THE OLDEST MOVIES
by Chris Dashiell
images are so pervasive in our lives today that it is hard to imagine
a time when people did without them. They've become an essential element
in the way we communicate, the way we think. I dare say they even permeate
our dreams. They've certainly influenced every other art form in some
way. The reproduction of image, along with the reproduction of sound,
has radically changed the world. If we stop for a moment and recognize
that less than two centuries ago - an infinitesimal span in comparison
to the length of human history - none of this existed, it is even more
astounding. The idea of recorded sound is enough to give one pause.
A concert, for instance, was a special occasion once. To hear Beethoven's
Ninth, you couldn't pop a CD into your player. You probably heard it
only a few times in your life, if at all. Such observations may seem
obvious when stated, but familiarity has all but erased the oddity of
it all. And familiarity breeds contempt too, as the old saying goes
- one can grow tired of Beethoven's Ninth if you've heard it hundreds
of times. In the same way the barrage of sensory input we experience
every day can dull our senses and coarsen our taste while we take it
all for granted.
When photography was invented in 1839, many artists were repulsed by
the new phenomenon. The visual arts of painting and sculpture had reigned
for millennia. A painting wasn't just a reproduction - it transformed
the objective reality which it portrayed into something new, a result
which contained a mysterious quality that, for lack of a better phrase,
was a part of the artist's soul. The new invention, which reflected
reality back to us through a mechanical device, seemed cold and frightening.
But despite resistance, there was something about the industrial age
itself which made the development of this trend inevitable. Once the
reproduction of the image in still form was established, it became an
obsession with many different minds, in different parts of the world,
to reproduce the image of life in moving form.
invention of movies was not a sudden revelation bursting from the mind
of a single inventor. Their origins are shrouded in many different claims
and precedents. Magic lanterns and flip books had created the illusion
of movement for centuries. The Zoetrope and the Phenakistoscope are
just two examples of devices that were developed in the 19th century.
It is interesting that there has always been the element of amusement
in the motion picture - an art that was born, so to speak, from toys.
It is not my intention here to retrace, as many have done before, all
the fascinating, often hesitating, steps that led to the movies. The
serial photography of Muybridge and Marey, Goodwin's development of
celluloid emulsions, Janssen's experiments with high-speed photography,
Dickson's invention of the first effective film camera, along with numerous
efforts by lesser known figures - in hindsight they all seem driven
by a force beyond conscious will, as if the spirit of the age strove
to bring life to the still picture. What I want to do is imagine the
strangeness of it all, the experience of newness, the startling sensation
that nothing like this had ever been seen before.
fact, it would seem that the birth of the movies as we know it was for
a short while hampered by the idea of the toy. Edison, Dickson's backer,
believed that the moving picture was destined to be viewed individually,
like the Zoetrope or other toys, and so he confined the movies to a
device called the Kinetoscope. The people who went into a parlor and
paid a quarter to peep into a box and watch about sixteen seconds of
film - people dancing, boxing matches, brief slapstick routines, trained
animals and whatnot - must have been rather amazed at the sensation
at first. But the fact that it was private, the image small, the duration
brief, made it familiar to some degree, similar to the magic lantern
or flip book experience. It did not occur to Edison that seeing the
moving image on a large screen, in the company of others, would open
a new dimension that differed not merely in terms of size, but of essential
quality. Others were more far-seeing, and by 1895 there were several
projection devices, including one developed by Dickson himself, who
had left Edison, competing for audiences. (Edison signed on to the Vitascope,
invented by Jenkins and Armat, the same year - and with his famous name
got a jump on the American market.)
Antoine Lumiere was a photographic entrepeneur in Lyons. His younger
son Louis invented, in his early 20s, a formula that produced a finer
photographic image and streamlined the production process as well. By
the 1890s they were wealthy. Lumiere and Sons were second only to Kodak
in the entire world. One day in 1894, Antoine saw the Kinetoscope in
Paris. He came back to Lyons, as the story goes, and told his sons,
Auguste and Louis, about it, saying "You can do better. Try to get the
image out of the box."
Older brother Auguste wrote later, "We had observed, my brother and
I, how interesting it would be if we could project on a screen, and
show before a whole gathering, animated scenes faithfully reproducing
objects and people in movement." The casual way he put this is rather
amusing - "how interesting it would be." In the mind's eye it must have
been interesting. I would like to think it was also very exciting. But
even the Lumieres, one must realize, had no idea what effect the result
might have on the eye, the mind, the soul of the viewer.
worked on it for awhile, but it was Louis who came up with the great
innovation - a sort of claw device that would move the film strip. The
cinematographe - it roughly translates as "writing the movement" - was
both camera and projector. It was such a well-built machine - more compact
and creating a better quality image than its predecessors - that when
a film historian, out of curiosity, set it in motion fifty years later,
it functioned perfectly.
The Lumieres' first movie was of the workers leaving the Lumiere factory.
A few hundred of them pour out of the gates, including a man on a bicycle,
a dog, and a horse. You can tell that they've been asked to not look
at the camera. What a simple scene! And yet how shattering in effect.
For it was not only the sensation of seeing the living, breathing reality
around us reproduced in motion on a screen - it was not only this that
was so novel, but the sense of seeing time itself recaptured.
People have always remembered, and tried to preserve and transmit their
memories through time. History was recorded through the written word.
The wisdom of the past was transmitted through the myth, the story,
and later the epic poem, drama and novel. The image of the past whispered
faintly to us through painting and sculpture and architecture. But memory
itself has always been elusive. The image of the dead loved one slowly
faded and lost its vividness. A childhood home took on a magical hue
in memory that was totally different than the way it looked if we happened
to revisit the place as an adult. Photography, and to a much greater
extent motion pictures, changed our relationship to memory forever.
I doubt if I am the only person who, while watching an old movie, has
had the morbid thought occur to him that "Everyone in this film is dead
now." Yet there they are still, on the screen, moving, laughing, dancing,
just as they did when alive. Hidden behind this uncanny feeling is a
great truth about the movies - by reproducing an image of moving life
they seem to defy mortality itself, as if the stream of time could be
stopped in its course, rewound and played again. The workers leaving
the Lumiere factory all had their own lives, emotions, histories. They
are all gone now - but there they are, on the screen, over a century
later. This too has an analogy in recorded sound - we can still listen
to Caruso or Billie Holiday or Jimi Hendrix as if they were alive. What
unknown effect does this have on our psyches, I wonder? It is marvelous,
to be sure, but isn't it also terrible in a way? Could this illusion
of immortality help support an indifference or callousness in us towards
our finite and fragile existence?
Lumieres began to show their short films in 1895. They were a sensation.
Imagine if you can the astonishment experienced by the audiences, to
see a projected moving image on a large screen. One effect was fright.
It is said that when the Lumieres showed their film of the arrival of
a train at a station, the audience jumped back from the screen as if
they were going to be run over by the oncoming train. We laugh at such
things as if they were naive - but really, it is only the fact that
we are now born and raised with the movies that has made us immune to
their reaction. And it wasn't merely that the train seemed to be coming
at them, but that the picture crossed an age-old distance that had traditionally
been maintained between art and spectator. The moving image, unlike
the drama, simulates the visual experience of mental states - images
of memory, dream and fantasy. To take this new art form in and absorb
it, the mind had to slowly adapt itself, and in so doing, the mind was
changed in ways the effects of which are still being felt.
Lumiere, the genius of the family, was also something of an artist.
The Lumiere films are each about fifty seconds long. They display a
fine sense of visual composition. The camera is almost always placed
to maximum effect - often in a diagonal relationship to the action,
which creates a free, quite modern feeling of spaciousness. In the 1890s,
Lumiere hired assistants to make films all over the world. These pictures
are often intensely beautiful, capturing the feeling of being on a street
in London, or Dublin, or Jerusalem, or Moscow, in less than a minute.
They have become priceless documents of their era, scholars studying
the minute details of each frame for clues about life in those days.
But they are also lovely works of art, never boring like many of the
very early fiction productions that were shot on sets by the commercial
One of the Lumiere cameramen photographed a gondola ride in Venice.
It is the first moving shot. Just as studio owners were afraid of moving
shots years later because they said it would disorient the audience,
so this cameraman was afraid that Lumiere would be angry at this radical
approach. Instead, Louis was delighted. He ordered all his cameramen
to do the same thing. The moving shots from trains and ships in the
Lumiere films provide amazing glimpses of the life of cities, conveying
a feeling of freedom, of liberation from the bonds of space, that wouldn't
be rediscovered in commercial film for another 25 years.
It is commonly thought that Lumiere was strictly a documentarian. He
did love filming the streets and the people. But many of the shorts
are fictional vignettes or comedies. There was of course the film about
the boy who steps on the hose. The man who is watering looks at the
nozzle in puzzlement, then the boy steps off and the man is squirted
in the face. The first gag. There are many films involving children,
such as the gorgeous one where a child is playing with a cat. All of
them communicate a sense of wonder at the very texture of visual experience.
The incredible thing is that most of them are still beautiful to look
at today, as if the excitement and adventure of those days had been
magically transferred to the picture.
cliche is that the Lumiere films represent the realist pole in cinema,
whereas George Melies inspired the fantastic, imaginative aspects. While
it is true that Melies invented the trick shot, and his films have a
playful spirit, the Lumiere films have much more of a dreamlike quality.
The Melies films are stagey, with cheap-looking sets and a rigid sense
of space. For all their historical interest, they are like curiosities
or parlor tricks. Melies shouts "See what I can do!" Lumiere,
with his impeccable spatial composition and sense of captured time,
says "See how marvelous this world is!" The Lumiere shorts
expand outward even as they reflect the sense of an inward observer.
filmmaking career was short-lived. When it became clear that movies
promised big business, people moved in who were faster and more ambitious.
The Lumieres sold their camera rights to Pathe in 1900. Louis was always
modest about his role in film history. He died at the age of 84 in 1948.
Of all the fascinating aspects of film history, perhaps the most remarkable
is that for the first time we witnessed the genesis of an art form,
and the discovery of its techniques, from the very beginning. Dance
and music and poetry came to us from the immemorial past. We have records
of later stages, but their primitive origins are obscured by time. With
motion pictures we have had the unique opportunity of observing the
growth of an art from the primitive - and speeded up as well, as if
the cinema were trying to make up for lost time by fashioning its techniques
in a century instead of a few millennia like the other arts.
The idea of the close-up may seem self-evident to us now. But it wasn't.
It took years for someone to think of it. The same with montage (the
invention of continuity editing is usually credited to Edwin Porter),
and the moving camera, which was neglected after Lumiere, partly due
to the heavy camera equipment that started to be used by the studios.
All the techniques we take for granted had to be discovered through
trial and error - mostly error. The same process occurred when the movies
were united with recorded sound. The relationships of sound to image
were not obvious. It took an adventurous spirit to explore the inherent
possibilities. To study the history of film technique is to gain fascinating
insights into how the human mind discovers the potential in art.
has been only a little more than a century. And yet sometimes when I
see the big films that people are paying money to see, the thought occurs
to me: "Is that all there is? Was this new art form created just so
we could have these stale, mindless entertainments?" Perhaps there will
always be the element of the toy or the amusement in film, but surely
there is more to be seen than just that.
There remain people, artists or adventurers, who see film as something
new and exciting, something that is not exhausted, but still offering
new territory for exploration. To create, rather than just to recreate,
requires this vision. We need eyes that are fresh. Even though we are
saturated with movies, TV, and computers, we can still see - if we want
to - with eyes that are open in wonder. Like the eyes of Lumiere.
(The Lumiere films are available, with commentary by Bertrand Tavernier,