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- The Rise of Film — Motion Pictures from the Magic Lantern to Movies
In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone, forever changing technology by proving that millions of electronic functions could exist in a pocketable device. Even though the iPhone pales in comparison to today’s phones, its existence sparked a technological revolution. Similarly, magic lanterns hold a similar premier status in the world of film, even though, in technical terms, they cannot compare to the Hollywood movies played in theaters today. Standing as the first contraption creating motion for performance purposes, the magic lantern acts as the base that all cinema technology improved upon.
The first magic lanterns emerged as a method of creating stories through an illusion of moving pictures. While the development of magic lantern finds its origins in the 1600s, use of the devices as entertainment started in the 1800s, when magic lanterns “entertain[ed] groups with images of the far-away world” (Gomery and Pafort-Overduin 10). The core idea of magic lanterns is to visually depict a concept through a couple of moving slides, with the transition between images creating motion. For example, magic lanterns could depict the movement of a windpump in a painting of a countryside landscape (Frick, “Early Moving Image”). Audiences loved the way paintings could be displayed in this moving format, allowing the magic lantern’s success to flourish such that “around 1840 photographic images were innovated into magic lantern shows” (Gomery and Pafort-Overduin 10). With the introduction of pictures of film to the magic lantern, real-life scenes like cities or nature could be viewed far away from their physical locations.
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Throughout the 1800s, individuals continued to make improvements to the magic lantern. In 1882, Eadweard Muybridge used a device based on the magic lantern idea that showed pictures in succession to display his famous series of photographs known as The Horse in Motion (Frick, “Key Individuals”). Muybridge’s example shows one of the first instances in which real-life moving motion could be shown through media. Then, Étienne-Jules Marey created a camera that could record 12 frames-per-second video by imprinting 12 separate images on a roll of film (Gomery and Pafort-Overduin 11). Finally, film as we now know it had been created. As one of the last inventors that helped propel the moving picture into an industry, Thomas Edison created a laboratory where he experimented with various motion picture formats and technologies (Frick, “Key Individuals”). From that point forward, motion pictures could tell stories in a new vivid way to masses of people in settings like vaudeville theaters and nickelodeons. As a businessman, Edison turned the moving picture technology into a moneymaking industry that still thrives today.
However, the entire basis of the entertainment industry rests on one device—the magic lantern. The magic lantern originated the concept of viewing a piece of art in motion in small crowds, before technological advances brought photography and frames-per-second film, finally evolving it into a revolutionary storytelling medium presentable to hundreds of people at a time.
- Implications of World War II on Film History
World War II came at an auspicious time in American history—the country neared breaking out of the clutches of the Great Depression. Additionally, the war also helped perpetuate the growth of the film industry within the United States for a variety of factors. For example, an increase of jobs with longer work hours provided a bigger market for movie theaters and cinemas (Frick, “Hollywood During the War”). The complex of film and cinema itself during World War II proved to differentiate itself from film of previous eras within the United States. The large war effort nationwide emerged as a key theme and topic in film during the time. Overall, World War II allowed for the popular reception of motion pictures that employed propagandic plotlines, motivating movie producers to create films illustrating such themes.
Feature films oftentimes took a heavily propagandistic viewpoint of war to unify the country. For example, Bataan, a movie depicting the American defense of the Phillipines from attack, framed Japanese troops as despicable people with the trailer describing the setting as the “eerie depths of a jap-ridden jungle hell” (Garnett). Movies like Bataan also “traced the horrors of combat and the psychopathology of soldiering in increasingly grim terms” (Schatz 114). Feature films showed the general public an in-depth look at the horrors of war, and linked those horrors as being caused by American enemies. Film producers used negative depictions of Japanese people, opponents to American interests in World War II, in order to galvanize public interest in their movies by appealing to patriotism. Additionally, with the establishment of the Office of War Information, the American government linked itself with the film industry by motivating these propagandic films that “everybody wanted” (Gomery and Pafort-Overduin 161). The Office of War Information “encourage[d] particular themes and topics” for features films to include (Frick, “Hollywood During the War”). In addition to audiences supporting films through themes of patriotism, the government incentivized filmmakers to continue distributing these war films that could further common thoughts throughout the country. The financial motivation to create these films existed through this general patriotic thought in America—the public enjoyed the free, democratic society that America represented in the movies and therefore continued to view them. More importantly, the propagandic use of films helped create a culture that supported the American war effort and unified the country’s sentiments against the enemy.
Moreover, documentaries like the “Why We Fight” series also served an express purpose of “justifying the war” as commissioned by the Office of War Information (Frick, “Hollywood During the War”). A scene in an excerpted “Why We Fight” video highlights a picture of the Declaration of Independence, specifically the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” (Frick, “Hollywood During the War”). Alongside these patriotic words are scenes of horrific war scenes that showed the destruction occurring across the world. By putting these two elements together, “Why We Fight” films could depict the American government’s view of the war—America and its Allies represented the free world, and fought against the dictatorial and fascist regimes of the Axis powers. Documentaries informed the public the reasons behind the war and justified its continuance. Moreover, the government also considered the production of motion pictures like “Why We Fight” as an “essential wartime industry” (Frick, “Hollywood During the War”). Therefore, the government itself had elevated the exhibition of these films to a top priority. With high demand for movies in general and the government’s support of propagandic films, the production of war-related documentaries was highly desired and pursued by filmmakers across the country.
Ultimately, the “Why We Fight” documentary series and the movie clip from Bataan show the transformative effects of World War II on the American film industry. Bataan helped Americans frame the Japanese forces as evil people that threatened their country, while the “Why We Fight” series justified American intervention in the war. The government also encouraged the production of such motion pictures with the creation of the Office of War Information, charged with motivating filmmakers to produce them. Audiences supported this trend, as American patriotism created interest in preserving the democracy that the United States represented. From a business standpoint, this public interest provided significant financial encouragement for companies to produce films that solidified this common thought throughout American citizens.
- Cinema’s Race Complex: The Birth of a Nation as Essential History (1000 words)
Spike Lee probably has the one of the greatest presences at the intersection of race and film—he has directed a wealth of movies over the years like Malcolm X and The BlacKkKlansmen that tackle complicated racial issues in America. For someone who creates motion pictures of such magnitude, the fact that he had to learn about a film like The Birth of a Nation, a highly charged film with heavy white supremacist implications, reflects oddly. Although the film contains controversial elements regarding racial complexities, the instructor of Lee’s cinema class showed The Birth of a Nation to show one of the only remaining movies of the time period.
Lee vividly recalls the first time he viewed The Birth of a Nation—not by choice. Sitting in a graduate school class, he remembers his instructor talking about the “great techniques that D.W. Griffith invented” (Frick, “D.W. Griffith”). The principle reason why classes on cinema continue to show The Birth of a Nation relates to its central position in history. In a time where motion pictures were still confined to relatively small-scale productions, The Birth of a Nation “was rehearsed for six weeks, filmed in nine [weeks]” and costed a record-breaking hundred-thousand-dollar[s]” (Bogle 10). The Birth of a Nation holds a prominent place in history as one of the premier films that had elaborate planning and production, setting the tone for the future standard of feature movies. Moreover, Griffith’s film “proved to be the New Hollywood’s first blockbuster,” positioning the movie in a permanent position in the history of film (Gomery and Pafort-Overduin 52). Additionally, 90% of films from the time the movie came out (around 1915) no longer exist. Therefore, Griffith’s film has an increasingly important role in history—many other films of the time that could demonstrate the techniques and styles of the time cannot be viewed anymore. Considering all of these facts together, The Birth of a Nation undoubtedly holds a special position in media history.
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While the film may have been revolutionary in many aspects, the attention and success that it received made the film’s displayed racism incredibly problematic. Even today, the continued usage of the The Birth of a Nation as a key aspect of cinema history becomes ethically ambiguous with its social complications. One of the biggest issues of the film regarded “its reprehensible depiction of African-Americans and its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan (Frick, “D.W. Griffith”). With the Ku Klux Klan disturbing actions giving it a derogatory place in history, a movie that displays the group in a positive light creates extreme complications. Moreover, the racist stereotypes that the movie employed to represent black people were unacceptable. For example, a storyline throughout the movie is that the Ku Klux Klan comes as an agent to save the South from facing abolition (Griffith). This plotline shows clear discrimination and white supremacy. Because of these depictions, social activist groups like the NAACP moved to protest the film with “massive demonstrations against its presentations” (Bogle 15). Overall, Lee had a rightfully disgusted reaction to having to watch The Birth of a Nation during his class.
Beyond the film itself, Griffith as the film’s create has notable qualities. The instructor of Lee’s cited graduate film class states denotes D.W. Griffith as a “father of cinema” (Frick, “D.W. Griffith”). Griffith undeniably produced a film unprecedented in its time with regards to production and resources spent. Moreover, he insists that he had “no political or ideological view in mind” while creating the movie, maintaining that the “his film as not an attack on the American Negro” (Bogle 16). Even if he did not intend to make a film that showed extreme racial prejudices, the final movie undoubtedly displayed them. Moreover, recalling the fact that a vast majority of films from the era no longer exist further complicates the legacy of Griffith. While he may still be commended for the technical contributions to film, the avenue through which he made them remains reprehensible.
Overall, The Birth of a Nation holds a unique position in the film industry and cinema history due to its innovation in film production, but also from its massive ethical and social complications. The production side of the film had unprecedent time and resources going into it, while existing as one of the only sources of cinema history from the time period. However, the unacceptable depictions of African-Americans and the glorification of white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan distort any possible glorification of the film. For Stan Lee, the playing of The Birth of a Nation in his class constituted a look into movies during the 1910s, with his instructor lauding D.W. Griffith as a master technician in film production. While the film does not present appropriate societal norms with its reprehensible display of African-Americans, the overall lack of surviving motion pictures from the time means that playing The Birth of a Nation is one of the only ways to understand, in action, the ways of cinema during that age.
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