CITIZEN K (mars 1995)
Art-flicks and old lace, the birth of an industry
March 22, 1895 : The Lumière brothers made the first French film.
The first run
Cinema is the first and only art form whose birth and evolution can be traced with certainty. Child of its time, cinema originated from a fascinating array of experimental prototypes which developed throughout the second half of the 19th century. More than anything else, it was then a rich terrain where different ideas stemming from the observation of visual perception would meet and intermingle as a result of the emergence of new technical intuitions. From 1840 to 1905, inventors were enthralled by mechanics, optics and chemistry. The cinema, still on virgin ground, was to grow from the cross-pollination of those disciplines.
So, when Joseph Plateau established en 1840 that movement was perceived only through the succession of its instants, he laid the foundation for all future cinematographic experiments. The newly-formulated laws of retinal persistence explained how we perceived only an indistinct visual continuity of any given action, which we unconsciously build up as a whole. On the basis of the observation, scientists specializing in the physiology of vision began to cut up time and isolate its moments.
Joseph Plateau himself set out to conceive instruments to demonstrate the principles on which he had just shed light. He turned his phenakistiscope into a scientific tool enabling the study of movement under all its different forms. His instrument made it possible to record phenomena of paradoxical vision such as wheels seeming to spin backwards, fast oscillations that appear slow, or curving wheel spokes. He theorized on those phenomena.
It had been proven a few years earlier that a trickle of water is not continuous, but consists in nodes and antinodes. Observing a vibrating rope placed against a disc divided into black and white sections, Plateau noticed that it is possible "...to give the appearance of complete stillness to an object animated with a very fast motion " or vice versa "...to change a fast motion into one as slow as one wishes ". From then on, it became possible to see the invisible, to extract the instant from the continuity. The reconstruction of movement would now call upon cinematographic processes, and no longer upon a glorified academic formalism.
In 1873, in California, Edward Muybridge took the first photographs enabling reconstruction of the positions of a horse at a gallop. French physiologist E.J. Marey, who perfected chronophotography, stated a short while later : "The audience is at first startled by the pictures offered by Muybridge and feels reluctant about them ; they find them unbelievable. Then, the images teach them how to discover in nature attitudes which they do not suspect. "
Foundation and founders
The pioneers of that second half of last century often had vague and unspecified goals. "Experience manoeuvrers" as they were, they outdid themselves in technical feats which two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, were to synthesize. Thus would the pioneers become the outcasts of the great adventure of the cinema.
A watershed event in the history of protocinema - at a time when all sorts of machines, phenakistiscopes, zootropes and the like, were testing the principles of retinal persistence in a continuous loop - was Emile Reynaud's decisive act of cutting the endless ring. Initially, the cinema had been unwinding , or rather spinning, in a circle : a repetitious viewing of the same action, in playlets showing mice ceaselessly coming out of one Swiss cheese hole to enter another, or tireless scenes of copulation. Like a contemporary Alexander, Reynaud, the foundation of animation, sliced the endless ring. Modern cinema was to rush into that gaping breach. Reynaud's act is all the more important in that, once the ring is cut, it can be cut over and over again : what is called editing, or image-time. Reynaud made it possible to evolve from the ring - endless repetition of the same - to the perforated film tape. From then on, film had a beginning, a middle and an end, containing the meaning of the narration. Yet Reynaud's main concern was not the construction of the cinematograph. A fan of drawing, he denied photography any artistic value. To him, only the quality of the show mattered, its dreamlike, poetic or fantastic character. However, he failed to see the opportunity of image reproduction offered by photography, and therefore had to stick to a tedious, manual method which eventually caused his ruin.
As of 1894, the Lumière brothers, second generation of a family firm in Lyons that manufactured photographic film and papers, developed an interest in the cinematographic processes. Their stroke of genius was to think of driving the film tape with a system of claws used in sawing machines, and to go to the trouble of conceiving a camera that was reliable, could be handled, and served both as shooting apparatus and a projector. The Lumière apparatus made film time and space as reversible as gloves : conceivable both inside and out. The magic of those reversals started the first cinematographic motor.
Georges Mélies, disciple and heir of the great conjurer Robert Houdin, was to invent special effects. These were actually directly implemented from his magician's tricks. The same character, as it happened Mélies himself, appeared several times in the same image and formed a whole orchestra by himself. That image of Mélies as one-man band is very symptomatic of cinema at its beginning : the fruit of the manifold talents of a few hyper-gifted innovators. Such as Grimoin Sanson, who had the brilliant idea of creating a cinematographic diorama for the Universal Exhibition of 1896 : "a new idea had occurred to me and it took me four years to bring it into effect. The small screen of cinemas seemed insufficient to me to draw full advantage of the new invention. Therefore, I thought of a circular screen on which it would be possible to project panoramic views ". Hemispheric cinema, for that is what it was, was properly breathtaking. However, that type of representation where the show is everywhere and the centre nowhere, focused with difficulty on the strictly narrative line. And the cinema that imposed itself, whose birth is being celebrated today, is the narrative cinema.
Taming the cinema
One should bear in mind that film as we know it today results from ferocious vested interest struggles through which the financial groups gained monopoly on the invention and its exploitation. It all happened as if there were a power within the cinema that had to be silenced for the latter to become a "reliable" product. That hybrid being, born from the most unexpected and extraordinary crossbreeding, had to be tamed.
One of the most important dates in the history of cinema is probably that particular day of December 1908, in the United States, when a few influential personalities of the world of American finance organized "their film Yalta". Rallied to the cause of Thomas Edison, they decided that the latter was the inventor of the cinematograph (he had already been dubbed with that title in 1901), and that, therefore, the utilization rights of the new invention were to devolve upon American industry. The era of the money-makers was beginning.
In fact, the different approaches to the cinematograph conflicted only for a short lapse of time. The cinema that took over, the expository/narrative cinema which we have inherited and consider as the only possible one, was above all the most exploitable one. It met the less revolutionary criteria, such as the perpetuation of a definite and rectangular projected space, in the tradition of the classical space of representation, which implied of course the central, photographic perspective. The cinema was establishing itself as the mechanized continuity of theatre and the novel.
The share of Darkness
And yet, even though spectators do not get up and run away in fright from cinemas only longer, as they did when the Lumière brothers projected The Train arriving at La Ciotat station, the magic is still there, The principle of the substitution of one image for another in a twenty-fourth of a second is still the basic principle of cinema. And cinema conveys, in spite of us, its share of darkness : instants which we agree to ignore, when one image gives way to the next. It all happens as if, beyond perception, the viewer is referred to his own void, both physical and metaphysical. The fantastic is therefore a genre favored by cinema. A genre that flirts with our ancestral fears and opens up on the multiple dimensions of the imaginary. Mélies was the first one to send a rocket to the moon - and it embedded itself tight into the luna-eye. Similarly, the cinema is but a serious extravaganza on the possibilities of the image, which perplexes common rationality with its specific effects : superimposition, changes in the sequence of events, the splitting up of movement. The celebration of its centenary teaches us that it was invented. One tends sometimes to forget that it is still evolving.
Hugues Demeude (With Frédéric Lepeltier)