History of the American Cinema, Vol. 1: The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907
History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2: The Transformation of Cinema: 1907–1915
History of the American Cinema, Vol. 3: An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928
Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Prejudice, Crime
Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era
Life to Those Shadows
The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures
Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film
The centenary of movies as a public spectacle is nearly upon us. Only specialists will care whether the benchmark date ought to be May 9, 1893, when members of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences lined up to peep into Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope and watch a twenty-second film of three men hammering on an anvil and sharing a bottle of beer; or December 28, 1895, when at the Grand Café in Paris the Lumière brothers inaugurated a program featuring The Arrival of a Train at the La Ciotat Station and other movies made with their camera-projector-printer the cinematographe; or any of the other candidates. What matters is that about a hundred years ago a new species of language began to alter human life irrevocably.
A toy, a peepshow, a scientific novelty: astonishingly small-scale points of origin for such a phenomenon. Neither Edison nor the Lumière brothers nor most of the other hard-headed capitalists and dogged tinkerers who got movies off the ground could have fully imagined the depths of the fascination their machinery would provoke, or that a century later a whole planet would remain transfixed by its simulation of vital movement. The medium has evolved, becoming a multitude of different media in the process; but like one-celled organisms, Blacksmith Scene or Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory already contains the essential. What followed was just a matter of accretion and technological fine-tuning.
The story is never done being told, because the process isn’t finished yet. Every new plot development leads back to the beginning, forcing a revision of all earlier accounts. If an earlier model of film history went from the twenty-second one-shot movie to Intolerance, the latest goes from Cleopatra to the music video and the twenty-second TV commercial. The story of movies has been, at various times and places, a story of technological progress; of a sensation in the vaudeville business; of society overrun by seductive images of vice; of art and science collaborating harmoniously to produce a universal medium; of solitary film geniuses purifying a language of gesture and visual rhythm; of radical visionaries seizing the means of production in order to deprogram the brainwashed masses; of multinational corporations conspiring to reassert control over all forms of electronic communication.
From today’s perspective it could be a story of unforeseeable virus-like proliferation: how a small gadget capable of showing a single flickering scene became the global environment. The metaphor is not too far-fetched, in light of the close similarities that contemporary information theorists find between patterns of viral infection and the way information diffuses and mutates. Told this way, the story leads into science fiction, into a decentered hyperspace swarming with random and infinitely reproducible images.
In 1905 people stepped into nickelodeons to encounter the novel excitement of a disordered, constantly shifting world of pratfalls, state funerals, heroic firemen, and scenic tours. The “nickel madness” of that time was the first great wave of enthusiasm for the new medium. Since then we have moved …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.