Movie Course: Understanding Movies by Raphael Shargel, Lesson 1

This series follows the film course Understanding Movies by Raphael Shargel. To view all the parts I completed, visit this page.

Although I didn't finish the whole series as hoped, I did finish 3 parts. As part of my foray into movie reviewing, I decided to learn more about the history of film. Now, let me tell you, I think I have watched a lot of movies. I made it my goal to watch the AFI 100 best movies and did so (the 1998 list). But there is a gap between someone who just watches a lot of movies and someone who understands the history and grammar of film. Luckily, I work at a library and have resources at my fingertips. I found Understanding Movies: The Art and History of Film. It is taught by Professor Raphael Shargel from Providence College. It is an audio course. You listen to chapters on CD, each one including a brief lesson. You are also asked to view some movies in light of what Professor Shargel has just discussed, and there are discussion questions. Each chapter covers a period of movie history.

Chapter 1 was on the Origins of Cinema and the Grammar of Film. Shargel begins by discussing the dualist nature of film. It is the most real and most false of the arts, he says. It seems the most real because it includes the visual sense. We think we are viewing real life in a well made film. On the other hand, it is completely a false vision. What you think are movements are actually a rapid succession of still photos that make the image appear to be moving. There are about 24 frames a second. You may remember as a child seeing the large film reels. Each reel was made of long chains of still photos. Compare this to say a comic book or graphic novel. In comic strips, the artist also uses individual still frames, but the reader must use his imagination to fill in the spaces between each frame. Thus, film seems more real than comic strips.

He also says that film is a unique art form in that it is meant to be watched in community. Films are made to be shared, discussed, and critiqued. In this way, it is a very social art form. Also, movies are made to be watched on the large movie house screens. When you watch older films on a regular TV, even if it is a huge flat screen, the images you see can appear small and unimpressive. When that same image is viewed on a large movie house screen, the grandeur the director intended are much more apparent in these panoramic type of shots.

Now here's the fun part: the movies for chapter 1.

He talks about three major filmmakers: the Lumiere brothers, Georges Melies, and D.W. Griffith.

The Lumiere Brothers are considered the fathers of the documentary movie. There are two major films Shargel mentions: Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. The first is just a crowd of people leaving work. The second is a train arriving at a station. It is said that when they showed the train film in a theater, audience members dove for the floor because the train looked so real to them. Here are both films.

Georges Melies, on the other hand, made films of fantasy. Here is a Trip to the Moon, which is the first science fiction movie ever made. It is quite funny. It involves showgirls, scientists, the man on the moon, and strange aliens who explode when you bop them with your umbrella.

I also found a Smashing Pumpkins music video for Tonight, which borrows fiercely from Melies. Pretty amazing. I never realized Smashing Pumpkins was so versed at film history.

Finally, there is D.W. Griffith, who made several films, but whose most famous and controversial movie is Birth of a Nation. I watched this film a few years ago. You can watch it as a piece of history. It is a silent movie with many tableau shots (just a camera filming one person like they are a fly on a wall). It has fierce battles of war and was the first movie to make the long tracking shot famous. It is also unapologetically racist. The Klu Klux Klan are shown to be heroes. The pre-Civil War American South is portrayed as an idyllic fairy land that will never be seen from again. You could call it the ancestor of Gone with the Wind. You can watch the entire Birth of a Nation on Youtube. Here is just one segment.

I am excited about this film series and think I will learn a lot. I will post after every chapter. Feel free to leave comments or suggestions about points I am missing.


Anonymous said…
"Now, let me tell you, I think I have watched a lot of movies. I made it my goal to watch the AFI 100 best movies and did so (until they updated the list in 2007). But there is a gap between someone who just watches a lot of movies and someone who understands the history and grammar of film."

I think we're in the same boat!