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novelty of motion not enough in filming industry

  B. The Emergence of Film Genres It was soon found that the novelty of motion alone was not enough to attract audiences. Some subjects appe...


B. The Emergence of Film Genres It was soon found that the novelty of motion alone was not enough to attract audiences. Some subjects appealed more than others - prize fights were special, public events were popular when they included world leaders, celebrities, natural disasters and other happenings known to the public through newspaper headlines. It did not seem to matter much to audiences whether these pictures were real or invented. Enterprising producers fabricated scenes of all the wars of the early twentieth century - against the Boxer Rebels in China, between Britain and the Boers in South Africa, between Spain and the United States, and between Japan and Russia. The French filmmaker George Méliès specialized in recreating events, taking pains to research his real life subject. He made a point of advertising his product as “Artificially Arranged Scenes.”A famous example was his version of the coronation of King Edward VII in 1901, filmed in a studio in France for the British Gaumont company (Fielding, 1972).

 In 1905 the first nickelodeon opened in America, a move to fixed locations dedicated solely to motion picture projection that rapidly spread all over the country. Makers of dramatic film entertainment began to use a new visual language. Close-ups, camera movement, conventions of realism depending on visual continuity and screen space - the practice of editing itself - were techniques developed to increase the effectiveness of fictional drama. Nonfiction film had to adopt the same conventions. While fictional dramas steadily gained the ascendancy in motion picture production in the United States, nonfiction films or actualités, as the French called them, remained popular in Europe. Regular newsreels appeared in Europe in 1910 and in the United States in 1911, with the French Pathé company taking the initiative. Most of the major production companies in France, Britain and America followed suit. This nonfiction form rapidly established itself as a genre throughout the world, only to be displaced from movie theaters with the growth of television after World War II. C. The First Documentaries Motion pictures of “current events, ” as the American Vitagraph newsreel was first called, were not intended to make a social comment. The idea of using moving pictures as a living record for didactic purposes came from still photographers. One of the first to do so was Herbert Ponting, a photographer with an international reputation based on travels in Europe, Asia, and the Far East. The trade press described him as a “record photographer,” meaning one who specialized in documentary images. Invited by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to join the British South Polar Expedition of 1910-12 as its official photographer, Ponting added two motion picture cameras to his equipment and underwent quick training in how to use them. The expedition ended in disaster when Captain Scott and four companions died on their 900 miles return from the South Pole where they found that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had forestalled them by 34 days. Ponting accompanied the polar party for a few miles only from their base at McMurdo Sound, but he had the foresight to film four of them demonstrating how they would travel, hitched to a sled by day and cramped into one tent 8 at night. Ponting’s motion picture coverage of the expedition was comprehensive. It included scenes on the voyage out to Antarctica, human interest sequences of life at the base, and action shots of penguins, seals, gulls and killer whales. The tragic fate of the polar party gave these records, together with other documentary material found with Scott’s body, enormous emotional power. Skillfully weaving them into a dramatic narrative, “With Captain Scott in the Antarctic,” Ponting filled a lecture hall in London for 10 months in 1914. Many people returned more than once to hear him. He performed for the royal family at Buckingham Palace. His script, film, and slides were so well put together that others could perform in his place. In the early months of World War I his films were sent to France where they made a big impression on British troops waiting to move into the trenches. The war itself, however, soon claimed the public’s attention and became the focus of nonfiction films, nearly all of which served a propaganda purpose. In Britain four films of big battles were released in 1916 and 1917. Spurred on by messages from King George V and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, they were said to be excellent vehicles for recruiting. Ponting meanwhile remained committed to Scott’s memory. In 1921, he published The Great White South, a book illustrated with over 160 of his photographs telling the same story as his lecture, and in 1924 he released The Great White Silence, a seven reel film about the expedition. Finally in 1933 he produced a sound version of the same material, 

Ninety Degrees South, which he narrated himself. Ponting appears on camera wearing a tuxedo to introduce this version, giving modern viewers an idea of his documentary performance. Curtis went further even than Ponting. His introduction to documentary still photography came when he was invited to join the Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899 as their photographer. For his North American Indian project he made sound recordings of the music and chanting of the tribes he was photographing. In 1904, he began using a motion picture camera for special tribal activities, mostly dances which outsiders were seldom allowed to witness (Gidley, 1998). His 1911-12 lectures became elaborate multimedia performances. He called them a “musicale.”

 A nine-piece orchestra accompanied his presentation of slides and motion pictures with music transcribed from his recordings, while Curtis’ program notes expanded the “documental value” of all this material. In 1914 Curtis completed his full length motion picture which he titled In the Land of the Head-Hunters. Curtis’ script called for the Kwakiutl people to dress themselves as they might have done in the past and enact a drama of love, magic, and intertribal fighting in which ornaments, buildings, dances and make-believe head-hunting would illustrate tribal life in earlier times. The film was not a commercial success and for half a century it disappeared from sight. But in the 1960s, ethnographers from the University of Washington recovered portions of it, returning it to circulation with a new title, In the Land of the War Canoes (Holm and Quimby, 1980).

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