The Birth, and Afterbirth, of Cinema

Tsk.

From earliest times, man has been fascinated by the moving image. Fascinated or repelled, I can’t decide.

Stone-age man would daub the walls of his dwelling with fermented berry juice and then, as the firelight flickered, watch agog as the crude pictograms would seem to move, depending on how much of the berry juice he’d drunk. And if his cave walls were rough and uneven, he got a 3D effect. Some neanderthal artists even took a chisel to their smooth sandstone interiors in order to cheat and “upscale” their images. Like modern cinema, these early “flickers” were divided into several popular genres: deer, bison, mammoth and rom-com. Of these forms, only the mammoth production is still practiced successfully today.

The thaumatrope, from the Greek thauma, meaning “draw a bird in a cage,” and trope, meaning “I can’t.”

A short while later, in the eighteenth century, fairgoers were amazed by a simple spinning disc with a bird painted on one side and an upside-down cage on the other. When you pulled a string with your fingers, the disc spun, and the bird seemed to be inside the cage, depending on how much of the berry juice you’d drunk. These “digital versatile discs,” like modern cinema, were divided into genres, such as dove, owl, French hen, cockatiel, erotic thriller, and cormorant (the size of disc required by this large and conspicuous waterbird required two strong men to pull the string, and it set off a powerful draught, making it a popular summer blockbuster). This provided wholesome entertainment until artists learned to paint birds inside cages, which meant you could look at them with both hands free, and thousands of pioneering moving image artists were thrown on the breadline (so named because it was originally made from bread, or what passed for bread).

Next came the era of the lanternists. With an oil lamp and some painted slides, these showmen could cast images upon primitive “screens” (so named because they were originally made from screens). Movement was still impossible, but audiences paid exorbitant prices, depending on how much of the berry juice they’d drunk, to witness a series of frozen images, anticipating the streaming services of today.

But soon, the age of the nickelodeon, so named because it was originally made of nickel, was at hand! Customers, or “chumps,” deposited something or other (historians are divided: either money or bitumen) into a machine, then turned a handle. The machine then showed them a kind of virtual reality simulation of the point of view of a manservant. These popular attractions became known as “first-person-butlers,” and wowed audiences with realistic depictions of ladies disrobing, anticipating the streaming services of today. It is thought that early man believed, wrongly, that gazing upon such images would bring him success in the hunt.

Entrepreneurs soon realised that it would be more efficient if they could somehow show the same image to all their customers at once, allowing them to have both hands free. But how to achieve such a dream?

Joined at the head, the Lumiere Brothers were an unique medical case, since one was two years older than the other. Nobody could figure out how that happened.

When the youngest Lumiere brother, Gummo, invented the film projector, Paris was agog. And yet, technologically, it was simple: rotating cogs pulled a strip of celluloid perforated down the sides, through a “gate” as a bright light was passed through it, focussed by a lens, hitting a screen. The public flocked to see it. But soon, the novelty began to wear off.

It was Gummo’s elder brother, Shemp Lumiere, who hit upon the idea of making the device more interesting. What if you printed images on the film? The result was a sensation.

When the first moving picture, or “piccy,” showing a train arriving at a station, flickered onto the screen, there was confusion, with several audience members thinking the locomotive was real, depending on how much of the berry juice they’d drunk, and trying to board it, resulting in damage to the screen and their noses. Another film, depicting workers leaving a factory, caused panic as those in the front rows feared they were about to be crushed by the advancing proletariat.

Film pioneer Georges Melies reaps the rewards of his brilliant career.

Among the first viewers of these simple early illusions was stage magician Georges Melies, billed as “Le Amazing Georges.” He immediately saw the possibilities of combining cinema with magic, and made his own film of workers leaving a factory in which the factory was a hanging miniature and the workers were elaborately costumed mice. But soon he moved on to more fantastical scenes, including birds in cages and ladies disrobing.

From a cave industry to a cottage industry, cinema now became an industry industry, or “industry.” Like the very first image-makers in their damp grottos, the new moguls often came from the fur trade, which is why they had names like Fox, Coen (originally Coney), Warner (originally Warmer) and Goldfish. From the simplest of beginnings, they fashioned vast, vertically-integrated conglomerates to supervise the filming, distribution, exhibition, and ultimately the careless destruction, of motion picture films.

7 Responses to “The Birth, and Afterbirth, of Cinema”

  1. ariane pouchkine Says:

    Good (and funny) article. I particularly enjoyed the part with the notorious Lumière Bros, Shemp and Gummo. History of moving images is a large continuum, but what is, according to you, the decisive step that really made it “Cinema”? (and pls, excuse my wonky English)

  2. dbenson Says:

    Had flashbacks to this:


  3. My own history of animation is coming soon. It will revolutionise your thinking.

    I think the nickelodeon peepshows might count as cinema. If they’d been able, technologically, to show longer stories, and had graduated to feature films, with editing and camera moves and all, and THEN started showing them to crowds rather than one punter at a time, would we really say the artform only began when they could shine it on a bedsheet?

    Sure, if we say, along with Nolan, that projection is the key then it starts with Lumiere. But I locate it more with persistence of vision and moving pictures.

  4. dbenson Says:

    I see something like a storefront full of private cubicles where one could sit comfortably while viewing those longer Mutoscopes. Of course it wouldn’t have been respectable to allow more than one person in a cubicle, so it wouldn’t attract couples. And since unescorted ladies would be highly unlikely to patronize such a place, the attractions would be increasingly tailored to male tastes, and would emphasize what the stage couldn’t offer. It would be one short step to offering literature and photos pandering to the same appetites.

    Be grateful your alternate history didn’t happen. Imagine modern cities rife with such establishments.

  5. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Very funny ;) I have to ask, since you worked in the criterion edition, was this inspired by the moment in Day for Night where Ferrand looks at the fire and says man has always needed moving images?

  6. No, it’s every documentary on early cinema, Film Before Film and the like, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams thrown in for good measure…

  7. It sounds quite a lot like modern action cinema only with social distancing. The upcoming release of Tenet may make it a full reality.

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