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The Best of the Decade...One Hundred Years Ago (First Installment)

Above: Ninety-seven years after he retired from filmmaking and several decades after his rediscovery by historians, Georges Méliès (left) continues to be a relevant and emblematic figure. James Cameron (right) is an innovator at the center of the new digital form of making movies, but will he be remembered a hundred years from now?

PART ONE. MY LIFE IN THE REPERTORY SCREENING HOUSE; OR, HOW I STARTED THE ARGUMENT

It started in mid-September, when the ballots for the Cinematheque Ontario's Best of the Decade (2000-2009) poll were due. Not long after, in November, the choices had been tallied, prints had been reserved for a retrospective series consisting of many of the top voted titles, and curator James Quandt had put together a nifty analysis of the results (fashioned much like J. Hoberman's year-end introductions for the Village Voice). Commentary followed, personal lists emerged—the decade seemed to be the inevitable talking point for the next several weeks.

The decade...and Avatar, of course. The latter has inspired reverent summary pieces that attempt to tackle fundamental questions related to spectatorship and the future of digital technology. Manohla Dargis, joining the fray rather late, has thoughtfully invoked Edison and the year 1896, when the Vitascope was first introduced, to relate this phase of discovery in cinema to the experience of watching Avatar with a rapt audience in 2009. Both, she seems to suggest, created or are creating audience enchantment and a fierce climate of technological proprietorship: enchantment in the sense that Avatar's release is being hyped as a landmark that could very well be as important as the first Vitascope and Cinématographe projections; and proprietorship, in the way the success of the film signals new advances in technology, which big companies perfect and are able to license (digitally) now as Edison did (mechanically) over a hundred years ago. The enchantment of an art and the industry that disseminates and makes that same art possible: strange bedfellows. And yet, cinema is the same, a hundred years later, having been shaped by the same decisive factors.

It's already 2010 as I start to write this, roughly a hundred years after Griffith started making films for Biograph, and in retrospect it seems perfectly reasonable that one should be eager not only to want to share what he has learned from another decade in cinema, but also to predict where things are headed. The most obvious strategy, then, would be to attempt to encapsulate the most recent trends in the wide world of film (certainly much wider than in 1910, a period when only three countries around the globe could reasonably be called filmmaking hubs). In reality, it helps to cast one's net wider—a lot wider—as a way to give greater historical nuance to what's right in front of you.

One can safely assert, in the time since they started, that some of the most important figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter, Charles Pathé, and Georges Méliès. This is inarguable. Similarly, a look at the late 20th and early 21st centuries a hundred years from now will perhaps yield the names Apichatpong Weerasethakul, John Lasseter, Pedro Costa, and James Cameron. However, such pronouncements boil down to nothing more than hyperbole if one considers how cinema started and where it has wound up. To say that Méliès would be remembered a hundred years from now in 1910 would be a radical thought indeed. And as Richard Abel has aptly detailed, the Lumière brothers were so firm in their conviction that cinema was a passing fad that they stopped producing their own films after only a few years in the business. The examples go on. Fast-foward to the present and the sentiment behind the musings of an overwhelming number of critics seems to be that James Cameron, for example, is one the greatest and most important filmmakers ever. How does one know?

What are the reasons for only focusing on the technological breakthroughs of figures like Lasseter and Cameron, and the artistic advances of Weerasethakul and Costa? Dargis provides an exception rather than the rule here in expanding the discussion. A helpful hint may lie in the fact that critics nowadays—whether talking about Avatar or any other film—are fearful of alienating younger generations who regard old films as relics. There are hardly any commentators who have attempted to steer the discussion, productively, to the pre-2000's in these polls or "think" pieces. (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, in addition to Dargis, are another singular example, discussing the best films from ninety years ago for three consecutive years on their blog.) Perhaps the enormous gap between Cameron and Costa, to make one comparison, wouldn't be so exasperating if spectators were better versed in films made before Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. To say that there weren't blockbusters before these films is a mistake that somehow lives on in mainstream criticism.

Outside of critics' circles, what does it say that the majority of film festivals choose to show dozens of mediocre contemporary films but almost never project older works? Or that the repertory and archival divisions of the major studios continue to let their holdings go to waste by refusing to strike new prints or engage in restoration activities? The curator and museum director Alexander Horwath has argued that this attitude ethically violates a corporation's responsibility to history and the community. Critics and their editors seem to be following step by treating studios' latest, biggest products with front-page headlines and feature reviews, whereas articles on revivals are relegated to capsule summaries at best.

To those of us in a growing minority who spend most of our free time in either repertory screening houses or at home watching DVDs of older films, the insistence on the new is a numbing and ultimately disappointing mind-set. On the bright side, the cinephile of today and tomorrow has all the tools he needs to assume a posture of activism on the internet and in the places where people care about such things, such as alternative screening spaces, libraries and schools. In my hometown of Chicago, there are several individuals and groups doing exactly that.

Partly as a symbolic gesture, partly as a historical survey intended to study canonical shifts, I have initiated a counter-thrust to the deluge of commentary on the last decade by asking a coterie of friends and experts in the field to submit their ten (or more) best films from the years 1899-1909, and to include a figure of the decade. If they couldn't think of ten, I asked them to submit five. Some nominated an important person; others opted not to. Why 1899 to 1909? A more appropriate delineation would have been the best films of 1895—date of the first Lumière projection—to 1914—year of both the start of World War I in Europe and Griffith's filming of a recreation of the American Civil War in The Birth of a Nation (1915). However, 1899-1909 represents a round decade, much like 2000-2009 (which is just as arbitrary a time bracket if one wants to catalogue world cinema tendencies), leaving at least one year (1899-1900) as a safety zone for uncertain release dates. In any case, I elected to leave in any titles that were included for one reason or another (some explained, others not) outside of the permissible range.

As you'll see from their serious commitment to this survey, the folks below do not regard these films as museumified objects, but rather, living artworks that contain in them a fascinating challenge to our changing artistic sensibilities and consumptive habits. The question of whether cinema—not film, as in nitrate or acetate or polyester cellulose—is dead is an interesting polemic, but if one considers the reality of filmmaking as industry, moving images should endure at least another hundred years, easily.

In this first installment to the "Best of the Decade...One Hundred Years Ago" project, I present the individual lists of the seventeen participants. To see a tally of the most cited films (with links to YouTube versions of all but one of the titles), scroll to the very bottom. Check in next week for observations on the submitted lists, my own choices of the decade's ten best, and further notes.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

***

PART TWO. THE POLL

Peter von Bagh, filmmaker (Helsinki, Forever) / festival director (Il Cinema Ritrovato) / critic
Helsinki, Finland

Grandma's Reading Glass (George Albert Smith, 1900)
The Big Swallow (James Williamson, 1901)
Life of an American Fireman (Edwin S. Porter, 1903)
The Gay Shoe Clerk (Porter, 1903)
Voyage à travers l'impossible (Georges Méliès, 1904)
Au pays noir (Ferdinand Zecca, Lucien Nonguet, 1905)
Vie et passion du notre seigneur Jésus Christ (Lucien Nonguet, Ferdinand Zecca, 1906‑07)
The (?) Motorist (R. W. Paul, 1906)
La maison ensorcelée (Segundo de Chomón, 1907)
The Country Doctor (David Wark Griffith, 1909)
Le moulin maudit (Alfred Machin, 1909)
L'Assommoir (Albert Capellani, 1909)

Comments: There are two possibilities for such a list: to spend a week or two on it, or to do it spontaneously and in 10 minutes—which was my solution, otherwise I wouldn't have done it. And the prize was that I went into 12 titles, as I don't now have time to ponder about two eliminations among so many brilliant small films.

***

Jake Barningham, filmmaker
Chicago, IL, USA


One per director, in order of preference:

A Corner in Wheat (Griffith, 1909)
The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (Boggs, Turner, 1908)
Star Theatre (F.S. Armitage, 1901)
The Great Train Robbery (Porter, 1903)
As Seen Through a Telescope (Smith, 1900)
Jeanne d'Arc (Méliès, 1899)
President McKinley Taking the Oath/President McKinley and Escort Going to the Capitol (1901)
The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, 1906)
Esmeralda (Alice Guy Blaché, 1905)
Cyrano de Bergerac (Clement-Maurice, 1900)

***


Serge Bromberg, filmmaker (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot) / archivist (Lobster Films)
Paris, France


Le cochon danseur
(1907)
Kiriki, acrobates japonais (Segundo de Chomón, 1907)
Voyage dans la lune (Méliès, 1902)
The Great Train Robbery
Those Awful Hats (Griffith, 1909)
Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Wallace McCutcheon and Porter, 1906)
The Big Swallow
Vie et Passion de notre seigneur Jésus Christ
Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau (Roméo Bosetti, 1909)
A Day with the Gypsies (Gaston Quiribet, 1906)
Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (J. Stuart Blackton, 1909)
Premier prix de violoncelle (1907)
La poule merveilleuse (Ferdinand Zecca, 1902)
The Life of Charles Peace (William Haggar, 1905)
Cyrano de Bergerac
La peine du talion (Gaston Velle, 1906)
The Lonely Villa (Griffith, 1909)
Le farfalle (1907)
D'où viennent les faux cheveux (Machin, 1909)

***

Bernard Eisenschitz, critic / historian (Nicholas Ray: An American Journey)
Paris France

Vues japonaises (Gabriel Veyre, 1899)
L’affaire Dreyfus
(Méliès, 1899)
Execution of Czolgosz, With Panorama of Auburn Prison
(Porter, 1901)

Star Theatre
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
(G.W. Bitzer, 1905)
Les martyrs de l’inquisition
(Nonguet, 1905)
Le thé chez la concierge
(Louis Feuillade, 1907)
L’assassinat du duc de Guise
(Le Bargy et Calmettes, 1908)
Le cerceau magique
(Emile Cohl, 1908)
Nick Carter, le roi des détectives
(Victorin Jasset, 1908)
A Corner in Wheat

Comments: As your decade counts eleven years, I took the liberty of going somewhat beyond the prescribed ten titles. It is not a specialist's list, but a subjective one, that might change – hopefully – according to future curiosities and discoveries, especially from other countries. So there are few trick films (sorry about Segundo de Chomón), few comedies, no British or Italian at all -- one has to be unfair, those will be for next time -- maybe. One film to one director (while being unfair to producers), since Griffith's output clearly opens up a new era and would warrant no less than three titles.

***

Paula Felix-Didier, director and archivist (Pablo Ducros Hicken Cinema Museum)
Buenos Aires, Argentina


Las operaciones del doctor Posadas (Alejandro Posadas, 1897)
La sortie du bain (Guy Blaché, 1899)
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
Alice in Wonderland (Cecil M. Hepworth, 1903)
The Great Train Robbery
Voyage à travers l'impossible
San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake (1906)
Le scarabee d'or (Chomón, 1907)
Fantasmagorie (Emile Cohl, 1908)
The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays
A Corner in Wheat

And for the personality of the decade it would either be Alice Guy Blaché (us gals gotta stick together) or Georges Méliès...or Segundo de Chomón...or Billy Bitzer...

***

Jean-Michel Frodon, film critic / historian
Paris, France


La petite fille et son chat (Louis and Auguste Lumière, 1900)—and so many Lumière films from the previous years
The Great Train Robbery
Au pays noir
Madame a des envies (Guy Blaché, 1906)
Les 400 farces du Diable (Méliès, 1906)
The Black Viper (Griffith, 1908)
A Corner in Wheat

***

Hernani Heffner, educator (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro) / archivist / curator
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


The Big Swallow
The Great Train Robbery
Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
Voyage à travers l'impossible
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
Le scarabée d'or
Barcelona en Tranvia (Ricardo de Banos, 1908) 
Nerone (Luigi Maggi, 1909)
Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy
Circuito de São Gonçalo (Paulino Botelho, 1909) - It's the oldest Brazilian movie that survived and the film that captured the first car race in Brazil.

In the spirit of the decade:

A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910)

The person of the decade is Charles Pathé—he transforms a little business into an industry.

***

Kent Jones, critic / executive director (World Cinema Foundation)
New York, NY, USA


The Life of an American Fireman
La Poule aux œufs d’or (Velle and Chomón, 1905)
Voyage à travers l'impossible
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
A Corner in Wheat

***

Mark McElhatten, archivist (Sikelia Productions) / curator (Views from the Avant-Garde and The Walking Picture Palace)
New York, NY, USA


In chronological order:

Films by Etienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demenÿ (1892-1900) - films that are within the permissible range

Voyage à travers l'impossible
A Trip Down Market Street (Before the Fire) (1905)Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street 
Éclatements de bulles de savon (Lucien Bull, 1907)
Le Scarabee d'or
Le Spectre rouge (Chomón, 1907)
Kiriki, Acrobates Japonais
Les reve des marmitons (Chomón, 1908) 
A Corner in Wheat
The Lonely Villa

Best film format before standardization: Biograph/Mutoscope 68mm sprocketless high frame rate projection, film example: The Georgetown Loop (1901)

***

Miguel Marías, critic
Madrid, Spain


The Great Train Robbery
Westinghouse Works [Series 1] (Bitzer, 1904)
Le palais des mille et une nuits (Méliès, 1905)
Une dame vraiment bien (Louis Feuillade, 1908)
A Corner in Wheat

And the figure already by 1909 would be the lately much-maligned David Wark Griffith, who, whatever his shortcomings, continues to be one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

***

Olaf Möller, critic / curator
Cologne, Germany


Ânes (Alexandre Promio, 1896)
Au Pays Noir
A Corner in Wheat
Un Monsieur qui a mangé du taureau
Mortelle idylle (Capellani, 1906)
Le Moulin maudit
La Neuropatologia (Roberto Omegna and Camillo Negro, 1908)
La Poule aux œufs d’or
Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906)
That Fatal Sneeze (Lewin Fitzhamon, 1907)

Comments: Probably the most instinct-driven list I’ve compiled in this decade—and definitely the only one dominated by French cinema. As far as auteurism is concerned: I'd have been perfectly happy with a list featuring only works by Segundo de Chomón—which should answer the question, "Who’s the person of the decade?" for yours truly. And, yes, the first film was made prior to the decade in question but: its subject is eternal and of uncommon beauty and certainly contains all of cinema, therefore...

***

Pierre Rissient, éminence grise (Pathé)
Paris, France

Le village de Namo - Panorama pris d'une chaise à porteurs (Veyre, 1900)
L'Assomoir
Afrgrunden
(Urban Gad, 1910)
A Corner in Wheat
A Lad from Old Ireland
(Sidney Olcott, 1910)

***

Ben Russell, filmmaker / educator (University of Illinois, Chicago) / curator (Magic Lantern)
Chicago, IL


Le spectre rouge
San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake
Electrocuting an Elephant
Voyage dans la Lune
20,000 Lieues Sous les Mers (Méliès, 1907)
That Fatal Sneeze
The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
A Nymph of the Waves (1900)
Felling of Hibson Road Brick Works' Chimney in Nelson (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1906)
A Case of Hysteric Hemiplegy Healed Through Hypnosis (Gheorghe Marinescu, 1899)

***

Claudia Siefen, critic / historian
Vienna, Austria


Gordon Highlanders (William Walker, 1899)
Grandma's Reading Glass
La glu (Guy Blaché, 1907)
La sortie du baim (Guy Blaché, 1899)
How It Feels To Be Run Over (Hepworth, 1900)
Series of Geisha Dancing (Shibata Tsunekichi, 1899)
Woman Undressing (A. A. Collings, 1897?)
Barcelona en tranvia
Honnoji Gassen / Battle at Honnoji Temple (Shozo Makino, 1908)
The Day After (Griffith, 1909)

***

Meredith Ward, educator (Johns Hopkins University)
Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Le cochon danseur
The Big Swallow
How It Feels To Be Run Over

The 'Teddy' Bears
(1907)
Le roi du maquillage
(Méliès, 1904)
Voyage dans la lune

The Great Train Robbery

Those Awful Hats

The Lonely Villa

***

Jay Weissberg, critic (Variety)
Rome, Italy


How It Feels to Be Run Over
Fire! (Williamson, 1901)
Voyage dans la lune
Tram Ride into Halifax (Mitchell and Kenyon, 1902)
The Great Train Robbery
Rescued by Rover [version 1+3] (Fitzhamon, 1905)
Le Tour du monde d’un Policier (Charles Lucien Lépine, 1906)
La maison ensorcelée
Roman d’une bottine et d’un escarpin (Georges Monca, 1909)
The Lonely Villa

***

Kyle Westphal, freelance archivist and researcher / graduate (L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, George Eastman House)
Rochester, New York, USA


The Great Train Robbery
Voyage à travers l’impossible
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
A Day with the Gypsies
Three American Beauties (McCutcheon, 1906)
Le spectre rouge
La course aux potirons (Cohl, 1907)
Fireside Reminiscences (Porter, 1908)
The Red Man and the Child (Griffith, 1908)
Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy

Comments: Porter's Fireside Reminiscences is not selected because it's a great film, per se, but because it's the earliest instance I know of a film that proposes cinema itself as a predominant means of understanding and interpreting modern life. Reminiscences is no coy self-reflexive exercise; as the old man sits in his crusty den and watches the images of his life projected above his fireplace--the first home theater!--he discovers that experience and memory are not enough. Things must be seen.

***

THE TOP ELEVEN:

9 votes: The Great Train Robbery
A Corner in Wheat - Parts 1 and 2
6 votes: Voyage à travers l’impossible - Parts 1, 2 and 3
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street - Parts 1 and 2
4 votes: The Big Swallow Le spectre rouge
Voyage dans la lune The Lonely Villa
How it Feels to Be Run Over
3 votes: Au pays noir [unavailable publicly on the web]
Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy

Great article and I’m very interested in seeing many of the films listed. I wish early films weren’t regarded as things solely to be analyzed and studied, many of them are beautiful to watch.
Deleted
Is it me or does Porter get somewhat short shrift here? No UNCLE JOSH, no WINDY CORNER, no GHETTO FISH MARKET? Otherwise though, a fabulous endeavor, and fascinating results from an esteemed panel: I’m saving these lists in hopes of broadening my own, and my students’, early film horizons in the months to come!
Gabe, I put a similar list together (1900-1910) for TCM a few weeks back (http://tinyurl.com/ykvol2v). This is what I came up with: How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900, Cecil Hepworth) What Happened on 23rd St. New York City (1901, Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming) Jack and the Beanstalk (1902, Edwin S. Porter & George S. Fleming) A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Melies) The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin S. Porter) The Georgetown Loop (1903, American Mutoscope and Biograph) Coney Island at Night (1905, Porter) The Consequences of Feminism (1909, Alice Guy) Le Printemps (1909, Louis Feuillade) Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy (1909, J. Stuart Blackton) Those Awful Hats (1909, D.W. Griffith) A Corner in Wheat (1909, Griffith)
If we’re mentioning our own lists, I would also like to plug my own! As a hobby, am currently (and apparently for some time to come) doing a little journey thorough the history of film – indeed chronologically – and making a little list of what I liked most. I very much agree with the introduction to this article. While some films really age horribly (a couple of abominations from the WWII period come to mind, for example), a well-made motion picture is a timeless piece of art much like a story or a stageplay. In my endless optimism I believe that larger parts of the public will yet come to realise this. With the recent surge of “eye-candy over content” productions that take the box offices by storm we have seen a step in the other direction, but even more mainstream audiences will sooner or later grow tired of that. They’re fine if you just need a place to go and eat your popcorn, but those audiences that are actually interested in the films and enjoy some substance will always be there, and it is there where the long-term business is at as well. Back to topic, the standpoint that I’m taking with my own list is usually one of looking at how enjoyable these movies still are from today’s perspective, and in the end coming up with some essential titles for each year. I also try to post links to streams or downloads for all films that are in the public domain. In my chronological effort, however, I have not yet covered titles after 1907, so I fall a little short in the “best of the decade” department at the moment. http://megaplex.wordpress.com/

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