Thursday, June 3, 2010

Landscape in Film: Where'd it come from?

This is the second post in series about landscape and film, through the lens of early silent films by Victor Sjostrom. Click here for the Head Post.

The first 20 years in the life of the motion picture marked fascinating developments from a “cinema of attractions” to narrative films. Tom Gunning posits that the “cinema of attractions” dominated the cinema until about 1906-7, and that it was an “exhibitionist cinema,” as opposed to the “voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema” (56). With the “cinema of attractions” came travel films, such as those put on by Hales Tours in the first few years of the 1900s, the “largest chain of theatres exclusively showing films before 1906" (Gunning 58). Natural locations, in these early films, were a popular subject. They were not just films statically showing nature, as we would imagine in landscape paintings; they were often moving films, filmed from trains, mimicking a sense of “travel” that was extremely popular (Gunning 58). For the example of one of Thomas Edison's films on a train from 1900, see my "Head" post.

As narrative films came into their own, nature took a backseat to story. More and more films were shot in studios to take advantage of lower shooting costs and greater control. In 1915, when D.W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation, the narrative reached dominance with the feature film. Thereafter, features ruled the screen.

On the other side of the ocean in Sweden, Victor Sjostrom made films during the same exciting period. He cut his teeth on fairly uninspired films during the early teens, but like D.W Griffith, made the most of his developing powers as filmmaker in the later teens, crafting magnificent, singular feature films. Where nature took a dominant position in some of the earlier “attraction” films, it was demoted in many later narratives; Sjostrom promoted it again in his great work Terje Vigen, which also laid the groundwork for The Outlaw and His Wife, which would follow shortly.

To understand Sjostrom’s movement towards his masterpieces (
Terje Vigen specifically anticipating others such as The Outlaw and His Wife, the Girl from Marsh Croft, etc.) in the late 1910s, we should first consider the filmic traditions from which he was building. The Lumieres showed their first films to a paying audience in 1895, while the first moving images shown in Scandinavia were in Norway’s capital in April of 1896. For the first few years, most of the films shown in Scandinavia were English and French films (Iversen 94). As much as anything, audiences came simply to see an exciting new technology; Gunning describes the technology itself as an “attraction,” independent of any film shown (58). After a few years, certain types of films developed greater popularity than others and these films formed what Gunning has called the “cinema of attractions” (57). Before native Scandinavians were producing films, foreign filmmakers employed by such companies as Hales Tours had descended on the Scandinavian fjords and mountains to make travel films, primarily for foreign audiences (Sorenssen 103). There was an early sense that the Scandinavian landscape held a special spirit about it, and so-called “Norway films” remained popular into the 1920s and 1930s even as other films of the “cinema of attractions” era faded away (Sorenssen 104).

The travel films offered the most significant group of films that incorporated nature as something for its own sake, independent of any other on-screen action. Earlier films by such filmmakers as the Lumieres had natural elements; we should think particularly of
A Boat Leaving Harbour, as its depiction of the men struggling on the sea is later echoed in other Scandinavian films, specifically Strosjom’s Terje Vigen. The sea, for Sjostrom, would be a recurring and deeply personal subject. We can see a similar subject matter in the first Norwegian feature film produced between 1906-1908, entitled Dangers of a Fisherman’s Life – An Ocean Drama, a one-reeler in which a fisherman’s son falls overboard and is lost. This film is significant both in theme and because its photographer, Julius Jaenzon, later became the “master photographer” for both Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller (Iversen 95). Yet the primary purpose of both of these single-reel films was to show the action of the men in the boat; the ocean was incidental. By contrast, the travel films focused on the land or scenery and no specific action or event.

Post update: 6/5/2010:

After posting this, I had an e-mail exchange with Tom Gunning, the man who got "cinema of attractions" into the silent film lexicon, and he let me know that shooting in natural locations was not in fact as abnormal as I suggest - he points out that Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Maurice Tourneur all frequently shot "landscapes." However, he does corroborate my view that Victor Sjostrom was using landscape in some unique ways that set him apart from other film makers.

1 comment:

  1. You could even bring this to modern times by introducing the role lanscape plays in contemporary films like "Lord of the Rings" and find out how and why it was they decided on New Zealand. It would be interesting to know why a particular region is chosen to be the set.