Film has played an integral part in almost all of our cultural lives for decades and decades, but when did we invent it? "We have evidence of man experimenting with moving images from a time when we still lived in caves," says the narrator of the video series One Hundred Years of Cinema. "Pictures of animals painted on cave walls seemed to dance and move in the flickering firelight." From there the study of cinema jumps ahead to the work of stop-motion photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, Louis Le Prince's building of the first single-lens movie camera, the invention of the kinetoscope, and the Lumière brothers' first projection of a motion picture before an audience.
The birth of cinema, historians generally agree, happened when these events did, around the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, and so the first episode of 100 Years of Cinema covers the years 1888 through 1914. But then, in 1915, comes D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking and still deeply controversial feature The Birth of a Nation, which the narrator calls "one of the most important films in cinema history."
100 Years of Cinema thus gives The Birth of a Nation its own episode, and in each subsequent episode it moves forward one year but adheres to the same format, picking out one particular movie through which to tell that chapter of the story of film.
For 1916 we learn about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the first picture filmed underwater; for 1917, physical comedian Buster Keaton's debut The Butcher Boy; for 1918, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, which dared to integrate live actors with stop-motion clay animation. And so does 100 Years of Cinema tell the story of film's first century as the story of innovation after innovation after innovation, doing so through obscurities as well as such pillars of the film-studies curriculum as Nanook of the North, Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, and Man with a Movie Camera.
The series, which began last April, has recently put out about one new episode per month. Its most recent video covers Scarface — not Brian de Palma's tale of drug-dealing in 1980s Miami whose poster still adorns dorm-room walls today, but the 1932 Howard Hawks picture it remade. Here the original Scarface gets credited as one of the works that defined the American gangster film, leading not just to the version starring Al Pacino and his machine gun but to the likes of The Godfather, Boyz N the Hood, and Reservoir Dogs as well. Cinephiles, place your bets now as to whether 100 Years of Cinema will select any of those films for 1972, 1991, or 1992 — and start considering what each of them might teach us about the development of the cinema we enjoy today.
You can view all of the existing episodes, moving from 1915 through 1931, below. And support 100 Years of Cinema over at this Patreon page.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, 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.