Lisa Simmons’ assertion
that Hollywood films by and large
continue to feature damaging stereotypes of African Americans strikes me as
true. But Ms. Simmons’ urging that
independent thinkers create images which challenge these stereotypes makes me
wonder about the origin and nature of moving images and just what it is that
makes them so influential.
The history of moving images is remarkably short compared
to that of writing, painting and music making.
The first public screening of moving images took place in Paris on
December 28, 1895, not much more than a hundred years ago. The show consisted of a series of silent,
fifty second scenes of, among other things, a train arriving at a station, a
wave breaking, children engaged in a snowball fight, and workers exiting the
Lumiere family camera manufacturing facility.
The images were recorded by a remarkable device invented by two
brothers, August and Louis Lumiere, whose father owned a factory that
manufactured still cameras. The same box-like instrument exposed images on
film, then served as chemical developing tank and projector as well.
The show was a great success, and ran for more than a year
to packed houses. It was glowingly reviewed in Paris newspapers the day following
the premiere, and one reviewer in particular made a remarkable statement: “From
now on,” he wrote, “there is no death.”
Since photography in one form or another had been around for some sixty
years previously, it was evidently not the image itself, but the movement that
There was, of course, no movement. What flabbergasted early viewers (Maxim
Gorky, reviewing a Lumiere road show in Moscow the following year noted that
some patrons in the front row had risen from their seats and fled when the wave
broke) actually saw was a series of still photographs passing in front of a
light in quick succession interrupted at numerous times per second by darkness
caused by a three-bladed rotating shutter.
The phenomenon which made this illusion possible, more
remarkably still, was an error in human perception: the inability of the brain,
in conjunction with the eye, to rid itself of one image before it is replaced
by one slightly different. This error
is known as the persistence of vision and
is the basis for the persuasiveness of all moving image technologies.
But this ‘movement’ was indeed transformational. Seeing an image of someone appearing to
breathe and move is entirely different from seeing a still image, typically
representing a frozen fiftieth of a second, something utterly unrealistic by
Coupled with the development of shooting and editing
techniques, the new technology was poised to succeed brilliantly. Still, if almost everyone was dazzled by the
fact of movies, not all of them were persuaded by the value of the new
technology. It is a melancholy fact
that education by definition involves studying the past. So it was that the most educated audiences
for the new technology were steeped in the conventions of its predecessor -- the theatre. To many of them, the conventions of film as they developed were
disturbing. When you went to the
theatre, you “saw” the stage from a fixed point of view your seat. A film, however, might feature a close-up of
a face that took up the entire height of an eight foot high screen, followed by
a wide shot in which that same face might be only inches high, a monstrous
juxtaposition to someone accustomed to the theatre.
And so the audiences that most enthusiastically responded
to the “movies” tended to be less educated: people with less to unlearn, as it
were. But even among them, the power of
film was often misattributed. This was
brilliantly shown in a series of exercises developed by one of the most
brilliant of early film teachers, the Russian Lev Kuleshov in 1917.
Kuleshov took one of the leading men of the nascent
Russian cinema, a handsome young Armenian named Musjakian, and shot a close-up
of him looking neutrally at the camera for a couple of minutes. He then inter-cut this shot with a close-up
of a bowl of steaming hot soup, then with a close-up of a dead child, and
finally with a shot of a woman exiting a train, then running toward the camera
with an ecstatic expression on her face.
When he and his students showed the sequence to workers at a Leningrad
factory after a shift change, most members of the audience were amazed by the
power of -- Musjakian’s acting! How in
the first scene, he was striving to look indifferent but was plainly starving
to death; in the second, he was trying in suppress his emotion but was plainly
devastated by the death of his son. And in the third, though again striving
to be restrained and manly, he was clearly overjoyed at the sight of -- his mistress.
Kuleshov followed that up by another exercise, in which he
filmed a young woman getting dressed entirely in close-up her hands pulling
on stockings, her arms pulling a shift over her head, etc. At the end of the class in which he showed
the sequence, one of his students begged him for the address of the young
woman, by whom he was clearly smitten.
Kuleshov gravely refused, despite the student’s assurances of his good
intentions. Finally, after being further
pressed, Kuleshov confessed that the young woman with whom the student was infatuated
consisted in fact of four different women, and one man.
So you see,
Kuleshov concluded, I have created an entirely fictional creature that is
nonetheless capable of inspiring passion.
The central creative heart of filmmaking, he concluded, was editing
which, along with the multiple points of view enabled by camera position,
enabled film to far surpass theatre in expressive range and power.
How true this was is attested to by the fact that, as
early as 1920, both Pope Benedict XV and Vladimir Illyich Lenin, who agreed on
little else, both pronounced film to be the most influential art form in the
history of the world.
But in a further paradox, the foremost innovator in the
history of American cinema was a man of the theatre D.W. Griffith. And he used the new technology which like
all technologies is amoral -- to promote a virulently racist ideology. His most powerful film, the founding
‘masterpiece’ of American cinema, Birth
of a Nation, is one of the most morally disgusting films ever made, the widespread exhibition
of which is arguably responsible for the murder of hundreds of African American
citizens at the hands of a rejuvenated Klu Klux Klan, which brings us back to
our starting point: Ms. Simmons charge of racism in American filmmaking.
That film is a medium of phenomenal power is
undeniable. That there is racism in
American filmmaking is also, I think, undeniable. I would assert as well,
without offering evidence, that it is less virulent now than it was at the
beginning. But whether it is a cause or merely a symptom is very much subject
to continuing debate. If films are merely symptoms of the zeitgeist of the times, Ms. Simmon’s injunction to produce different kinds of
films is likely to have less effect, even if carried out, than if films can in
fact cause different values to be
instilled. I hope to engage that
subject in a later post.
--Tim Wright, Documentary Filmmaker