No. 1 | January 1, 2010
The lights have dimmed. The trailers have played. For a moment the screen is black. Your eyes adjust and you settle in your seat. From the darkness comes an image, from the silence a sound: the movie begins. Soon you’ve forgotten what’s happened that day and the world outside. A new world is born. You may visit a place you hadn’t ever imagined. You may see things you never thought possible. You may find it wonderful or frightening or funny or sad, or something beyond what words can express. After a couple of hours you leave the theater not quite the same person as when you came in.
There are few things that have the power to captivate as movies do. They are our waking dreams. A movie we cherish we experience like magic. We can’t help ourselves but watch, letting the movie take us wherever it wants to go. To rapture or to terror it leads, we surrender and go along.
Why do we go to the movies? That depends on the movie and the moviegoer, of course, and safe to say, there is no singular explanation. But one thing we seek, I think, is the sheer experience, the jolt we feel as we’re pulled from our ordinary reality and thrust into something new. With that comes an exchange, our willingness to let go of that reality for the hope that we’ll discover something we can take with us. What is it that we get? At their best, movies offer us a deeper sense of our humanity and a fuller understanding of who we are as people. And then, sometimes, we just have a taste for popcorn. Whatever we may be after, we know we can get it at the movies, and we come back to the theater again and again for more, as we’ve been doing for more than a hundred years.
Just how long have these things we call movies been around? It all began December 28, 1895. That’s the date that quite a few people will tell you marked—cue the fanfare—“the Birth of Cinema!” Some of those people are actual film historians, some just folks who like to put a neat bow on the past even if the facts aren’t so neatly ordered. The date does mark a landmark achievement in film history, yet it falls in the middle of a decade filled with other landmark achievements. Some key developments happened decades earlier, and others after the turn of the century. Cinema, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. It evolved over time.
But any good creation story needs a seminal event. That occasion, a few days after Christmas of 1895, however arbitrary, seems to be the consensus pick for the history of film. On that date, at the Salon Indien beneath the Grand Cafè on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, two French inventors–the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis–presented a motion picture exhibition to the general public. The program consisted of ten short films, each less than a minute long. It was not the first demonstration of motion pictures captured on film. The Lumières, along with Thomas Edison and William K.L. Dickson in the U.S., and others too, had done that years before. Nor was it the first demonstration of film images projected on a screen. The Lumières, using a device they had invented called the Cinématographe, had first done that in March, a few months earlier. The Lumières’ late-1895 exhibition, nonetheless, was an important event: it was the first time that motion pictures had been projected on a screen for a paying audience.
Worth noting, “the birth of the movies,” as it’s often told, is truly the birth of the movie business. History, somehow, seems to have conflated the money angle with the whole darn thing. Perhaps there’s a lesson there and no one but Captain Renault should be shocked.
In any case, movies–the technology, then the business, and soon the art–were “born” around that time. The old century was winding down–Grover Cleveland was in the White House, Victoria sat on the throne, the Dreyfus affair divided France–yet it was an age of new beginnings. Electric power and telephone service gained popularity. The automobile, and soon the airplane, would change forever how we get around. Athens hosted the first modern Olympics. Dr. Naismith invented basketball. Scott Joplin began playing ragtime. H.G. Wells penned classics of early science fiction. Einstein had a few new ideas.
The movie era has been a time of unprecedented, rapid change, and those early days may seem to us like the dusty, distant past. Here’s another perspective. The oldest living person (since this past September) is a woman in Japan born in 1895. By that measure, the history of movies spans one (very long) human lifetime. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not such a long time.
We don’t think about things as people in the past once did. One reason: movies. They’ve irrevocably altered what we see and what we hear, and therefore what we understand. The recording of moving images, beginning with early cinema, is one of the great dividing lines in all of history. There’s a before and an after, a difference in what we know about the people and historical figures who lived then versus those who’ve lived since. Then (and now) we could read the Gettysburg Address, or read about Plymouth Rock, or read accounts of an ancient named Jesus Christ. But today we can watch King’s “I have a dream” speech, or see a man step on the moon, or–okay, we still haven’t seen anyone walk on water (and whatever you might believe, there’s a reason for that).
Movies, of course, dramatize as well as record. No camera was there to film Ivan the Terrible or Napoleon or Becket, but now, the past made visible, we can watch them, if not firsthand at least through the eyes of moviemakers. In a variety of ways, films have documented the events of our time too. Abraham Zapruder captured the Kennedy assassination. So did Oliver Stone. Neither has settled the debate about what happened, but their films add to our experience and their images we won’t forget.
Perhaps above all, movies create and tell stories in ways no other medium can. They may show us realities we don’t want to see or invent fantasies beyond anything we’ve dreamed. Whether about the past, the present, or the future, movies tell us not only their stories but also about the people who made them and the times in which they lived. Metropolisshows us a dystopian future but informs us about Germany in the 1920s. Saving Private Ryan is a World War II story set in Europe but is firmly rooted in post-Cold War, late-century America. 2001: A Space Odyssey extends from “the dawn of man” to the infinite future yet forever will be a picture of 1968.
The future will always look back on our time in a different way than that time before the Lumières’, in large part because we’ve made movies. We’ve documented our hopes, our fears, our lives, on film–and what makes it on film endures. Edwin Booth may have been the greatest actor of his day, but centuries from now they’ll still watch Brando cry “Stella!” in the New Orleans night, with Booth mostly forgotten. Already he’s known best for his infamous brother. Sarah Bernhardt understood the power of film. She had long been a legend of the French stage, called “the most famous actress the world has ever known.” But in 1912, late in her life, she starred in the silent film Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth (Queen Elizabeth). She called that performance her “one chance for immortality.”
Immortality is no small thing. The Lumière brothers and their contemporaries were on to something when they created the movies. Movies, no surprise, got big fast and they’ve been big ever since. Don’t believe Norma Desmond if she tells you otherwise.
The Birth of Minute A Day About Movies
We have started, as you see, right at the beginning–exactly where we are with MAD About Movies. The idea for this site is not to aim for anything like immortality (Woody Allen had the right idea: “I want to achieve immortality through not dying”), but to have the opportunity to write about something I enjoy very much, movies. There is a bit more to it than that, but that’s where we’ll start.
Movies have a rich history and will give us plenty to talk about. That said, I don’t intend for this to be a history lesson or a nostalgic look at movies of the past. We’ll mix the contemporary and the classics, the famous and the forgotten, the greats and the just pretty good. Whatever may be the topic of the day, I hope you find it informative and fun.
You can find lots written about movies on the Web and elsewhere, and what I aim to do here is something a little different. On the front page of the site you’ll find the main movie commentary. Every week will have a theme, every theme five posts, one per weekday. I’m tempted to tell you more about the themes, but instead I’ll invite you to come back and find out for yourself. It should become clear soon enough. The length of the posts will vary by subject but the idea is to keep it relatively brief–thus, the name of the site: you can expect to get a “minute” a day about movies. (One of the dictionary definitions of minute is “a short interval of time.” I’d suggest not using a stopwatch.)
There’s more to the site, and please feel free to look around. You’re always welcome to join the discussion. Thanks for visiting.
Considered the first fiction film and first “comedy,” L’Arroseur Arrosé was a hit and remade several times, including by the Lumières, who did another version the next year.