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.

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.

In these and other works, Griffith helped consolidate a cluster of practices, principles, and procedures known to later historians as the "classical Hollywood style." Devoted to storytelling clarity above all other values, this approach proved hugely popular with moviegoers and influenced countless filmmakers around the world.

Not that everyone fell under its sway. Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein developed a more abstract style based on the supremacy of editing, or montage. German expressionists like F.W. Murnau went in for baroque lighting and flamboyant scenery that heightened the otherworldly aspects of motion-picture viewing - and facilitated the growth of Nazism, some historians say, by discouraging active engagement with the real world.

While these contributions were important, they paled alongside the great event of the late 1920s: the coming of "talkies." These grew from an experimental novelty to a ubiquitous innovation when Warner Bros. made "The Jazz Singer" as a desperate gamble to stave off bankruptcy. Audiences buzzed over the picture's moments of synchronized sound, and soon "all-talking" entertainments were the order of the day.

Considered by many to be the golden age of filmmaking, the 1930s brought sound cinema to the forefront of world culture. Hollywood studios enlivened their stream of garden-variety productions with universally acclaimed hits ranging from "Little Caesar" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" in 1930 to "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939.

In other lands, French director Jean Renoir blazed new trails in camera work and acting technique; German stylists Fritz Lang and Josef von Sternberg brought bold ideas to lighting and set design; English innovator Alfred Hitchcock blended thrills and comedy with unprecedented energy; Japanese masters Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi started prolific careers that would span decades. And so on, in large and small filmmaking centers around the globe.

Prodded by European fascism, or lured by Hollywood's vast resources of equipment and personnel, some of the best international talents gravitated to American studios, bringing their skills and interests with them.

British star Charles Chaplin sparked a revolution in screen comedy. German expressionism influenced horror films of the '30s and film-noir styles of the '40s and '50s. The simply crafted emotions of Italian neorealism swayed American drama directors in the post-World War II era. The visual pyrotechnics of France's explosive New Wave movement led Hollywood away from its time-tested classical style in the '60s and '70s.

Can a single film sum up a major shift in American culture as a whole? If so, Hitchcock's 1960 thriller "Psycho" pointed the way to a profound questioning of "correct" cinematic style and "acceptable" content, prefiguring the breakdown of received wisdom that shook up many aspects of society as the '60s and '70s unfolded.

With equal force, George Lucas's 1977 fantasy "Star Wars" announced the return to conservative values that brought the Reagan era in its wake. Pundits have pounced on more recent films, from "Natural Born Killers" to "Forrest Gump" and even "Showgirls," in search of similar foreshadowings. Such harbingers are rarely recognized as soon as they appear, however, but take on their full meanings with time.

Few people in the 1890s could have known that the minute-long Lumiere documentaries were an important marker of Western society's entry into an age when mass communication would transform almost every corner of everyday life; and few in the 1990s know which of today's films will someday seem like obvious signposts as the new millenium approaches.

Andre Bazin, among the most insightful French critics of the '40s and '50s, wrote that technological innovations have not led cinema by the nose. Rather, he suggested, filmmaking springs from a universal wish to capture the richness of physical reality in the net of humanly controlled art.

This wish has prompted the development of great cinematic advances, from sound and color to wide-screen images and computerized special effects. Even more dazzling technologies are sure to come, but if Bazin's view is correct, they will remain in the service of an artistic urge that has remained fundamentally unchanged since the first painter raised an inspired hand to the wall of a cave.

*The 100 Years of Film series continues next Monday.

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