The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 27, 2000
Lead Article

From a humble beginning in the fairground, cinema has risen to become a billion-dollar industry and one of the most spectacular and original contemporary arts.

A century of world cinema
By Abhilaksh Likhi

IT has been a momentous century for the evolution of cinema world over. It was the first and is arguably still the greatest of the industrialised art forms which have dominated the cultural life of the 20th century. From a humble beginning in the fairground it has risen to become a billion dollar industry and one of the most spectacular and original contemporary arts. As a technology, however, it has been in existence for barely a hundred years. Primitive cinematic devices like the ‘cinematograph’, ‘vitascope’ and ‘bioscope’ came into being and began to be exploited in the 1890s almost simultaneously in the USA, France, Germany and Great Britain.

The success of Titanic created a world record Originally formed from a fusion of elements including vaudeville, popular melodrama and the illustrated lecture, cinema rapidly acquired artistic distinctiveness as the ‘seventh art’. The latter status has now begun to wear out as other forms of mass communication and entertainment like television have emerged alongside it to threaten its hegemony.

Although the German and British pioneers have been credited with the invention of cinema, it was the French followed by the Americans who were the most ardent exporters of the new invention helping to implant it in China, Japan, Latin America and Russia. In terms of artistic developments, it was again the French and the Americans who took the lead, though in the years preceding World Wars, Italy, Denmark and Russia also played a crucial part.

  In the USA, the new Hollywood studios flooded films in the world market in the years after World War-I, and have done so ever since. Hollywood films appealed because they had better constructed narratives and their effects were more grandiose. In addition the star system added a new dimension to screen acting. While film-makers like D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) and Cecil B. Dimille (The Ten Commandments) innovated the fundamentals of film-making, stars like Mary Pickford, and Douglous Fairbanks became the most famous cultural icons in the world. And where Hollywood did not lead from its own resources, it brought up artist and technical innovations from Europe to ensure its continued dominance over present and future competition. Film-maker Victor Sjostrom (The Scarlet Letter, The Wind) and Maurice Stiller (Eroticon) were lured away from Sweden just as Ernest Lubitsch (The Marriage Birds, Forbidden Paradise) and FW Munrau (Sunrise, City Girls) from Germany.

During the early days of the silent era, the evolution of cinema was a hotch-potch of mingling actualities, comic stretches, free standing narratives, serial episodes and the occasional trick or the animated film. It was only shortly before World War-I and with the coming of the feature-length narrative, that cinema acquired the character of a narrative spectacle which has principally defined it ever since. Of the genres emerging out of early cinema, it was only slapstick comedy that successfully developed in both the short and the feature formats. While Charlie Chaplin and Buston Keaton made a successful transition to features in the 1920s, the majority of silent comedians including Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy built their careers in the silent period almost entirely around the short film.

Charlie Chaplin and partner Mark Swain in The GoldrushOf the countries which developed and managed to sustain distinctive national cinemas in the silent period, the most important were France, Germany and Soviet Russia. The German cinema exploded on the world scene with the expressionist Cabinet of Dr Caligiri in 1919 and succeeded in harnessing a wide spectrum of artistic energies into new cinematic forms. Director Albert Capellani and comedian Max Linder kept the flag of French cinema flying high in films like The Law of Pardon. Soviet Russia saw the emergence of expressive movement and montage in Sergie Eisenstein’s, The Battleship Potemkin. Film-makers Ciel Hephworth in Britain, Carl Dreyer in Denmark and Charles Magnusson in Sweden contributed towards evolution of myriad genres in silent films.

In Japan, with Daisuko Ito’s films, developed the remarkable institution of Benshi who both commented on the action in a silent film and also spoke the dialogue. However, universal through out the silent era were musical accompaniments, which ranged from improvisation on an out of tune piano to full orchestral scores by composers like Joseph Carl Breil and Paul Montimer Wilson. The silent period was indeed marked by widespread circulation of cinematic ideas and new approaches to filmic expression continued to find their way across geographical boundaries.

The end of the 1920s revolutionised cinema with the creation of synchronised sound dialogue. This began in the USA and spread to the rest of the world. The beginning was made with the immortal lines of Al Johnson in October 1927 in the film The Jazz Singer. Sound indeed affected films’ form and the structure of the industry in equal measure.The old silent comedy was replaced by the wise-cracking of Mae West and the Marx Brothers.

Play wrights and script writers assumed new importance. An entirely new genre — the musical film — came into being. The visual style became somewhat cramped as a result of the new inflexible technology. Hollywood suffered a temporary setback in overseas markets because audiences demanded dialogue in their own language. Small nations like Hungary, Netherlands and Norway, formerly dependent on film imports, enjoyed and unexpected renaissance of national film production.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) treated the Vietnam war as a larger psychodrama, where virtually everyone is a casualty.Czechoslovakia witnessed a boom in film making the success of which was surpassed only by India, where films like Alam Ara, Duniya Na Mane, Anmol Ghadi integrated musical numbers with action scenes thus reconciling cinema with long-standing popular traditions. Without sound, India might not have become the world’s largest producer of motion picture. However, the main effect of the coming of sound was the consolidation of the studio system in the USA, exemplified by productions like Walt Disney’s Snow white and the seven dwarfs, David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind and MGM’s The Wizard of Qz. The Warner Bros. coalesced around its steady output of crime dramas and gangster films with James Gagney and Edward.G. Robinson. Films became an increasingly industrial product while the boundaries of the industry extended to overlap with the burgeoning music recording business.

After the war in 1945, Hollywood, acted quickly to regain the overseas market threatened mainly by the Italian neorealist movement that demonstrated the possibility of a freer, less studio-bound type of cinema. Crucial to this era was the evolution of various genres in Hollywood by directors who came to be associated with a distinctive visual treatment of their works — Alfred Hitchcock (horror), John Ford (Western), Vincente Minnellie (musical) and Howard Hawks (crime). Films like The Dawn Patrol, Stage Coach, The 39 steps, Casablanca, Swing Time and Broadway Melody shaped a world culture of cinema that was valued both for its entertaining and artistic qualities.

As in Hollywood, this period constituted the classical era of French cinema too wherein films like Le Million and La Grande Illusion depicted poetic realism to the core-featuring pessimistic narratives, nighttime settings and a dark contrasted visual style prefiguring American film noir. In Italy, the two most significant directors to emerge were Vittorio De Sica, (Bicycle Thieves) and Robert Rosellini (Paisa) — championing the neorealist poetics of every day life of a common man.

While British cinema explored the most exuberant myths of a glorious imperial Britain through Alexander Korda’s works (The Private life of Henry VIII), German cinema saw the systematic abuse of films formative powers through the works of Juis Trenker (The Prodigal Son). In Eastern Europe, the Czech and Slovak soil saw the emergence of "cinema of small realism" with Antonin Frencel’s Little Heart of Gold. Soviet Russia saw the emergence of Alexander Dovzhenko as a chronicler of economic and political developments in his country. In Japan, film-makers like K.Mizoquchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa (Rashamon) adopted a western style of construction to examine dramatically the subject of human nature. Sound cinema also made successful inroads into China, Australia and Latin America.

  The release of Gone with The Wind was a major milestone in cinematic historyWith innovation in the technique of deep focus, cinematography and fascination of form giving way to concern for content, cinema further explored its original ability to excite and inform spectators. With the disintegration of the Hollywood Studio system in 1960, new companies stepped in to churn successes like, The Sound of Music, Lawrence of Arabia, God Father, 2001: A Space Oddysey and The Excorcist. Many independent film-makers like David Lean, Nicholas. Ray, Fritzland, and Stanely Kubrick used this creative freedom to evolve raw and more distinctive styles in film making.

In Europe, however, the most important single event was the sudden explosion of the French New Wave — Novelle Vogue — with first features by Claude Chabrol, Francois Traffaut, JJ Godard and Alain Renasis. In Italy the change occurred with the release of Federico Fellini’s Ladolce Vita, M. Antoniono’s L’ avventura and Bernaud Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution signalling the definite demise of neorealism and arrival of new art cinema. Eastern Europe, China, Latin America and Japan also experienced change but outside Italy and France, the new cinema was not a mass market phenomenon.

By the late 70s, the effervesence of the New Cinema began to subside. It either became marginal or was absorbed into the mainstream. In the process, the mainstream was renovated not only in Europe but also in the USA, wherein a new cine-literate generation of film-makers — Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Speilberg, Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron etc emerged to evolve a new genre of conventions on screen. With them also emerged the film style of producing star studded, high action blockbusters such as The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno a tradition that lives in films like Jurrassic Park and the very successful Titanic. Indeed the very basis of the success of new Hollywood was the regular production of genre films: those that could be most easily packaged and sold on a mass scale to the audience around the world.

Central to this trend was also the sequel. By the 1990s there have been five Rockys, three Rambos, four supermans, five Halloweens and eight Friday the 13ths. On the contrary French Cinema has seen the emergence of directors like J.J. Beineix (Betty Blue) and Luc Bresson, (Nikita) whose works have been influenced by the aesthetics of commercials and rock videos.

One of the several different posters designed for the first public film shows presented by the Lumiere Brothers in Paris in 1895-96Italian neo-realism has been injected with popular success in films of Bernado Bertolucci like Little Buddha and The Besieged — a mix of relaxed rhythm interrupted by explosions of violent intensity. The Heritage Film epitomised by the works of Ismail Merchant and James lvory now proves to have immense box office draws in Britain with films like The Howards End. German cinema, in the tradition of R.W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders continuous to focus on the multicultural experience within Germany’s own borders in films like Terror 2000. The cinema of East Europe has continued to perform its social role through films of film-makers like Andrej Wajda (Man of Iron) and Roman Polanski (Moon lighting). With the onset of ‘glasnost’, Russia has seen the last works of film-makers like Andrie Tarkovsky whose filmic world had the power, mystery and essential reality of a dream.

Indian cinema, that achieved worldwide critical acclaim though the pioneering work of Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali) has now been catapulted into the international market through the works of Indian film-makers like Shekhar Kapoor (Bandit Queen, Elizabeth) Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Kamasutra) and Deepa Mehta, (Fire, Earth).

The 1990s have also witnessed the reemergence of Greek cinema through Theo Angelopoulous Eternity And a Day in the Arab world. Iranian cinema has stood out with works of directors like Dariush Mehrijui (The Pear Tree) and Mojtaba Raei (Birth of a Butterfly) for their poetic treatment of life. Director Claude Chabrol’s Swindle and Robert Benigini’s Life is Beautiful have broughtforth the freshness of humour and humanity in contemporary French and Italian cinema respectively. There is another interesting facet to this new world which is gradually surfacing in cinema today. More and more film-makers are painting a world where women hold centre-stage.

With multiplexes replacing ordinary cinemahalls world over and fast changing innovations in film technology, "Hollywoodisation" of world cinema is an accomplished fact. But as this century draws to an end, world cinema has to explore whether there are any possibilities of a fusion between Hollywood and non-Hollywood film styles and production modes. Or should film makers, especially in Europe and the Third World retreat more into heritage and culture-specific cinematic possibilities that American films cannot reproduce? An urgency in dealing with contemporary problems of politics, youth, morality and life styles would need to be focused upon as national cinemas emerge stronger in today’s socio-cultural context.