Edison - The Invention of the Movies: 1891-1918
DVD | Box Set
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An Interactive History of the Edison Company and the Invention of the Motion Picture. An unprecedented collection from Kino International and the Film/Media Department of The Museum of Modern Art together with the Library of Congress
Edison - The Invention of the Movies is a four-disc treasure trove of 140 of the first moving pictures ever seen, spanning the birth of cinema from 1891-1918. The collaboration between Kino Video and the Museum of Modern Art includes 14-second-long camera tests, early special effects, street scenes, humorous shorts, and "The Great Train Robbery," widely considered the world's first blockbuster. Arranged chronologically, the films gradually improve in technical sophistication and narrative complexity while providing riveting glimpses of American culture 100 years ago. Highlights include the slyly edited "The Gay Shoe Clerk," the phantasmagoric "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," and a film of social justice called "The Kleptomaniac." Contemporary sensibilities will be challenged by persistent racial stereotypes in a number of the films, as well as by a horrific short showing the electrocution of an elephant. The educational possibilities represented in this set are vast.
If Kino Video and MoMA had simply released these restored films on DVD, it would still be one of the notable releases of the year, but they have gone further by filling out the set with over two hours of interviews with scholars and archivists. The films can be watched with or without these explanatory interviews, which lend the kind of historical context and thoughtful analysis one finds on the best museum tours. We learn that Edison's first studio was a tar-papered contraption called "Black Maria" that could be rotated to take advantage of available sunlight. Patrick Loughney of The Library of Congress details how many of Edison's films survive on printed paper reels submitted to a copyright office that at the time had no way of cataloging film. Author Michelle Wallace provides insight on how the films represented--and perpetuated-- the stereotypes of the era. If viewers have any energy left after this erudite festival of moving images, there are more than 200 still images from MoMA's Edison Collection to browse. The film history buff's collection is simply not complete without this set. --Ryan Boudinot
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The picture quality is a bit rough, that hadn't been cleaned up (not that I expected it to be-and even "The Unbeliever"-1918- is 98 years old). I didn't bother much with the modern day interviews, they aren't captioned/subtitled so if you need to hear the dialogue turn up the volume. No way to go directly to a particular film, you have to go through the entire list. I found the best way to navigate was through "Program Notes", that way you can access everything on the DVD related to a film, some of which aren't listed on the DVD sleeve, including a few lines about each title. I'd wondered why an apparently healthy, docile, animal was killed- the notes explain it.
Most of the "movies" are under 20 minutes with the exception of "The Unbeliever" (1918)-it's about 85.
There are a few "Westerns" with "The Great Train Robbery" and the spoof "The Little Train Robbery" being the best.
Set design?, up until sometime in 1912 interiors tended to be bits of furniture with room details just painted on the walls, "The Unbeliever" is the only film that even begins to look or feel like a modern movie.
Casting? Generally White, mostly inoffensive (except for the black/watermelon stories), some Blacks cast in 1/2 dozen or so films, an Asian in about 3.
Close ups?, hardly any, usually the camera was so far off it was hard to tell just how pretty the girl was.
Funny?, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd these films sure aren't! I think I tended to like the little 1-2 minute shorts the best.
Color?!, yes, a little. This would be a blue tint for a night scene a time or two and a few cases where an individual or item was tinted (sort of startling).
My favorite bits would be exterior scenes in just about any of the films, the old time fire equipment, and the automobiles. Some of the "humor" and "drama/romance" worked too even if it wasn't modern in tone.
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