LUMIÈRE ET COMPAGNIE
(Lumiere and Company)


Starring: Various
Directors: Merzak Allouache, Theo Angelopoulos, Vicente Aranda,
Gabriel Axel, J.J. Bigas Luna, John Boorman, Youssef Chahine, Alain Corneau, Costa-Gavras, Raymond Depardon, Francis Girod, Peter Greenaway, Lasse Hallström, Michael Haneke, Hugh Hudson, James Ivory, Gaston Kaboré, Abbas Kiarostami, Cédric Klapisch, Andrei Konchalovsky, Patrice Leconte, Spike Lee, Claude Lelouch, David Lynch, Ismail
Merchant, Claude Miller, Sarah Moon, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Arthur Penn, Lucian Pintilie, Jacques Rivette, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Jerry Schatzberg, Nadine Trintignant, Fernando Trueba, Liv Ullmann, Régis Wargnier, Wim Wenders, Yoshishige Yoshida, Yimou Zhang, Jaco van
Dormael
Writer: based on an original idea by Philippe Poulet
Distributor: Fox Lorber (US 1995)
Run Time: 88 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
 

THE MISSING REEL
The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures


Author: Christopher Rawlence
Publisher Penguin USA (1992)

WHO:
Mixed Reviewer Martin Scribbs
WHAT:
Glimpses of the earliest history of cinema

THOMPSON
(still explaining)
Well, Mr. Bernstein, you were with Mr.Kane from the very beginning...

BERNSTEIN
From before the beginning, young fellow.
And now it's after the end.

-- Citizen Kane

In 1895, the Lumière brothers were the first to charge an audience to see a motion picture show. We have one of their original shorts, a toddler taking his first tentative steps towards the rolling camera.
So was cinema, new and unsure, mainly an extension of its parents, photography and theater. Its arrival brought joy and surprise into its immediate family, but the child had little personality to call its own.

Movies have accomplished so much since the inception of the art -- they have attained a global audience, learned the languages of the world, taken on richly textured stories, colored, full of sound, become portable and malleable. The prodigious child that is cinema, whose performances started as mere parlor tricks, has so secured his own fame as to eclipse that of his parent arts. Lumière and company, a centennial celebration arranged by French TV, draws voice from the heirs of mature cinema as they try to recapture the medium as it was in its first few faltering days.

Give forty famous directors a crack at making their own 52-second shorts with what's billed as the first motion picture camera, and what do you get? A remake of the famous Lumière short, L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat, from which, legend has it, the first paying moviegoers fled in terror (Leconte); a long, loving kiss between a sweet-faced couple with Down's Syndrome (van Domael); a sci-fi mystery
with cops, aliens, and a naked woman in an experimental fluid tank (Lynch, of course); everything from an impromptu rock-n-roll concert on the Great Wall of China (Zhang) to a Bronx bag lady yelling crazily at a garbage truck operator (Schatzberg). While some of the films were better, or more creative, than others, criticism is best reserved for the collection as a whole, and the presentation in which they are framed.

LUMIÈRE AND COMPANY is not a cinematic twin of 1900s House. The 40 short films are no more of the 19th century than the Lumières could have made 20th century films had they a hand-held camcorder. "Perfect synchronization between sound and image," a feature most of the DVD
shorts have, the brothers Lumière had declared "absolutely impossible." Moreover, the shorts use film grammar as it has developed across the intervening century -- the montage, the cut-away, the tracking shot, the close-up, the flashback. Alain Corneau even adds swirls of color to his film of a gypsy dancing, hand-tinting in blue and yellow, red and purple. For better or worse, these are unapologetically modern shorts filmed on antique equipment.

On the other hand, the restored camera definitely shapes the process. Because the camera is hand-wound, it records at different frames-per-second for different directors. For some, the Lumière box's ghostly, too-white images move fluidly. Other directors get a choppy, disjointed progression. For being more advanced, the cameras of today leave no such footprint on their films.

Thematically, many of the directors make explicit reference to the time gap between the ancient camera and the new world which it beholds. World War II lay almost exactly midway between the Lumière s' time and ours, and several of the directors use that tragic chapter in human history to give us a sense of time and proportion. Greenaway, in Munich, films a dial of years which flips from 1895 to 1995, lingering on the war years. Other of the directors film in Hiroshima, contrasting the giggling school children and the modern buildings with the enormity of atomic attack.

Another motif is that of the filmer-filmed, in which the director uses the Lumière's camera to capture another person using a modern camera, or a Lumière replica, or hanging about on a movie set or in front of a movie theater. I certainly understand the impulse of the directors to connect-the-dots between the start and current state of cinema. However, the viewer gets the same message of cinematic continuity and discontinuity many, many times, and the law of diminishing marginal returns soon kicks in with a vengeance.

In fact, for a collection of shorts under a minute long each, LUMIÈRE AND COMPANY runs surprisingly long. The producers padded out half of the running time by asking the directors stock questions like, "why do you film?" and "is cinema mortal?" The directors humor these questions, for the most part, though some do simply shrug or ignore their interlocutor. We are also treated to making-of segments regarding each short, which generally run longer than the made short itself. There is something charming about the first few minutes watching big-name directors play, like boys and girls at Christmas, with a toy to which they've never before had access. But I would advise the trigger-happy DVD viewer to fast-forward through the filler -- if she's watched one Oscars, or sat in one film class, or watched the bonus features for any DVD, she's seen and heard all this before.

The viewer leaves Lumière and Company feeling as though she's watched hours of home movies about a loved one's childhood. Even the gamest of viewers will want to indulge her nostalgia judiciously, to avoid getting sour on the narcissism of the exercise. Coo and gaze, in moderation.



Speaking of self-indulgent home movies, the student of early cinema would do well to pick up Christopher Rawlence's non-fiction THE MISSING REEL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE LOST INVENTOR OF MOVING PICTURES and to set her eyes on "skim." Rawlence happened to buy the Leeds home of one Louis Aimè Augustin Le Prince. Le Prince, an inventor who had been
working on a single-lens motion picture camera and projector, mysteriously disappeared from a train to Paris in 1890. Eleven months later, Thomas Edison, with whom Le Prince had shared a patent lawyer, filed for three patents which bore a striking similarity to Le Prince's work. Edison reaped a financial bonanza; the Le Prince estate saw not a penny. Rawlence, looking for a loophole by which to declare his house a historic landmark and avoid eminent domain, takes the Le Prince story as far as it can go.

Not to spoil the story, but Rawlence uncovers next to no evidence that Edison had conspired to have Le Prince murdered. Therefore that angle, which is the book's main draw, amounts to little more than a red herring. Rawlence does amass a credible and engaging history of the race to create a motion picture camera and projector. He shows how precursors, such as the magic lantern, or multiple-shot photography, or even all-encompassing painted panoramas, may have inspired motion picture pioneers. Rawlence does his due diligence and then some, recreating the memoirs of Le Prince widow Lizzy, interviewing surviving family members, physically inspecting equipment and key locations. He tracks down documents from Edison's office, now a riot of confusion, from various patent offices, and ultimately from the New York court who heard the Battle of the Patents among several putative motion picture inventors.

If THE MISSING REEL has a fault, and it does, it lies in Rawlence's excessive desire to frame every investigation as interesting in its own right. Instead of providing us directly with his data, he goes into
great detail about how he got it. As much as one appreciates his commitment to the work, one tires of reading about it. Plus, far, far too much detail on the state of industrial artisans in Leeds, and Le
Prince's involvement with same, slow the narrative down to a crawl. There is a lot to get from THE MISSING REEL for those wishing to imagine a world pregnant with as-yet unborn cinema, but there is also a lot that a devoted editor would have excised mercilessly.


Review text copyright © 2004, Martin Scribbs and Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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