old movies and new media

I have watched 133 movies over the course of the past three weeks. No, I have not been fired from work, or laid up; and the accomplishment was actually a good deal less laborious than you might think.

I have watched 133 movies over the course of the past three weeks.

No, I have not been fired from work, or laid up; and the accomplishment was actually a good deal less laborious than you might think.

In fact, the total viewing time for all 133 movies came in at just over six and a half hours, since most of them were around two minutes in run time, the longest being 17 minutes.

All the films are on a five-DVD boxed set I stumbled across at the Yukon College library, an anthology called The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinema 1894-1913, produced by Kino Video (kino.com), which has held my fitful but returning attention over all this time.

My initial interest in looking at the collection was more antiquarian/historical than anything else.

It seemed a shame to me that I, techno-nerd and film buff than I am, should have such limited knowledge of the earliest days of the movies.

I had never seen anything but a few out-takes of the famous Great Train Robbery film of 1903 (a product of the Edison Manufacturing Company), which, at a run time of 12 minutes, qualifies as the first “full feature” movie ever made.

Similarly, I had never seen anything but a few short scenes from Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon of 1902, which qualifies as the world’s first science fiction film.

Now I have, and I can say that neither of these two movies will disappoint a modern viewer, though they are predictably primitive in production values, and campily over-acted by performers who gear their facial expressions and body gestures to the over-ripe dramatic traditions of the late-Victorian melodrama.

As I made my way through the rest of the collection, however, I found myself becoming progressively more interested and impressed with both the technical and imaginative inventiveness of all these early film makers, and struck, also, by how many of them, in this era of the Youtube short, seem suddenly and oddly contemporary again.

Some of them, like the three-minute The Golden Beetle (more properly Le Scarabee d’or, it being a French production from 1907) have the air of being music videos—which is not all that surprising, when you think of it, since they actually were, in effect, prototypes of that art form, except that the music was performed to fit with the pictorial presentation, not the other way around.

The visual action of The Golden Beetle, in fact, which is actually even in colour, having been hand-tinted, frame by frame, has the feel of a story thought up by somebody on one too many LSD trips, or maybe too much absinthe.

Other offerings, like Onesime, Clock-maker, again French, this time from 1912—have a whacked-out whimsy about them you only see on music videos or old Monty Python reruns, these days.

(Onesime is informed that he has to wait 20 years and be finally mature before he receives an inheritance from his uncle. Impatient, he solves this problem by sneaking into what is apparently the world’s “pneumatic clock central office” and altering the master clock of the world so that everything on earth starts happening at a wildly accelerated rate. In this way—after about eight minutes of movie run time—he gets past the 20-year waiting period.)

Aside from the melodramas and comedies, there are other short, quirky films with quirky titles (How it Feels to be Run Over, That Fatal Sneeze, Dream of a Rarebit Fiend), some intriguing “actualities” (precursors to the modern documentary) and even the world’s first video advertisement—some guys in kilts, performing some not-very-good Scottish dancing in Dewar’s, it’s Scotch.

The people at Kino Video have done a valuable service in restoring and compiling this wide range of film material from the dawn of the last century, and I would certainly recommend either borrowing the set from your local library, if they have it, or even buying it (as I doubtless will do, in time).

I am, in fact, actually happier, now, that I waited until this late day and age before settling down to see these films.

On the technical level, the modern digital restorations are more pleasurable to watch, and more faithful to the film makers’ intentions, than the Beta or VHS tapes of yesteryear could ever have been.

On the social level, the advent of the MTV music video and the Youtube short have, for better or for worse, molded our esthetic taste and attention spans into a shape which allows us, I think, to appreciate the virtues of these old “shorts” in a way we probably would not have been able to appreciate them, say, twenty years ago.

Oh, and by the way, you can indeed find most of these proto-Youtube films actually on Youtube itself, though not in copies as good as those on the DVDs. Just go there and type in the relevant title in the search box.

Sometimes, new technologies and new media styles makes old ones almost new again.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.

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