It's Been a Lively 100 Years of Moving Pictures

Film scholar says Thomas Edison did more for film than its French inventors

This year marks the 100th anniversary of cinema, if one dates it from the evening in 1895 when two French brothers, Louis and Auguste Lumiere, presented the first picture show to a paying audience.

To celebrate this auspicious birthday, I buttonholed an influential film historian at the last Cannes Film Festival - in the same country where the Lumieres unveiled their unprecedented entertainment - and asked his views on the anniversary and its importance.

Discoveries leading to film

Charles Musser is the author of many books and articles that have shed new light on the emergence of film as an art and entertainment medium. He is currently on leave from Yale University to complete a major research project involving Thomas Edison's early motion pictures.

Mr. Musser's attitude toward the Cannes festival's sudden interest in history turned out to be rather bemused. ''I think it's a veneer that doesn't go very deep,'' he said in a wry tone, ''since all the producers and dealmakers are behaving exactly the same as in other years.''

If they aren't really excited by cinema's birthday, why are film-lovers making such a fuss about it, especially in the country where public moviegoing was born?

''I think it reflects the fact that the French film industry is not in such good shape,'' Musser replies, ''while American films are flourishing. All these French books on the anniversary are coming out, but Americans couldn't care less about it, and Edison's name hardly even comes up. Americans will let the French have the past if they can have the present. Americans dominate the market, and they don't want to add insult to injury.''

Musser's own research has led him to the conclusion that Edison, a quintessentially American entrepreneur, represented a more lasting force than either Georges Melies or the Lumieres, great as their importance was to the growth of world cinema.

''Edison was involved with many technologies - not just motion pictures, but also the phonograph and the telegraph - that made communication faster and more efficient,'' the historian points out. ''The fax is a logical outgrowth of Edison, and if he were around he would have invented it.... We're all networked in, and all this technology had its source in Edison's breadth and ambition.''

This has special relevance today, when realism in film often takes second place to high-tech spectacle, and when media analysts devote much of their attention to the effect of modern technologies on social relationships.

''The fax, the Internet, the computer - all these forms of communication and mediation are things that actually cut people off at the same time that they facilitate interaction,'' Musser says. ''We're sitting here opposite each other, but that only occurred after a dozen phone calls back and forth. And if a tape recorder weren't on the table, we'd probably be having a different kind of conversation. Edison saw things in this larger context of communication media being transformed, mechanized, regularized. We are much more children of Edison than children of the Lumieres.''

In keeping with his view that film is only one component of an increasingly vast and intricate communications network, Musser sees television as a more potent contemporary force than cinema, in terms of cultural influence, if not artistic sophistication.

Movies' effect on culture

Comparing today with Edison's time, Musser finds that ''film had a more profound impact on culture in the 1890s than it does now. People got arrested then for showing things [onstage] like men fighting and children dancing, but it was acceptable to show them on the screen, so then it seemed pointless not to allow them in real life.

''It was illegal to depict Jesus on the stage in the 1880s and '90s, but after films of the Passion Play were shown and accepted in New York, it became possible - and was even demanded by clergy as a way to hold onto the straying faithful.

''So in the 1890s there was a whole rearrangement of culture based on the new presence of cinema - long before the nickelodeons started, long before film became a form of mass entertainment. And when that happened, it had a profound impact all over again.''

Musser sees his research into early cinema as a way of illuminating cultural trends that still reverberate today. An example is his finding, echoed by other careful historians, that ''primitive'' movies were neither as simple nor as naive as casual viewings by modern-day spectators might suggest.

The portable camera

''Edison started making films for his 'kinetoscope' in 1894 and 1895,'' the scholar notes, ''and he had a really international cast of characters. There was a German strongman, a British dancer, a Colombian tightrope walker, a French chanteuse and trapeze artist, Arab tumblers, Mexican knife duelers and lasso artists, Japanese acrobats, Balinese dancers, Americans like Buffalo Bill and American Indians and African-Americans ... all photographed against a plain black background in Edison's studio. It was a very international moment.''

This multiculturalism was not to last, however.

''Then the Lumieres began making open-air films in France, and people in the US heard about them,'' Musser continues. ''Edison accelerated the building of a portable camera and started filming American scenes: New York City streets, Niagara Falls, and so on. By adopting this everyday-life technique, he moved from incorporating diversity to being highly nationalistic. A year or two later, this led to very jingoistic films around the Spanish-American War.''

Voyeurism in the 1890s

Ironically, the Lumiere brothers - sending a battalion of cameramen all over the world - began supplying their audiences with international images even as they influenced Edison to become more parochial in his themes and subjects.

This doesn't mean the Lumieres' brand of realism was innocent or unsophisticated, however, despite the brevity and simplicity of their movies.

''It quickly turned into tourism,'' Musser says, ''and a kind of colonialist, imperialist, pro-military attitude. Their films weren't just of the streets. They showed all the armies of Europe doing maneuvers - and those armies would be on the battlefield, destroying and transforming their culture, 15 years later.''

All of which carries a lesson for critics and audiences who think today's mass-media controversies are of recent vintage.

''Voyeurism was as strong in the 1890s as it is today,'' says Musser, warning against nostalgic views of early cinema. ''Sex and violence were absolutely there, too.

''You can look at some of these films and tell yourself people were really brutal back then,'' he adds ironically. ''We're so much more civilized now.''

* Charles Musser's books include ''The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907'' (Scribners), ''Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company'' (University of California Press), and ''Resisting Images: Essays on Cinema and History,'' coedited by Robert Sklar (Temple University Press). He is also director of the documentary film ''Before the Nickelodeon.''

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