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'A New Literary History of America' ()

Excerpt: 'A New Literary History of America'

by Jonathan Lethem
Nov 24, 2009

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'A New Literary History of America'

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The Introduction of Motion Pictures

1888: Eadweard Muybridge visits Thomas Alva Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park

The story of cinema begins before itself, in an unaccountable realm of magic lanterns, shadow shows, early still photography, and dreams. Let our first item of evidence of early film be not a film, then, but a slide-show lecture, The Attitudeof Animals in Motion, from 1881. Eadweard Muybridge, a great secret hero in the history of photography and the culture of nineteenth-century California — also a

colorful American iconoclast, and an unpunished murderer — arguably inaugurated the motion picture with his series of experiments into the serial photography of running horses, begun in 1872 under the sponsorship of Leland Stanford (California's governor and the eventual founder of Stanford University). Stanford had made a bet as to whether a running horse's four legs ever simultaneously left the ground, and Muybridge set out to settle the question photographically. Hispeculiar and obstinate effort in setting up twenty-four cameras to be triggered in sequence resulted in an inspiring and unsettling new record of the visual experience of motion (and the magical number twenty-four remained, somehow, enshrined as the default number of frames per second in the industry to come). By 1881 Muybridge's traveling lecture, featuring his projected sequential images of horses and other animals, as well as deliberately shocking images of semi-naked human animals, enjoyed an ongoing public success.

Never mind the fact that parallel to Muybridge, in Europe and America, another dozen clever

men were nudging the magic lantern and the photographic slide show in the direction of some kind of public exhibition of "moving pictures." Inventor of cinema is a crown with many claimants. Those looking for uncomplicated provenances will be forced to abandon hope, for even Muybridge has his French counterpart in serial photography, the equally miraculous, though quieter, Étienne-Jules Marey. While it can be tempting to imagine these men as a group of rivals engaged in a coherent race to make Jaws possible, it would be as true to say the opposite. Those history now views as candidates for Father of Cinema, whether inventors, artists, entrepeneurs, or all three, were mostly trying to make different and specific things, and succeeded in making them: the Kineopticon, the Kinematoscope, the calcium-light stereopticon, the Zoopraxinoscope. From this cloud of devices and possibilities the twentieth century film emerged.

Nearly any account, however, settles on 1888 as the crucial year. In February 1888 Muybridge performed his lecture in Orange, New Jersey, and afterward met with Thomas Alva Edison in his nearby laboratory. Edison, inventor or patent holder of the telegraph, the phonograph, the incandescent bulb, and a microphone component of what would become the telephone, was the quintessential self-made tinkerer-genius, then recently dubbed "The Wizard of Menlo Park." Edison proposed partnership with Muybridge: why shouldn't the phonograph, which reproduced human speech, be wedded to a photographic equivalent? Muybridge agreed. Silent-film purists take note: the dream of sound synchronization arrives with film itself. Edison was one of the great sponge-like appropriators of the notions of others, a talent not unlike that of a great film director, a Welles or Hitchcock, say, in whom the talents of subordinate collaborators became inextricably absorbed within the products of their own genius. So, he stalled a while, then reworked the essential notions in Muybridge's apparatus until Muybridge could be safely forgotten. Thus did Edison, with a few crucial drawings in October 1888, invent the first motion picture recording device.

Edison's claim is entrenched in a story of initiative, publicity, and patents, all of which became a working reality: among his advantages were an established name, a versatile laboratory, and a clever assistant named W. K. L. Dickson. Dickson, Edison's pocket expert on photography, became the hands-on creator of the devices Edison would display in 1889, under the names Kinetograph — the recording instrument, capable of producing films of slightly more than one minute in length — and Kinetoscope — the peephole viewer, used by one spectator at a time, with which the films could be seen. He was also the designer of the Black Maria, an experimental building featuring sliding panels to provide continuous overhead sunlight that became the Edison Company's film studio, and within which Dickson's activities qualified him as probably the world's first film director. Dickson was another genius hidden behind Edison in the story, one less romantic and more secret than Muybridge.

Edison's shop produced earlier films, but MEdison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, from 1894, featuring the nasal convulsion of one Fred Ott, an Edison employee, was the first film Edison registered for copyright at the Library of Congress. Ott's sneeze is a sort of pivot, then, when the disparate experiments and enterprises of cinema's prehistory coalesce into an official industry. From this tiny point, everything we come to know as Hollywood, as well as its rivals or antidotes, can be seen to have grown. For Edison's company was soon busy selling its viewing instruments to exhibitors, while hoarding the means of film production within its walls. In 1894 alone more than seventy-five short films were created, under Dickson's hand. Early subjects included boxing matches, trained animal stunts, prototypes of the "animal-attack" film, sexy flexing by a body builder named Eugene Sandow, and twirling, risqué performances by dancers called Carmencita and Annabelle. These subjects were more than merely resolutely secular and vernacular; they all suggest that a strong air of vaudeville and carnival sideshow pervaded the first Edison films.

The defining difference between Edison's Kinetoscope and the vast popular sensation that moviegoing was to become was the one-at-a-time viewing mechanism. The device evoked a stereopticon or peepshow, a private diversion, rather than a public theater (let alone schoolroom or church). Together with the borderline subject matter of many of the films, this mechanical tendency rooted film in the realm of gentlemen's amusements, and even voyeurism: beginning with Muybridge (and really, earlier, with photography itself), the new technology constantly promised or threatened to unveil the forbidden. While at one level dooming American film to a legacy of censorship, this also invested the dawning narrative form with a self-conscious interest in matters of spectatorship and complicity, a key and sustaining motif in films through Hitchcock's Rear Window and Psycho and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

A host of showmen-entrepeneurs were eager to adapt Edison's innovation to a projection device, but his company was selling a lot of Kinetoscopes, and Edison resisted. Here, again, the tale of innovation explodes into parallel developments, and another list of terrifically evocative names: the Eidoloscope, the Phantascope, the Mutoscope, the Vitascope. The difference between these devices and those that preceded them is that this next round of inventors all had to contend, one way or another, with Edison's patents — by furtiveness, accommodation, or licensing. A measure of the gnarled tale of the development of a widely successful projection technology is suggested by the fact that W. K. L. Dickson — our secret hero again! — participated covertly in inventing the Eidoloscope while still in Edison's ranks. It would be the Vitascope that was the winner, and Edison, in his typical manner, immediately entered into a licensing partnership with its creators. Or did the Vitascope win because of Edison's Midas touch?

In any case, the door was opened to theatrical projection to a mass of people in a darkened room. In this mode of reception, the device began to restlessly unfold its potential, to exert its opportunistic sway on the consciousness of the next century. Cinema would soon enough be claimed as a new artistic medium, an equal to foundational arts like music composition or painting (however slow such a claim would be to shed its detractors — there are some around still). More, it attracted an ideology, a rhetoric, as both new mediums and technological innovations will tend to — and this was both. Film, it was claimed, or warned, would change more than the arts or sciences, it would alter the nature of consciousness. And so, as much as radio and the automobile, film threatened to embody the acceleration of modernity, in all its ominous power. In the wrong hands — Hitler's, say — film might be a weapon. For Marxist practitioners, like Dziga Vertov, it had revolutionary potential. In its dreamlike subjective force — which the shift from peephole to mass spectatorship had paradoxically only amplified — film also displayed a propensity to roil hearts, and loins. Perhaps it possessed some hotline circumnavigating the intellect, leading straight to a well of emotion, sensuality, and primal memory.

To watch the Edison films now, and those of the other production companies that joined him in the earliest phase of the film industry, is to discover a portal peering both backward and forward in cultural time. Even the most assiduous film buffs tend to begin with Charlie Chaplin, who appeared as a performer and made his first pictures as a fledgling director in 1914, or D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation a year later. But the films that preceded those are as revelatory for their familiarity as their strangeness. Almost none presents a possibility that will fail to be exfoliated in the great boom to come, nor explores an avenue that runs anywhere but straight from the common cultural trove. A 120-second costumed Punch and Judy show like The Clown and the Alchemist (Edison Company, 1900), with its antic clown assisted in his abuses of the sententious alchemist by the use of stop-motion special effects, forms a lucid bridge between vaudeville and a Jim Carrey movie — The Mask, say. And watching the Selig Polyscope Company's thirteen-minute 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz provides an uncanny sense of dislocation. Presenting a series of highlight moments derived from the popular stage version (adapted by L. Frank Baum, the novel's author), the Selig Oz, in scenes of the Tin Man's oiling, of the tale's companions skipping arm in arm down a yellow brick road, and of the Wizard's departure by balloon, seems a precognitive appropriation of gestures that would otherwise appear to wholly belong to Judy Garland and her 1939 compatriots. The viewer may be convinced that the medium's real genius was for stopping American time, and for opening an interior eye on a cultural unconscious always rehearsing the same few dreams.

Not far away lay D. W. Griffith with his (copyright-oblivious) adaptations of works by authors living and dead, including the Bible and Darwin. In its ambition as a narrative art the new medium was unashamed of its nostalgic dependence on old forms, feeling no obedience to idealistic rhetoric about its own transformative potential. (This lesson Internet idealists might have recalled when the transformative potential of their new medium forged less a postliterate virtual reality than a revival of epistolary social relations, and a culture of scrapbooks and diaries.) That's to say, of course, that narrative film looked to the written word — mostly the novel — and the stage play. Book and stage adaptations still overwhelmingly comprise the sources for contemporary films, particularly the "prestige" films the industry tends to brandish as its proof of legitimacy, and shower with awards.

It was big movies with big stars on big screens that won the nation's imagination, and quickly inspired a sympathetic body of critical writing, by James Agee, Graham Greene, Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, and others. The descriptive excavations by these writers of the new medium's magic, as well as responses by artists in other mediums, like the poet Frank O'Hara, the visual artist Joseph Cornell, and the singer Bob Dylan, rapidly mythologized the archetypal forms these films had so rapidly etched into our cultural life. So, since the introduction of television — for some, even, since the introduction of sound — the vitality and promise in what the great movie studios made have seemed to many commentators a possibility dwindled or tamed, into inferior forms on smaller and smaller screens. Film has persistently mourned itself, a peculiarity evident, for instance, when a movie as weird, precise, and stirring as Sunset Boulevard (directed by Billy Wilder, 1950) partly half ratifies the complaint of its own character, Norma Desmond (played by semiretired silent-film star Gloria Swanson): "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" But the truth of film's origins as a series of devices enabling various public and private diversions persistently lurked in the goal of widening or multiplying its screen, or in the sport of enlisting other sensory apparatuses, with gimmicks like 3-D, Sensurround, and Smell-o-Vision. And this lurking truth explodes into relevance again in the era that began with the introduction of the VCR, and persists in a presently unfolding future that includes YouTube and handheld viewing devices, with episodic serials beamed into portable telephones already commonplace. As David Thomson points out in The Whole Equation, Edison's Kinetoscope may just now be having its day.

Edison's own last great contribution was, perversely, in driving the industry westward, out of the grasp of his copyrights and patents. Squatting toadlike on his rights, indeed, employing a private force of roving bully-enforcers, Edison more or less accidentally routed the fugitive innovators to California, beyond his reach. So the activities that began flourishing there, at that coastal brink of American self-invention, were branded as permanently expedient and on the run, piratically bold, and driven by a geographically renewable innocence, like the nation itself.

From A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Published by Harvard University Press.

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