Let there be Light
“There was a time when cinema sprang from the trees and rose from the sea, when man with his magic machine stopped in squares, went into cafes, when all screens opened a window on infinity. That was the time of Louis Lumière.” Henri Langlois.
This quote moved Fiona to tears at the amazing Lumière exhibition in Bologna.
Some of the materials on display there were familiar to me — a scale model of the Lumière factory had been imported from Lyon apart from anything else, Cinema Ritrovato had screened the first programme of Lumière shorts using an 1899 carbon arc projector designed by R.W. Paul, and had also projected them digitally, at enormous size, in the Piazza Maggiore under the stars. (The Victorians watched films projected quite small, because that’s all the projectors could manage — fortunately for us, the Lumiere’s choice of a 35mm negative means that the images can now withstand screening fifty foot high.)
But some of the images were new to us. Words cannot describe the brilliance of the autochrome slides when backlit, radiant unreal colours and an immediacy of connection with the figures of a bygone age.
From a distance, the images are strikingly sharp, like stained glass. Closer up, the disintegrate into pointillist patterns, made as they are of thousands of potato grains, a limited range of colours blending together like a Seurat to form a full spectrum.
And then there was a corridor lined with little screens, each of them showing an ever-changing selection of 50-sec Lumière shorts, the far end a curtain upon which a train arrived at a station, again and again. Like Borges’ The Book of Sand, or The Aleph, it seemed like an infinite, inexhaustible window on the world of over a hundred years ago. Not surprisingly, given the extent of their output (ten films in 1895 — by the following year, 300! — and then onwards, almost exponentially), many of the films were unfamiliar. One funny cat movie anticipated YouTube with uncanny accuracy.
One spooky thing. Michael Cimino had just died. There was a video showing various cineastes reenacting the famous WORKERS LEAVING A FACTORY. Tarantino runs by. And there’s Cimino. This video was taken the year I was in Lyons for the Lumière Festival. It was kind of eerie to see so vivid and timely a demonstration of the movie camera’s ability to raise the dead.