Movies for the masses

2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the cinema industry. In 1905 (according to this film history timeline, and this article on film), the world's first movie theatre opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The first ever motion picture, called "The Oberammergau Passion", was produced in 1898. What does all this mean? Movies have now been around for 108 years. They're older than almost anyone alive today. They're a part of the lives of all of us, and of everyone we know. The movie is one of the 20th century's greatest triumphs. Compared with other great inventions of the age - such as the atomic bomb - when it comes to sheer popularity, the movie wins hands down.

I've had an amazing vision of something that is bound to happen, very soon, in the world of movies. I will explain my vision at the end. If you're really impatient, then feel free to skip my ramblings, and cut to the chase. Otherwise, I invite you to read on.

Rambling review of American Epic

I just finished watching Part 1 of Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic (on ABC TV). DeMille was one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I watched this documentary because DeMille produced The Ten Commandments, which is one of my favourite movies of all time. When I saw the ad for this show a few nights ago - complete with clips from the movie, and some of the most captivating music I've ever heard (the music from the movie, that is) - I knew I had to watch it.

This documentary revealed quite a few interesting things about Cecil B. DeMille. Here are the ones that stayed with me:

  • In his 50+ years of movie-making, he produced an astounding 70+ feature films!
  • He was actually a failed playwright and actor, who turned to film as an act of desperation. His failure in the world of theatre filled him with an incredible ambition and drive for the rest of his life.
  • He founded Hollywood. That's right: when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1913, Hollywood was a sleepy village with nothing but farmland around it. He set up the first movie studio ever in Hollywood. He chose to establish himself in the town, because the scenery of the area was just what he needed to film his first movie (The Squaw Man).
  • He first produced The Ten Commandments in 1923. All those countless times I've watched the 1956 version (I watch it at least once every year): and never once did I realise or suspect that it was actually the second version that he made. The documentary shows clips from the original film, and it's uncanny how striking the resemblances are. The 'day of exodus' scene, the 'chariot chase' scene, and the famous 'splitting of the sea' scene, all look pretty much the same as their later equivalents, just with way worse special effects and no sound.
  • When he produced The King of Kings in 1927, it originally portrayed the Children of Israel as being responsible for the death of dear old Brian (AKA Jesus). But the outcry from the American Jewish community at the time was so severe, the ending had to be changed before the film was released.
  • Although his mother was Jewish - and although his biggest film ever was the story of the birth of the Jewish people - he was apparently a tad bit anti-semitic. He considered himself to be a devout Christian, and somewhat resented his Jewish blood. He wouldn't let one of his relatives appear in any of his films, or in any photographs associated with them, because she had a 'Jewish nose' (hey, I know all about that, I know just how she feels!).

Anyway, most of the documentary was about DeMille's work producing silent films, during the 1913-1929 period. Watching these films always gives me a weird feeling, because I've always considered film to be a 'modern' medium, and yet to me, there's absolutely nothing modern about these films. They look ancient. They are ancient. They're archaeological relics. They may as well belong in the realms of Shakespeare, and Plato, and all the other great works of art that are now in the dim dark past. We give these old but great works a benevolent name (how generous of us): we call them classics.

But even at the very start of his producer / director career, the hallmarks of DeMille's work are clear; the same hallmarks that I know and love so well, from my many years of fondness for The Ten Commandments. Even in his original silent, black-and-white-not-even-grey, who-needs-thirty-frames-in-a-second-anyway films, you can see the grandeur, the lavish costumes, the colossal sets, the stunning cast, and the incontestible dignity that is a DeMille movie.

Cut to the chase

Watching all this stuff about the dawn of the film industry, and the man that made Hollywood's first feature films, got me thinking. I thought about how old all those movies are. Old, yet still preserved in the dusty archives of Paramount Pictures (I know because the credits of the documentary said so). Old, yet still funny, still inspiring, still able to be appreciated. Old, but not forgotten.

I wondered if I could get any of these old, silent films from the 1920s (and before) on video or DVD. Probably not, I thought. I wondered if I could get access to them at all. The 1923 original of The Ten Commandments, in particular, is a film that I'd very much like to see in full. But alas, no doubt the only way to access them is to go to the sites where they're archived, and pay a not-too-shabby fee, and have to use clunky old equipment to view them.

Have you ever heard of Project Gutenberg? They provide free, unlimited access to the full text of over 15,000 books online. Most of the books are quite old, and they are able to legally publish them online royalty-free, because the work's copyright has expired, due to lapse of time since the author's death. Project Gutenberg FAQ 11 says that as a general rule, works published in the USA pre-1923 no longer have copyright (this is a rough guideline - many complicated factors will affect this figure on a case-by-case basis).

Project Gutenberg's library consists almost entirely of literary text at the moment. But the time is now approaching (if it hasn't arrived already) when the world's oldest movies will lose their copyright, and will be able to be distributed royalty-free to the general public. Vintage films would make an excellent addition to online archives such as Project Gutenberg. These films are the pioneers of a century of some of the richest works of art and creativity that man has ever produced. They are the pioneers of the world's favourite medium of entertainment. They should be free, they should be online, and they should be available to everyone.

When this happens (and clearly it's a matter or when, not if), it's going to be a fantastic step indeed. The educational and cultural value of these early films is not to be underestimated. These films are part of the heritage of anyone who's spent their life watching movies - that would be most of the developed world.

These films belong to the masses.

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