Evolution of Film

Last week on twitter, I came across a question that was retweeted by one of my fellow movie bloggers. The question was: Could you tell the history of Hollywood in only 10 movies? I thought the challenge was fascinating, and after reading two sets of answers to the question...I decided to throw my own picks into the hat. You can read the post that caught my eye HERE and the original HERE. Now, the history of Hollywood is a pretty broad topic... do you choose purely films that represent an era? Do you choose those considered "greatest" of the greats? Many options to consider here, and I'd love to hear any thoughts... but I decided to choose films that illustrated the evolution of how a story was told by the medium. Or more precisely, films that paved the way for the movies that we know today. The other authors chose not to go with some of the more "obvious" choices... but there were a few that I just couldn't pick alternatives to. So without further ado, let's start with the oldest.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION - There were many noteworthy films that paved the way to DW Griffith's civil war epic that are probably better and less ahem...racist, but this film almost single-handedly created the idea of film as a business all on its own. While others such as Georges Melies and Edwin S. Porter were trying to utilize the idea of film as a narrative, (that shots could be pieced together to create a story...) they still kept those stories relatively short. The stories they told kept their ideas slim and their visuals broad and indefinite. Here DW extends the idea of a short film suggesting a simple idea, to a feature length narrative that tells a story with much less interpretation. The other huge thing this film marked in history that absolutely lead to the beginning of Hollywood as we know it? That movies meant money. DW showed that a film was a forced to be reckoned with by spending a whole lot of money on them, and expecting a profit in return. Up until then, this film was the most expensive ever made because he saw his budget as an investment...and he planned to charge people much more than they had been paying in order to see it. Well, it all paid off and a million dollar industry was born.

THE JAZZ SINGER - From silent feature-length narratives we come next to the advent of sound. Yes, this is another dated film in its' sensibilities when viewed in a modern context....but it's undeniably monumental in film history. The use of sound changed EVERYTHING in how a story was told because suddenly there was a whole new world that had to be taken into consideration when creating. Before heavy visual emotion was relied upon, but now it was all about what people said and how they said it.

KING KONG - I never cease to be amazed at how much filmmakers were able to do during the dawn of movies. Cool and incredibly creative special effects certainly existed before King Kong (see A Trip to the Moon)... but this was a landmark in that almost any story a person could imagine could find a way to the silver screen, even if that story contained a gigantic ape. Even if it seemed impossible, King Kong found a way to manipulate what the audience saw by the way they chose to film things. These tricks became a part of a film and from this point onward, they would never stop evolving!

THE WIZARD OF OZ - Just as how the Jazz Singer introduced sound, the introduction of color to film similarly changed the landscape of the movie making business forever. This along with Gone With the Wind was two of the earliest and most notable feature length color films. GWTW was such an epic in its own right and just missed edging out Oz on this list, and while being a huge milestone in cinema for a myriad of other reasons, I think it's The Wizard of Oz that I'm going to pick to be the representation of the color change. After all, we literally see the main character move from a colorless existence into a bright, beautiful world of not only wonder...but opportunity. It's almost a perfect parallel of the change to color in the film itself. So many possibilities were opened up in how the look of things could be, and consequently now a million other factors were to be taken into consideration before a story was told. Set design, costume, makeup, and above all cinematography now had to really shine.

CITIZEN KANE - Yes this movie was kept on the other two lists for being too obvious, but sometimes things are obvious for a reason, and, therefore, there's no better example. So far we've covered that a film could be a story, the story can be told with sound, visual effects, and color. Now is where we get to the fact that this visual story can be a layered art form filled with symbolism. Every element of filmmaking is working toward its underlying theme in Citizen Kane. On the surface, we see a biography, but through the visual space between the characters and the hollowness of the sound....we know there's much more going on here. We see a mystery unfold. The method of storytelling and the use of each filmmaking aspect in creating art set a standard of filmmaking.

RASHOMON - Okay maybe I'm cheating since this is a foreign film, how can it define Hollywood history? Well, it does so by bending perceptions of how a story is told and who it's told by. Here things unfold piece by piece, and the standard chronological and sequential story template we know and are comfortable with is shattered. The other brilliant thing we see here is how the same moment can change depending on whose perspective we see it from. Basically, Rashomon moves us into a whole new world of complex storytelling and film would absolutely be all the better for it.

ON THE WATERFRONT - So while filmmakers are constantly becoming more daring, there's still something generally missing at this point: method acting. Actors still generally follow the guidelines from the silent age that their actions need to be big in order to be expressive. Marlon Brando was one of the first to try something a little different: to be someone new in everything you saw him in. His performances had a subtle beauty, and his famous speech here would only inspire other actors and screenwriters alike to step up their game.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - With Citizen Kane we saw how film could be used as an art form to tell a story. 2001: A Space Odyssey marks how film could become the type of piece that's art for art's sake. Kane had an objective underlying theme told through film elements, whereas 2001 presents something far more abstract and subjective told through a series of random (or seemingly random from your perspective...) images and sounds. It allowed for film to be something that was discussed and interpreted, rather than seen for entertainment and forgotten.

STAR WARS - I could have easily swapped this one with Jaws in terms of the birth of the blockbuster, but I think Star Wars had a much more lasting cultural effect (that and I'm terribly biased to the galaxy far far away....) In the late 70's, film shifts to becoming a mass crowd pleaser and popcorn flicks emerge. The movie landscape changes forever with successful franchising, and ILM shows that even battles in space can be told on screen and look believable. With the release and reception of Star Wars, the sky was the limit and blockbusters thereafter would follow suit.

TITANIC - And now we come full circle. With Birth of a Nation, creator DW Griffiths poured countless money into a film that he hoped would make a profit. He showed that having a big budget was something to be embraced if you had enough confidence of a return. James Cameron did the same thing in 1997 with Titanic, a film with a colossal budget that made its money back....and THEN some. From here, box office receipts and how a film performed meant everything....even at expense of the quality. As long as something is a moneymaker that's all that matters. Hollywood has always been a business, but from here a real shift has occurred that we've never been able to bounce back from. That shift has influenced our summer and winter movie lineups ever since, and allowed for more popcorn films being considered as serious fare.

Well. I obviously couldn't cover it all (I didn't even get to animated stories, in which I would have included Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, as well as Toy Story...) But tell me, which ones were grave mistakes to leave off the list? Or tell me what your ten would be!


Johanna said...

You did a great job! When we discussed this, I felt it was near impossible; but I like your lists much better than the other two you referenced.

Well thought out and well done; a big task to be said.

Sarah said...

The only thing I would say is that you should have thrown a musical into the list. Musicals have been threaded through film history ever since talkies came to be. In fact, The Jazz Singer, utilizes musical elements.

I would have probably chosen West Side Story, Oklahoma, or something like Top Hat (Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers) into the mix.

However, as you pointed out with leaving off Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it is hard to keep it down to just 10, but you did a great job.

Sarah said...

Just another thought...it's hard because there are so many genres that have evolved through the history of film and weaved themselves throughout and had an impact...romantic, romantic comedy, drama, comedy, sci-fi, action adventure, horror, etc.

AFI did their 10 Top 10 list a few years back.


Here's what they came up as the number one for each category:

Animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Romantic Comedy: City Lights
Western: The Searchers
Sports: Raging Bull
Mystery: Vertigo
Fantasy: The Wizard of Oz
Sci-Fi: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Gangster: The Godfather
Courtroom Drama: To Kill a Mockingbird
Epic: Lawrence of Arabia

Now I would have chosen some different movies from the ones above, and I would also have categorized some of them differently (To Kill a Mockingbird is so much more than just a courtroom drama), but it is interesting to see how these movies affected film history as well.

Fascinating stuff!

Johanna said...

That's a fun idea to do it by genre. I'm going to have to think of my list.

Funzi159 said...

I like the list and I think 10 titles like these really cover a proper space in the subject. There are a lot of movies that have been influential, this is a good way to sum up some of them. My favourite title on the list is "2001: A Space Odyssey", a movie which is very difficult to understand under many points of view. Stanley Kubrick probably had Asperger Syndrome like me, so while watching I was able to catch many of the elements and the reasons behind his choices. Basically, Kubrick tried to put his brain unaltered thoughts into movie and he really succeeded in that. This is why the story seems to be a little disconnected sometimes, but when it comes to the logic behind directing and camera movements, then everything becomes clear. He did the same with most of his movies and all of them are very influential. Excellent article, I like it :)