The Story of Film: Time Traveling For the Cinemad

By Jeppe Kleyngeld

It had to be done someday; making a literal odyssey through the history of cinema and documenting it into a film. The traveller is Mark Cousins. The film is a 15 hour documentary called ‘The Story of Film’. Through cinematic innovation, the story of film is told, from the silent era to the multimillion dollar digital age, covering all continents, major cinematic hallmarks and most talented people in cinema.

The Story of Film 1

The beginning
In 1885 George Eastman of Kodak came up with the idea of film on a role. Then Edison figured that if you spin the images in a box you get the illusion of movement. Lumiere went on to invent the film projector and with that: Cinema! It is not difficult to imagine the excitement of those first screenings. When cinemas started appearing everywhere, it enabled people – who did not travel back then – to see other countries. Not just places, but other worlds. Like what the position of woman was in other countries.

After the invention came the content. And despite of what many believe, it is not the money men that drive cinema. They can’t. Because what you need is the visual ideas, and a clear understanding of what is in people’s hearts. It is psychology that became the driving force of film if anything.

Cousins continues to show us the birth of basic cinema language and techniques that are now common, such as editing, the close up, tracking shots and flashbacks. The road trip then takes us further to the places and the people that brought life to this sublime art form.

1910s
In this period a lot was happening in Scandinavia. Maybe it was the Northern Light, Cousins comments. Or the sense of destiny and mortality in Scandinavian literature that made Danish and Swedish movies more graceful and honest. In 1906 the first feature film was shot in Australia: ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’. The first feature film in Hollywood was ‘The Squaw Man’ (1914). In 1911 the first movie studio was build. Another interesting thing about this period was that a lot of women were working in Hollywood writing and directing, such as Lois Weber and Alice Guy. They did not always get the credits though.

1920s
In Hollywood, cinema became big business in this period (and a men’s world as well). The 1920s saw the birth of an industry in Hollywood. But the studio system did not get in the film, according to Stanley Donen (director ‘Singing in the Rain’). There were also rebels that emerged – like Orson Welles – that tried to break the bubble. In Europe, cinema developed also. Thematically, the city was often the Big Evil. Think for example ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’. In Japan it was as if the Japanese filmmakers tried to compensate for the massacres their country caused by making very humanistic films. In 1921, the first great Japanese movie was made: ‘Souls on the Road’.

1930s
A lot of innovations were introduced in the 1930s like sound and the use of two camera’s with overhead lighting. From Hollywood came horror movies like ‘Frankenstein’ which borrowed heavily from Germany (Der Golem). And the first gangster pictures appeared, which is an original American genre. The cartoon also arrived and was a very successful new genre. Mickey Mouse was a smash hit and in 1937 came the even more successful ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. In Britain, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock started working. He understood the basic human emotion ‘fear’ like no other, and his films are still extremely influential to this day.

1940s
The war years meant less glory, and more gloomy films. In Italy we witnessed the birth of neo realism. The sensational ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ (1939) is a movie that best illustrates this style. In 1941 came ‘Citizen Kane’ – a film that is still often considered by many as one of the greatest movies of all time. It used deep staging so audiences could choose where to look. This was previously used in films like ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) and ‘Stagecoach’ (1939), which Welles said to have seen 39 times. A dark genre arrived in Hollywood, called Film Noir. These films, such as ‘Double Indemnity’ usually had characters with flaws that drove them towards their faith, even while they tried to avoid it. The decade ended as depressing as it began with a massive communist hunt in Hollywood: the studios had to fire the (alleged) lefties. This is still a major trauma in Hollywood.

1950s
In America in the fifties, we had the suburban, Christian society. But under the surface there was anger, frustration and tension. Classic films like ‘On the Waterfront’ (1954) and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955) best illustrate this. In Europe four legendary directors led the way in changing cinema. They were Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and they made films more personal and self aware than they had ever been. The era ended with the new wave to which French director Jean-Luc Godard belonged and in Italy Pier Paolo Pasolini. The later used religious music for everyday struggles. He felt consumerism was taking over.

The Story of Film 2

1960s
Sergio Leone made his first ‘spaghetti western’ (Italian made Western) and introduced deep focus, which was made possible by the Italian cinematic invention technoscope in 1960. This gives Leone’s movies an epic feel to them. Thematically, Leone was inspired by Japanese Master Akira Kurosawa (lone gunman / lone samurai). Filmmaking went global in the sixties. In Eastern Europe, directors like Roman Polanski and Milos Forman started their careers. In the Soviet Union, one of the greatest directors ever started working: Andrei Tarkovsky, who knew how to create remarkable imagery. According to Tarkovsky: ‘Imagery contains an awareness of the infinite.’ Late sixties, film schools were popping up all around the USA and a new generation was on its way.

1970s
After the realism in movies in the sixties, the seventies saw a return of old fashioned, romantic and entertaining cinema – and of the box office smash hits, think ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Jaws’. ‘The Godfather’ was the return of an old Hollywood genre: the gangster film. New kids were fighting to open up new form, most notably Martin Scorsese with ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Mean Streets’. When people think of the seventies, they think about Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and Scorsese. But there was more. In i.a. Britain and Italy, identity was a major theme. In Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (woman in closed places) and Wim Wenders (men in open spaces) had their glory years. And Werner Herzog the explorer went across the world. He was not so much interested in the feminism or Americana of his contemporaries, but in prime evil life. After John Ford, he is the most important landscape filmer in the history of film. The 70’s also saw the arrival of Asian mainstream, epic films from India (‘Sholay’) and a lot of cinematic activity in Africa.

1980s
After the magnificent seventies came the not-so-great eighties. ‘Protest’ is the central theme of this decade. The 5th generation in China – Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou – made interesting movies. From Russia came one of the greatest war movies: ‘Come and See’. In America, ‘Top Gun’ was a smash hit, and many movies were influenced by music video’s, like ‘Flashdance’. In France, filmmakers got more into popular culture, which was a protest in itself. Notable directors that moved up in the film world were David Lynch (with ‘Blue Velvet’) and David Cronenberg in Canada with ‘Videodrome’, a prophetic vision of the modern world in which the real and the televisual are dangerously confused.

1990s
Described by Cousins as the last days of celluloid, before the coming of digital. And directors like Wong Kar Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien used celluloid devotedly. The 90s saw passionate films about other worlds (‘The Matrix’), but also an obsession about reality, for example in the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami who tried to eliminate all dolly’s and clapperboards from the set. From Japan came horror movies about the fear for technology, like ‘Tetsuo’ about a man blending with metal. In Copenhagen, filmmakers returned to primitive filmmaking with Dogma, while Hollywood saw the increasing use of digital effects (‘Terminator 2’ / ‘Gladiator’ / ‘Jurassic Park’). Not only what was in the camera changed, what happened in front of the camera changed as well. Modern became post-modern: The idea that there are no new truths and everything is recycled. Tarantino made this his trade, but respected established directors, like Scorsese, used it as well.

2000s
Documentaries – like ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ – did as well as blockbusters and blockbusters tried to be like documentaries. Innovative movies were made in the USA. Like ‘Requiem For a Dream’: The great distortion movie. The subconscious got at work in ‘Mulholland Drive’. And in Thailand: ‘Tropical Malady’, a film that changes from simplistic tale of friendship to the mythical story of the hunter and the hunted. The film reincarnates like its main character. Another innovative example is ‘Russian Ark’, which consists of one 90 minute long take showing Aristocrats walking downstairs in a massive palace towards the slaughter.

And the future of cinema? Who knows. Perhaps one day we can share dreams like in ‘Inception’. One thing is for sure: Whatever form it may take, the art of cinema is here to stay and deserves to be celebrated likes this.

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Mijn Top 20 favoriete filmmakers

1. Martin Scorsese
Verantwoordelijk voor mijn favoriete film aller tijden: GoodFellas. Maar maakte talloze andere meesterwerken; Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Casino, en vele anderen. Scorsese is een echte maestro die nooit teleur stelt.
Beste film: GoodFellas

2. Sergio Leone
Leefde te kort om een enorm portfolio na te laten, maar alles wat hij gedaan heeft is te gek. The Dollars Trilogy met Eastwood zijn de coolste films ooit en Once Upon a Time in America is een geniaal gangster epos.
Beste film: Once Upon a Time in the West

3. Quentin Tarantino
Maakt originele & uber coole films die hij baseert op onbekende pareltjes. Zijn meesterwerk is nog altijd Pulp Fiction, maar Reservoir Dogs en Kill Bill zijn bijna net zo briljant. Maakt nooit iets ondermaats.
Beste film: Pulp Fiction

4. Peter Jackson
Wist de onmogelijke missie om The Lord of the Rings te verfilmen tot een onvoorstelbaar succes te maken. Was daarvoor al een geweldig regisseur die Nieuw-Zeelandse splatter horror films maakte zoals Bad Taste en Braindead.
Beste film: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

5.
The Coen Brothers
Hun oog voor bizarre personages is hyper ontwikkeld, hun humor onovertroffen en hun pen vlijmscherp. Ze maken om de twee jaar een te gekke film al zo’n 25 jaar lang, met hun hoogtepunt in de jaren 90 toen ze achtereenvolgens Fargo, The Big Lebowski en O Brother, Where Art Thou? maakte.
Beste film: Miller’s Crossing

6. Stanley Kubrick
De perfectionist. Leverde meesterwerken af die voor altijd verankerd zijn in de filmgeschiedenis. Wist uit te blinken in verschillende genres waaronder sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey), oorlog (Full Metal Jacket) en misdaad (The Killing)
Beste film: A Clockwork Orange

7. Steven Spielberg
Objectief de beste regisseur ter wereld. Weet de magie van film te pakken als geen ander. Heeft talloze klassiekers op zijn staan waaronder E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List en Jurassic Park.
Beste film: Raiders of the Lost Ark

8.
Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock weet van een kartonnen doos nog tot een super spannend voorwerp te maken. Ze noemen hem niet voor niets de Master of Suspense. Is waarschijnlijk de meest invloedrijke regisseur ooit. Talloze scènes uit zijn oeuvre staan voor altijd op mijn netvlies gebrand.
Beste film: Rear Window

9. Sam Raimi
Maakte de hoogst vermakelijke Spider Man films, maar waar hij zichzelf wat mij betreft mee onsterfelijk heeft gemaakt is de Evil Dead trilogie. Heerlijke films. Maakte met The Quick and the Dead ook een fantastische western.
Beste film: Evil Dead II

10. Francis Ford Coppola
Hey, hij regisseerde The Godfather trilogie, hoe ga ik hem niet in mijn Top 10 zetten? Was ook verantwoordelijk voor de beste oorlogsfilm aller tijden met Apocalyse Now. Fenomenaal.
Beste film: The Godfather

Daarna volgen:
11. George Lucas (Beste Film: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope)
12. James Cameron (Beste Film: Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
13. Danny Boyle (Beste Film: Trainspotting)
14. Brian De Palma (Beste Film: The Untouchables)
15. Akira Kurosawa (Beste Film: Throne of Blood)
16. Paul Verhoeven (Beste Film: RoboCop)
17. Robert Zemeckis (Beste Film: Back to the Future Part II)
18. Richard Linklater (Beste Film: Dazed and Confused)
19. Robert Rodriquez (Beste Film: Sin City)
20. Jim Jarmusch (Beste Film: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai)

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Z-Channel 3

(2004, USA)

Director: Xan Cassavetes
Features: Robert Altman, Penelope Sheeris, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, ao.

Running Time: 120 mins.

Documentary about the legendary Z Channel in Los Angeles, a pay TV channel where great cinema was shown between 1974 and 1988. Aspiring filmmaker Jerry Harvey became chief programmer of the channel and created a Walhalla for cinema lovers in that time in L.A.

Unfortunately, Harvey was mentally very unstable and in 1988 he committed suicide after killing his wife. After his death, Z Channel was finished as well when it turned into a sports channel. In this ‘legacy’ of Harvey, former friends, teachers and colleagues as well as filmmakers explain why Z Channel was such a successful and important platform for cinema at that time.

It was before VHS made its way into the living room, and people were dependent on television, besides cinema, to view movies. Harvey combined art films and commercial films in his programming which turned out to be a fantastic formula. Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch explain how much they loved Z Channel when they were growing up, and how it formed an important part of their education. Director Xan Cassavetes, the daughter of actor-director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, got hooked to Z Channel after being grounded as a child. It was the beginning of her obsession with cinema.

The channel was so popular that even market leaders HBO and Showtime couldn’t muscle it out of L.A. Z Channel had a zero turnrate which means that no subscriber ever cancelled the channel.

Z-Channel 1
Programmer Harvey wrote the screenplay for the western China 9, Liberty 37

Another one of Harvey’s triumphs was to show uncut versions of films such as The Wild Bunch, Heaven’s Gate, Once Upon a Time in America and 1900. Films that were initially trashed by critics now became very successful features. Z Channel also became a platform for European directors, like Paul Verhoeven, that found work in America thanks to the screening of their European work on the channel. Harvey and his team also organised regular film festivals with retrospectives of Kurosawa and the likes. It must have been truly magnificent.

Cassavetes shows a great collection of film fragments that give a good sense of how brilliant and revolutionary the Z Channel programming must have been. Cinema lovers will be thrilled at the idea of seeing something like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz uncut on television. It was not made to last. Like one of the interviewees says; ‘you just never know when you are living in a glorious time’. The downfall of Z Channel came together with the downfall of Harvey. An obvious loss that Cassavetes makes manifestly clear.

Z-Channel 4
Boxoffice hit The Empire Strikes Back had its television premiere on Z Channel

Review originally written for International Film Festival Rotterdam, where this documentary was screened in 2005.

See also: List of Film Fragments in Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession