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THE OLDEST MOVIES
by Chris Dashiell

Moving 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Auguste 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?

The 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.

Louis 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 studios.

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.

Another 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.

Lumiere's 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.

It 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, on
Kino Video
.)

 




CineScene, 2000