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Movies that Changed Cinema

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf talk about movies that changed cinema. They look at six movies that range from classic Hollywood to the French New Wave and some contemporary examples. The movies they discuss are: Breathless, Citizen Kane, Psycho, 2001, A Space Odyssey, Jaws and Marvel's Iron Man

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Breathless?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Breathless. It's probably my favorite Godard film, and I haven't seen it in decades.

DH: Yeah, well, it's Godard's first film, and it's widely known as a movie that had a huge impact on cinema and on its influence on later filmmakers. And today, we talked in advance and decided we'd do a show on movies that changed cinema history. And we each picked three. When you talk about movies that changed cinema history, you can go all the way back to the beginning. The very first movies like The Great Train Robbery and Melies' Trip to the Moon, very early short films, obviously changed the direction of the crude early cinema.

The cliche classic ones you always hear from the silent era are movies like D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation or Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, which revolutionized editing. But we picked films from later on, from the Golden Age of Hollywood and later, and Breathless is actually a French film. But the first one I picked, we're going chronologically, was Citizen Kane, which we've talked about in earlier shows and anybody who knows much about film history knows, of course, that Citizen Kane is widely regarded as a film that radically changed filmmaking.

Interestingly, the couple I picked, like Breathless and Citizen Kane, both of those were the first movies ever made by their directors. Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he made Citizen Kane and starred in it as Charles Foster Kane, but it changed everything and it heavily influenced where filmmaking went after that by its non-linear storytelling, jumping around through time, and especially its photography, its wide-angle, deep-focus photography where traditionally you would have done a master shot and then go back and forth with edit shot reverse shot in dialogue.

Cinematographer Greg Toland and Wells and their set designers would set it up so that they could do the whole shot in a very wide shot where everything was in focus from front to back and the characters would move around into different compositions, long takes, and this kind of way of shooting and particularly a lot of the very dark shadowy lighting gave birth to the kind of lighting that we see in film noir and a different kind of storytelling.

The next one, Breathless, this was Jean-Luc Godard's first film. Godard was a critic, right? He wrote for the Cahiers de Cinema and was a film critic and he, like a lot of those critics, Francois Truffaut and Claude of what they called the French New Wave. It was a few years into Truffaut had already made a film, Chabral had made a film. And in some of those films, I actually maybe even liked better.

You know, I liked the early Truffaut, like the 400 Blows and Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player. They touched me more. But Breathless changed everything because Godard just broke all the rules. The whole movie is shot handheld, no sync sound, they added all the dialogue with voiceovers later. No lighting, just with available scenes. They shot like, you know, guerrilla filmmaking without permits on the streets of Paris. And then most famous of all are the jump cuts. Do you remember that for scenes?

SVW: Yes, very much so. Jump cuts and the way that it was edited, very, very unconventional before that. And now it's something that we take for granted.

DH: Exactly. When it, you know, if people go back now and look at Citizen Kane or they look at Breathless, they're like, what's the big deal? You just have to realize that at the time, nobody was doing this. The jump cuts were almost an accident. They cut together their first assembly and the film was long, like too long. So instead of doing what, and this happens all the time, filmmakers, their first cut is too long. So they go back and they cut, but what do they cut? They say, we can lose this whole scene or we can take out these couple of shots. Instead, Godard just started cutting frames out within individual shots. And so now you get these things where it's jumping all over the place.

SVW: And I chose Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960, which is actually the same year that Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless. And actually Psycho would not exist without Citizen Kane. This movie is significant along with using the technology that came before it building on it. It's also considered one of the first slasher movies, if not the first one. So you have, it essentially, along with Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, which is from the UK, from the same year, 1960, kind of created a new genre of horror movies.

DH: Maybe that's a good segue to my third choice, which is 2001, A Space Odyssey from 1968.

SVW: Which is arguably still the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

DH: Right, there are, you start to interview the great science fiction filmmakers since then, and they all say it's the greatest science fiction movie ever made. I think there are people that can realistically argue that it's just the greatest movie ever made in some ways. Maybe I'll present that argument. It's not necessarily my favorite movie, but in terms of what cinema is supposed to do, it changed everything. Certainly for science fiction.

There's pre 2001 and post 2001. But it's extremely visual. There isn't a line of dialogue in the movie until 30 minutes into the film. And at the same time, it's extremely visual. It also has an incredible use of sound and music. So it's not a silent film, but in its visuals, it kind of is. It explores the deepest questions about human beings and the world and the entire universe. So it's certainly not about a small topic. And as we mentioned, it's exponentially superior to every other science fiction or any other type of movie that used special effects that came before it.

But maybe most important of all, it redefined the form and structure of what a movie could be. It just did not follow a conventional narrative line in the way we're used to. And it's something Kubrick really stated he wanted to do. And out of all his movies and really out of all of cinema history, it’s one of the top, if not the top, in terms of just blowing people's minds with what is going on in this movie.

SVW: My other two choices are more along the business side of things. Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, based on the Peter Benchley bestseller with three great performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw. It was the first film to use widespread television advertising and have a large initial release and it initiated what we now know as the summer blockbuster season and summer before that had been traditionally when lesser distributed films debuted. Now it's all about high concept mass audience movies that dominate the summertime.

And the other one that I chose was Iron Man directed by John Favreau with Robert Downey Jr. as the title character. It's the first of the Marvel comics universe, the MCU, and 32 movies followed and they have dominated, commercially dominated the movie industry since then and there's still another seven or eight that are in pre-production. Although looking at box office receipts over the last couple of years, it seems to be sputtering out a bit.

DH: Well, here I'm not gonna see things the way you see things. Because, first of all, if you just look at Iron Man as a movie, good action movie, fine, not a great movie. By itself, you wouldn't say it's a change the course of cinema. So what you're saying is it gave birth to the Marvel movies, which I have to say, I'm on Martin Scorsese's team with this, I don't even really consider the whole Marvel Universe movies. They're more like what Scorsese called them, they're like amusement park rides. So did they change the way movies work and the way as art, what movies are? I think you would acknowledge no, they didn't change the art form, they just created this whole new business model.

SVW: I would agree with you that they changed artistically changed the direction of cinema going forward and maybe we're so close to some of the movies that have been made over the last decade that we don't know yet what the movies that are going to be looked at 20 years from now are is a game changer.

DH: That's a great point because a lot of the movies we mentioned today were not that highly regarded when they came out.

SVW: Thanks for joining us.

DH: Yeah.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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