As early as the 1890s and 1900s, cinemas sprang up everywhere, from old vaudeville theatres to barns with a bedsheet strung up at one end, and people queued round the block to watch literally anything.
There’s a great story recounted in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. A man named Homer Dunne describes his first experience of the movies in Philadelphia in the late 1890s.
Dunne was attracted to a store window, blazing with the light of two arc lamps in which a young man cranked the handle of an odd looking boxlike contrivance upon a tripod. Dunne parted with five cents and went inside. “At the far end of the store a small sheet, obviously dirty, was hung loosely from a wire. It was biliously yellow and had a seam down the centre
May I just point out that he told this story to Motion Picture Magazine in 1916, nearly twenty years later, and he’s still pissy about the state of the sheet. I like Homer Dune.
I was on the point of leaving when … a man’s face popped out from between two brilliant splotches of light. Soon, another face appeared in the northwest corner of the sheet. Later, a human torso flashed into view; then its arms popped into place, then its legs, its head arrived soon after and it stood revealed in its entirety -- a perfect man. Eventually, he was joined by his pal. For nearly a minute they gestured and gesticulated at each other. Finally Number One lost his temper. Without warning, he launched a vicious blow at Number Two.
Whether the blow was a knockout I shall never know. Before it landed, the sheet was plunged into pitch darkness -- and the show was over.
When you read that, you start to understand why the Lumiére brothers were distinctly unimpressed by the new art from. But on the other hand, it had violence! It was a movie.
Luckily it didn’t take long for things to improve.
By the turn of the 20th century, we were starting to see cinematography, which is the language of cinema.
Let’s say you see an exterior shot of a grand house, followed by a shot of a ballroom. You’re going to assume that the ballroom is inside the grand house, right? In reality it could be two entirely different locations filmed days or even weeks apart, but we speak the language of movies so we understand that we were outside and now we’re inside. After over a hundred years, basic conventions like that are so established that it’s subconscious to us.
But someone had to think them up.
That idea of an establishing shot continuing into a location is generally attributed to British filmmaker Robert W Paul. He made a film in 1898 called Come Along, Do! (pleasingly jaunty!), in which an elderly couple are sitting on a bench in front of a building, basically getting pissed, as far as I can tell. The man notices a door and gestures to it then they stand up and go inside.
The next shot shows them in what looks like an art gallery. It’s obvious to us that they were outside the art gallery, then they went through the door and now they are inside the art gallery, but this was the first time anyone had put two shots together to indicate moving in time and space. It was therefore arguably the beginning of the art of cinema, i.e. of telling stories through a sequence of shots, as opposed to simply recording stuff happening.
This cinematic language wasn’t entirely brand new, of course.
Artists have been conveying emotions with framing and perspective for hundreds of years, photography was already established by then and theatre has plenty of staging conventions that have subliminal meanings to the audience. The language of cinema built on them. It consists of close ups, and wide shots, angles, shots and reverse shots, the subjective or POV shot (when we’re seeing the world through a character’s eyes, or maybe an Unknown point of view in a thriller). You may not be familiar with those terms, but you know what they look like, and more importantly, you know what they’re telling you or how they are making you feel.
One thing I love, is that pretty much every shot and cinematic technique was established by the early twenties. We’ve added other stuff to movies in the past hundred years: colour and sound and CGI and 3D, to name a few. But the building blocks of how you form a scene were all in place by around 1923.
Hitchcock of course famously broke cinematic conventions to create suspense and fear. His technique only worked because the language was so well established that turning it on its head had an unsettling effect.
For example, the practice is, that roughly speaking, when a new scene opens, we start with a wide shot establishing the location, to a medium shot (roughly from the waist or chest up) introducing the characters in the scene, then finally close on their expressions. There’s an ease to gradually getting more intimate with the characters. However, in Vertigo, when Scotty and Madeleine meet at the Cypress tree, Hitchcock gives us an establishing shot of the road and the cliff, then boom, straight into a close up. It’s the equivalent of meeting someone for the first time and they kiss you on the cheek when you’re expecting a handshake. It is spine-tinglingly uncomfortable, which is exactly what makes Hitchcock, Hitchcock.
The language of cinema isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed in 120 years. One of the things that fascinates me about film is the way that it was kind of all there, from day one.
As we’ve discussed already this week, before the twentieth century even dawned, we had movies featuring violence against women and sex. In 1901, a French production featured product placement (and also violence against women as it happens, though at least in that one they got their revenge).
While technology has advanced, stories have become more complex and acting styles have developed and changed, the DNA of movies really hasn’t changed in over a century. By the time Prohibition started, we already had in place the majority of elements that still make movies successful today, from a visually interesting edit to sex and violence. It was then and it is now a business that sells exciting, frightening, romantic, action-packed entertainment.
It’s crucial to make this point, because it would be easy to pretend that during the period in which women were writing and directing mainstream Hollywood films in record numbers movies were somehow… different. They weren’t. Women were writing and directing comedy and action and Westerns, and movies didn’t change. The industry chose to change.
But we’ll get back to that.