THE BIRTH OF FILM
WHAT IS CIMEMA?
Is it the same as a movie or film? Does it include digital video, broadcast content, streaming media? Is it a highbrow term reserved only for European and art house feature films? Or is it a catch-all for any time a series of still images run together to produce the illusion of movement, whether in a multi-plex theater or the 5-inch screen of a smart phone?
Technically, the word itself derives from the ancient Greek, kinema, meaning movement. Historically, it’s a shortened version of the French cinematographe, an invention of two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, that combined kinema with another Greek root, graphien, meaning to write or record.
The “recording of movement” seems as good a place as any to begin an exploration of the moving image. And cinema seems broad (or vague) enough to capture the essence of the form, whether we use it specifically in reference to that art house film, or to refer to the more commonplace production and consumption of movies, TV, streaming series, videos, interactive gaming, VR, AR or whatever new technology mediates our experience of the moving image. Because ultimately that’s what all of the above have in common: the moving image. Cinema, in that sense, stands at the intersection of art and technology like nothing else. As an art form it would not exist without the technology required to capture the moving image. But the mere ability to record a moving image would be meaningless without the art required to capture our imagination.
But cinema is much more than the intersection of art and technology. It is also, and maybe more importantly, a powerful medium of communication. Like language itself, cinema is a surrounding and enveloping substance that carries with it what it means to be human in a specific time and place. That is to say, it mediates our experience of the world, helps us make sense of things, and in doing so, often helps shape the world itself. It’s why we often find ourselves confronted by some extraordinary event and find the only way to describe it is: “It was like a movie.”
In fact, for more than a century, filmmakers and audiences have collaborated on a massive, ongoing, largely unconscious social experiment: the development of a cinematic language, the fundamental and increasingly complex rules for how cinema communicates meaning. There is a syntax, a grammar, to cinema that has developed over time. And these rules, as with any language, are iterative, that is, they form and evolve through repetition, both within and between each generation. As children we are socialized into ways of seeing through children’s programming, cartoons and YouTube videos. As adults we become more sophisticated in our understanding of the rules, able to innovate, re-combine, become creative with the language. And every generation or so, we are confronted with great leaps forward in technology that re-orient and often advance our understanding of how the language works.
And therein lies the critical difference between cinematic language and every other means of communication. The innovations and complexity of modern written languages have taken more than 5,000 years to develop. Multiply that by at least 10 for spoken language.
Cinematic language has taken just a little more than 100 years to come into its own.
In January 1896 those two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, set up their cinematographe, a combination motion picture camera and projector, at a café in Lyon, France and presented their short film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) to a paying audience. It was a simple film, aptly titled, of a train pulling into a station. The static camera positioned near the tracks capturing a few would-be passengers milling about as the train arrived, growing larger and larger in the frame until it steamed past and slowed to a stop. There was no editing, just one continuous shot. A mere 50 seconds long… And it blew the minds of everyone who saw it.
Click here to watch the short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjtXXypztyw&t=3s
A scene from the film…
Accounts vary as to the specifics of the audience reaction. Some claim the moving image of a train hurtling toward the screen struck fear among those in attendance, driving them from their seats in a panic. Others underplay the reaction, noting only that no one had seen anything like it. Which, of course, wasn’t entirely true either. It wasn’t the first motion picture. The Lumiere brothers had projected a series of 10 short films in Paris the year before. An American inventor, Woodville Latham, had developed his own projection system that same year. And Thomas Edison had invented a similar apparatus before that.
But one thing is certain: that early film, as simple as it was, changed the way we see the world and ourselves. From the early actualite documentary short films of the Lumieres, to the wild, theatrical flights of fancy of Georges Melies, to the epic narrative films of Lois Weber and D. W. Griffith, the new medium slowly but surely developed its own unique cinematic language. Primitive at first, limited in its visual vocabulary, but with unlimited potential. And as filmmakers learned how to use that language to re-create the world around them through moving pictures, we learned right along with them. Soon we were no longer awed (much less terrified) by a two-dimensional image of a train pulling into a station, but we were no less enchanted by the possibilities of the medium with the addition of narrative structure, editing, production design, and (eventually) sound and color cinematography.
Since that January day in Lyon, we have all been active participants in this ongoing development of a cinematic language. As the novelty short films of those early pioneers gave way to a global entertainment industry centered on Hollywood and its factory-like production of discrete, 90-minute narrative feature films. As the invention of broadcast technology in the first half of the 20th century gave way to the rise of television programming and serialized story-telling. And as the internet revolution at the end of the 20th century gave way to the streaming content of the 21st, from binge-worthy series lasting years on end to one-minute videos on social media platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. Each evolution of the form borrowed from and built on what came before, both in terms of how filmmakers tell their stories and how we experience them. And in as much as we may be mystified and even amused by the audience reaction to that simple depiction of a train pulling into a station back in 1896, imagine how that same audience would respond to the last Avengers film projected in IMAX 3D.
We’ve certainly come a long, long way.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) – LOUIS LUMIERE – L’Arrivee d’un Train a La Ciotat by Change Before Going Productions. Standard YouTube License.
Sharman, Russell Leigh. Moving Pictures. University of Arkansas Press. May 20, 2020. CC BY-NC- SA 4.0.
A NEW HOPE
While much of this (very) brief history of cinema has focused on the media machine that is the Hollywood studio system, cinema – that is, the art of motion pictures – lives and breathes outside of that capital-intensive entertainment ecosystem. And it always has.
Alice Guy-Blachè, Georges Melies, Lois Weber, D.W. Griffith, and most of the very first cinema artists operated independently of any corporate studio. And during that great Golden Age of cinema, which was so dominated by Hollywood studios, independent producers like David O. Selznick were putting out massively popular films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and the perennially remade A Star is Born (1937). One of the most successful films of the era, Gone with the Wind (1939) was arguably an “indie” picture (Selznick produced it with MGM as distributor). In fact, the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s could not have taken hold at the corporate level without visionary filmmakers like Mike Nichols, Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby working outside of the studio system:
As the technology required to make motion pictures became easier and cheaper to acquire, more and more cinema artists chose to work outside of the studio system. Towering figures like Shirley Clarke in the 1960s, John Cassavetes in the 1970s and Jim Jarmusch in the 1980s put out provocative and engaging cinema with limited distribution to match their limited budgets but often with enormous cultural impact. That trend continued into the 1990s and 2000s, supported by new production and distribution companies like Miramax (founded by the now disgraced Harvey Weinstein) that insisted on working outside of the studio system and often outside of Los Angeles itself.
That independent spirit in American cinema also created space for women and people of color to have a voice in the art form. A quick scan of the history above and you’ll notice there are not a lot of women’s names. And almost all of the men are white. But filmmakers like Shirley Clarke, Julie Dash and Allison Anders didn’t wait around for Hollywood to give them permission to make great cinema. Nor did the filmmakers of the early so-called Blaxploitation movement (though their success was eventually and sadly co-opted by white filmmakers).
And as the massive corporate consolidation of the American media landscape has created a narrowing of cinematic content from the big studios, that indie spirit – along with a healthy dose of investor interest – has lead to new innovations in production and distribution models. Whether it’s pre-selling foreign rights to a script to fund its production, or turning to streaming services for funding in return for exclusive rights to content, filmmakers continue to find new ways to push the boundaries of what is possible in cinema. Just take a look at the nominees for best picture at any of the recent Academy Awards ceremonies. Once dominated by studio-financed pictures, almost all of them are now independent productions.
But perhaps the most exciting new direction in cinema is not found in theaters at all. For more than a century, cinema has been most closely associated with that roughly 90 minute, closed-ended feature film playing at a theater near you. And while that continues to be an important cinematic space, the rise of cable and streaming services in desperate need of content has created exciting new frontiers to explore for the medium. No longer restricted to those 90 or so minutes, cinema can sprawl over 100s of hours or even just a few cut into 30 minutes chunks. And while it’s tempting to call this a new Golden Age of Television, even the term “television” no longer seems appropriate. We consume this content on all manner of devices, on our phones, laptops, even our wristwatches. Even theatrical content has picked up on the trend. What is the Fast and Furious, the Transformers or The Avengers franchises but multi-billion dollar episodic series distributed to theaters (and after a few months to our phones, laptops and wristwatches)?
Ultimately, regardless of how it’s made or how we engage with it, all of the above still fits into one artistic medium: cinema, the art of the motion picture. The tools and techniques, the principals of form and content, are all exactly the same. And that will be true whatever comes next, whether it’s VR, AR or a cinema-chip implanted in our visual cortex (heaven forbid…). Mise-en-scene, narrative, cinematography, editing, sound and acting will all still matter. And our understanding of how those tools and techniques not only shape the medium, but also shape our culture will also still matter. Maybe more than ever.
Sharman, Russell Leigh. Moving Pictures: An Introduction to Cinema. University of Arkansas, 2020. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.