The Earliest Movies Had No Characters, And Audiences Didn't Care
Welcome to the final article our weeklong series, Cracked's Secret Rules of Hollywood. I’m assuming you’re here because you’re interested in my semi-disjointed ramblings about movies, but if on the off-chance you’re being forced to read these in some sort of Saw-type scenario, well, I’m a little offended that my work is being used as torture, but honestly I kinda get it.
If my articles make you long for the sweet balm of total dissociation, I’ve got some really good news that’s also a convenient segue for me: today’s article interrogates the necessity of characters in film! Really funny stuff. I’ll probably talk about my balls too – this is a comedy website, after all.
What’s the Rule?
That a movie needs to have characters.
If you’re like me (a dumb idiot), you probably have trouble thinking if it’s even possible for a movie not to have characters. Even Russian Ark has discernible characters. Not having characters would seem to undermine the very essence of what makes a movie a movie. It’s like asking if a painting can be invisible or if it really counts as a 2000s hiphop classic if it doesn’t have an inexplicable referee whistle. I think these sorts of questions about the nature of art are inherently fascinating and worth asking, but then again I am a pretentious dandy who asks strangers what a painting makes them feel while at the art museum and glides about town in a gilt velocipede on my way to the aerödrome to see the Brothers Montgolfier’s wondrous passarola.
But Why, Though?
Because a story needs conflict, and conflict necessitates desires, and to have desires you have to have something with agency. Hence: characters. Also if movies didn’t have characters actors would be out of a job, and a glut of unemployed gorgeous sociopaths would take us back to 1970s levels of serial killers per capita.
The idea of characters is so deep in our shared DNA that it’s pretty much omnipresent in history, like violence and being a little freaked out by the moon. The earliest work of fiction we know of is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is indeed about characters. In a mythopoeic echo of the future American Midwest, it’s about a dude and his wildest buddy wandering around getting into fights with people. Replace ‘Gilgamesh’ with ‘Greg’ and ‘Enkidu’ with ‘Ron, but goes by The Choad’ and you’ve pretty much got a story you’ll hear told in a bar on any given Wednesday night.
We can actually go back further than Gilgamesh and his quest to fistfight immortality out of the gods. Even pre-literate cave paintings often focus on recognizable human figures. Not only that, but they’re often even in a recognizable three-act structure: humans prepare to hunt, humans go on dangerous hunt, humans feast on the finest hair-encrusted mammoth meat to celebrate a successful hunt. And since flickering firelight may have made cave paintings overlaid atop each other appear to move, there’s an argument to be made that it’s a form of animation and therefore a direct precursor to film. Or maybe GIFs. Hard to say!
There have been almost as many books written about the concept of ‘character’ than about an attractive-yet-plain teenage girl who is secretly the Chosen One who must save the world… and choose which cute boy she likes the most! Hundreds of thousands of pages, gallons of ink spilt, innumerable old growth forests reduced to abandoned Pier One parking lots – all for books teaching young writers how to make good characters. Characters are so foundational to stories that there’s a school of thought that simply having good enough characters will make a story congeal around them.
This is all to say that film is a medium of storytelling, and storytelling requires characters.
Okay, But What if You Didn’t?
That closing sentence of that last paragraph? All damned, detestable lies. In fact, film was not always even a storytelling medium. Yesterday I told you about Come Along Do!, the first known film to utilize editing. It has characters that still resonate today: a man who desperately wants to dryhump a piece of woman-shaped marble and his shrew wife who simply will not allow him to consummate his love for this particularly curvy piece of sedimentary stone. If we go back even further, to the very earliest days of film, we make a truly shocking discovery. But in order for you to be properly shocked, I need to set up a bit of context.
If you’ve ever heard of the Lumiere Brothers, you probably know them from their film L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, also known as Train Pulling Into a Station. It’s notable for being a landmark of early filmmaking and also being one of the only French films where no one smokes a cigarette. It also has a famous myth attached to it where the people seeing it for the first time were so terrified that a grainy black-and-white train was coming straight at them that they ran screaming from the room, which, no they didn’t. That’s just one of those persistent Movie Myths, like that Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16 dress or that The Rock can emote a deeper range of feelings than “wanting to bodyslam” and “currently bodyslamming.” No one is dumb enough to mistake this for reality, not even our dumbass ancestors:
Train Pulling Into a Station is a famous example of the Lumiere Brother’s naturalistic approach to filmmaking. Of course, they didn’t just bum around Europe pointing their 900-pound camera at every random piece of infrastructure they came across: they also filmed little sketches and skits and travelogues. Some of their most popular film exhibitions were just shots they’d take around town. They had a touring show, and they’d send people ahead to the next cities they were going to. These runners would plaster the town with advertisements saying not just when the Brothers would be showing off their wondrous filmic follies, but also when they’d actually be in town filming. People would go to the Lumiere Brothers exhibitions not just to see the impossibly rare sight of a French train arriving on time, but out of a hope of seeing themselves on film.
There’s a single inescapable conclusion: early film wasn’t yet the medium we now recognize and shell out twenty goddamn dollars to watch while guzzling down an aquarium’s worth of sugarwater. Here’s the shocking discovery I mentioned earlier: early film wasn’t cinema, it was social media, or at least the Jumbotron at NBA games. The appeal of the technology was seeing yourself and people you know projected larger than life. I’m not the first person to think of this: the idea that early films weren’t seen for the story or characters but simply for the pleasure of seeing things on screen is known as theory of the Cinema of Attraction, which essentially posits that these early films are less the ancestors of Citizen Kane than they are of Chimp Pees in Other Chimp’s Mouth (REACTION!!).
So if you want to see cinema that doesn’t have characters, you need look no further than posts from all those people on Instagram whose job seems to be “Professional Beach Be-er At.” I assume. I’m too ugly for Instagram, too socialist for Facebook, but exactly mentally unwell enough for Twitter.
Of course, there does exist cinema that doesn’t have characters while still being more recognizable as cinema (as in, not cinema’s deeply diseased and incestous cousin Social Media). There are plenty of incredible experimental filmmakers who’ve made films that don’t have stories – there are even some, like Stan Brakhage, Bill Morrison, and Norman McLaren, who made films without even using a camera. But experimental films intentionally blur the line between ‘cinema’ and ‘fancy boredom,’ so what about a film that has a story but no characters?
This is where I’d recommend Ron Fricke. His most famous film is arguably Koyaanisqatsi, though as an entry point I’d probably recommend Samsara.
Blurring the line between movie and visual essay, Samsara is one of my favorite films of all time. It meets all the criteria we’ve been talking about. There’s no dialogue, no characters, no interpersonal conflict. It’s a series of images set together to evoke meaning. It’s a film about life, about death, about humanity’s place in the world. It also has an extremely disturbing bit of performance art from a French dude who would later go on to do his thing in several horror movies and TV shows. Watching that particular scene on LSD is probably the fastest way to induce insanity besides attending an all-recorder tribute to the music of Elton John.
I would say Samsara qualifies as having a story, as it’s clearly trying to say something about humanity and the life-death cycle. So there you have it: it is indeed possible to have a character-free film.
And that’s it! You did it! I hope you found these columns moderately amusing, or at least interesting. At best I hope I’ve helped expand your horizons past the genre of films of Flying Man Punches Other Flying Man, and at worst, I hope I’ve shown you a slew of cinematic nightmares. You're welcome!
Check out the rest of the series below:
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Rodrigo MTorres