Junior Moviegoers Academy: Introducing Elementary-Age Kids to Film History III

I began this series with a discussion of how I shared my love of movies with my kids, and how I used their experiences with animated movies to teach them about how motion pictures work. I continued last week describing how we explored the invention of the earliest motion picture technology, the experiences of those first audiences, and how we can still experience a sense of wonder ourselves through the magic of witnessing these vivid images of what life looked like over 100 years ago. Today, I conclude this introduction (but not the series!) with a look at how movie storytelling began to develop.

Lesson 4: Georges Melies’ Movie Magic

Crash Course Film History #4 mostly deals with Georges Melies, describing how he first became interested in motion pictures, how he discovered the possibilities of in-camera visual effects, and how several of them work. They also spend a minute or so specifically talking about A Trip to the Moon, which, as the most celebrated early narrative film, is our big focus today. My son was particularly intrigued by the famous image of the rocket landing in the moon’s eye, and he was really excited to watch it, so I wanted to play that up as much as possible.

In the spirit of playing up A Trip to the Moon, I continued with this excellent video about it by “A Matter of Film.” (The subtitle says “Film History #1,” but sadly this is the only entry in the series so far. I’d love to see more like this from them!) There’s a lot of detail here. In fact, this video exploring the movie is almost as long as the movie itself. That’s not always a good idea, but I think a lot of context is really beneficial here. I wanted to lay all of the groundwork and really prime them for the experience of watching it, and this video does that job in spades.

Next it’s finally time to actually watch the film itself. The video below, posted by “Open Culture” is a black & white, completely silent version (not even music). You could go this route, though I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. I share it here because I did show them a little bit of this one, and talked about how this is potentially the way that some audiences might have seen the movie. I talked about how these movies had no way to include any sound at all, so you might just hear the sounds of the projector and of the audience around you, but more likely you would see this with whatever music the venue could provide, whether that be one person on the piano (or even just a phonograph) or a more upscale experience with a house orchestra.

As to watching the full film, you can certainly hunt around on YouTube and look for an upload that you like, paying particular attention to the video quality and the choice of music. The version I actually showed them, and which I highly recommend, is a hand-colored print of the movie, all of which were thought lost until this one was discovered, badly deteriorated, in Spain in 1993. It was painstakingly restored and premiered at Cannes in 2011 with a new score composed by the French band Air, and it is fantastic. We are truly privileged to live in a time when this is available. It has been released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley, and there are a few different options to stream it if you hunt around. If you can track it down, it is the gold standard in my opinion, and worth your trouble. We’ve seen the hand-coloring process that was used in some early films discussed multiple times so far, and this would of course tie in with that as well.

By this point, our total time is between 40 and 50 minutes. I recommend planning this for a weekend (we did a Friday evening), because after they’ve watched A Trip to the Moon, it’s time to watch Hugo (2011). This will (I assume) be your kids’ first Scorsese film unless you parent very differently from me (and hey, you do you). Scorsese, in addition to being one of the great film directors in his own right, has an incredible passion for film history and for the preservation of classic films. Hugo is truly a beautiful love letter to the movies, and the great thing about it is that it almost works as a whole introduction to film history just on its own. But at the same time, that also makes it a perfect capstone to all that we’ve done to this point. It’s got everything . . . a lot of Melies, obviously, but also the Lumieres and their train, the technical challenges of early motion picture technology . . . There’s even a flipbook at one point!

Hugo is about 130-minutes long, so if you do all of this on the same night you’re going to spend about 3 hours all told. But if their attention span can handle it, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a great journey and really brings everything we’ve discussed vividly to life. My kids were just enthralled by the story and totally invested in the characters, and they were so excited to recognize all of the things we had talked about. Knowing all of this backstory really heightens the mystery at the heart of the film, and the story beats and plot revelations landed perfectly. It was truly an incredible experience that I will treasure to watch it with them like this.

A filmed reenactment of my kids enjoying Hugo.

A lot (though certainly not all) of Melies’ film catalogue is very kid-friendly, and I definitely recommend sharing some more of his work. I’m not including any more clips here because this session is so long as is. Now that they’ve gotten a large, concentrated dose of Melies, it’s easy to do a callback anytime. I would even just start off next time with a choice few. I particularly recommend The One-Man Band (1900) and The Man With the Rubber Head (1901) as shorts that really capture his playfulness, his sense of humor, and his genuine joy as a filmmaker and entertainer. Also, The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) is only slightly longer than A Trip to the Moon, is quite charming, and they should recognize it from Hugo.

Lesson 5: Edwin S. Porter’s Cinematic Storytelling

If you begin with a little Melies as I suggested, you’ll be pleased to know that Crash Course Film History #5 does the same before transitioning to what was going on in American film at this time. The video is mostly concerned with 3 key innovations in the language of film: cross-cutting, camera movement, and the close-up. It illustrates these with in-depth discussions of 2 key Porter films: Life of an American Fireman and the far more famous The Great Train Robbery (both 1903). And there’s even a mention of Scorsese in here! (But it’s from Goodfellas, so I’m guessing your kids won’t catch it. Again, no judgment if they do.)

I should note that this video departs from the previous chapters in the series by illustrating a point using more recent films. I’m not a huge fan of this choice for 2 reasons: First, I don’t see the need. The concept of parallel editing is clearly illustrated already in the examples from these early films. It’s not necessary to drive it home by pulling us out of the period entirely to pluck another example from the 1970s. Second, the example they use is the deservedly-famous baptism scene from The Godfather which, while a masterpiece, could pose a problem for younger viewers (aside from the ones who have seen Goodfellas). The violence in the clips they show isn’t terribly graphic, and frankly I didn’t have a huge problem with it flashing by in front of my kids, but your mileage may vary.

Next, here’s Life of an American Fireman as uploaded by Change Before Going Productions. Fireman movies were a whole genre of their own at this time, and nearly a third of the film’s runtime is devoted to just watching the fire wagons race by on their way to the fire. Based on other such films I’ve seen, it’s entirely possible that the first two exterior shots (of the wagons leaving the station, and of them rushing past on a city street) were actual footage of firemen, spliced in and reused. That second shot in particular looks like it’s in a completely different place from the following shot where they arrive at the house. In any case, the big thing to note with this movie, as mentioned by Crash Course, is the way we see the same rescue happen from two different perspectives. First we watch it play out from inside the burning room, then the film rewinds time and we watch the whole thing again from outside. This kind of loose handling of chronological time in a narrative is very characteristic of American films at this time, and markedly different from how they would develop later.

The Great Train Robbery isn’t the first western, but it’s not far off. That said, at the time this movie was made, it was fictionalizing current events, not a historical past. The frontier may have been closed, but the West was still pretty Wild. From that perspective, it’s as much a crime film as a western. Keep an eye out for the specific innovations highlighted by Crash Course above. I would also point out how much the driving force of both of these films (though particularly this one) is about the heroes racing toward a destination, whether to rescue or pursue. This is by far the most common kind of action and source of narrative tension in early American films. These are the first scenes we’ve seen that are staged shots that don’t take place on some kind of elaborate but obviously artificial set, and what a difference it makes to the energy of the movie!

This lesson is another short one, at less than 30 minutes (45 if you included the Melies films I suggested at the beginning). To me, tying everything together with Hugo feels like the real climax of this whole unit, and in fact, the close-up from The Great Train Robbery does make an appearance in that film as well. Given all that, you may think it makes more sense to move your viewing of Hugo to this point instead. I think there’s certainly a case to be made for that, but I didn’t want to close this lesson with anything that might give a sense of finality or of having tied everything up neatly. I wanted to leave this feeling open-ended rather than complete, because obviously 1903 isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

We’ve concluded with what was reportedly Thomas Edison’s favorite moving picture, and along with the Lumiere Brothers’ train and Melies’ injured moon, Porter’s menacing gunman is the one other truly lasting image from this first decade of film history, or, frankly, from the next decade. These 3 shots are our universal shorthand for the first 20 years of cinema history. If you look at most broad surveys of film history or lists of important films and milestones, it’s like nothing happened in movies between 1903 and 1915. That makes this a logical place to transition from the “introduction” portion of our approach to film history into . . . Well, where we go from here is actually a very interesting question.

I have thoughts about this that I plan to share very soon, but if you’re itching to forge ahead and looking for some direction, I do have a recommendation: Pick up on the genre threads we’ve just established and follow them. There are two obvious candidates: Science-fiction . . . say, Forbidden Planet(1956), Flight of the Navigator (1986), The Martian (2015), and Westerns . . . say, The Iron Horse (1924), Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956). However, I would give some serious thought to The Chase as a prominent recurring narrative. Buster Keaton’s brilliant The General (1926) is still in the realm of silent films, is very accessible to all ages, and is a great introduction to silent comedies. Because we aren’t done with silent film yet. Not by a long shot.

Here’s looking at you, kids.

~ by Jared on December 8, 2020.

One Response to “Junior Moviegoers Academy: Introducing Elementary-Age Kids to Film History III”

  1. […] Next Time: Movies and Storytelling […]

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