Almost all movies tell stories, even the ones that don’t intend to. Put every movie ever made together, and they collectively tell another story: the story of cinema. Of course, not just one “story of cinema” exists to tell: critic Mark Cousins told one to great acclaim a few years ago in the form of his book and documentary series The Story of Film, as Jean-Luc Godard had done earlier in his Histoire(s) du cinéma, whose very title acknowledges the multiplicity of possible narratives in the history of the moving image. Now, with a lighter but no doubt equally strong perspective, comes the latest multipart video journey through it: Crash Course Film History.
“Movies haven’t always looked like they do now,” says host Craig Benzine (better known as the Youtuber WheezyWaiter) in the trailer above. “There was a real long process to figure out what they… were. Were they spectacles? Documentaries? Short films? If so, how short? Long films? If so, how long? Is black and white better than color? Should sound be the industry standard? And where should we make them?” And even though we’ve now seen over a century of development in cinema, those issues still seem up for grabs — some of them more than ever.
In the first episode, Benzine dives right into his search for the source of the power of movies, “one of the most influential forms of mass communication the world has ever known,” a “universal language that lets us tell stories about our collective hopes and fears, to make sense of the world around us and the people around us.” To do so, he must begin with the invention of film — the actual image-capturing celluloid substance that made cinema possible — and then goes even farther back in time to the very first moving images, “illusions” in their day, and the surprising qualities of human visual perception they exploited.
All this might seem a far cry from the spectacles you’d see at the multiplex today, but Crash Course Film History (which comes from the same folks who gave us A Crash Course in English Literature and A Crash Course in World History) assures us that both of them exist on the same spectrum — the ride along that spectrum being the story of movies. It will last sixteen weeks, after which Crash Course and PBS Digital Studios will continue their collaborative exploration of film with a course on production followed by a course on criticism. Take all three and you’ll no doubt come out impressed not just by the size of the creative space into which film has expanded, but also by how much it has yet to touch.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.