100 Years of Cinema: New Documentary Series Explores the History of Cinema by Analyzing One Film Per Year, Starting in 1915

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 NorthBat­tle­ship PotemkinMetrop­o­lisand 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 God­fa­therBoyz 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 100 Most Mem­o­rable Shots in Cin­e­ma Over the Past 100 Years

Take a 16-Week Crash Course on the His­to­ry of Movies: From the First Mov­ing Pic­tures to the Rise of Mul­ti­plex­es & Net­flix

Free MIT Course Teach­es You to Watch Movies Like a Crit­ic: Watch Lec­tures from The Film Expe­ri­ence

The His­to­ry of the Movie Cam­era in Four Min­utes: From the Lumiere Broth­ers to Google Glass

Cin­e­ma His­to­ry by Titles & Num­bers

Hol­ly­wood, Epic Doc­u­men­tary Chron­i­cles the Ear­ly His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma

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.

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