Lights, camera, the past and the future
FILM:In two new books, the critic David Thomson explores the history and influence of cinema, while David Denby assesses its future in a digital world
The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did to Us, By David Thomson, Allen Lane, 608pp, £25
Do the Movies Have a Future, By David Denby, Simon & Schuster, 347pp, £16.87
In the beginning, movies were made into a business by European refugees, Jewish, mostly. Men such as Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn, William Fox; all of whom came from a tradition of oral storytelling, sentimental narrative theatre and broad comedy. But it was DW Griffith, born in Kentucky in 1875, who was arguably the first great artist of the cinema. It was he who first saw the potential of the great new democratic medium. He showed that the camera’s possibilities could be varied and made subtle with angle. He realised the power of the close-up to express emotion and invented techniques of crosscutting that persist to this day.
But for Griffith, the power of the story was everything. (Years later, Billy Wilder would say that there were only three things that mattered in cinema: story, story and story.) And while he utilised real landscape and natural light, he understood that the greatest landscape of all is the human face. Natural light and the world behind the eyes were perhaps Griffith’s richest gifts to the cinema. He understood that a new universal language had been created, and that the “star” was born;the star who engendered the belief that we can change who we are by escaping anonymity.
Among the first of these were Chaplin and Keaton. Keaton suggested mystery in stillness while conveying a complex universe, a blank canvas on to which the audience could project a myriad of often conflicted emotions. Chaplin, on the other hand, strove to make us feel, and to move us by ingratiating himself. Keaton understood that emotional connection is an illusion and that the relationship between the viewer and the viewed is essentially voyeuristic. In the film Pandora’s Box, David Thomson writes, “with its still damp glow as if Lulu had just had sex, she stares out at us with those unknowable eyes issuing a challenge to our furtive voyeurism”.
There is a fragment of footage of George Bernard Shaw from 1937, in which the irascible old gent’s address to the TV camera in the garden of his house in Ayot St Lawrence perfectly sums up this complex relationship. “All of you out there can see me, but I cannot see you,” he states, with something approaching wonder. Yet through the mysterious alchemy of film we are transported to the future or the past, and escape the cares of the present, for the price of a ticket, in an experience to be shared with strangers. Drawn to the light in the dark, and the flickering shadows, like the poor prisoners in Plato’s cave, believing the illusion is real, we want to escape . . . escape from ourselves.
The roots of cinema are in oral storytelling and later in literature, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1492), possibly the greatest novel ever written, in which Cervantes intuited many of the cinematic techniques of storytelling: the quest, the journey of the hero, the obstacle to be overcome (all from the oral tradition), the flashback, the road movie, the mismatched buddies, the unreliable narrator, and the confusion of fantasy and reality. Later on there would be Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens and Chekhov. To read Chekhov’s stage directions is to anticipate Jean Renoir, writes Thomson. Just as technology brought fire, the wheel, the plough, the quill, the printing press, the typewriter and the computer, it finally gave life to the still image, the photograph.
Caves of dreams
Eadweard Muybridge came to photography sometime in the 1860s. It was the beginning of an era, stretching to the first World War, of the most profound social and technological change. It saw the invention of electricity, the motor car, the airplane; it saw votes for women and the birth of psychoanalysis. The result was change at an unprecedented rate, and the growing awareness that people might be a mass or force. This newly excited and overwhelmed force of people had a deep need to understand their strange and brave new world. First through photography, and then later via the moving image, it came to wonder-making life; not the real world, of course, but a faux real world which profoundly altered real world attitudes to everything from history and politics to personal morality. People saw themselves reflected through the miracle of motion.