The question one ponders while watching films such as those collected on Kino International’s new Gaumont Treasures: 1897 - 1913 DVD set is whether or not they qualify as cinema’s prehistory. More to the point, is the appeal of the earliest shards of filmmaking strictly archaeological or have aesthetics always been in the gestalt? Are we looking at the journey or the destination? Certainly in many senses, the earliest shorts included in the set (itself distilled from a larger box released in France, as reported by Dave Kehr) seem primitive affairs to modern audiences, largely being single-shot presentations of something rudimentarily kinetic or carnivalesque—or in the case of Madame Bob Walter’s hypnotic serpentine dances, both. But take away the set’s overall arc toward the construction of a narrative-based filmmaking tradition and one is left with not only solid stylistic advances but also a set of films that vibrate with the spirit of genesis.
The three filmmakers included here—Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret—are shown literally inventing certain functions of the medium. Some of the five dozen or so films included in Guy’s set are in strictly Lumiere brothers territory (where setting serves as the means, the ends, and the title too). But even the two earliest bits—in which men swim, fish, and frolic in luxuriously flowing streams of water—espouse what could viably be called a feminine gaze. Guy has practically by default been categorized by some as the first feminist filmmaker, as one of the earliest female filmmakers period. Given the time period, the label almost shortchanges her. Some of the images she comes up with—rich people dropping in on cabbage patches and selecting babies lovingly gardened by a nursemaid-cum-farmer—prefigure future inventory as diverse as Buñuel and Darger. Another notable comedy short, The Consequences of Feminism, presents an unerringly stone-faced satire of what men must presume all feminists really want: to become drinking, brawling, sexually aggressive men while neo-males regress into simpering, primping, sashaying caregivers. Guy eventually builds herself up toward longer-form, narrative works (notably a retelling of the life of Jesus), but it’s Feuillade and Perret who represent the flowering of a story-centric cinema.
While Feuillade remains a household name (at least among cinephiles) for his sprawling serials Les Vampires and Fantomas, Gaumont Treasures digs a bit earlier to demonstrate the breadth of his talent, even in the comparatively microscopic realm of the one-reeler. Feuillade’s works run the gamut. Spring nymphs flit through Méliès-tinged fantasias, a colonel’s enthusiastic tale of adventure sends a dinner party flying around the room via the power of his storytelling, real lions crash a patently staged Roman orgy. And lest one surmise Feuillade was fixated on sensation and spectacle, there are also a few examples of his pioneering naturalism, shorts under the “Life As It Is” umbrella.
Perret’s disc is much more limited. (Kehr reports the French version of this box features a much more extensive collection of his short works.) But the sophistication of The Child of Paris, a pint-sized perils-of-Pauline blown out to epic dimensions, is apparent both in its dime-novel plotting as well as its tight compositions, grandiose art direction, and location shooting. And you want meta? Check out the scenes of cinema-induced psychotherapy from Perret’s The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador. Gaumont Treasures demonstrates that, for whatever may be lost on modern viewers due to antiquity, the sense of ingenuity reflected by our earliest filmmakers can pick up the slack.
The films included in Kino's set have been culled from a number of different sources, and the results are predictably varied. Many are restored, but some still carry a "best we could do with what we had to work with" patina. That said, anyone watching movies made before many people's great grandparents were even born will have probably already recalibrated their expectations. The rule of thumb applies here in spades: the newer the movie, the nicer the transfer. Léonce Perret's two contributions are largely artifact-free, though the range of monochromatic shades seems a tad pinched in comparison to the high-contrast images of Guy's earliest shorts. The music accompaniments are, to my ears, mute-worthy, but they sound technically fine.
Having packed 10 hours' worth of films onto three discs, there is understandably not much room for bonus features. All we have here are two featurettes examining, in brief, the works of Louis Feuillade and Perret. Alice Guy doesn't even get that much. Men.
Whether you view them aesthetically or archaeologically, the films in Gaumont Treasures show a significant portion of cinema's formation.