During this semester, we have traveled a long way, from the premises of feature films of Chaplin and Keaton, to the mysterious and extravagant world of Guillermo del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth. In this small essay, I will try to put into perspective the different stages of Cinema’s History we went through in class by selecting three movies we watched which I consider illustrative of the evolution of the medium.
I will proceed chronologically, and begin with Fritz Lang’s emblematic M. As I exposed in an earlier post, M was by many means very ahead of its times. The director’s first non-silent movie proved to be one of the most original sound designs ever produced. In many ways, M really launched the creative and modern use of sound. At the complete opposite of most of talking productions of time, mostly focused on musicals and entertaining themes, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece used sound in order to get the viewer in a completely new dimension of filmic experience. The audience hears distant voices, sounds overlapping a different action, and, very importantly, silence, as when it witnesses the flight of the little girl’s ballon towards the telephone lines.
M, as a landmark of the potential of sound in cinema, but also as a deep reflexion on the issues of the society’s sink into violence, the limits of responsibility, the concepts of right and wrong, and the handling of mental illness. These themes will stay major concerns throughout the century and will inspire later filmmakers, with famous examples such as Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch.
Such a movie couldn’t arise from nowhere: troubled times marked the production context of M with the ascension of fascism in a still traumatized post-World War I Germany. Western civilization was just starting to experience some of its most violent changes, and M remains a powerful insight into those times.
In second , I would like to discuss John Wayne’s 1948 Fort Apache. Produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, this (stereo)typical Western is very representative of the American Cinema scene of the time. Starring tremendously famous stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda, Fort Apache can be viewed as the typical Hollywood product of its era. It was obviously a huge production, required hundreds of extras, in a desert but in a way mythical environment.
Entertaining for the most part, the movie however does not forget its ideological mission at the dawn of the Cold War and the need for the United States to impose its legitimacy, values of heroism and founding myths. The noble death and remembrance of Captain York lies as the corner piece of the intellectual device aimed to persuade the American people of the necessity of carrying the fight on.
I will end this trip through our semester by examining the fantastic universe of Pan’s Labyrinth. Also it is not, by far, the movie I enjoyed the most during this semester, it arguably remains a laudable representative of the 21st Cinema’s evolution. I here make reference to the extensive use of special effects, which have revolutionized the Art of film.
With a continuous development since the very beginning of Cinema (Le Voyage dans la Lune of Georges Méliès, Der Student von Prag of Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener), special effects dramatically improved in the past few decades (with notable example of Star Wars of George Lucas and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick in the 1960s-’70s), and especially since the turn of the century. In action, fantastic or science-fiction movies, SFX are now unavoidable, and represent an always growing part of the budget. Special effects studios have become huge companies, not only involved in Cinema, but having build evident links with the world of video games. Without a doubt, the two worlds are more and more likely to merge to form a new type of interactive media.
Since its birth at the dusk of the 19th century, Cinema revealed itself as one of the most powerful medium of all time, captivating generations and taking entertainment and Art at a whole new level. The study of its history is of foremost importance if we want to grasp an essential determinant the past century’s determinants. Although the turn of the millennium saw the dawn of an interactive age, Cinema still carries the power to move masses, convey feelings and deliver powerful messages to the audience; its history is still to be written.