David Thomson: Let There Be Light

Posted by David Thomson on 10.11.2012

In an except from his new book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, David Thomson considers our changing relationship with the screens on which we watch movies.

Thomson, a former member of the New York Film Festival Selection Committee, will be at NYFF to premiere the book with a discussion and signing. The event will take place on Friday, October 12 at 7:00pm at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, where The Big Screen will be on sale before it hits bookstores next week. More info is available here.

As I was writing this book, and trying to discover what it was about, I found myself muttering to friends, “Well, it’s a history, I suppose.” “Oh, a history of the whole thing,” they said, “how nice.” But when we pursued the matter, I tried to explain that “the whole thing” had to be more than Méliès to Melancholia—“it’s Muybridge to Facebook,” I said before I had entirely settled on that. I always knew it was a book about screens. Whereas the patrons of movie houses had once gazed at the imagery, the moving photography, the story, it was clearer now that we citizens are living with screens even if we don’t go to “the movies” or really concentrate on the screens. The screens then and now are alike, but they were big once, as large as buildings, and now they may be thumbnail size—yet they are vast in their ubiquity and their constant use. They make a taunting offer of reality, but I wonder if that isn’t a way of keeping us out of it.

This is a time for such a history, in which proper celebration is mixed with skepticism and some regret. Film as a commodity is going out of use; that thrilling name “Kodak” is passing away (it turns out Kodak was only a moment); and the 2012 revival of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, as full as it could be at five and a half hours, may have been the last chance to see that passionate work as film. Moviegoing does not quite exist anymore as a consuming public preoccupation, no matter that the media and the Academy cling to the old notion. The technologies are carrying us forward so rapidly we become giddy with change—the motion smothers emotion.

I have sometimes wondered at the drastic changes that could occur between the writing and the publication of this book—not least at the continuing advance in the habit of reading a book on a screen. (Why not, if that’s where books are written?) I was on a subway train the other day, going from San Francisco to Oakland, and three quarters of the people in the crowded car were focused intently on tiny screens (parts of their phones, in most cases) or dreaming to the sounds coming through their earpieces. There was no talk and little noticing, and this strikes a movie fan as disconcerting in that the movies always seemed to be about looking and the quality of things seen—as mood, narrative, or even beauty—and about the possibility of seeing inner meanings. So this book will exult over great films (and urge you to see them), and it will worry, too, over the ways in which the multiplicity of screens now are not just metaphors for our isolation and feelings of futility in dealing with the world but a fuel for that helplessness. (Once upon a time, we defined screen as a place where things were shown. But now an older meaning has crept back: a screen can be a masking device behind which things and humans may hide.) In the earliest days, the primitive movie shows seemed to be life in our lap, but now the many lap devices often whisper to us that we are not to bother with life. Isn’t it beyond salvation? Isn’t it, as the movies have always hinted, just a show?

From the moment Eadweard Muybridge picked up a camera (in the 1860s) to the occasion of Georges Méliès setting his aside (as the Great War began), the world went mad with progress. It was a time of profound novelties: electricity; the telephone; automobiles; powered aircraft; psychoanalysis; women seeking the vote and so much more; immigration to America on an unprecedented scale; a new kind of city, or metropolis; the realization that the populace might be a mass, or a force, and a way of knowing strangers by their images. So many changes, so many needs, with photography and moving film striving to mimic the commotion. But moving film was a mixture of science and magic: when the film strip moved, the still world came to life. Or something so close to it as to be heartbreaking: it became lifelike.

In E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, the family meet the Baron Ashkenazy, who has become an entrepreneur in the new craze of movies. This is the early 1900s. He tells them about the wonder of what he is selling:

In the movie films, he said, we only look at what is there already. Life shines on the shadow screen, as from the darkness of one’s mind. It is a big business. People want to know what is happening to them. For a few pennies they sit and see their selves in movement, running, racing in motorcars, fighting and, forgive me, embracing one another. This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so new. There is such a need to understand.

The possibility that in looking to see we might understand is the hope and the excitement in this book. It may be its tragedy, too.

Eadweard Muybridge was one of those men whose work was needed to measure out the changes in what people were seeing and thinking. He was a still photographer, and arguably a troubled and violent person, but the stills were not enough for him. He guessed that they could be restored to the progress or the continuum from which they had been taken— motion, life, time—and that that past could be made present and lifelike.

In advance of any official identification of cinematography and projection, audience or the show, he had divined key elements of what moving film, motion pictures, or movie* would do. He had made an illustrated analysis of our recent past that indicated a future medium, but he hardly knew whether to think of it as science or poetry. We are still grappling with the question of whether this thing is story or its own relentless technology.

He was foreign or he was English. He came to America first in 1855 in a spirit of hopeful enterprise. He saw the prospect of men and women walking the beautiful land, and he would be of the generation of photographers who helped colonize that place in our imagination. But for the moment, he was only looking, without a camera or a plan. Simply, he was amazed and moved. Perhaps he wasn’t looking where he was going, because he had an accident while riding on a stagecoach and suffered a head injury. It may have been a concussion, or worse, and there was some suspicion after that that he was troubled in his mind.

Then he went back to England. He may have been homesick, or aroused and confused by America. He had some reason to wonder if he was ill. So he thought he would change his name, pumping a little air and light into it.

He had been born Edward Muggeridge on April 9, 1830, in Kingston, a small, pleasant Thames resort then regarded as safely out of London and to its west, on the salubrious side of the prevailing wind, the smell, and the smoke. The river at Kingston was clean, so the place called itself Kingston-on-Thames. In 1830, Princess Alexandrina Victoria was aged eleven, and seven years away from being queen. The population of Great Britain was about twenty-four million, but the small country had imperial possessions all over the world and the most modern and expansive domestic economy. Charles Dickens was eighteen and a young reporter. He met and lost his first love that year, but he had not yet written a book. His London was just a few years into the great experiment of gas lighting in homes and on the streets. So night had lost its first urban battle, but gaslight was the start of mood, atmosphere, and anxiety, a twilight and a half-light. Gaslight turned black into noir. In the early 1830s, in many places, but in London, too, people were taking and printing and showing photographs. Look, it’s the real thing, they said, it’s you! It’s yesterday’s light shining today.

So it was. But it was something else, too: the photograph was a thing, not a being; it might make an identity card, but it was so much thinner than identity. In a few seconds its freshness became the past. You could tear it in pieces; you could watch it fade. It seemed like a precious imprint of reality, of love or desire—we usually take pictures of things we like or want—but the fragile and arbitrary nature of the picture warned us that desire was fleeting. We lose photographs; we forget them. But they helped people see that light was not just natural or divine. It could be a modern spirit, a mood, and a device. “Let there be light!” could sound like a hallowed principle and encouragement, the fundament of history, culture, and human purpose. But the photograph taught us that the light might be tricked up and manipulated—and now we live with that slipperiness all the time. We are close to the last moment when photography is still trusted as a record or a likeness. That steady social habit and function have been taken over by what we call effects. And “effects” are results, not primary wonders. The real thing is no longer definite or reliable. It’s shopped.

He changed his name from Edward Muggeridge to Eadweard Muybridge. People had changed their names before, but this was such a bold attempt at romantic transformation. It was like an advertisement and an assertion, a talking to himself, and the suggestion of a “bridge” is on its way from fact to fiction.

It was in Kingston in the early 1860s, that he first discovered photography, and that seems to have persuaded him to go back to California and San Francisco in 1866. He was some kind of publisher in the first instance, and he became a connoisseur of the new city and the beautiful wilderness to the east in the Sierra Mountains. He launched what became a successful photographic business and did pictures of the city and of the country—especially Yosemite Valley, which, two years earlier, had been identified by President Lincoln as a national treasure. There was no question about the spectacular quality of Muybridge’s landscapes, and his was not the only eye or lens attracted to them. The “wilderness” of Yosemite was altered by the photograph: it became a marvel, an adventure, a resort, even if visitors still die there in its wildness. Yosemite was hailed as the proof of America’s natural existence. Some felt God was there. The wildness was a kind of liberty, though taking pictures of it was a step toward restricting that.

Was it an action suited to wild times, or was it part of the damage he had suffered in his stagecoach accident? Whatever the cause, Muybridge murdered his wife’s lover. In October 1874 he came to believe that his wife, Flora—they had been married two years, and she was his junior by twenty-two years; she was a photo retoucher—was having an affair with a former English military officer named Harry Larkyns, who was drama critic on the San Francisco Post. In that same year, Flora had been delivered of a son (Florado Helios Muybridge). So on the seventeenth, Muybridge left the city and made what was a lengthy journey north (by ferry and horseback) to Calistoga, where he expected to find Larkyns, and shot him dead.

He was tried for premeditated murder in February 1875, and in his defense he claimed insanity or personality change after his accident. The jury discounted that argument, but they acquitted him nonetheless, on the grounds of “justifiable homicide.”

Muybridge behaved oddly in other ways: after the verdict, Flora asked for a divorce, but Muybridge would not permit it. She died later in 1875, and Muybridge refused to acknowledge Florado as his. He put the boy in an orphanage, despite the fact that many observers believed the boy resembled him.

He was also interested in gambling and in experiments with photography. Leland Stanford, a millionaire on the strength of business derived from the gold rush, a director of Wells Fargo Bank, and governor of California, had a ranch or farm at Palo Alto, south of San Francisco. He got into an argument, which led to a wager as to whether a galloping horse always had one foot on the ground. Many earlier paintings showed horses in motion as if spread-eagled in air—this was a heroic, romantic assertion that defied optics and the structure of a horse’s legs. But time and again we look through the facts before our eyes and prefer something we want to believe is there.

Stanford asked Muybridge if he could help settle the bet. So in the years 1877–78 the photographer devised a row of cameras whose mechanical shutters were triggered by fine string lines set off by the horse’s motion. The result was a simple record of time and space, laid out in still pictures taken at what we might call split-second intervals. With the aid of a machine invented by Muybridge in the early 1870s, the zoopraxiscope, these images could be printed in sequence on the surface of a cylinder so that, with a peephole and a twirl of the cylinder, a viewer seemed to see the horse galloping. Understanding was altered by technology; time was separated into sections, or frames; the past and appearance could be studied on a kind of screen; and it was revealed that at many instants the horse was in midair, not spread-eagled, but with its legs tucked up beneath it.

Muybridge was essential and innovative in the proof; he was a technological wizard and a rare talent; but he was about to be wronged. This pattern is not unusual with the figures in film history. Leland Stanford later published some of the photographs in a book, The Horse in Motion, but he did not credit Muybridge. The photographer sued and lost.

Not long afterward, Muybridge went to Paris. He was already, by 1881–82, contemplating the work that would be collected as Animal Locomotion—the sequential study of ordinary animal actions—but in Paris he met and talked with ÉtiennJules Marey. The two men were the same age, and while Marey had begun as a cardiologist, studying the flow of blood, he became interested in the detailed photographic study of motion. In 1873 he had published a book, La Machine Animale, that centered on flight, and Muybridge had read that book and studied its series on birds and insects. Marey had invented what he called a photographic gun capable of taking ten or twelve pictures in a second. The two men talked, and Muybridge’s plan came into sharper focus.

But he needed funding, so when he returned to America, with the help of painter Thomas Eakins (a Philadelphian), he sought a position at the University of Pennsylvania, where he could carry out his research. By then he was able to record as many as twenty-four sequential images in a second. He used as subject matter anything that was at hand, or anything that interested him. He did a series on a mastiff walking and another on a horse and carriage; he photographed men and women ascending staircases; he caught men sparring and fencing; he shot little dances and juggling acts. He delighted in the manifestation of simple motion and passing time, and he trusted situations where nothing dramatic seemed to be happening. The pictures were the sensation. The viewer’s ability to sit at a distance and hold the light, the past, the animal, in his or her hand— that was the drama. It offered a mastery that was new and thrilling. The world might be yours to dream over.

He shot people, but he also shot light, air, and passing time. He took special pleasure in the splay and splash of water poured out of a jug or tossed on a little girl. The wonder of seeing the commonplace in the light was more thoroughly celebrated by Eadweard Muybridge than by anyone before him. It’s still the case that his sequences fill viewers with awe and excitement, no matter that they have no story or purpose. The pictures feel ravished by the play of light on ordinary physicality and by the tiny, incremental advances through time. If you’re interested in movie, you should spend some time just looking at these still photographs.

Take whatever example you like from subsequent cinema, and its inheritance from Muybridge can be felt—take Astaire and Rogers spinning together in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936); take the door closing on John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers (1956); or think of that instant from Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) when the still picture of the young woman comes to life briefly and she looks at being looked at.

Think of Julia Roberts smiling in Pretty Woman (1990) and the realization it gave you in 1990 that the archaic fantasy called “a star is born” was happening again with a knockout newcomer—a dream in which a hooker becomes a respectable, and possibly educated, woman and the sweet wife to a millionaire, and we enjoy all those faces and roles, without risk of infection, support payments, or boredom. Pretty Woman may be indefensible as “a work of art,” but what a show, what an extraordinary metaphor for a daft society—and what a face! What a thing to look at. And what appetite she had then for being looked at—what young faith she had in being recognized.

Muybridge took well over a hundred thousand pictures in Pennsylvania in the mid-1880s, and they were published by the university in 1887 in eleven folio volumes as Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements. Before the official invention of the movies (though many were on that track, and Thomas Edison took note of Muybridge’s work), so many elements of cinema had been identified: time, motion, space, light, skin. And watching.

Don’t forget the skin, or the way sunlight could caress it—as a rule, Muybridge worked in natural light. He was engaged in a project of scien- tific research, sanctioned by the university and by the Philadelphia Zoo, so he had some license. If the animals he photographed were naked, why not some similar views of those other animals, people? I doubt he could have published all that followed without the umbrella of academe (and he often did series of people opening and closing parasols).

One of the nudes was Muybridge himself—gaunt, stringy, white-haired, and noble. He had to believe in himself—he looks as confident as Julia Roberts did once. He must be the first auteur to go naked in front of his own camera, and he does not have too many rivals in the century or more since. I do not know who the naked women were, though they are usually young, strong, and appealing. Did Muybridge select them for that reason, or were they just Penn students on work study? Did he talk to some of them afterward? Did he . . . ? I don’t know, but you will know what I am wondering if you examine the glory and the naturalness of the pictures.

Of course, these pictures are not loaded or touched with drama or seductiveness. They have no story content—except that of being looked at. But watching is so often the seed of story—that’s what happens with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954), a film that teases him, and us, on account of the link between staring and starting up a line of thought that might become a story. What happens next? But why say “next” unless things follow in what screenwriters call “the arc”?

Aware of an arc, or not, as film and filmmakers watch, so they are led to “improve” what they see. They may alter the light and compose the im- age to fit the story developing in their mind. This is tricky, too, but you can’t blame anyone for doing it. Watching and thinking are natural companions. It’s only the camera that can do one without the other. But we are so eager to assist its shortcoming.

In Anthony Minghella’s film of Cold Mountain, two lovers, Inman and Ada (Jude Law and Nicole Kidman), are separated for most of the action by the Civil War. At last they are reunited, and in 1864—or in a 2003 movie—it was natural that they might make love. But this was a film that had striven to look and feel like the wild country of North Carolina in the early 1860s, where very likely the real lovemaking would have been in the dark, with bodies roughened by hunger and other privations.

Cold Mountain was a movie that was going to cost $83 million, so it needed a sex scene with movie stars. Minghella knew that, but if he had been in any doubt, Miramax and the Weinstein brothers (the producers) were there to remind him. Alas, in its fond amber light, with the players gracefully exposed and shielded, and with Law and Kidman qualifying as admirable bodies, Cold Mountain felt like a movie. The openness of Muybridge and nature was gone, along with 1864. But even Muybridge’s own pictures do have some elements that signal the melodrama of Cold Mountain: his views are chosen and framed for us, and the men and women in the photographs do not know us or admit that we are watching. The voy- eurist privilege had begun, and already its intimation of power and detachment was present. What is not natural is our looking. Yet by today we think we have a right, a human right, to look at anything.

Eadweard Muybridge went back to England and died in Kingston-on-Thames in 1904. He was an inventor, a creator, and a visionary, and nearly every picture he took prompts the inward cry “Oh, look!” That is what this book starts with: we like to look, and in looking we find what we like—or what we are afraid of: it’s a pattern of dread and desire. Of course, by 1904, if he had been so inclined, Muybridge could have gone to some early version of a movie show, run on electricity, and seen the projector’s shining light fall back from a screen on the huddled mass. He might have been pleased, for it would have seemed as if the crowd, buzzing with their sighs, were watching the pictures. They were. We still do. But by now we are challenged by a disconcerting realization—that we are also watching the screen, the process, and our distance from reality. Movie has so often seemed like the gift of reality—sometimes a lustrous, improved version of it—but by now it’s easier to understand how the process let us give up on reality, and use it as a story, a dream, a toy version of life. That can be a worrying privilege, especially if reality threatens to become unmanageable.

This book is an attempt at history, but it leaves many things out, and sometimes moves sideways, despite an overall belief in a steady, forward narrative. From the early days of movies, it cuts forward to events as recent as Pretty Woman or Cold Mountain. In the middle of the book, there is a kind of movie, or a montage. So it’s the story of the movies, but it begins with still photography and comes up to Facebook and all the screens in our lives today. The point in that extension is to say, well, be wary of isolating movies as a discrete or all-important subject. They are about their own imagery, of course, but they should not be separated from our longing to see or from the medium’s ultimate core: a way of realizing desire on the big screen. So it’s a history of moviemaking, its atmosphere as a bittersweet collaboration, and its impact on our larger culture, but it tries to describe a theory of screens, too, which is not as cheerful or carefree as Fred Astaire. We used to believe the screen was there just to help us see the pictures, the story, and the illusion of life. But we are warier now and we guess that all these screens are the real thing, fabulous tools, of course, but subtle barriers between us and life.

We are all of us our own screens: we let the imagery of the world play on us, just as large theatrical screens carried every movie with impartiality. I have always been intrigued by the idea of screens retaining something of the spirit of all their films, of their all being there at the same time—it’s a version of consciousness. In that mood, imagine the Fernando Rey from The French Connection (1971) becoming the Rey in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) on the same white sheet. The films are only a year apart, and it’s positively the same man.

So this book has a lot of information and film titles, a lot of movies you might want to see, or see again. But it is personal and reflective. It tries to uncover the secret nature of film and the way it aids our dreaming. The book goes into raptures and it turns frosty: it has opinions, none of which is meant to be authoritative or decisive. They are there to urge you into your own. I hope it is useful and entertaining. But its chief purpose is just to make us think what movies have done to us and wonder how we feel about that. It’s a love story, but you have to wait for the ending.

Former selection committee member David Thomson will be at the 50th New York Film Festival to premiere his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies with a discussion and signing. The event will take place on Friday, October 12 at 7PM at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, where the book will be on sale before it hits bookstores next week. More info is available here.

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