Edison Studios (USA)

9:30PM: Films from the Lumière Brothers (France)

10PM: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)–Episode One

11:15PM: A Trip to the Moon (1902) (France)

11:30PM: Alice Guy-Blaché Shorts (USA):
Falling Leaves (1912), Canned Harmony (1912), A House Divided (1913)

12:30AM: The Squaw Man (1914) (USA)

2AM: The Birth of a Nation (1915) (USA)

5:15AM: Orphans of the Storm (1921) (USA)

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 3rd

8PM: Intolerance (1916) (USA)

11:30PM: Way Down East (1920) (USA)

2AM: Haxan (1922) (Sweden, Denmark)

4AM: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)–Episode One

5:15AM: The Phantom Carriage (1922) (Sweden)

7:15AM: The Wind (1928) (USA)

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