A History of Cinema

Through the 1960s

by piero scaruffi


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A quick summary...

The first auteurs of cinema were French.
Melies and Feuillade interpreted cinema as a medium to deliver the visual equivalent of the feuilleton. In Italy, the colossal was born with Pastrone. In the United States Griffith, Ince and DeMille founded cinematic art based on action and montage.

Scandinavian Naturalism was the first movement worth of the name. Sjostrom, Stiller and Dreyer revolutionized the medium by using it to ponder human destiny as much as to show a story.

German expressionism went further in investigating the human soul. The likes of Murnau and Lang combined environment and psychology in frightening visions of a decadent humanity. Expressionism also brought a new concept of lighting.

French surrealism was influential in removing the dogma of theatrical unity that had reigned over cinema. Epstein, L'Herbier, Gance, Cocteau, Vigo reached for the abstract and introduced dreamy sequences. Clair capitalized on the irreverence and applied it to comedy. The spaniard Bunuel emerged from this school.

Russian futurism pushed the storytelling further beyond traditional concepts of theater. The triad of Ejzenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzenko engaged in monumental works in which montage left nothing untried.

Germany reacted to expressionism' gloom with the realist movement of "New Objectivity", whose main proponent was Pabst.

But Europe's intellectual cinema was being challenged by the Hollywood "genres", similar to the medieval narrative genres. It started in apparent humility with the slapstick comedy, but characters such as Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers were as much philosophers as they were clowns. Because of the nature of the slapstick, they were also forced to experiment with the cinematic medium and, basically, reinvent it.

A lasting contribution to Hollywood came from the European expatriats that came from Austria and Germany in the years following the collapse of the empires. Stroheim, Curtiz, Lubitsch, Milestone, Sternberg and Mamoulian outgunned American directors with their deeply moving and disturbing stories, that often shunned the conventions of Hollywood and the happy ending.

Other popular genres from the roaring twenties through the forties were melodrama (Borzage, Stahl, Vidor), horror (Browning, Whale, Schoedsack, Freund, Lewton), musical (Berkeley, Bacon), gangster (Leroy)

In the meantime France produced poetic realism (Duvivier, Feyder, Jouvet, Gremillon, Carne` and Renoir), and Russia had social realism.

Hollywood's comedy evolved into the "sophisticated comedy" of Hawks, Cukor, McCarey, Capra and Sturges.

The western rapidly evolved from a stereotyped genre to the metaphysical masterpieces of King, Ford, Walsh, Wellman.

Japan's cinema came to prominence after the war with the intensely personal work of the "Shimnu Geki" auteurs: Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa, Kinoshita, etc.

French existentialism was well represented in cinema by Ophuls, Becker, Clouzot, and Bresson.

One of the most influential movements of the post-war era was Italian neorealism, that included Camerini, Blasetti, DeSica, Rossellini, Visconti.

India's booming industry found its first major director in Ray.

British cinema was equally divided between comedy (Hamer, Mackendrick) and thriller (Hitchcock, Reed).

Post-war Scandinavia was the theater of a complex rumination on human destiny, that peaked with Bergman's monumental career.

Italy's comedy was among the most original comic expressions of the time, led by humble directors such as Monicelli. The "spaghetti western" had its greatest visionary in Leone.

Russia opened again to the West in the 1950s and scores of directors were able to make important movies (Kalatozov, Abuladze, Paradzanov, Cuchraj, Bondarcuk, Chutsiev, Sengelaja). This led to a rebirth of soviet cinema and to the international recognition of Ioseliani, Michalkov, Suksin, and the greatest of all, Tarkovskij.

Italy's neorealism evolved into a cinema of issues and of psychological introspection that ranked Antonioni, Fellini, Olmi, Scola, Ferreri, Taviani, Bertolucci.

The French "nouvelle vague" had similar objectives, although it was more closely related to a revision of Hollywood's genres (Melville, Chabrol, Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Malle, Rohmer).

British "new cinema" was similarly intellectual and ambitious, but the greatest achievement of that generation (Richardson, Reisz, Schlesinger, Anderson) may be that they prepared the scene for the far more original generation of Watkins, Loach, Russell, Boorman, Roeg, Ridley and Greenway.

In the 1960s, Japanese "sensism" (Imamura, Oshima), German "neue kino" (Schlondorff, Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders), Czech "nova vlna" (from Forman to Svankmajer), the Hungarian school (Jancso, Szabo), the Polish schol (Borowczyc, Wajda, Polansky, Skolimowski, Zanussi) signaled the internationalization of cinema.

The Balkans also expressed world-level talents, especially Guney, Angelopoulos and Kusturica.

Spain and Portugal suffered from two of the longest dictatorships and had to wait until the 1970s to see the emergence of major talents (Almodovar in Spain and especially DeOliveira in Portugal). Latin American directors include Ruiz and Jodorowsky.

Australia and New Zealand were long emarginated but Weir, Beresford, Schepisi have established their cinema internationally.

Hollywood, in the meantime, kept crunching out genre movies. Musical was reinvented by Minnelli, Donen, Sidney, Fosse, Wise. Melodrama had Sirk and Wyler. Comedy's great directors were Lewis, Wilder, Mankiewicz, Quine, Edwards. The Western became a decandent genre with the strong works of Boetticher, Mann, Peckinpah, Brooks, Hellman. Crime movie turned into a stark indictment of society with the films of Litvak, Preminger, Dassin, Polonsky, Ray, Fuller. Siegel, Huston and Aldrich created epics of their own.

The American avantgarde was mainly represented by left-wing directors that were persecuted as much as their Soviet counterparts: Dmytryk, Rossen, Robson, Kramer, Losey.

The French film noir conquered America via the films of Hathaway, Siodmak and, above all, Welles.

New York saw the blooming of one of the world's most experimental schools, that eventually gave the great cinematic personas of Pakula, Mulligan, Zinnemann, Cassavetes, and especially Kazan.


My old Italian book (1980s)

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )