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Screenwriting is literature’s newest branch, and the first to emerge since the novel. Scripted like dramas, screenplays have their own unique elements, centered on the camera’s eye. More superficial but at the same time more lasting than theater, film is a product of the same crucible that saw the rise of the automobile, airplane, household electricity, phonograph, radio, and analog computer—the dynamic twenty years between 1890 and 1910. Photographic technologies developed earlier in the 19th century were further adapted in the 1880s to create a camera that could capture “moving pictures”. Early films were short—The Kiss (1896) directed in part by Thomas Edison, runs only 18 seconds. It was long enough to create a national scandal, though—just the first of many, for cinema.
For twenty years or so, films remained a novelty viewed though a Kinetoscope or at a Nickelodeon. But works like Birth of a Nation (1915) and the World War I drama The Big Parade (1925) showed that the cinema was ready for greater things. Sound came quite suddenly, in 1927, while color seeped in slowly, starting with animated films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). On the wings of the film industry’s meteoric rise in popularity came, of course, film stars—Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin and others—notorious for lavish lifestyles and bad behavior.
Cinema’s dominance was challenged in the 1950s by television, and later by video games, cable TV, and the Internet in general. Movie theatres, once the hallowed temples of film viewers, had to compete with not only television, but VCRs and DVD players and (these days) online streaming. Even those upstarts of the 1980s, video stores, seem to be riding off into the sunset. Nonetheless the film industry keeps rolling, with individual films costing thirty million or more to make and involving a small army of workers, from production staff to special effects wizards to hairdressers and extras paid by the hour. In some ways they resemble the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, with various craftsmen and artists—writers, actors, directors, set designers, cinematographers—working together to erect a monumental edifice, often taking years to construct. Meanwhile, nearly everyone—such as the protagonist in The Marlboro Man, starting on the next page—has a brilliant idea for a film, if only they could get a movie executive to listen.
Perhaps because they are mainly a medium for pure entertainment, films tend not to be taken as seriously as books, even if—as is often the case—the film itself is based on one. Most film criticism is in the form or reviews, by newspaper critics or on websites like rottentomatoes.com. Few literary journals run cinema content, and universities typically pass the subject off to a Film Studies department. But cinema is part of our literary family, and films like You Can’t Take It With You, The Deer Hunter, or, heck, Bridesmaids, have a lot to say about the world around us and our purpose here. Whistling Shade has run cinema articles in the past, and in this issue we revisit ten films that are worth your viewing pleasure. We won’t even charge admittance—though you’ll need to pop the popcorn yourself.
- Joel Van Valin