“My invention (the motion picture camera) can be exploited… as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.” This quote from Auguste Lumiere all but sums up the different intent and suggested reception of the early cinematic experience. Candidly comparing the films we’ve been looking at to the pictures of today simply manifests how how dissimilar these silent showcases are to us as a modern day audience. Studying the evolution of film and film style between the 1890s and 1910s over the past two weeks has proven to be a strenuous yet equally interesting task. We have been exploring the roots of cinema through the first films and their early transition from “scientific curiosity” to art, narrative and entertainment on a gradually growing commercial scale.
Possibly one of the most difficult challenges, initially was viewing films with either little or no narrative as we are so used to the modern feature film being heavily reliant on the story. The acting style is also very unfamiliar. The exaggerated gestures and movements seem so stylised and almost absurd when compared to the majority of 21st century performance styles. The lack of synchronised sound can be unsettling and rarely reflects the atmosphere or plot in later silent films, another factor that we have had to grow accustomed too. We have had to alter the way we think about film in order to view early cinema and appreciate the other aspects that goes into the production of the films, not just the one we are most familiar with.
Admittedly, we, as a collective were ignorant on earlier films. Being from a contemporary audience, we have been conditioned to be far more familiar with speech driven narratives, contrary to the means of storytelling found in the 1890 – 1910s period. Modern film fans have become so engrossed in captivating dialogue that innovative screenplay writers such as Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin have managed to earn near legendary status within the cinematic world. Thus, we sceptically approached these films, unjustly forming premature judgments before we were truly aware of their potential. However, the absence of sound, rather than restricting these films, actually provided us with a whole new perspective on how to tell stories. More often than not, acting in these films was extremely exaggerated in a charming manner. Actions tended to be wonderfully eccentric with actors often inviting the audience to take part, breaking the fourth wall in many of the more light-hearted stories. This form of storytelling is not merely warm, but also engaging in a different vein to modern cinema. Where today, we become invested in individual characters or groups, older films rely far less on characterisation and as a result we care primarily on the singular story. We found this to be a breath of fresh air as it allowed for simpler viewing. The short, playful stories in a way, seem more akin to internet videos found on sites such as YouTube, instead of the committed type of viewing which modern movies or TV series require. Thereby, making films from this period not as foreign to us as we first imagined but are to be acknowledged as alluring pieces of entertainment which stand strong next to their contemporary counterparts.
To ensure that we get the most out of studying this kind of cinema, we might try to focus on specific elements at one time, rather than attempting to understand the film as a whole immediately. Repetition is an easy technique that allows us to watch the film multiple times, concentrating on a different cinematic component each time. For example, watching primarily for the plot and general atmosphere of the film, and then paying close attention to the angles and movements of the camera when watching again. This enables us to study every feature closely, comparing and analysing each film. Reading critical and analytical explorations of the films will also broaden our knowledge and understanding, as well as guiding us towards interesting things to look out for. This will also help confirm any question regarding plot, as we have found it is sometimes difficult to follow the narrative accurately.