The Early Years
Film moves from simple documentary and stage-influenced storytelling to the verge of becoming a full-fledged narrative art. Audiences love the tales that unfold before their eyes, and moviegoing becomes steadily more popular. But filmmakers are increasingly seduced by box-office profits and start eliminating visual elements that might distract attention from the straightforward flow of the story. Cinema gains in narrative force but loses in poetry and diversity. Classics include "A Trip to the Moon," by Georges Melies, and "The Great Train Robbery," by Edwin S. Porter.
The Next Ten
D.W. Griffith consolidates new developments in screen storytelling, breaking down scenes into sequences of brief shots, each filmed from the camera position that brings out its dramatic value most effectively. He also leads in moving the American film industry from New York to southern California, where varied locations and good weather facilitate a steady growth in production. Classics include "Intolerance," by Griffith, and "Cabiria," by Giovanni Pastrone.
Silent cinema reaches maturity in masterpieces like Charles Chaplin's comic "The Gold Rush" and F.W. Murnau's romantic "Sunrise," but the success of entertainer Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer" sparks a rush to sound-film production. Silent pictures are virtually dead by 1930, although mavericks like Chaplin and Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu refuse to make the transition until years later. Classics include "The Crowd," by King Vidor, and "The Battleship Potemkin," by Sergei Eisenstein.
Talkies triumph, and Hollywood enjoys a golden age while European and Asian giants make new strides in film aesthetics. The pressures of the Depression make cheap, escapist diversion more popular than ever. Moviegoers in American cities have dozens of films to choose from, many shown in picture palaces of almost ludicrous splendor. The studios agree on a Production Code stipulating rules and regulations for movie content. Classics include "M," by Fritz Lang, and "Stagecoach," by John Ford.
Film noir becomes a dominant style in Hollywood, telling dark, shadowy stories in a dark, shadowy style that suits the unsettled mood of Americans made anxious by war. Popular genres like the musical, the comedy, and the melodrama also sustain their popularity. Classics include "Citizen Kane," by Orson Welles, and "The Red Shoes," by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Ticket sales continue a decline that started after the war, as Americans move to the suburbs and television becomes an increasingly strong competitor. Hollywood responds by experimenting with technical processes like 3-D and CinemaScope, trying to create experiences TV can't provide. Censorship loosens and the Production Code starts to crack. Classics include "Umberto D.," by Vittorio De Sica, and "Imitation of Life," by Douglas Sirk.
Trends of the previous decade continue, with sex and violence treated more graphically and controversial subjects explored with more candor than ever before. Young innovators like Richard Lester and John Cassavetes vie for positions alongside masters like Ford and Howard Hawks, who still sustain their careers in studios that are becoming more like financing companies than the image factories they used to be. Classics include "Antonio das Mortes," by Glauber Rocha, and "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," by Stanley Kubrick.
The runaway success of Peter Fonda's motorcycle picture "Easy Rider," with its low- budget and improvisatory style, spawns a flood of youth movies that generally seem more energetic than inspired; the 1976 hit "Rocky" gives the trend another boost. Hugely adventurous productions like Sam Peckinpah's violent "Straw Dogs" and Robert Altman's multilayered "Nashville" give way to more conservative visions like Steven Spielberg's jolting "Jaws" and George Lucas's hugely popular "Star Wars" epic. Classics include "Seven Beauties," by Lina Wertmuller, and "A Woman Under the Influence," by John Cassavetes.
Independent filmmaking consolidates its position as a primary source of new ideas and vitality, with fresh talents ranging from Oliver Stone and Joel Coen to Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch. Americans show diminishing interest in subtitled films, but works by major directors like Ingmar Bergman and Bernardo Bertolucci make their way to commercial screens on a limited basis. Classics include "Do the Right Thing," by Spike Lee, and "Ju Dou," by Zhang Yimou.
Women and African-American filmmakers have a larger presence than in previous decades, as directors like Kathryn Bigelow and John Singleton carve out uneven yet sustained careers within Hollywood's power structure. Refreshed by an influx of younger members, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences becomes bolder in bestowing its coveted Oscars, honoring films like "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Unforgiven," which would have been considered too violent or undignified in bygone years. American pictures continue to win more than their share of prizes at the Cannes film festival, while at foreign films attendance stays scandalously low in US theaters. Classics include "JFK," by Oliver Stone, and some terrific movies everyone hopes will open next week.