The nature of cinema is an elusive concept because so much of what defines cinema is subjective. Leonardo Da Vinci invented the Camera Obscura long before 1588, when Giovanni Battista Della Porta improved upon the idea with lenses and projection, recommending it as a drawing aid for artists. This invention had limitations; it merely captured the shadow, and later reflection, of objects outside the Camera Obscura. This is quite possibly the birth of modern cinema; however, it is not the moment of cinema’s inception. Cinema is a complex method of communication with roots stretching back in time to the earliest moments of man. Its technological progress has experienced exponential growth since Edison and the Lumiere brothers in the 1890s. Da Vinci’s invention marks an important moment in cinema’s history because it is the first time where reality is truly recreated. Before we could only see images through filtered perceptions and the final execution at the hand of an artist. The Camera Obscura is the first time we are allowed, as viewers, to gaze upon a pure index of reality and use our own constructs to perceive. This invention freed the artist from realism as we no longer needed them as interpreters of reality. Artists were finally allowed to experiment with various forms of abstraction and expression. This paradigm shift, in my opinion, is the root of the ‘what is cinema’ question. I think artists, photographers, businessmen, and film makers have been fleshing out this argument ever since.
At its core, cinema is about communication or, one might say, storytelling. When words and gestures alone cannot convey what one wishes to articulate, due to nuances of physical and emotional experience, something more is necessary. Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams illustrates my point perfectly. In the film Herzog guides us through a newly discovered cave in France. As we discover together it seems we are unfolding a prehistoric theatre. Each cavern is filled with hand painted scenes, each communicating a different story important to primitive man. The layout of the drawings in the cave itself seems to tell a story. The cave’s story begins by identifying the authors as human. We see human hand-prints throughout the cave but an entire wall of hand-prints greet us upon entering. As we go deeper we see stories about the ways animals behave while gathering around a watering hole, probably a great place to catch dinner.
There are various predators discussed on the cave walls and they seem to increase in frequency the deeper we delve. That is until the final room, full of lions, and in the center above them all is some kind of mystical creature, half bison and half woman. Perhaps she is the mother of modern man, the bison merging with her as to lift man up and give him advantage over all predators. Perhaps the walls teach us how to use our most powerful tool, our brain, to survive in a volatile world so that we may carry on our experiences to future generations.
This cave was at a type of crossroads for prehistoric man, between Britain, France, and Germany. Inside there is no evidence of people staying long term, so it does not lead one to believe that people were decorating their home. However, there is evidence of humans continually returning to this location, sometimes generations apart. This leads us to believe that it is some sort of holy place, maybe a prehistoric college, which might explain the continual pilgrimage as well as the maintenance or painting over of the images by later humans. Herzog points out that the scenes dance in the light of a flame. I believe Herzog is correct when he pushes us to accept these ideas as possible truths and I agree with the professor in that this film seems to ask a similar question, why is cinema? Herzog’s answer seems to be cinema exists so that we may leave some sort of record, or better communicate and share our lives with one another. Also, by insinuating that these cave paintings are a sort of proto-cinema, we are able to get closer to its definition by stripping away all the technical aspects that seem to cloud our judgments today.
In 1894 Fred P.Ott became the first movie star when Edison filmed him sneezing on cue for Kinetoscope Films. A year after Edison started making his films in the United States, Lumiere Films started up in France. Both studios referred to their product as “actualities” though while the Lumiere brothers thought that they should just show things as they are, Edison thought that one should put more effort in producing a film that people want to see. Edison made films about kissing, dancing, muscle men, funny boxing and cockfighting while the Lumiere brothers made films about their workers leaving the factory or a train arriving at a station. The Lumiere brothers would go as far as criticizing Edison for misusing the medium and cry out against the moral degradation it would lead to. Someone forgot to mention to the brothers that some of the first films made were smut.
Whether they were wrong or right, this moment lends understanding to the different aesthetic choices made by French and American schools of thought. European cinema seems to be more concerned with trying to show reality while American studios have never shied away from creating an alternate universe. Closer examination of Lumiere films show that the brothers must have made some directorial choices. When watching the workers leave the factory, I find it hard to believe that all them were dressed in their Sunday best and ignored the film crew on their way out. These people were working in a factory and had probably never seen a film crew before, it just isn’t natural. The brothers must have given their workers some instruction at least the day before.
The only way for a film to be actual is for it to break the fourth wall and reveal to the audience that what they see is not reality, but a film. Otherwise, one merely uses bits of contrived media to persuade an audience to willfully suspend their disbelief and live in the reproduction presented before their eyes. Edison’s films do not announce that they are films, however, we see actors on sets showing us bits of reality that we love to look at. The willful suspension of disbelief here is automatic and less demanding as we want to look at and accept those images as real. They are those parts of consciousness we love to indulge and long to relive. The medium was born of our guilty pleasures but as time and technology progress, so does the nature of cinema.
Andre Bazin says that cinema is the art of reality fine-tuned by the everlasting human endeavor to preserve life through a representation of it. He references a long tradition of preserving the corporeal body through man-made representations. The religion of ancient Egypt worked diligently to do just this, for those who could afford it. Egyptians filled their tombs with statues and reliefs of the deceased living on forever in the afterlife. He also references cave paintings, pointing out that early man would create statues of predator and prey alike and strike them with spears. A learning exercise or perhaps a ritual ensuring a successful hunt; either way representation of reality created to communicate something transcendent of the object itself. His final example is Louis XIV, who waived the preservation techniques upon his death because he believed that his portrait by Lebrun was enough of an afterlife. While I agree that this human obsession leads to the duplication of reality I think it was and still is merely the limited means by which we are able to imprint our consciousness. We have not yet seen total cinema.
Bazin points out that many see cinema as a mingling of economic and technical elements combined with the media produced through human endeavor. His genealogical investigation traces its roots to do-it-yourself men, monomaniacs, impulse, and genius industrialists. Even deeper still we find idealists driven by something deeper; men who would light their own furniture ablaze just for an interesting moving image. Bazin says, “The myth of Icarus had to wait on the internal combustion engine before descending from the platonic heavens. But it dwelt in the soul of every man since he first thought about birds. To some extent, one could say the same thing about the myth of cinema, but its forerunners prior to the nineteenth century have only a remote connection with the myth which we share today and which has prompted the appearance of the mechanical arts that characterize today’s world.”
I agree with Bazin that the what of cinema, 1588 to 2012, is an art formed from the continued pursuit to replicate reality. However, I believe the why of cinema is to index our human consciousness and pass it on to future generations. I believe that this why has been a constant. Therefore, cinema itself is merely an index of consciousness and the methods of imprint are secondary aesthetic choices based in the limitations of time and space. Each person is locked inside their heads. We are merely points in a vast sea of consciousness. Men before me became Gods, creating an artificial consciousness that zeros in on parallel worlds and people with the intent to communicate something to me. Technologies have changed time and again but the intent remains the same.
Life is a lie. Film is an imprint of life, therefore, a lie. If one attempts to make a fantasy of the film it is still a lie, however, if one makes a film saying, “based on true events,” it then becomes true because it is embracing the fact that life itself is a lie. I think directors like Scorsese and James Cameron embrace the spirit of ever evolving cinema, as Bazin did with the coming of sound, as they embrace 3D. What is cinema doesn’t really matter in my opinion as long as the why is intact. Now the cutting edge may be HD3D but tomorrow it will be interactive uploads perceived without eyes or ears but from within while lying in bed. Maybe someday we will not have cinema because we are finally able to see the holy moment continuously demonstrated all around us and within. That would take some magic technological leap unlike any seen before or some sort of human evolution. Either way, I am looking forward.