I’m not going to do these in order, but we might as well start at the beginning.
You might enjoy picturing yourself watching the birth of cinema, each shot a bold prediction of what might come in the future of the form. You can feel all smart and accomplished as you cross these off your list and later notice homages by big names. Others have claimed to really learn a lot from them and even that they enjoyed these movies.
They’re lying to you. Movies from the 1920s and earlier are basically all unwatchable. Without sound they’re unnerving. None of the acting can be taken seriously. On top of that, you’ll see a guy mouthing and then it cuts to a separate shot just to show you what he said. If anyone gets more than 15 minutes through Battleship Potemkin, they are either trying way to hard or have to write a paper about it.
Great news! None of this matters because watching ancient movies isn’t required to appreciate their importance. You also don’t need to drive a Model T to work for a week to understand they were important to automobile history. Just read about it. If someone says some movie invented shooting a conversation from two angles, take their word for it. Great job everyone, you nailed it. That totally caught on.
Earlier I mentioned that the acting can’t be taken seriously. To be fair, many of the most touted figures were comedians, so they were trying not to be taken seriously. I haven’t really sought those movies out. Check out a couple clips of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton on YouTube to see them predate Bugs Bunny and Jackie Chan respectively. I felt like I got the gist but if you’re more interested in comedy history let me know how they are.
The two movies I really enjoyed from the 1920s are coincidentally the only ones I’ve finished. If you think I missed some, sorry, I’ve avoided them because I’m an uncultured plebe.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
This is the story of Joan of Arc’s imprisonment and trial by the church. It’s shot in a way that makes you feel trapped along with Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan. She can plead and fear and agonize with the best of ’em. The camera is all up in her business to catch that, which apparently was unusual at the time. Church dudes argue, accuse, and just generally are haters throughout. It’ll make you feel for her, and they kept it simple enough that it isn’t distractingly dated.
This movie is a bit slow and distant feeling but has plenty of upsides. It’s kinda cool to have a connection to the past within another connection to the past. Watching something this old does make you think differently about how movies are made and what’s necessary in the movies people make now. Could they get away with way less dialogue? Is it better to be told how someone feels or really see them feeling it? Or even to feel it with them?
It’s the birth (basically) of movie sci-fi, directed by Fritz Lang. The son of a powerful man discovers the oppressive world of the underclass that keeps his way of life going. A prophetic girl pulls him into their uprising, but his father has the girl kidnapped. He plans to ruin the movement’s reputation by copying her likeness onto a killer robot. It’s pretty sweet.
The characters are lively and you are invited to join their just anger. Pulling no punches, the story brings a brutality that makes you think anything could happen next. The designs of buildings, backgrounds and weird technology all add to the imposing futuristic world. The effects obviously can’t compare to the current level of realism, but everything is so evenly fake it feels believable like a cartoon. It’s fun to watch and wonder how they pulled it all off.
The version I watched featured modern electronic music by Giorgio Moroder which rocks. The dialogue was added to the bottom of the screen like subtitles, cutting down the length. For all I know the longer or older releases might be better but I’d recommend this. You can take in all the qualities with fewer distractions.