Landmark Films in the Public Domain
Some films last well beyond their theatrical run. After their release, they never quite leave us. We see their imprint time and again.
These films that have given birth to the cinematic form—progenitors of style and substance. Their influence is incalculable, continuing to shape what we see on the screen to this day.
The Kiss (1896)
Also known as The May Irwin Kiss, this short film was one of the first commercially shown to audiences and definitely was the first to focus explicitly and singularly on sex.
The couple never looks at the camera (an uncommon cinematic affect at the time). The viewer has the sense of peering in through a peephole on a couple’s shared intimate moment. They nuzzle closely, some words of courtship are exchanged, and then they go for it. It’s the narrative arc of modern romantic comedies distilled into 18 seconds. The advertisement in the Edison catalogue read: “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.”
We still go to the movies waiting to see this very thing.
Trip to the Moon (1902)
It didn’t take long for film to travel to new worlds and give birth to the science fiction genre. George Méliès was a magician by trade, and, with moving pictures, he realized he could turn illusion into dreams, and dreams into reality. He created fantastic worlds onscreen, using live-action, mixed with animation, matte photography, trick editing, and elaborate stage and costume designs.
Trip to the Moon is his most renowned film, and rightfully so. It follows the exhibitionist conventions of the time, before the imaginary construct of the fourth wall, in which actors often gesture towards the camera as if to an audience during a play. Actors also enter and exit the stage, denoting a cut and end of scene. But, apart from these few archaic conventions, Trip to the Moon is as modern of an early film as you can find.
George Méliès took the new technology of cinema to its limits. Understandably, when the incomparable Martin Scorsese decided to work with 3D technology for the first time, in Hugo (2011), he turned to the subject of M. Méliès’ Trip to the Moon for inspiration.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
A film of many firsts. All film students will at some point be expected to watch Edwin S. Porter’s ten-minute classic of the silent era. The first true western also features the first ever camera pan (see if you can spot it!) and the first indication of parallel editing, in which two plotlines diverge and come together across space and time.
The Great Train Robbery introduces the style of storytelling that will come to dominate and distinguish the cinematic form. The theatrical device of exhibitionism is papered over by the fourth wall. Audiences are no longer sharing a virtual space with the actors, watching as they perform on a stage. The actors exist within a hermetic space, and the audience is given the voyeuristic privilege of peering into that space unnoticed.
Or, almost unnoticed. Conscious of his stylistic innovation, Porter attached a coda to the end of the film, in which one of the robbers, in close-up, points a revolver straight at the audience and fires. Nearly a century later, Martin Scorsese will include an homage to this moment in cinematic history at the end of his own film, Goodfellas (1990).
Birth of a Nation (1915)
For a decade, The Great Train Robbery was considered the most popular and commercially successful film ever made. Then came Birth of a Nation, a 3-hour epic with giant battle scenes and sprawling narrative threads; it was unmatched in both scale and complexity. To this day, D. W. Griffith is known as the pioneer of modern filmmaking. He turned film into not just a recorder of spectacle but into an expressive language, communicated through lighting, camera angle, editing, and music. Birth of a Nation shows the promise of early film consummated into its modern form.
Of course, Birth of a Nation is a horrendously racist film, as well. While its cinematic techniques have engendered countless disciples, its contents have engendered countless detractors. Just last year, in 2016, writer-director Nate Parker released a film by the same name, dramatizing Nat Turner’s slave rebellion—a film with a very different intent and a very different legacy to promote.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Such a surreal tapestry for live-action—a darkened frame in which ghoulish figures flit and scrape along landscapes of twisted structures and jagged curves. The set designers painted shadow directly onto the set, so the blackness never lifts. There’s always more darkness than what the natural world could ever conjure.
This quintessential German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is often considered the first true horror film. It concerns a sleepwalker under the murderous control of a tyrannical master. But it’s not just the content that would inspire later filmmakers. The eerie, unsettling quality that infuses every action and facial tic, the darkness that encases every movement, these would become signifiers of man alienated from an aspect of himself, of evil lurking in the unseen. In Caligari, the motifs of both horror and film noir are born.
Also in the German Expressionist mode, although more restrained than Caligari, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu presents evil not in the confines of bizarre, malformed film sets, but placed directly in the natural world, lurking in real shadows, death hidden in plain sight. It is a horror at the edge of our own world, encroaching and penetrating its way in.
Nosferatu is the first vampire film—before vampires became sleek, suave, and sexually alluring. Max Schrenk’s Count Orlock is something different altogether—something misshapen, de-sexed, and inhuman. His ill-conceived dimensions allow for the monstrous shadows that Murnau uses to great effect as Count Orlock stalks his victims.
While the stereotypical vampire has developed in a different direction—debonair, romantic, dangerously seductive—Nosferatu has inspired its own lineage of imitators. The eccentric partnership of director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski made a remake of Murnau’s film in 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre. In 2000, the film Shadow of the Vampire, starring John Malkovich and Willem Defoe, imagined a fictionalized making of the film, in which Max Schrenk is not simply playing a vampire, but is in fact one himself.
Films like these may try to leech an existence off the life-blood of Murnau’s classic, but none can match the immortality of the original.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
What makes Battleship Potemkin such a successful propaganda film are the same things that make it such a successful film: investment in the characters; clear divisions between good guys and bad guys; effective emotional appeals; and dynamic action scenes charged with riveting suspense. Sergei Eisenstein, the director, was an early master of the cinema and a theorist of how montage editing can create meaning and emotional responses in viewers. Battleship Potemkin is a testament to the veracity of his claims.
Despite its overt propagandist intent, Battleship Potemkin was not merely popular in Soviet Russia; it received international acclaim and continues to grace “best of” lists worldwide. You can see homages to its famous Odessa Staircase Scene in a wide array of films, ranging from The Godfather to Brazil to The Untouchables to Star Wars Episode 3 to Naked Gun 33⅓.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a film that has done many things since its initial release ninety years ago. From its very inception it was intended to do a lot, mainly to be a huge blockbuster success and help the German film market break into America. In an attempt to do so, Metropolis tried to be all things to all people: a concoction of modern art and archetypal themes, something both fully German and fully American, a horror film, a sic-fi dystopia, an epic, and a fairy tale, a plot fueled by melodrama and social consciousness.
The impact of this great cinematic undertaking wasn’t initially felt, though. Just three months after the release of Metropolis, The Jazz Singer would premier and change movie-making forever. Besides for academics and hobbyists, Metropolis wasn’t on anyone’s radar until Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 adaptation and re-imagining of the film, exposing it to mass audiences and garnering it cult classic status. Now, almost fully restored to its original length and editing, Metropolis holds its proper place in the pantheon of truly great films.
We see its influence in Tech Noir films, such as Bladerunner and Terminator; Lang’s Machine-Man inspired the designs of George Lucas’ C-3PO; and, as recently as 2001, an anime film was released by the same name, concerning many of the same themes.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
A pure language of cinema. An unclouded kino-eye. No stories. No actors. No sets. Images in violent, frenetic communication. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is a film about recording and organizing images and exploring the potential of what can be demonstrated through that process. In lieu of traditional literary and theatrical elements, Man with a Movie Camera overwhelms one with the purely cinematic: slow motion, fast motion, dutch angles, split screens, superimpositions, jump cuts, freeze frames, double exposures, and everything in the extreme, from close-ups to long shots. It’s a barrage of cinema. It’s a documentary of urban life in Soviet Russia. It demonstrated what documentary could mean and could do when passing through the eye of a camera.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
A thin sliver of cloud passes in front of a glowing full moon. With mirrored movement, a razor blade slices across a woman’s eyeball. Thus begins Un Chien Andalou, a prologue suggesting a new way of seeing film, a way that violently dismantles old, habitual organs of perception.
What follows from there cannot be easily summed up. The filmmakers, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, sought not to use editing to convey chronology and cause and effect, but rather to break them down. The result is a logic both confounding and intriguing. The disparity of images and sequences, assembled with continuity editing, suggests coherence, and then refutes it just as quickly. In Dali and Bunuel’s hands, cinema becomes a form not to convey meaning, but to question it.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead brought us the modern zombie and many other elements of the contemporary horror film. Before Romero’s film, zombies were living people, entranced by voodoo witch doctors. Although Living Dead calls them “ghouls,” the reanimated, flesh-eaters are everything we now know zombies to be.
Not only did Living Dead give us the monsters, it gave us the location: right smack in the heartland of America. This isn’t an evil displaced off in Transylvania or the exotic Caribbean; it’s festering right here with and within us. This turning of the camera back on us has allowed horror to be a conduit for social critique. Race, war, media, and capitalism all get their nod in Living Dead, and horror films have been paying attention ever since.
Also, it’s gory as hell.