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  • 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.