The magnificence of the More Treasures From American Film Archives 1894-1931 DVD is encapsulated by the 75 seconds of Edwin S. Porter's 1901 "actuality" What Happened On Twenty-Third Street, New York City, in which wind whips around pedestrians until it catches hold of a woman's dress and blows it up to her knees. In a purely abstract sense, the film blends light and motion with a pleasing contrast of blacks, whites, and grays. As a historical document, it freezes turn-of-the-century Manhattan. It's also funny and a little smutty. What Happened On Twenty-Third Street, New York City can be enjoyed about half a dozen ways, including via the DVD's commentary track, where historian Tom Gunning explains that Martin Scorsese screened Porter's film and the 1903 A.E. Weed fragment At The Foot Of The Flatiron in order to get the details right on his adaptation of The Age Of Innocence.
Like its predecessor, Treasures From American Film Archives, the new three-disc set pulls from scattered preservationist organizations, giving home viewers the opportunity to sample some of the archival programming that tours regional festivals and cinematheques every year, with commentary by film scholars who put the images into a variety of contexts. The collection doesn't pretend to offer the best of the silent era, but rather a representative sampling of the early serials, comedies, animated shorts, industrial films, melodramas, and technical experiments that flourished in cinema's first three decades.
Still, much of More Treasures qualifies as legitimately great, like Ernst Lubitsch's 1925 feature adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, which conveys Wilde's sophisticated critique of upper-class hypocrisy with no spoken dialogue and sparing intertitles. Almost as strong: Robert Florey's 1929 impressionist cityscape Skyscraper Symphony, Jay Leyda's similar 1931 art-of-the-everyday short A Bronx Morning, and the Fleischer brothers' zany 1927 telephone-training cartoon Now You're Talking. The set also contains scattered moments of genuine wonder, like the forest-fire sequence that opens the 1925 Rin Tin Tin adventure Clash Of The Wolves, the stop-motion animation at the center of Edwin S. Porter's 1907 fairy tale The "Teddy" Bears, the examples of Zora Neale Hurston's southern-culture research, and priceless footage of the likes of Annie Oakley, George Bernard Shaw, Eddie Cantor, Thomas Edison, Benito Mussolini, and Calvin Coolidge.
But quality is almost beside the point. More Treasures From American Film Archives immerses viewers in early film culture, when the medium's vocabulary was still being developed and many moviemakers treated the art form the way hobbyists in local "camera clubs" treated photography, with the quality of the image (or the sound, in the case of the early talkies) being more important than the content. The cineaste conversation of the time mirrors the conversation now, with some arguing for the primacy of the long, well-composed take over what it shows, while others remain fascinated by what simple narratives say about their times. Then there are those who peek into the back of frames for evidence of the real world, wondering who these people were and what they did when the camera wasn't on. More Treasures From American Film Archives 1894-1931 considers all the possibilities of what movies have been and can be. It's like a digital museum.