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Reading Cause And Effect: The Early Days Of Film

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My current read, Jessie Greengrass’ Sight, has two plot threads, told in one narrative by one person. In the first narrative – the main fiction, so to speak – a woman looking back at the time when she was struggling to make a decision as to whether she should have a child. The other is factual – although narrated by our fictional character – and covers the discovery of X-rays and what they could do by scientist Wilhelm Röntgen at the end of the 19th century.

Röntgen’s story is an interesting one, particularly as Greengrass includes the problems that arose due to a previous scientist having seen X-rays but not investigating – where Röntgen had seen a light and investigated it, this other scientist had seen the same light but not thought anything of it.

Most interesting to me, however, was the information that is included at the start of Greengrass’ tale of Röntgen – the author compares the beginnings of his discovery with the creation of the first motion pictures. She chooses the evening of 28th December 1895, wherein early filmmakers the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, hosted the first public film screening. Ten very short films were included, and Greengrass’ nameless character speaks most of La Pêche aux Poissons Rouges (Fishing the Goldfish), which features Auguste and his daughter:

Users of IMDB have given it only 5.2/10, which kind of defeats the point…

It’s an astonishing film, really; the quality of the picture and the speed of it… when you compare it to later ‘feature’ films, it seems far ahead. (I’m thinking here of the crackly nature of black and white films, all those dots and lines, though admittedly a one shot, one angle film wouldn’t need to work with transitions.)

Greengrass moves on to X-rays from here, but I was interested in carrying on the research into film. The reputed first ever film was created in 1871. Sallie Gardner at a Gallop was the result of an experiment and technically more a precursor to film that one itself.: twenty-four photographs shown on a zoopraxiscope, creating an effect very similar to flip books.

The first copyrighted film was Fred Ott’s Sneeze, a 5 second film in which a man pretends to be feeling under the weather; Fred inhales some snuff. He breaks the fourth wall at the end. The film was shown through a Kinetoscope, a massive device created by Thomas Edison, who knew the creator of Sallie Gardner at a Gallop. When Edison exhibited his creations at the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1889), what we would now call his stand was an acre in size and featured an entire power station.

There are a lot of very early films out there, and most of them are available to view. Thinking on why I hadn’t known about them before and why there is so much general knowledge on photography but not film, I concluded that since we are so invested in photography for the purposes of personal and societal history, it makes sense that early films – often random and very very short – would not be so well known. At least that’s my thought.

What have books taught you recently?

 
 

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