Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles The following content is provided under a Creative Commons license. Your support will help MIT OpenCourseWare continue to offer high quality educational resources for free. To make a donation, or view additional materials from hundreds of MIT courses, visit MIT OpenCourseWare at ocw.mit.edu. DAVID THORBURN: In this evening lecture what I'd like to do is continue a bit to expand on and complicate and maybe also deepen this idea I've been suggesting to you that I'm labeling the Fred Ott principle. Really a shorthand way of describing the immensely complex-- and from an intellectual standpoint, a historical standpoint-- immensely exciting and astonishing process whereby film went in an incredibly short time from being a mere novelty to being an embedded social formation in the United States and in other industrialized societies. And not just only a embedded social formation, becoming by the end of the 1920s one of the central media for the expression of art, and an artistic medium. So that he went from being a mere novelty, from Fred Ott's Sneeze in 20 years or so, 25 years, to being a medium of astonishingly rich and complex narrative art. That progress is part of what I mean by the Fred Ott principle. And it might be helpful if I concretize that a little bit more by mentioning a bit more about what I mean about what I was implying or referring to when I spoke about that moment of imitation. Remember I said that there were essentially-- that the silent film-- and incidentally, I take it as a model for the way in which most new media systems develop in culture. You can apply this same basic schema to other forms of popular entertainment, including-- shocking as it may seem-- Shakespeare's public theater. And I'll come back to the implications of that analogy. The idea that Shakespeare was the movie of his time. That Shakespeare's theater was the Hollywood studio system of the Elizabethan era. It's a very complicated one. It's a very inspiring one. And it's complicated because it makes us reassess our inherited notions about what art is, and where art comes from. One of the subtexts in this course is precisely that, it has to do with what I call the enabling conditions of art. And I'll come back to that again as a theme, again and again in the course. So part of what I mean by the Fred Ott principle is this roiling complex, partly unpredictable process, whereby an enlarging population incredibly hungry for the novelties being produced by this new technology create a kind of symbiotic relationship between the audience and the emerging medium. So that as the medium grows more complicated, in part because the audience-- OK, after 5, or 10, or 15 visits to the Nickelodeon, or-- after the movies moved out of the penny arcades, and began to take their own space as some of you know, and as it's recounted in our reading for these early weeks, the movies first moved out into what were called Nickelodeons. They were storefronts for the most part. And admission was a nickel, that's where they were called Nickelodeons. And you sat in many of these on benches without backs, next to strangers. You didn't have private seats. And you would sit in there and see a series of short films. But the fact that the Nickelodeons emerged so quickly is a mark of how popular a film became, eve in its relatively primitive early form. And then, of course, within a few years of the Nickelodeons appearing, what else began to happen? Theaters made specially for the showing of motion pictures that were longer than the early shorts, because film began to expand its length all through the period from 1910 through 1920. What's the great moment when the feature film is born in the United States? 1915. Who's the director? D.W. Griffith. What's the film? Birth of a Nation. Birth of a Nation. A very complicated example, because it's content is disturbing in some ways. It's a very reactionary, and in some respects racist film. It absorbs and carries forward what we might think of as the racial prejudices that were very widespread in American society at the turn of the century, and especially in the South. From which Griffith himself was a southerner, he was born in the South. And his film was deeply influenced by a bestselling novel called The Clansman, which was a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. So the content of Birth of a Nation is very unsettling and disturbing. And even when it was first released to the public-- to great acclaim because it expanded the possibilities of movies in all kinds of ways. From a technical standpoint it is an astonishingly important film. And from a content standpoint it's a very disturbing film. It's a wonderful reminder of the fact that this progress I'm describing to you is not an unalloyed triumphal story. Even as the movies became more technically complicated, and more demanding, and longer, and more interested in character, they also nonetheless carried the lies, and prejudices, and hierarchical assumptions that were embedded in the society from which they arose. How could it be otherwise? Every media form does this. But it's important to make this point as a way of reminding us that the story we're telling is not, in some simple sense, just a kind of progress myth in which we're celebrating development and genius. We're identifying and locating something more complicated than that-- the process whereby these cultural myths, and these stories that are drawn from inherited older stories, and from the lore of the society more broadly, more generally, are transformed into this new medium. And they have a tremendous technical interest. But very often they also have a kind of cultural or sociological interest of a negative kind in the sense that what they reveal are the prejudices, the lies, the limitations of the society, the mythologies that sustain the society. Again this is a matter to which we'll return. One of the deep cultural functions of American movies, especially, was to promulgate a kind of mythology of America. And we'll talk more about this when we reach certain genre forms in the second segment of the course. I said something earlier this morning that I want to make explicit, because I think another way of qualifying this triumphal story. It's hard because I'm enthusiastic about what I'm looking at. And there is some material that's so exciting here. In a way, what we're watching is we're watching the birth of the movies. We're watching the discovery of the language of cinema in these early films. And that's why even though from an artistic standpoint, some of these shorts are not very rich, I hope they're interesting enough-- that I've made them interesting to you from a historical standpoint. If you look at them closely, you can see the movies being born. You can see a language, a syntax for speaking in pictures, for new visual language, this new visual medium being developed. And if I have time this evening, I'll give you a few more concrete examples of that. But another way in which one can qualify this apparently triumphal story, it's not a triumphal story even though it is a story of refinement, development, and evolution of a kind that involves increasing complexity and technical perfection, technical mastery. It's not merely that, or not even primarily that. It's very important to recognize among other things, as I implied this afternoon, that not all the possibilities that are inherent in the nascent medium are necessarily exploited in a particular cultural moment. Or maybe ever exploited, depending on how things develop. That is to say. I mentioned this afternoon how for instance, when Edison first conceive the apparatus before it was actually invented, of the motion picture projector, and the motion picture camera. His first idea was that he would create an item that would be a consumer item-- what we would today call a consumer item-- that would be sold to individual families. And the field would become an equivalent or a kind of a photo album, although it would have motion it. And as I suggested this afternoon, there's no reason why given the nature of the technology itself, that that vision of how film might develop was impossible. In fact, it wasn't impossible, it was just incredibly ahead of its time. It took half a century before something like that actually became available in society. But there was no reason in terms of the possibilities of the technology that that needed to happen. What I'm calling your attention to is what is a very widespread myth. It's especially pernicious and widespread at MIT. For reasons that are obvious and understandable we at MIT love to believe the technology will solve all problems. The primary thing I'm suggesting to you is that the evolution of the movies that I want you to be aware of, this process of increasing complexity and compression in which the movies become a more and more independent form of expression. In which the movies begin to discover the unique characteristics of the motion picture camera and of the environment of the movie theater, that the movies begin to explore. Those qualities in this new medium that are unique and special. That process is important, and I want you to be aware of it. But I don't want you to embrace that principle to uncritically. Because I want you to recognize that the technology itself does not explain this process. The processes explained by cultural factors, and social factors. And even sometimes individual's psychological factors. What we're talking about here is the myth of technological determinism. The myth that technology drives culture. The myth that a new invention obliterates old inventions. The truth is much more complicated than that. One of the most remarkable things about this evolutionary process I've been describing, as I said earlier, is how swift it is. How fast it is. How we go from being a mere novelty, to becoming a significant social form by 1910 or so. And to becoming a virtually universal aesthetic and entertainment experience for the majority of the population in the country by 1920. So when something like 20 or 25 years the movies go from being an absolutely unknown or trivial novelty, sharing space with fortune tellers, and strip shows in the penny arcades, to becoming not just an embedded social form, but one of the dominant economic engines of the society, employing tens of thousands of people in various direct and ancillary positions. And mobilizing virtually the entire population of the country in a regular routine, a habitual experience to which they return again and again. And because the audience is returning again and again-- remember I said there's a kind of symbiotic relation between the audience and the-- because the audience is returning again and again, what happens? That's also one aspect of the resources that are available to the medium.