American Film History: Selected Readings, Origins to 1960

This authoritative selection of introductory and really expert readings explores the wealthy and leading edge historical past of this era in American cinema. Spanning a necessary diversity of topics from the early 1900s Nickelodeon to the decline of the studio method within the Nineteen Sixties, it combines a wide ancient context with cautious readings of person motion pictures.

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The systematic layout of the domestic space renders its eventual violation by the intruders both immediately comprehensible and palpably disturbing. Here, more than in any other Biograph to date, Griffith relies on the principle of repetition to reinforce spatial relations. While the taut crosscutting alternating between adjacent spaces represents this principle at its most refined, repeated spaces permeate the film’s entire structure. As Gunning has pointed out, The Lonely Villa possesses the greatest number of shots of any Biograph film up to this time (52), but only 12 different camera positions, with four of them used only once (1999a, 143).

But the early American avant-garde did far more than document cities. Like its European influence, it frequently used the frame not for verisimilitude but for abstraction, preferring the symbolic rather than the indexical potential of the medium. In The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra (1928), Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich satirize the movie business, depicting a man whose dreams of stardom turn nightmarish when he is transformed into a numbered, mechanized Hollywood extra. Shot by Gregg Toland, the film intercuts expressionist iconography, miniatures, and images of the real Hollywood.

The transition to sound may have been smoothly accommodated by the Hollywood mode of production and it certainly secured rather than destabilized the major studios’ domination of the domestic and world markets, but it changed forever what audiences expected and got every time they went to the movies. Synchronized sound gave filmmakers a new and powerful tool to advance realism – the ricochet of bullets, the screeching of tires, the tapping of dancing feet – and restored to acting the volume and inflections of voice.

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