The Haunted Castle (1896). A film by George Melies that exemplifies the “trick” films of the turn of the century, a style that eventually developed into Expressionism, also called Formalism — an approach to art and story that is about conveying a personal view of reality. Here mood and emotion inform the storytelling more than concrete ideas or emulation of real life.
The quintessential example of formalist/expressionist filmmaking was George Méliès’ masterpiece A Trip to the Moon. Do yourself a favor and watch this famous film–it’s about 10 minutes long.
Méliès was a visionary filmmaker whose life you will see lovingly rendered in Martin Scorcese’s film Hugo. A Trip to the Moon is said to have sparked the realization that cinema needed to turn to narrative in order to survive and thrive. Click the button to read a short biography on Méliès–compare the facts to the film Hugo!
Early Edison films made for the Kinetoscope. These are examples of actualities – everyday or real life occurrences. The Lumière Brothers were also famous for making these type of films. While this developed as a way of filling the never-ending demand for the novelty of moving pictures, this eventually became a style of story and content called Realism. Realism is concerned with its ability to accurately emulate the world as we know it. The idea is to never draw attention to style or form–or even the medium of film itself, or to impose an obvious personal approach or viewpoint.
The Great Train Robbery, 1903. This film, directed by Edwin S. Porter, is incredibly famous for a number of reasons.
First, it sets the groundwork for the Hollywood style of filmmaking, called Classicism. Classicism lies somewhere between Formalism and Realism. It does attempt to emulate reality, but only in service of a story. Classicism attempts to tell a story the best way possible, using whatever tools it needs do achieve that–sometimes realistic, sometimes formalist.
The Great Train Robbery is also famous for cementing the popularity of the narrative film. It was such an overwhelming success that film producers never looked back. Narrative (storytelling) was now the principal goal of the art form.
Finally, the film is famous for pioneering or popularizing a number of filmmaking techniques we now take for granted: parallel editing (cutting between events happening at the same time in different places), location shooting, camera movement, and even visual effects! Watch it and see if you can spot each of these techniques.
As we watch films in this class, keeping in mind the ideas of Expressionism/Formalism, Realism and Classicism will be helpful to our understanding of the development of the art form. You’ve just read very brief definitions and watched a few examples, so if it’s still a little fuzzy, click the button to read a more detailed article–full of other examples!