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Reelin' in the Years: A Journey Through Cinema History – Part 1

Welcome to Reelin' in the Years! This article is the first installment of a five-part series, spanning the last 100 years of film. I'll explain a bit of background about the project, summarize the first batch of films that I watched, and highlight a few of my favorites. I'm so excited to finally share this project with you all!


Background

Back to the Future (1985), dir. Robert Zemeckis

So, what is Reelin' in the Years? Despite the name, this series actually has very little to do with Steely Dan (my apologies to the Steely Fans). The basic idea is that I’ll be watching one movie from each year in the last century, starting in 1924 and going all the way to 2023. I’m interested to see how the medium of film has evolved over time, and I’ll be taking note of historical and artistic developments as well as simply enjoying a variety of films I might not have encountered otherwise.


In curating my list of 100 films to watch, I developed the following criteria to help focus my project:


  1. Only one film per year, and only one film per director. I wanted to avoid overrepresenting any particular artist– instead, I’ll be taking a hundred different perspectives and approaches to filmmaking. For most of these directors, this serves as my introduction to their filmography, and if they make a good first impression on me, it’ll motivate me to seek out more of their work in the future.

  2. Each film should have under 25,000 views on Letterboxd. Initially, I was interested in filling in the gaps of my film knowledge by watching famous canonical entries that I hadn’t gotten around to yet (e.g. Apocalypse Now, Singin’ in the Rain). However, I realized that so much has been said about those films already, and they’re in no short supply of defenders. Instead, I wanted to dig a little deeper to find some underseen gems to advocate, perhaps building an alternative canon along the way. The cutoff point is somewhat arbitrary but helped me pick out a more idiosyncratic selection, ranging from once-popular films and cult classics all the way to the depths of the avant-garde.

  3. The list should highlight a diverse demographic and geographic range. There’s no perfect way to do this, especially with only one hundred films, but I wanted to especially bring attention to films directed by women, people of color, and queer folk, who have so often been marginalized and excluded from the canon. I’ve done my best to find filmmakers from around the world belonging to these groups, and I hope that the final list reflects this effort.


Here’s a link to the full list that I came up with, which is subject to minor changes depending on the availability of certain films. I’ll be watching them in chronological order, and breaking them down into five groups of twenty for this series.



Recap (Reelin’ It In)

This first set of films, ranging from 1924 to 1943, spans both sides of perhaps the most significant technological change in film history: the introduction of sound. Going in, I had almost no familiarity with silent films, and while I’m still a neophyte, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation through the eight I watched for this project. The images had to speak for themselves to a much greater degree, and many directors employed then-experimental techniques to accomplish this, from the heart-wrenching cross-fades in He Who Gets Slapped (1924) to the urban cacophony of superimpositions in Lonesome (1928) to the spiritually evocative cross-cutting in Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933). I was especially intrigued by the Soviet approach to montage (The Peasant Women of Ryazan [1927], Earth [1930]), a powerful and kinetic form of storytelling I’m excited to explore further.


Naturally, it took a few years to work out the kinks when sound arrived, with some inconsistencies and awkward deliveries here and there. However, one film’s sound design stands out as exceptional: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), to highlight a single exemplary moment, brilliantly mixes barking dogs and hammer strikes to create a dissonant and distorted soundscape, evoking urgency and paranoia that couldn’t be conveyed with visuals alone. Others feature fantastic musical moments (e.g. a troubadour cat singing about the afterlife in The Tale of the Fox [1937], a virtuosic dance number by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’ [1941]) or gorgeous soundtracks, my favorite being Revueltas’s exquisite brass-centric score for Redes [1936]).

Redes (1936), dir. Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann

Though I hadn’t intended for this, there ended up being several nice conceptual pairs within this group. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and The Tale of the Fox are both folk tales told through early yet surprisingly sophisticated animation techniques. Madchen in Uniform (1931) and Finishing School (1934) explore the complexities of adolescence under the restrictions of boarding school, the former openly featuring lesbianism. Earth and Redes are left-wing works (from Ukraine and Mexico respectively) that examine historical change through distinctive visually poetic styles. As I continue the series, I’m interested to see how this sample of films continues to reflect back on itself, revealing historical and aesthetic trends as they emerge and evolve.


I’ve written brief reviews for each film on my Letterboxd (here’s a link). For this article, I’ll be narrowing in on five that I found particularly noteworthy, though all of them are compelling in their own right.


Body and Soul (1925)

dir. Oscar Micheaux

Body and Soul is a dramatic exploration of power that critiques blind faith through a brooding and incisive story. Paul Robeson is electrifying in his film debut as a pair of estranged twins, playing both the sweet Sylvester, and the dangerous Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins. A young woman, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell) wants to marry Sylvester, but her mother (Mercedes Gilbert) wants her to marry a wealthier man, with an eye towards Rev. Jenkins. However, Jenkins turns out to be a violent fraud, endangering both women’s lives with manic abandon. While the original ending (now lost) was quite bleak, the existing cut offers a more optimistic resolution to appease the studio censors.


Made by Black artists for Black audiences, Body and Soul was classified as a “race film” and was neglected for decades until its reemergence in the 21st century. Though he was working with a fraction of the resources provided to white directors, Micheaux’s artistry is vividly displayed here. In particular, he deploys insinuation and flashbacks to masterful effect, most notably in the central memory, where a violent event is hauntingly implied through shots of a person's shoes as they enter and exit a room. Robeson’s performance is also utterly gripping, displaying his burgeoning star power even without the help of his all-time voice. With Body and Soul, Micheaux proves to be an essential silent auteur and crafts a compelling entry in the canon of Black film.


The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

dir. Lotte Reiniger

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest extant animated feature, and still looks absolutely stunning a hundred years later. Reminiscent of wayang, a traditional form of shadow puppetry from Java, the German director Lotte Reiniger cut out intricate silhouette figures and positioned them in front of strikingly colorful backdrops. As every frame had to be individually animated, the film took four years to make, and the final product reflects every bit of her passion and painstaking detail.


The film adapts material from the famous folk tale collection One Thousand and One Nights, twisting a few of its stories together into a ballet underscored by the music of Wolfgang Zeller. As could be expected from the time, the film occasionally engages in exoticism, which is slightly distracting but mostly benign. A few of my favorite moments showcase avant-garde ornaments stemming from Reiniger’s collaboration with other contemporary animators, such as a magic summoning ritual represented by a colorful abstract flurry (reminding me of Stan Brakhage’s experimental shorts decades later), or flying flames that appear to burn the film itself. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a crucial piece in the history of animation, and is simply a joy to watch.


Earth (1930)

dir. Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Earth is a fascinating Soviet silent film that revolves around the process of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine. Dovzhenko takes a poetic approach to this historical moment, capturing both the pastoral beauty of the traditional way of life, and the hopeful excitement of industrialization. The central event in Earth is a village’s acquisition of a tractor, leading to a division between the enthusiastic peasants and the resistant kulaks. This class split results in tragedy and a collective reckoning as the village is transformed and propelled into the future.


What makes this film so special is its experimental, anti-narrative quality; Dovzhenko frequently operates in an impressionistic mode of montage, allowing natural images and close-ups to freely coalesce into sublime syntheses. These montages simultaneously pull backward and push forward in time, as sentimental as they are foreboding. The most famous sequence captures the entire process of making bread from grain over ten beautiful minutes, the finest use of cross-cutting I’ve seen from the era. Earth was quickly banned upon its release for its perceived counter-revolutionary content, though in retrospect it seems open to a variety of political readings due to its freeform nature and its focus on visual association. This is now my personal favorite silent film, a stunning poem by a visionary artist.


Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

dir. Dorothy Arzner

For nearly two decades, Dorothy Arzner was the only woman directing in Hollywood. I can only imagine how a greater feminist influence in this early era could have completely reshaped film history; fortunately, Arzner’s work offers a unique perspective in this vein, and her self-advocacy undoubtedly paved the way for generations of female filmmakers to come. In some ways, Dance, Girl, Dance follows a typical comedic blueprint, though it sneaks in insightful ideas about the patriarchal structures of the time. The protagonist, Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara), is a ballerina in search of her big break, foiled by Bubbles (Lucille Ball), a charismatic dancer who charms her way to stardom. Judy is invited by Bubbles to join her burlesque act and perform a ballet routine, though she is dismayed to find out she is merely comic relief for a crowd of boorish men who demand to be titillated. Hijinks ensue.


Arzner’s characters are all vaguely dysfunctional, yet in their own ways still logical and sympathetic. She treats Bubbles, arguably the antagonist of the film, not with judgment but with amusement, buoyed of course by Ball’s magnetic performance; from personal experience, Arzner understands and expresses how difficult it is for women to advance in show business. The dance numbers are also extremely compelling in their own right, ranging from chorus lines and hula to classical and modernist ballet. Dance, Girl, Dance is much smarter than contemporary (male) critics gave it credit for, an enduring feminist classic with a perfect ratio of historical interest to just plain fun.


Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

dir. H.C. Potter

Imagine smashing together the relentless farce of Airplane (1980) with the endlessly recursive structure of Inland Empire (2006), then dropping it out of a biplane all the way into a burbling underworld puddle. You might get something like Hellzapoppin’, adapted by two pranksters (Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson) from a theater-breaking revue into a film-breaking movie. Accidentally starting in the pits of hell, the opening of the film explores how they could possibly adapt this show into the medium of film, before the “screenwriter” (Elisha Cook Jr.) comes up with a suggestion: the duo then meanders into the film-within-a-film, causing endless trouble for their goofy characters and the show they’re about to put on.


The first fifteen minutes feature perhaps the highest joke density (and good joke density!) of anything ever, throwing out inspired bits and experimental flourishes in short and hysterical succession. The gags space out slightly when the main “story” begins, but Hellzapoppin’s anarchic spirit remains in full throttle through, among a hundred other juggled motifs, non-Euclidean sets, projectionist failures, and a dynamically disappearing duo. I haven’t seen a comedy that truly maximizes the potential of its medium like this, standing in a farcical realm all of its own: as the opening credits state, “Any resemblance between Hellzapoppin’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”


Thank you for reading the first installment of Reelin’ in the Years! Follow me on Letterboxd (@stanopticon) as I make my way through the rest of the list, and stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon to a buffedfilmbuffs.com near you.


-Jonathan

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