The ability to capture motion on film, which could then be replayed to audiences at any time, anywhere, was an important technological development that spanned from the Gilded Age into the postmodern era. Film both represents and shapes low and high cultures. It unites and divides audiences, and since its inception it has been one of the primary ways in which Americans express their identities and anxieties. In its short life, it has become one of the cornerstones of American popular culture.
A series of optical toys that were developed in the 1830s led to what is now referred to as “film.” It began in 1833 with Joseph Plateau's phenakistiscope. The device was a cardboard disc with 16 notches cut out of it and 16 sequential drawings or paintings placed between each notch. The viewer held the painted side of the disc facing a mirror and rotated it while looking through the notches at the reflection, which gave the effect of a moving image. Optical toys invented subsequently to the phenakistiscope included the Zoetrope (William Horner, 1834), kinematoscope (Philadelphian Coleman Sellers, 1861), and phasmotrope (also spelled phasmatrope by Henry RennoHeyl, 1870). One of the last optical toys, the praxinoscope, was created by French inventor Charles Emile Reynaud in 1877. It was a projector device with a mirrored drum that created the illusion of movement with picture strips. Thomas Edison was one of the key inventors of the era, creating the efficient incandescent light bulb in 1879, which was later used for film projectors. Edison also created one of the first known motion picture cameras.
Audience tastes soon changed, and the novelty of short, manic 15-minute films (the length of the reel) wore off in the 1910s. Filmic technology continued to evolve, and one-reel films became three-reel films. The length of the film increased as well as the size of the subject. However, the use of the classical narrative structure in film became common practice before technology extended film duration. The form of narration that was active during this time is deemed “classical” by scholars of silent film, a mode formulated around 1909, although it can be discerned as early as 1907. Explaining the term, film historians Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer state that the classical feature film is characterized by the overriding objective of telling a particular kind of story, focusing on goal-oriented characters who set in motion a series of causally linked events in which they confront and overcome, or less often are overcome by, counterforces to the achievement of their goals. In either case, the ending closes the issue definitively by resolving, usually happily but sometimes tragically, all of the tensions between the characters and their surroundings that were set up at the beginning. The first short film with a developed narrative is The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed by Edwin S. Porter. The film duration time was 12 minutes and consisted of (as the title implies) a robbery, the formation of a posse, and a final showdown in the woods. The Great Train Robbery, marketed as a reenactment film, participated in the shift from actuality to fiction. The film created the illusion of authenticity by combining actuality and reenactment and led the way for future films with narratives on the recreation of true stories.
Three years after the first narrative film, the first full-length feature film, created by Charles Tait, was filmed and released in Australia: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). It ran for approximately 70 minutes. Only 9 minutes of the original film have been recovered. The Story of the Kelly Gang is inscribed in the UNESCO International Memory of the World Register, and nearly one-quarter of the original feature film was restored by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), Canberra, Australia. The film showed reenactments of the important events of Ned Kelly's life. The first feature film with recorded musical accompaniment was Don Juan. It is best remembered as the film that introduced the Vitaphone synchronized sound process to the public. The first feature-length part-talkie was The Jazz Singer.
Generally, the term “new Hollywood” applies to American cinema after World War II, when the studio system began to collapse and commercial television began to sweep the suburban landscape. In the postwar decade, motion pictures came to be produced and sold on a film-by-film basis, and watching TV rapidly replaced going to the movies. The key to Hollywood's survival and the most important aspect of its postwar transformation has been the steady rise of the movie blockbuster. In terms of budgets, production values, and market strategy, Hollywood has been increasingly hit-driven since the early 1950s. The idea of the blockbuster reached its peak in the mid-1970s, despite (and in some ways because of) the concurrent emergence of competing media technologies including cable TV and home video (VCRs). This was the first period of sustained economic vitality and industry stability for Hollywood since the classical era.
Film historian David Bordwell argues that the classical style that reached its peak in the studio era still dominates Hollywood filmmaking. Yet whether blockbuster or story-driven, film's populist appeal lies in its ability to reach enormous audiences, quickly disseminate ideas, and create a virtual community of viewers.
See also: Capra, Frank (1897–1991) ; Electricity ; Gilded Age ; Griffith, D. W. (1875–1948), and The Birth of a Nation (1915) ; Leisure ; Popular Culture ; Progressivism ; Reagan, Ronald, Populist Rhetoric of
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