These past three days we’ve been looking at some of the first films ever made, and the different traditions that they started. First we have The Lumiere Brothers who invented a portable camera, took it to the streets, and made the first documentaries. Next there was George Melies, the magician, who made fantasy films and developed some of the first special effects. Then there was Edwin Porter, director of the Great Train Robbery, who used actors and sets and effects to try and tell a believable and compelling story on film.

These three filmmakers were each pioneers for traditions that have continued throughout film history. These traditions are known as Realism, Formalism, and Classicism.

Realism, started by the Lumiere documentaries, is all about showing the truth. A realist will try to preserve the illusion that their film world is unmanipulated, an objective mirror of the actual world. We rarely notice the style in a realistic movie. They often aim for a rough look, with the idea that “if it’s too pretty, it’s false.” This means there is often handheld camera or simply a camera on a tripod. They use available light (often just the sun). They use non-professional actors (real people playing themselves). They don’t build sets, but instead find existing buildings or outdoor locations. Their films are about everyday people and everyday situations. They films often deal with social issues. For example: A man needs to find a job in order to feed his family. He is offered a job, but it is required that he own a bicycle for transportation. He and his wife pawn everything they can to buy a bike. He gets the bike and goes to work. On his first day of work the bicycle gets stolen. Now he must find the bicycle. This describes the first 10 minutes of “the Bicycle Thief.” It was shot on the streets of Italy with people who had never acted before, using just a camera on a tripod and a basic light kit.

At the other end of the scale, we have Formalism. Formalist directors have no desire to show reality. They want to show their personal vision of the world. They are concerned with spiritual and psychological truths that can best be represented by distorting and exaggerating the image. When Melies made “A Trip to the Moon” he wasn’t concerned with what a space ship or the moon might actually looked like. He wanted to be funny and use cool special effects. So he makes a purposefully fake looking bullet, which the astronauts climb into and are shot into space, hitting the moon (which does have a face) right in the eyeball. Formalistic films are often dream-like. They have detailed, exaggerated sets and costumes. They have complicated camerawork and symbolic lighting. The style draws attention to itself., as if the director is saying, “Look at me! I am an artist and I made this!” At the extreme end, formalist will avoid story and characters altogether, and instead try to convey a particular mood or emotion by showing abstract images.  Watch Melies’ “The Black Imp” or “Trip to the Moon

In between the two we have Classicism. This is typified by “The Great Train Robbery” and most hollywood style films that came after it. Classicism is all about ideal storytelling. The goal of a classicist is to tell a story in the best way possible. They want to you get caught up in the characters and their problems, to feel what they feel, but not be distracted by the filmmaking techniques. Classicists will build sets that resemble reality and get them exactly right for the story. They will make polished pictures with the camera, but nothing that will make you gasp “look at that camerawork!” They will use professional actors who can portray the characters emotions, and who will bring in a big audience. If there are special effects, they will look as realistic as possible.

Realism: A Clip from “Spinal Tap” by Rob Reiner. Even though it’s a fictional movie with actors pretending to be in a rock band, they shoot it like a documentary. handheld camera, natural lighting, etc.

Realistic Classicism: United 93 

Classicism: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s obviously fictional, taking place on another planet with spaceships and junk, but they try and make it as believable as possible, and have calculated the camerawork, editing, music etc. so that you empathize with Luke and feel his tension. The camerawork is good, but doesn’t call attention to itself.

Formalistic Classicism: City of the Lost Children 

Formalism: Blinkity Blank by Norman Mclaren. No characters, no story, just abtract pictures with music. All put together to create emotion and a psychological experience.

download the following handout and answer the questions:

realism vs formalism handout


Great Films

August 28, 2007

Today we talked about what makes a “great film”  I passed around the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 films of all time, and we tried to figure out why in the world “Titanic” and “Citizen Kane” were on there.  It turns out there are a few reasons.

Some films are Aesthetically innovative.  This means they have a unique style or vision, they were really well made, they influenced the look and style of later films.  This would apply to “Citizen Kane” and “2001” and “Raging Bull.”  Those films don’t look like anything else and have a unique feel to them.

Other films are Technologically important.  “King Kong” was one of the first to combine animation with live action.  “Toy Story” was the first computer animated feature.

Some deal with important social or political issues.  “Do the Right Thing” deals with race relations in New York and America.  “The Shawshank Redemption” deals with issues of poverty, corruption, and criminal justice.

Others are historically important, such as “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan” that portray historical events that we need to remember.

We also find movies that are culturally significant.  When “Gone with the Wind” came out, nearly everyone in America saw it.  Likewise with “Star Wars” and “Titanic.”  These films were such a phenomenon at the time they were released that they had a huge impact on the culture.

So, the assignment is to take a look at the list, and think of five films you think should be on there, and give some reasons why, how they pertain to these five categories.

Downloads: AFI top 100 films

First Day of Class

August 27, 2007

Well, folks, I think this is gonna be a fun class.  That’s what I think.

Today was your basic introductory stuff.  We introduced ourselves and went over the syllabus and that kind of thing.  If you were absent or need another copy, you can download the syllabus below.  You need to read it and sign it and get your parent/guardian to sign it and bring it back by Friday, Aug. 31st.

Film History Syllabus

Welcome back!

August 26, 2007

Hey kids,

Welcome back to East Hollywood.  I’m looking forward to teaching film history again this year.  I’ve been watching tons of cool movies over the summer that are gonna knock your socks off.  Are you ready for some Fellini?  Or Melville?  Jean-Pierre Melville?  Oh, boy, this is gonna be good.  I’m writing this before the first class, so there’s nothing particularly important to say yet.  But I’ll be updating this at least every week, maybe more, so keep checking back.  And now it’s time for a fundamental question:

 If, at this moment, you knew that you could only watch five more movies, and then have to give up movie watching for the rest of your life, what five movies would you watch?

Brandon says:

1. It’s a Wonderful Life

2. My Neighbour Totoro

3. Babette’s Feast

4. Freaks and Geeks season1

5. The Hudsucker Proxy

What about you?