From a 21st Century perspective, the films in this four-DVD set might seem quaint, a collection of primitive experiments in a new medium. But such a dismissal would be missing the point; these films represent the birth of an art form. With often startling imagination and vision, they still hold the essential element of cinema magic: it’s lightning in a bottle.
A collaboration between The Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress and Kino International, the set is that rare wonder: a scholarly work that still offers broad appeal to film lovers. The extensive commentary by historians and archivists offers insight not only into the larger historical landscape, but also into the day-to-day operation of an early film studio. Not interested in such details? Then bypass the pedagogy and feast on the work itself. An early Edison experiment in film, “Monkeyshines, no.1,” appears like a spectral vision haunting the frame. Animated from tiny images placed along a cylinder, the film evokes the Ghost in the Machine people must’ve thought movies held at the time. Such was the power of film that the image of an onrushing train in “Black Diamond Express, no. 1” was enough to send audience members screaming in fright for the exits to avoid being run over.
Over the next 10 years, Edison’s studio in New Jersey (an odd looking tar-papered shed called the “Black Maria”) turned out novelty films such as “Annie Oakley” and the infamous “The Kiss.” Then in 1903 the studio began to venture into more complex narratives, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (a filmed theater piece that did little to mitigate the often racist nature of early film) and the legendary hit “The Great Train Robbery,” which featured location shooting, sophisticated miser-en-scene and selective hand-coloring of several scenes. The studio continued to produce over the next two decades, and all the highlights are here, augmented by over 200 historical documents and film-by-film notes from Edison expert Charles Musser, allowing one to experience a time of pure wonder and boundless possibility in film.