The abbreviation of “cinematograph” – a device invented by Louis Lumière in 1895, cinema refers, first of all, to a technology that allows to reproduce the illusion of movement through the luminous projection of fixed images (or, in this case, photograms). If the first public presentation of the Lumière cinematograph, that took place in Paris on the 28th of December of 1895, is usually considered the official date of birth of what would later be considered as the seventh of the arts, the invention of the cinematograph inserts itself in a particular scientific context, marked by a series of studies about the movement. In this scope, the photographic works of decomposition of human and animal movement carried out by the English photographer Eadward Muybridge and the French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey at the end of the 19th century are especially important, anticipating some of the technical principles of the Lumière device. The invention of the cinematographic technology is still inseparable of an entire group of optical toys, like the thaumatrope, the phenakistiscope or the zootrope. Exploring the phenomenon of the retinian persistence as a way to recreate the illusion of movement, these objects are today unanimously recognized as being part of the archaeology of cinema, side by side with the magical and phantasmagorical flashlights, whose device of luminous projection of images shares various characteristics with the cinematographic show. The reaction of the first spectators towards the projections of the “animated photographs” of the Lumière brothers was many times of amazement or fear, a feeling summarised by the famous formula of Maximo Gorky according to which the cinema would be a spectral “kingdom of shadows”. The material conditions of the cinematographic device, compared by some authors to a modern Plato’s cave, certainly contributed to this situation. Seated - and immobilised – in a dark room, the spectator’s mental state in front of the screen resembles a hypnotic trance or a dream, a situation explored and stimulated by the filmic device of the classical narrative cinema.
An essentially urban phenomenon, cinema is found intimately associated to modernity, particularly to transformations occurring at the level of perception and sensorial stimulations. Authors like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer were pioneers by observing how the discontinuity of the perception and the sensorial shocks characteristics of life in the big cities prepared the reception of the cinematographic technology and of the visual experience that it provides. In addition to constituting a technology, cinema is also a singular visual experience, inscribed in a cultural history of sight and of the visual sensations (Crary 1992).
Even if its inventors intended an exclusively scientific use of it, the cinematograph was quickly transformed into a popular attraction, causing the development of a competitive industry and giving origin to particular modes of representation. The primordial or “primitive” cinema (prior to 1915) corresponds to the model known as “cinema of attractions” (Gunning 1990), that is, a mode of representation characterised by direct stimulation of what the spectator sees, particularly by way of shock or surprise. Though very different, both the films produced by the Lumière brothers and the films directed by the illusionist Georges Méliès belong to this model, the Lumière sights fascinating essentially by their famous “effects of reality” (the movement of the tree leaves in the background of the Baby’s meal) and Méliès’ scenes calling attention due to its inventive tricks. In view of the classical model progressively imposed by the narrative cinema, “the cinema of attractions” favours the visibility and the dimension literally spectacular of the cinematographic device. In direct rupture with this model, the films of the American director D.W. Griffith, particularly The birth of a nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), constitute an important milestone. Rebelling against the frontality of the camera and the unicity of the point of view, Griffith explores in his films a sequential logic, served by montage in parallel or alternated, which represents a radical rupture in terms of cinematographic language and announces the triumph of the Hollywood narrative style. Despite the commercial hegemony of Hollywood (consolidated during World War One), the history of silent cinema (1915-1929) is a history of national cinematographies particularly inventive (European, Soviet, Asian), in which such different works are highlighted like Abel Gance’s The Wheel (1923), The Russian Battleship Potemkin (1925) by the Soviet S.M. Eisenstein, Metropolis of the German Fritz Lang or The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929) by the Dane Carl Th. Dreyer. In 1927, a Warner Bros film, The Jazz Singer, announced the passing of the cinema to the sound age. Nevertheless, just like in the case of colour, many experiments anticipate the achievement of the American producer (who used the Vitaphone system).
Art, the industry of entertainment or powerful means of propaganda, cinema and its history are made of technological advances, of commercial adventures and misfortunes and of a series of aesthetic, ideological and social aspects. A combination of “filmic forms” (dictated by a scale of plans, camera movements, incarnation of points of view, the speed of image, etc.), expression of different genres (animation, comedies, documentaries, fantastic, “noir” films, westerns, etc.) or trends (expressionism, neo-realism, “nouvelle vague”, experimental, etc.) the history of cinema resists the time periods (primitive cinema, silent cinema, Hollywood classical cinema, modern cinema, contemporary cinema?) and the generalizations that ignore both the heterogeneity of the many national and transnational cinematographies (Hollywood cinema, Indian cinema, African cinema, etc.) as well as the singularity of its “authors” (Renoir, Hitchcock, Godard, Oliveira, etc.). Currently confronted with the impact of the digital technologies and the reconfiguration of the production systems, distribution and consumption of images, the future of cinema, only one century old, appears to the eyes of some, as profoundly threatened and uncertain. Others insist on the phenomenon of “migration of images” (Michaud 2006), trying to rethink art history of the 20th century according to cinema, understood as a way of thinking about (and with) images.
CRARY Jonathan (1992), Techniques of the Observer on Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, Massachussets, MIT Press.
GUNNING, Thomas (1990), “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, in Elsaesser, Th. (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London, BFI, pp. 56-62.
MICHAUD, Philippe-Alain (2006), « Le mouvement des images », in Le Mouvement des images (catalogue d’exposition), Centre Pompidou, Paris, pp. 15-30.