The Public Humanist

The History of Moving Images

Lisa Simmons’ assertion that Hollywood films by and large continue to feature damaging stereotypes of African Americans strikes me as true. But Ms. Simmons’ urging that independent thinkers create images which challenge these stereotypes makes me wonder about the origin and nature of moving images and just what it is that makes them so influential.

Fratelli_LumiereThe history of moving images is remarkably short compared to that of writing, painting and music making.The first public screening of moving images took place in Paris onDecember 28, 1895, not much more than a hundred years ago. The show consisted of a series of silent,fifty second scenes of, among other things, a train arriving at a station, awave breaking, children engaged in a snowball fight, and workers exiting theLumiere family camera manufacturing facility.The images were recorded by a remarkable device invented by twobrothers, August and Louis Lumiere, whose father owned a factory thatmanufactured still cameras. The same box-like instrument exposed images onfilm, then served as chemical developing tank and projector as well.

The show was a great success, and ran for more than a yearto packed houses. It was glowingly reviewed in Paris newspapers the day followingthe premiere, and one reviewer in particular made a remarkable statement: “Fromnow on,” he wrote, “there is no death.”Since photography in one form or another had been around for some sixtyyears previously, it was evidently not the image itself, but the movement thatwas transformational.

There was, of course, no movement. What flabbergasted early viewers (MaximGorky, reviewing a Lumiere road show in Moscow the following year noted thatsome patrons in the front row had risen from their seats and fled when the wavebroke) actually saw was a series of still photographs passing in front of alight in quick succession interrupted at numerous times per second by darknesscaused by a three-bladed rotating shutter.

The phenomenon which made this illusion possible, moreremarkably still, was an error in human perception: the inability of the brain,in conjunction with the eye, to rid itself of one image before it is replacedby one slightly different. This erroris known as the persistence of vision andis the basis for the persuasiveness of all moving image technologies.

But this ‘movement’ was indeed transformational. Seeing an image of someone appearing tobreathe and move is entirely different from seeing a still image, typicallyrepresenting a frozen fiftieth of a second, something utterly unrealistic bycomparison.

Coupled with the development of shooting and editingtechniques, the new technology was poised to succeed brilliantly. Still, if almost everyone was dazzled by thefact of movies, not all of them were persuaded by the value of the newtechnology. It is a melancholy factthat education by definition involves studying – the past. So it was that the most educated audiencesfor the new technology were steeped in the conventions of its predecessor — the theatre. To many of them, the conventions of film as they developed weredisturbing. When you went to thetheatre, you “saw” the stage from a fixed point of view – your seat. A film, however, might feature a close-up ofa face that took up the entire height of an eight foot high screen, followed bya wide shot in which that same face might be only inches high, a monstrousjuxtaposition to someone accustomed to the theatre.

And so the audiences that most enthusiastically respondedto the “movies” tended to be less educated: people with less to unlearn, as itwere. But even among them, the power offilm was often misattributed. This wasbrilliantly shown in a series of exercises developed by one of the mostbrilliant of early film teachers, the Russian Lev Kuleshov in 1917.

Kuleshov took one of the leading men of the nascentRussian cinema, a handsome young Armenian named Musjakian, and shot a close-upof him looking neutrally at the camera for a couple of minutes. He then inter-cut this shot with a close-upof a bowl of steaming hot soup, then with a close-up of a dead child, andfinally with a shot of a woman exiting a train, then running toward the camerawith an ecstatic expression on her face.When he and his students showed the sequence to workers at a Leningradfactory after a shift change, most members of the audience were amazed by thepower of — Musjakian’s acting! How inthe first scene, he was striving to look indifferent but was plainly starvingto death; in the second, he was trying in suppress his emotion but was plainlydevastated by the death of – his son. And in the third, though again strivingto be restrained and manly, he was clearly overjoyed at the sight of — his mistress.

Kuleshov followed that up by another exercise, in which hefilmed a young woman getting dressed entirely in close-up – her hands pullingon stockings, her arms pulling a shift over her head, etc. At the end of the class in which he showedthe sequence, one of his students begged him for the address of the youngwoman, by whom he was clearly smitten.Kuleshov gravely refused, despite the student’s assurances of his goodintentions. Finally, after being furtherpressed, Kuleshov confessed that the young woman with whom the student was infatuatedconsisted in fact of four different women, and one man.

So you see,Kuleshov concluded, I have created an entirely fictional creature that isnonetheless capable of inspiring passion.The central creative heart of filmmaking, he concluded, was editingwhich, along with the multiple points of view enabled by camera position,enabled film to far surpass theatre in expressive range and power.

How true this was is attested to by the fact that, asearly as 1920, both Pope Benedict XV and Vladimir Illyich Lenin, who agreed onlittle else, both pronounced film to be the most influential art form in thehistory of the world.

But in a further paradox, the foremost innovator in thehistory of American cinema was a man of the theatre – D.W. Griffith. And he used the new technology – which likeall technologies is amoral — to promote a virulently racist ideology. His most powerful film, the founding‘masterpiece’ of American cinema, Birthof a Nation, is one of the most morally disgusting films ever made, the widespread exhibitionof which is arguably responsible for the murder of hundreds of African Americancitizens at the hands of a rejuvenated Klu Klux Klan, which brings us back toour starting point: Ms. Simmons charge of racism in American filmmaking.

That film is a medium of phenomenal power isundeniable. That there is racism inAmerican filmmaking is also, I think, undeniable. I would assert as well,without offering evidence, that it is less virulent now than it was at thebeginning. But whether it is a cause or merely a symptom is very much subjectto continuing debate. If films are merely symptoms of the zeitgeist of the times, Ms. Simmon’s injunction to produce different kinds offilms is likely to have less effect, even if carried out, than if films can infact cause different values to beinstilled. I hope to engage thatsubject in a later post.

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