-- 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.
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
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
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.
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
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