It was a cold December night three days after Christmas in 1895 when guests filed curiously into the dimly lit basement at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. It was the age of marvels, of new inventions, and what the people had come that night to see was a magic show performed by Auguste and Louis Lumière.
The Lumière Brothers had set up a box of tricks they called Le Cinematography and, after a brief introduction, the lights were extinguished, and the audience sat with breath held waiting in the darkness. The machine in its wooden case with brass fittings was cranked to life and, what those people saw projected on the wall was a low-angle close-up of a train looming down the tracks in a swirling cloud of steam. There was no sound but, so realistic was this magic trick, as the train drew closer, the people threw themselves under the tables and chairs screaming with fear.
The lights were lit again. The members of the audience quickly regained their composure, such are the effects of magic, and watched the rest of the show. The Lumière Brothers screened ten short films lasting twenty minutes, and those people that December night in 1895 was without their knowing witnesses to a moment in history. The cinema had begun. Auguste and Louis Lumière had been on the trail of the moving image for most of their adult lives.
They had attended a technical school in Lyon and had grown up surrounded by the paraphernalia in their father’s photographic studio. During the last years of the 19th century, photographers and inventors across Europe and the United States had been trying to film and reproduce motion, but it was Le Cinematographe, a hand-held, relatively lightweight device functioning as a camera, projector and printer all in one, that was the first to screen what can accurately be called a movie to an audience.
The Lumière Brothers had taken their camera out into the street and shot what they called actualities – scenes of everyday life, the steaming train being the best known. Being techies, they didn’t immediately grasp the potential for creating entertainment. Louis Lumière famously said: ‘The cinema is an invention without a future,’ a remark that was to transform from irony to paradox through the years of his pioneering work as a filmmaker. Even before aircraft were seen in the skies, the Lumière Brothers had captured the first aerial shots and, in the coming years, they would go on to shoot almost 1,500 short films, and created the first short film catalogue.
Louis Lumière lived long enough to regret his slip of the tongue. Far from having no future, the movies had an instant appeal to the public imagination. Beautiful art and literature habitually serve an educated elite. The theatre requires actors on stage being paid day in day out. But a cinema program can be shown eight or ten times a day and, with such economies, every factory worker and housemaid at the turn of the 20th century could afford a ticket. Finally, we had an art form/entertainment/business, call it what you will, that had mass appeal and, more could reach the entire world.
James Cameron‘s Avatar is expected to take $2 billion at the box office and will be seen by hundreds of millions of people. There is, as is often said, something magical about the movies, something that appeals to our primitive nature. As we sit in the darkened auditorium waiting for the show to begin, we are taking part in the same cultural ritual as our ancestors when they squatted around the campfire staring at the flames and listening to the elders. Through time and across cultures, man has been recounting legends that endorse and celebrate our humanity, our innate belief in equanimity, our sensitivity to the needs of others, what George Orwell called ‘common human decency.’ You find the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, but with variances on the theme, every religion and society tells the same story.
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