More than 100 years ago, Hollywood films were black and white, short films and silent. The idea of a feature-length movie, 3D film and colour and sound all came into films in a very short period in or around 1920. However, Technical challenges meant some ideas were only adapted later, when the technology was really available.
So the time line looks like this. The first feature-length film was in 1906, an australian invention, as population density and distribution issues meant that shipping shorts around such a large are was a challenge, so why not charge more for a longer film? However shorts were the mainstream form until the 1920’s, when feature films became more prolific than shorts in Hollywood production. 3D was invented in 1915, but really only became technically possible in the 1950’s and beyond, and its only the last ten or twenty years when this form really looks mainstream.Indeed, Audiences seem to move away from this film, and it seems increasingly aimed at the cartoon marked. Pixar released Cars 2 was in 3D but Planes, effectively a Pixar release under the Disney flag wasn’t.So is this the end for 3D? perhaps the end of this cycle.
Sound came in 1921 also, but didn’t really take off until 1927. Look at Harold Lloyd, who made 600 silent films, but only a handful of talkies.Colour film was also available early on, but again, cost and technical issues meant it was rare and really only became mainstream in the late 1930’s
- Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and The Marx Brothers were all early stars , often coming from acting or theatrical families and backgrounds. Many of these names are forgotten now, perhaps Chaplin and Keaton live on in people’s memories, but the others, even though they were big stars in their day, are long forgotten now. Few of these stars won Oscars, as the Oscars only started in 1929, but there films really influenced the art form and arguably continue to do so. Indeed Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton as well as Charlie Chaplin all made millions from film, Harold Lloyd made over 15 million dollars. (compared to Chaplin’s 10 million dollars or so)
The Art form develops
We can see the at form develop, and the authorities trying to control it. In the beginning, slapstick was prevalent, with pratfalls and slips,then the Keystone Kops introduced the idea of ridiculing authority in the period just before WWI. Chaplin and Keaton challenged authority, Keaton with ‘The General’ and Chaplin with ‘Modern Times ‘ and ‘The Dictator’. Harold Lloyd continued in his slapstick daredevil theme, probably running out of steam, or the public changing its habits/expectations and of course talking pictures came in and ended many careers. In 1920, 70% of the adult population in the USA went to the cinema every week, today it’s about 10%.Indeed until the late 40’s, and early 50’s no one really had a TV and the only way to get news was through the radio, or news reels at the cinema. TV ownership took off in the 60’s and 70’s, and Cinema audiences dropped to an all time low in the 1980’s. However, since then cinema audience have been growing, with the growth of block buster films and special effects.
Silent films may well be laughed at due to their camp overacting but look at the timing and stunts and consider the technology; Chaplin was really good at timing. You can see this in his very first film, with the soap box cars, he gets his hat off the race track; This looks incredibly dangerous, but is probably the result of planning and calculation; a gag, done off the cuff http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQNK6ag4kSQ
Did TV take over from cinema, well yes and no. Certain forms, like the short and the news reel have become either an art form or extinct.Newsreels died out in the 50’s and by the 60’s were dead. Indeed JFK’s death was probably the first big event on TV but not newsreel. Which magnifies its intimacy.
Films seem to have got longer and longer, the short evolved to become an hour ,60 minutes became 90 minutes became Longer still; as early as 1914, 8 hr films were being made and released in mainstream, all be it as a test of the audience. The longest film now is a whopping 15 hrs.
Hollywood invented ways to control the audience and censors , and of course the FBI and McCarthy made sure certain acts and writers were not seen or used. America descended into a paranoia . Many countries established boards to give films certificates and codes of conduct.However, filmmakers did perhaps seek to shock the public or to tantalize with swearing, nudity and other lowest common denominator tactics. The audience loves a shock, but not too much. Hitchcock understood that as well as anyone. In Physcho, nudity is minimal, violence is almost suggested rather than visualised and graphic. You don’t see the knife go into the body, just the blood running down the plughole. The corpse is wrapped in the shower curtain. You don’t see the naked body. But the audience was/is petrified. Filmmakers then thought(or still think) that if we showed audiences the grisly details, and the graphic images, the film would be somehow better. It becomes like the Black Knight in Python’s Film, almost stupid and funny. In the end, film has to be more than a recording of events, but also leave some interpretation for the audience.
The best films were made before 1950? Well a lot of those on the best 100 lists or top ten films do seem to be from the “Golden Age’ of Hollywood, and we could cite Citizen Kane or The General. The list here http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time probably has cinema greats from many eras, and probably forgets many films. Anyway, we must remember that The Film Foundation estimates half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever. The Film Foundation supports “hands-on” preservation and restoration to ensure that these films – these works of art, historical records, and essential representations of our culture – will survive for future generations. Imagine if this was painting, or even theatre! Consider Shakespeare, with one lost play to whet our appetite.
But of course excellent films are still made, and these lists will look silly in 100 years time.
Perhaps new ideas involving multiple sensory experiences will become mainstream. I recently went to a theatre to see the story of a rain drop, animated, in 3D and had fog squirted in my face and a vibrating chair, as well as the use of smells and odours to heighten the experience. Here the objective seems to be to try to touch all the senses, sight, sound, touch, taste and hearing. Will we see a cinema designed for mainstream use like this?. Will the short continue its journey towards art,becoming more and more progressive and perhaps even pretentious? Every 70 years or so, the public seems to change . Its 70 years since the end of WW2, and society has radically changed, and many mainstream forms of communication have become democratized. Newspapers , the stalwart of my parents generation won’t be as widespread for my children’s or grandchildren’s generation. YouTube and Daily motion mean that with simple software, which is often free to download or included in software packages or even pre-installed on home computers , films and film making are open to all. Social networks will evolve and of course be used and abused.
Perhaps we will see films which change according to the audience expectation. So if the audience expects X to marry/kill or whatever Y, the story could evolve so that this happens, or to give an anticlimax so that it doesn’t. The chair of the theatre could monitor heartbeat or even brain activity, or perhaps the audience could just vote and the film could be released with 5 endings, so you could decide which you preferred. Of course, the best film lets the audience decide for themselves on the way home!
If we look also at film making today, only last week a group of youngsters got arrested in Iran for making a “Happy” video of the Farrel Williams song and posting it on YouTube. So governments still see film and music as a dangerous tool for the population and seek to control using propaganda and chewing gum distraction films.Look at the problems Michael Moore has had, or other ‘parallel’ film makers like you’d see at the Sundance Festival . Indeed one could argue that a lot of Hollywood films was/is the Russians loosing, or the Native Indians loosing, or someone (generally a baddies) loosing, and the good ,generally white,all American guy winning. The story of competition rather than cooperation.
Early American film was very masculine, and I think it really continues t be so, with really very few global female stars.
The death of Hollywood? The death of America? The death of Film?
India makes more films than Hollywood, and has done so for nearly 40 years. Although Hollywood produces only a fraction of the number of films made all over the world, it garners a staggering 75% of total revenues. Also, 50% of its earnings(expected to grow to 80% in the next 20 years) come from the foreign market whereas for Bollywood it is 20%. But, India has a young and growing population, and Bollywood films are becoming more ‘western’ and less ‘Indian’s dance around in red spangle costumes whilst wearing a turban with an Elephant and some crazy musak” cliché. (I’ll let you decide if this is a good thing or not!). Can Bollywood break through the cultural barriers and make a film that excites audiences worldwide? Does the decile of American Cinema mean the decline of American society.Does the internet mean that people can now watch anything anywhere anytime, and that copyright is an outdated and unenforceable concept? Well probably not. people will still pay to spend time together, sharing experiences. Holding a loved ones hand while watching a weepy can be done in a darkened living room, or in a darkened cinema.
One thing is for sure, Films will evolve, as they always have done, going from grainy black and white hand powered things to the computerised 3D colour experiences of today. So society will too. Icons will remain, the silhouette of Chaplin or the music from Laurel and Hardy, and new stars will come old ones will die, or become “has beens”. Hollywood will continue to crank out films, as long as people worldwide want to go and see them. Indeed, Competing against TV means that quality could improve, either for TV or Film. Certainly the increase in TV miniseries and groundbreaking ideas, like series such as 6 feet under, Dexter and even Friends (which still works 20 years later) all make TV a great media. Breaking bad ! Desperate Housewives, all of these were & are great.
So to just end up, perhaps the old ways will be replaced by new. Those films where Rocky beats up the Veitcongs, or Dolph Lundgren kills people will become a thing of the past and we will see some intellectual finery in this art form! Next time you go to the movie theatre to sit and watch a film, think about what the film is really selling. Remember, James Bond never dies. One film maker who just baffles me is Clint eastwood, who has made such fine films and such ugly films, both from the same palette.Perhaps his success has been to adapt to the audience.
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