Magazine article USA TODAY

The Top 10 for the 20th Century: Film

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Top 10 for the 20th Century: Film

Article excerpt

It is commonplace to those who love the cinema to regard it the great visionary art form of the 20th century. Yet, the real cultural enrichment that it has provided--merging painting, literature, drama, dance, and music--becomes lost as the movies devolve into a cheap visual entertainment at the multiplex. It is impossible to sum up what the cinema has done for this often tragic century, with its diminished notion of culture and human enrichment, and tougher still to suggest the greatness of the medium against a postmodern backdrop that frames all accomplishments within snide ironic quotation marks. Its history is both the triumph of an incredibly powerful artistic medium and the history of a terrible sellout, and I want to take a look at people and developments that encapsulate both.

The Lumiere Brothers and George Melies. With their "actualities," Louis and Auguste Lumiere, pragmatic businessmen of the 1890s, introduced to French audiences the cinema as a way of making everyday reality look magical. Those spectators to the Lumieres' cinematograph were thrilled at a baby having breakfast and terrified at the sight of a train headed toward the audience as it entered the station. George Melies, a stage magician, used primitive special effects to assure that the cinema shouldn't be concerned with reclaiming reality, but transforming it, the screen becoming a portal to a new dimension. These early filmmakers set up the cinema's essential "debate": Is it about telling the troth or offering fascinating, reassuring lies?

Thomas Edison and the East Coast cinema. Edison arguably is credited too much in the creation of the cinema, particularly since his major film inventions were the work of technicians like W.K.L. Dickson, and Edison's monopoly moved a thriving East Coast film industry into that Los Angeles suburb called Hollywood. Edison's sense of the movies as a minor cheap thrill for the illiterate masses seems to inform the whole history of American film.

D.W. Griffith. The first major Hollywood director, the man who "invented" the commercial cinema, represents all the contradictions of films in America. He was an incredibly instinctive artist, yet his first epic, "The Birth of a Nation," represents not only a racist vision of the nation, but the spectacularization of the medium (in 1914), to the detriment of ideas and intelligent exposition. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, with their "casts of thousands," were the precursors of the current special effects cinema designed to "wow" the viewer.

The Soviet avant-garde. For those who view the former Soviet Union as always a monolithic monster, a look at Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" and Sergei Eisenstein's "Strike" may be instructive. For a short time, the October Revolution flourished as a seat of artistic modernism, its key practitioners the authors of the roles of filmmaking which today remain standard.

Buster Keaton. I am a Keaton partisan in the debate over whether he or Charlie Chaplin prevails as the dean of American comedy. Not only is Keaton's comedy sublime, it represents filmmaking at its most graceful, spontaneous, and fluid. Keaton, a hue primitive, could not be a more intuitive and exacting artist, an authentic cinematic genius. …

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