Chronicles of the Silver Screen
The phenomenon known as the movies has forever changed the cultural landscape. For some people, film is a lofty art presided over vy visionary directors; for others, a lucrative business. But for millions, it is pure entertainment. A three-part series begins today on film's global history and enormous appeal.
The time was late December 1895, and the place was a basement room in a Paris cafe. Louis and Auguste Lumiere, two enterprising brothers, aimed their primitive motion-picture projector at a screen spread against the wall.Skip to next paragraph
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Then they started selling tickets - to 35 customers at one franc apiece. It was the beginning of cinema. Or was it?
Origins are hard to pin down, as good historians know. While many scholars date the art of motion pictures from the Lumieres' first public showing, others cite a private show the brothers gave six months earlier, when they screened their brief "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory" to demonstrate their newly perfected Cinematographe before an invited audience.
Others consider these dates too late, noting that devices like the Kinetoscope and the Vitascope - which showed moving pictures through peepholes - had already been popularized by Thomas Edison.
Still others go back to 1882, when tienne-Jules Marey used a "chronophotographic gun" to capture the movements of flying birds, or to 1877, when Eadweard Muybridge used a battery of still cameras to determine whether a galloping horse lifts all its hooves off the ground at once.
And some say movies are just a logical continuation of the long "screen spectacle" tradition. Dating back hundreds of years, this includes Magic Lantern shows in which slide-projector images could be choreographed, juxtaposed, and superimposed in ways that foreshadow the marvels seen in neighborhood multiplexes today.
Whatever the exact starting point of cinema, it caught on quickly in the 1890s. Thousands of spectators began flocking to Lumiere programs, featuring short "actualites" showing real-life subjects arranged in painterly compositions by a camera that never moved from its single vantage point.
Soon the new medium's horizons were expanded by other enterprising artists. French magician Georges Melies brought fantastic plots and eye-boggling special effects to films like "A Trip to the Moon" and "An Impossible Voyage." American entrepreneur Edwin S. Porter developed the rudiments of editing, by cutting film strips and splicing the pieces into new arrangements that would tell meaningful stories - and generate strong emotions - in ways no other art could approximate.
Some of these pioneers dreamed from the start of joining motion pictures with appropriate sounds - Edison saw movies as a sort of add-on to the gramophone he'd already invented - but technological hurdles got in the way. With storefront theaters and nickelodeons drawing ever more spectators, early producers decided not to fix an entertainment medium that wasn't broken.
Audiences looked to movies for the pictures they offered, not the noises they lacked. Besides, the addition of dialogue might make films into second-rate imitations of stage plays, acted by mere shadows instead of flesh-and-blood performers.
Left as they were, movies constituted a unique phenomenon, the only art telling stories through the magic of moving images. Silent they were, and silent they would remain, for the first three decades of their existence.
Other changes happened on a regular basis, however, with many countries providing fresh ideas at different times. Reluctantly giving up his hopes of fame as a novelist and playwright, a young culture-vulture named D.W. Griffith drifted into the New York-based movie business in 1908, using his initials instead of his full name because he was embarassed about working in an industry that aimed most of its products at working-class people in search of cheap diversion.
Recognizing the medium's untapped possibilities, Griffith developed new techniques - varied camera positions, complex editing patterns, naturalistic acting styles - to tell longer and more sophisticated stories.
Griffith also helped move the industry to southern California, extricating it from the hotly competitive New York atmosphere and taking advantage of geographic assets like varied locations (ocean, desert, and mountains within a short distance of Los Angeles) and year-round sunshine.
His efforts culminated in "The Birth of a Nation," combining filmic virtuosity with a racist view of the Civil War era, and "Intolerance," a pacifist epic that unfortunately debuted just as World War I was heating up.