Saturday, December 28, 2013

Movie Extra: The "Back to the Beginning" Edition

We all do it at least once in a while. We go to the theater, put down our ten bucks (or whatever it is these days; I haven't been in much too long), go inside, and sit and watch moving pictures projected onto a screen. The pictures, and the sound that goes with them, makes us laugh or cry, or both; make us cheer or boo and hiss; at any rate, if they're done right, those moving pictures (which, of course, don't move at all but simply create the illusion of motion) entertain us.

We don't generally stop to think, though, that there was a first time - the first time that people put their money down and went inside and watched pictures projected on a wall move. But there was such a day, in Paris, on December 28, 1895. That was the day the Lumiere brothers showed ten snippets of film, none over 50 seconds long. Each clip was a simple "slice of life" scene - workers leaving a factory, two blacksmiths at work, one horseback rider showing another how to do trick riding, a baby fishing for goldfish in a fishbowl, a man sneaking up behind a gardener and stepping on the hose he was using to water plants, several people playing in the ocean:

Seeing those short clips, it's sort of amazing to think that this new form of entertainment ever went anywhere. The Lumiere brothers - Auguste and Louis - weren't trying to tell a story with these clips, but had just been playing with materials from the family business; their father ran a photographic business. The next year, the brothers took their show on the road to London, Montreal, New York, Buenos Aires, and Bombay.

One of those present at the first showing in Paris was Georges Melies, an illusionist, who saw past the specific content of those ten short films to the possibilities for creating illusions and telling stories. One of his first films, made in 1896, was "The Haunted Castle", which was first shown on Christmas Eve of that year, just a few days short of a year since he had been present at the Lumiere brothers' first showing. And there Melies was, already trying to tell a story and producing special effects:

True, the film was only just over three minutes long, but the moving pictures were already beginning to show their potential. And also already starting to explore genres that still entertain audiences today: the horror film (although this one wasn't very frightening) and the vampire film. As with so many early films, "The Haunted Castle" was presumed to be lost for many years until a copy was found in the New Zealand Film Archive in 1988. Melies made 531 films between 1896 and 1913, including the landmark "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902.

Others also took up the challenge, and the art of filmmaking advanced to where it is today. Yes, there are probably way too many slasher films and chase films and sparkly vampire films. But there are also surpassing works of art, and it all started on that evening in 1895. Yes, there were others who were working at the same time, and even earlier, but the Lumiere brothers were the first to solicit a paying audience to look at the films they had made, thus setting the template for the movie-going experience we all enjoy to this day, 118 years later.

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