Murder and mayhem! Drunkenness and lust! Wild animals run amok! Even in its infancy, the cinema knew what it did best. The Movies Begin, a five-DVD box set from Kino International, sends the viewer back a century to witness the birth of motion picture technology; in this age of increasing technical complexity in the movies, it's delightful to watch something and be able to understand how every effect was accomplished. (And startling, amid these gems, to see something you can't figure out.) Inventors on both sides of the globe were building machines, with highfalutin names like the kinetoscope and cinematographe, capable of taking thousands of photographs in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement. (Eadweard Muybridge already had figured out how to take series photographs, but his process required two dozen cameras instead of a single device.) Thanks to a novelty-hungry paying public, though, movement alone wasn't enough, and these scientist-showmen were forced (like Internet pioneers a century later) to come up with something new before the paint on their last innovation was dry. Thus, within a decade, we go from half-minute scenes of daily life, shot with an unmoving camera, to adventure tales like Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery. It's fascinating to watch cinematic grammar develop in this collection: When G.A. Smith, for instance, took a shot of a staged kiss and spliced it into footage of a train passing through a tunnel, he was inventing a way of storytelling entirely different from the theater. (Not that Smith was the only artist to use that scenario: One revelation in this set is the degree to which filmmakers ripped off one other, taking a popular film and recreating it moment for moment. Elsewhere, we see gags redone with minor variation, and the phenomenon is born by which a single modern blockbuster season offers up three films about a meteor on a collision course with the Earth.) But The Movies Begin gives appropriate weight to the shorts, photographed around 1894-1897, which made everything else possible. Coming mainly from the Edison laboratories and two French brothers named Lumiére, these scenes take a few different forms: commonplace images like a couple feeding their child; things people would pay to see in real life, such as a dancer in a long, serpentine dress, or the actor who transforms himself with different hats; tiny bits of fiction, complete with sets, as in the funny "A Chess Dispute," in which a fistfight wanders out of the frame, and stray objects thrown back into the frame convince us of increasing violence. Some subjects are less interesting than others, but together they provide a comprehensive look at the sort of images people thought worth capturing. By 1900, inventors were coming up with ways to show people things they couldn't see in the real world. Stop-motion allows an actor to be run over by a car, then spring back to life. (Legend has it that the magic of stop-motion was discovered, like so many wonderful things, by accident: A camera jammed in the middle of filming, and when the ruined footage was projected, the subject being photographed vanished into thin air.) Through superimposition, phantoms appear out of nowhere, sometimes taking forms that blend human with animal. Equally ingenious are films in which the special effects take place in the viewer's mind, like The Big Swallow, in which a subject's mouth seems to engulf the camera and the man working it. The growing understanding of the way viewers perceive motion pictures was as critical to the art form as technological innovations. (At an early screening, when the Lumiére brothers showed a short in which a train plowed toward the camera, it is said that some audience members leapt from their seats, their bodies telling them they were about to be run down.) On Disc Three, a collection of films from the Pathé Fréres firm is stunning even now. Pathé spiced up its offerings by hand-coloring their films; not merely tinting whole scenes one color, as was common in the silent era, but painting, say, a man's hat red and his boots yellow. Eventually, the filmmakers figured out how to use stencils for this excruciating task, allowing them to disseminate their fantastic tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba without a carpal tunnel epidemic destroying the workforce. When it came to spectacle, though, Georges Méliès was the man to watch. Kino devotes an entire disc to the artist, a magician who integrated camera trickery, makeup, and elaborate set design to achieve astounding cinematic feats. "A Trip to the Moon," with its famous image of a rocket poking the man in the moon's eye, is just the tip of the iceberg. (Facets Multimedia has also released a Méliès disc, with a selection that complements this one.) A fifth disc shows the art form stretching its legs, with long multi-scene tales like D.W. Griffith's The Girl and Her Trust, which uses a moving camera and intercut action to generate excitement in a way that remains fundamentally the same today. Of special interest to fans of comics and animation is Windsor McCay and His Animated Pictures, in which the celebrated cartoonist brings his Little Nemo, one of the first comic strip blockbusters, to life. Some may take issue with the way the set is composed: Each disc holds around an hour or an hour and a half of film, meaning that two discs could conceivably have held the entire program. But the breakdown on each disc makes sense: Different themes emerge for each disc and, frankly, few of us would be capable of digesting more than two hours of this material at a time. Throughout, The Movies Begin is crammed with informative bits of commentary, some in voice-over narration, some in liner notes, some in on-screen text that can be viewed between films. As befits a collection this wide-ranging (in addition to the names mentioned here, more than a dozen lesser-known artists are represented), there is the feeling that a single viewing is inadequate; that if one dug through the material in a different way, some lingering questions might be answered. Some won't; but here, for just under a hundred bucks, is an education more engaging and thorough than that which any film school introductory course could afford to give. From bandits and mermaids to workers leaving their factory, you'd be amazed at how much ground the movies covered while they were still busy being born.

The Movies Begin
5 DVDs
Kino International

More by John DeFore



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