What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
The A.V. Club’s holiday break starts next week. As of late, most of my time has been taken up finishing the reviews that will run later in the month; the rest is spent freezing my ass off while waiting for the No. 66 bus. I’ve been too much of a wuss (and, frankly, too zapped) to bike in the Chicago winter this year and get motion-sick when I try to write on buses or trains, so the recent cold snap has felt like a lot of empty space. I’m really catching up on my staring.
Right now, I’m in the relative warmth of a coffee shop, going through my notebook—one of them, anyway—for notes on films that I saw for the first time this year and liked, but probably won’t get around to writing about. Many of these are early silent films, seen while researching an ongoing project that I’ve written about here before. (Maybe I’ll get to talkies in the New Year.) For instance, Attack On A China Mission, a British short from 1900 that I think might be the earliest surviving action film, predating The Great Train Robbery by some years: What distinguishes it as such is the way it uses a couple of camera angles and a continuity cut to emphasize the arrival of a group of armed sailors.
There’s also From Leadville To Aspen, another forgotten innovation, this time from 1906. Early silent filmmakers were often self-reflexive, and this one riffs on the phantom ride—a very early genre of scenic films shot from the front of moving trains, which had by then faded from popularity—by presenting a surprise holdup by bandits from the perspective of the train. The subsequent chase has to be one of the earliest elaborate, choreographed action set pieces in film. The engine chugs after the villains, who try to make their getaway on a handcar while exchanging shots with a carriage that pursues them down on an unpaved road that runs alongside the track.
Other memorable early and silent film curios I’ve seen this year: Driving With Greenland Dogs (1897), the first film made in Denmark, ruined (or vastly improved) by said dogs’ refusal to participate in the birth of cinema; Football (1897), believed to be the first film of a soccer match, which becomes an accidental deadpan visual gag as soon as the ball is kicked out of frame; Le Bon Invalide Et Les Enfants (1908), which can only be described as a movie about a group of kids who disassemble an old man; Raid On A Coiner’s Den (1904), often highlighted as an early example of a crime film with a realistic setting; and The Big Swallow (1901), a trick film in which the camera gets swallowed by its subject. (Kind of poetic, ain’t it?)