The First Films

by Peter Bogdanovich
March 19, 2011 4:37 AM
4 Comments
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Today is the 116th anniversary of the first day ever a film was shot: March 19, 1895, in Lyon, France. Louis Lumière, aided by his older brother Auguste—-their family name, with startling appropriateness, in French means “light”—-had invented a machine (and patented it a month before) that photographed, printed, and projected motion pictures. They called it the Cinématographe, from the Greek for “writing the movement,” and from which we got “cinema”—-in more ways than one.

The Lumière company had a thriving business manufacturing still photographic products, especially after Louis (in 1881, at age 17) invented a dry-plate process that enjoyed worldwide popularity. In the summer of 1894, the brothers’ father, Antoine, had been to Paris to see a presentation of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, which functioned as a one-viewer-at-a-time peep show, featuring brief strips of 35mm perforated celluloid film (invented by George Eastman of Rochester, N.Y., in 1889).

Lumière pére returned to Lyon and said to his sons that they could do better than Edison. He told them to get the image out of the box! And so on March 19—-the only sunny day that week—-sometime between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., the brothers Lumière shot their first movie. It was 50 seconds long and done in one single camera setup, photographing the Lumière company’s own employees leaving their factory. The giant wooden gate opens and many men and women, two dogs, a horse and wagon, and two bicyclists, come out, going in various directions. As the talented French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier says in his charming, impassioned DVD narration, with the Lumières’ first film, La Sortie des Usines Lumière (“Leaving the Lumière Factory”), “...the history of invention stops...the history of filmmaking begins.” This is available on DVD as part of The Lumiere Brothers’ First Films: 1895-1900.

After private screenings in March and June, this same picture along with several others by Louis Lumière, were projected for the first time to a paying audience, at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, December 28, 1895, generally therefore considered the birthday of world cinema. By the way, Edison’s version, the Vitascope, wasn’t unveiled to the public until the following April 23, 1896, at a New York vaudeville theater on 34th Street and Broadway.

This DVD also features three other films that were shown to great acclaim at that epochal December running in Paris: L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (“The Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station”), which dramatically brings a train toward the camera at a sharp diagonal, followed by people getting off; Repas de bébé (“A Baby’s Meal”), which presents Auguste Lumiere feeding his young child—-the first home movie; and L’Arroseur Arrosé (“A Sprinkler Sprinkled”), which is the first comedy ever made, showing a fellow watering his garden with a hose, on which a mischievous boy steps to halt the flow.

But this bit of slapstick was essentially a departure for Lumiere, whose main interest was in photographing daily life. Although by 1900, when he abandoned film production, Louis Lumière had himself directed and photographed over 60 of these little films and produced about 2,000, he had as early as the summer of 1895 turned over the bulk of the job to a group of exceptional photographers who were sent the world over to shoot evocative, newsworthy footage. The hour-long DVD exhibits 85 of the Lumières’ best, shot in Venice, in the Alps, in Paris, London, Dublin, Belfast, Berlin, in Spain, Mexico, Russia, Egypt, Indochina, Japan, in Jerusalem, Chicago and New York, following the Lumière credo of “bringing the world to the world.”

What you see are extraordinary glimpses, as if through some magic window, of the way the world was and the way people lived in it, worked, laughed, played, traveled, dressed and behaved more than one hundred years ago. Almost all of these strangely moving, often remarkably beautiful short films—-each less than a minute—-are photographic records of actual events: There’s downtown Broadway, in 1896, with horse-drawn trolleys; there’s a train arriving at Battery Place that same year, and Fulton Street in Brooklyn. All the way from the film with camera on a boat moving through the Grand Canal in Venice---the kind of shot the Lumières called a “panorama”---to the one with camera mounted on a rickshaw as a group of laughing, excited Indochinese children chase it, there is the vibrant freshness of true life. That every single one of these people, caught in the vital midst of their daily lives, are no longer living gives a kind of unspoken poignancy to every image. These are all our relatives.

The Lumières even did the first remake! Until only twenty-five years ago, film historians believed that La Sortie des Usines Lumière was the first ever made, but then in 1985 it was discovered that there had in fact been two earlier versions shot of the same basic action. All three are on the DVD, and fascinating to compare: the first is best, the second is flat, the third (mistaken as first for 95 years) is perfect but not as exciting as the first. Revered by cinephiles everywhere as the “father” of the cinema, Louis Lumière said, some time before his death in 1948 at age 84: “The motion picture entertains the whole world. What could we do better and that could make us more proud?”

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4 Comments

  • MAK | March 23, 2011 3:58 AMReply

    And how fitting that both John Ford and Buster Keaton were born the year film was born, 1895.

    BTW: Anyone in New York can find the brass commemoration plaque dedicated to the first Edison public film show (mentioned above). It’s on the 34th St. facade of MACY’s, between 6th & 7th Avenue.

    And if you enjoy the Lumiere films, you may want to rent another excellent collection featuring the early Gaumont releases of Alice Guy, made between 1897 and 1907. Mostly 'actualities,' but also small story films and some remarkable experiments in acoustically recorded PhonoPhone shorts featuring French Music Hall performers. The synch sound probably works better now than it did in 1905.

    http://maksquibs.blogspot.com

  • Mr. Wu | March 22, 2011 4:50 AMReply

    This too is how I feel when viewing old photographs or these first steps of cinema, that I am looking at a hazy, distant echo of the past, the way daily life and our cities truly looked sans romanticism or sentimentaility. Sometimes, when I'm looking at an old photograph, I will blink quickly and almost get the image to move.. Just the other day I saw a photo of Pike Place Market, looking north from 1st and Pine, from the 1890s. In my mind's eye, I could glimpse the streetcar continue out of the frame, the horse drawing the carriage shake its head and continue clopping up the road, the lady just leaving the public market pop open her parasol. Hmm. That actually might be a little sentimental and romantic, but it's how I honor the past.

  • Christopher Stilley | March 20, 2011 12:14 PMReply

    I'm amazed at how well preserved many of these tidbits of history are..Awhile back I watched a selection of the films of Edwin Thanhouser from just after the turn of the century and was entranced by the non-costumed dramas that were filmed in natural daily life around New Rochelle NY..You could really put yourself in the picture there and get a terrific sense of the people and times...haunting!

  • Chris Barry | March 19, 2011 4:20 AMReply

    I recently saw - for the first time - "L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat." My initial reaction - this can't be real! Of course, I know it is. I was amazed at the flow of this short piece and how vibrant it is. It reaffirms how fortunate we are for this invention called motion pictures.

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