Born October 19th, 1862 Auguste Lumière—the elder of the two brothers, who later became the world’s first filmmakers—would have celebrated his 150th birthday last week.
If one defines the cinema as the projecting of a moving image in a (big) dark room before a paying audience then the whole business got going when the Lumière brothers held the first public screening of about fifty of their short films on December 28, 1895 in the basement of a Paris café. The price of admission was one franc. I like to think that it is no coincidence that the brothers of light chose the darkest time of the year for the first public display of the fruits of their technological breakthrough—a box-like machine that was both a camera and projector. What they showed their paying audience was a disarmingly simple, but no less revolutionary, way of seeing the world.
Admission charge seems to be crucial in establishing the date and place of the cinema’s origin, since the Lumières had been holding semi-private showings of their films throughout 1895. In agreeing upon December 28 as a marketable beginning of the movies, film histories tacitly admit that the movies did not simply begin with the screening of motion pictures but with making a buck off of them.
Money or, more specifically, its accumulation, was the obsession of Thomas Edison, proprietor, but not inventor, of the Kinetoscope, a coin-operated peep show that had been the leading method for viewing motion pictures for five years by the time the Lumières got their movie enterprise running. Edison believed that his machine was a more efficient way to part the viewer from his money, but when his Kinetoscope was soon overwhelmed by the big-screen technology of the Lumières, he scrabbled for the philanthropic high ground, confiding grandly to his diary, that “I had some glowing dreams about what the cinema could be made to do and ought to do in teaching the world things it needed to know … When the industry began to specialize as a big amusement proposition I quit the game as an active producer.”
While still in the movie business Edison had magnanimously offered the world the following forms of edification: lots of staged boxing matches; vaudeville acts, and—pointing the way for those cinematic pioneers, the Mitchell Brothers—the infamous kiss of Broadway stars John Rice and May Irwin Edison, a high-collared, corseted, and wax-mustached collision of tightly-clenched lips that titillated Victorian prudes into an uproar of moral indignation. Edison’s peep-show technology did make great educational contributions to society over the next century, although not in the fields of knowledge he had imagined, or at least admitted to having anticipated. From another point of view, however, it could be said that Edison was simply too far ahead of his time in his initial dismissal of theatrical presentation of moving pictures, as is suggested by the affinities between his Kinetoscope and the iPods and iPads of the present age.
Edison had not guessed, as the Lumière brothers did, that the late-nineteenth-century public would horde into theatres for screenings of moving images. When Auguste and Louis Lumière inherited their father’s photographic firm in Lyons in 1893 they devoted their efforts to developing motion pictures, the younger of the brothers, Louis, supposedly inventing his Cinematographe in one sleepless night. The machine was both camera and projector, holding a celluloid strip of 17 meters, thus all of the Lumière films are fifty seconds long. The Cinematographe was a damn good invention; other movie machines may have preceded the Lumières’ ingenious device, but, as Louis succinctly put it, “They didn’t work.” Georges Sadoul, the Lumière biographer, picked up an original Cinematographe in a junk-hoping the 1940s. The long-disused machine ran perfectly.
In commemoration of the “centenary of cinema,” in 1995 eighty Lumière films made between 1895 and 1900 went on tour during the cinema centenary of 1995, just as the Lumières’ own cameramen did at the end of the 19th century. Equipped with the lightweight hand-cranked Cinématagraphe, they brought back to Europe motion pictures of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The anthology, entitled “Lumière: The First Picture Show,” was assembled by Thierry Fremaux, artistic director of the Institute Lumière in Lyons from among the 1,425 surviving Lumière films. This selection of some eighty films can still be viewed at home on DVD in the collection Lumière Brothers First Films with English commentary by Bernard Tavernier. The price of the disc is steep; you’ll pay $300 for some sixty minutes of pictures. At five bucks dollars per movie that might be just about the same as the one franc (adjusted for inflation) that the brothers charged back in 1895.
Like many, my first exposure to the Lumière films was through a film history class in college. There is a standard snippet containing four or five of the most famous Lumière pieces: the arrival of the train at a Lyons station, some hijinks with a garden hose, and a baby being fed its breakfast. My recollection of the films was that the quality of the photography was fairly poor and the content of little interest. After all what can you get into a fifty second film.
Watching this collection of Lumière films was among the fastest hours I’ve ever passed in the movie theatre. The films have been newly restored at the Institute Lumière, and their clarity and smoothness is remarkable; it strikes me as some of the very best photography — or, I guess, cinematography — of what would later be called the Silent Era. The Cinématographe had to remain stationary on its tri-pod, and as a result all the films consist of a single, stationary shot, although in a few the camera is placed on a moving platform, as in the excellent footage of Venice taken from a gondola in the Grand Canal. But the range of subjects and locations, the ingenious placement of the camera, and the staging of the action captured in the fifty seconds of film more than compensate for this limitation on movement. Often the people being filmed try to squeeze as much into the fifty seconds as they can, as when the Lumière family is playing boules in their backyard and hurl as many shots off as they can without regard for the rules of the game. Other films are restrained, and less about action than about beautiful photography. There is a touching portrait of a Lumière daughter feeding a cat, which, when it exits frame right is thrown back onto the girl.
The purely documentary pieces are fascinating for the vivid glimpses into history animated: streets in Jerusalem with Jews and Arabs at work and indifferent to the camera; Brooklyn businessmen walking briskly over a footbridge above Flatbush Avenue; Wall Street empty and imposing; Moscow filled grimy city dwellers, rich only in facial hair with and a mysterious character, perhaps a Tsarist agent, leaning against a streetlamp watching the camera carefully). In Paris horse-drawn buses racing up the Champs Elyseés barely avoiding the few pedestrians who venture across the street. In the Lumières own Lyons a streetcar makes its way down a shimmering tree-lined avenue faced by Beaux Arts hotels. In Shanghai Harbor a crane lifts a cow with a sling around its horns into a freighter. In London people in uncomfortable looking clothes walking into and past a theatre then showing the Lumières’ films. Other memorable films feature an elite group of the French army doing a bizarre kind of team Kung Fu workout; a large family of Lyons acrobats whirring through two fifty-second films; Spanish soldiers in greatcoats dancing man-to-man in an open field. I find the gag films less interesting, as in one of the few edited pieces in which a man falls and is run over. The film is cut and a dummy inserted and promptly dismembered, its limbs are glued back on and, after another cut in the film, the live actor walks away.
That Lumières are is deemed a great “filmmaker” by the enthusiastic publicist and educator, Mr. Fremaux, who was also written a book entitled The Tiny Planet Lumière, only obscures the Lumière’s real achievement by wrapping it up in that same old moldy Romantic shroud of genius and its attendant emblems inspirations and god-like omniscience. According to Fremaux we can even see the greatness of Lumière’s filmmaking in films shot by other cameramen without the slightest input from their employer; if you own the means of production your profits include artistic credit. Every small detail of composition, and juxtaposition of light and dark, is imbued with authorial intent and elevated to the exalted status of “art.” These overinterpretations are made in spite of Louis Lumière’s own claim that he “never engaged in what is termed ‘production.’”
One of the things that make many of these films so arresting is not the alleged cinematic genius of Louis Lumière, but the barely — and often not at all — contained exuberance of the people being filmed, as in the unashamed joy of the waiter who is supposed to be quietly serving the Lumières drinks as they play cards, but who, because of his enthusiasm at being filmed becomes the focus of our attention and delight. What the cinema did is create a new kind of instantaneous celebrity. This lust to be filmed seem as true of the dark Calcutta children who scramble on hands and knees for the crumbs tossed by two upright Victorian ladies. The street children’s uncontained joy at being captured on celluloid seems to offer them a momentary escape from their own poverty, as the equally camera-hungry colonial ladies feed the beggars as if they were pigeons in the park.
The newness of moving pictures and of being filmed is always palpable on screen. There are no films without people in them. This vitality is brought home by the concluding piece in “The First Picture Show,” a recreation of the very first film of workers leaving the Lumière’s factory in Lyons on March 19, 1995. This final film was shot with a Cinematographe on the hundredth anniversary of the exposing of that first roll, but instead of vibrant workers, some thirty or so Big Time Movie Directors (mostly french) emerge from the building. These great men—I could only make out one woman in this august group—look unimpressed, jaded, even bored by the camera, as they shuffle across the frame. Is this ultimate course of Great Art, a declension from wide- irrpepressible excitement towards glibness or boredom?
As for the Lumières, their legacy was tainted by the lived long enough to make public statements (however few) in favor of fascism. Louis was enlisted by Mussolini give his support in the fight against the tidal wave of American movies flooding Italy in the 1930s. And our sesquicentenarian Auguste was a eugenicist who sat on Lyon city council in support of the Vichy regime during World War II. In the last years of the French Franc, the Bank of France tried to put the brother on the 200 Franc note but public outcry prevented it. Presumably they pleased by least some of the fascist propaganda films that inducted their simple, disaraming cinema of the 1890s into the horrors of the modern age.
The brothers were not artists but birthed a brilliant invention, and used it with cleverness and creativity. Like so many products of the industrial age, the cinema held huge potential, both for good and for evil. By the end of their lives the Lumières must have known that their first light-capturing and lisght-emitting box, both camera and projector, was as dangerous as Pandora’s.
DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at email@example.com