EDISON: THE INVENTION OF THE MOVIES


DVD Review

By Gabriel Paletz

Released by Kino
International, 2005.  NTSC only.  $99.95 ($89.96 from Amazon)

Shelley’s sense of poetry as “the first acorn, that contains all oaks potentially,” characterizes this collection, which begins with Edison’s microphotographs and ends with an epic of World War One. Playing all four DVDs, you ford a river of cinematic growth and invention.

The collection’s first disc is the most remarkable, showing how the 50-foot record of a sneeze in 1894 gave way within a decade to a complete crime story and forerunner of westerns in The Great Train Robbery. Film historians know the Edison Company’s greatest hits, and will enjoy seeing interviews with Eileen Bowser, Steven Higgins, Paul Israel, Richard Koszarski, Patrick Loughney, and Charles Musser. But however much we have read of cinema history, these films make us see again how richly and quickly the movies grew.

How fast Edison’s laboratory technicians learned to recreate reality in a studio, and to stage the news. How soon the Kinetoscope added fascination to vaudeville acts, made stars of theatre performers, and launched careers like D.W. Griffith’s. By 1907, city scenes, children’s fables, natural disasters, and comic strips were all Kinetoscope subjects. The varieties of film in its youth paralleled Edison’s identities as an Isaac Newton, Russ Meyer, Walt Disney, and a constantly vigilant entrepreneur. A founder of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a man whose 1910 ad proclaimed him the one “to whom the world owes the Moving Picture Idea,” nonetheless Edison in 1918 sold his film interests.

Vim went out of the medium when Edison, with W.K.L. Dickson, Edwin S. Porter, and the other crucial men who worked for him, left the business. With the loss of these inventor-directors, experiments with film technology split from the development of film aesthetics. The most energetic figures and periods of future cinema would fuse the two together again. These essential discs mark movie history in chapters of a DVD, refreshing what we know, and make of film’s current changes a closer trust with its past.