The Movies

SOME SAY THE 2OTH CENTURY was actually born in 1914, when the guns of August blew away the covenants of the 19th century. But there's a strong case to be made for Dec. 28, 1895, when the first paid public showing of motion pictures took place in Paris, presented by Louis and Auguste Lumiere. (Check out that incredibly fortuitous name, the Light Brothers, creating the movies, the art of light!) Although Thomas Edison had invented the Kinetoscope in 1889, his device could be seen by only one viewer at a time. Oddly, the Wizard of Menlo Park didn't see much future in projecting the pictures.

There has always been a mad hassle over who should be credited with inventing movies. The history of this debate can be summed up by the roster of devices turned out by inventors in America and Europe: the phasmatrope, the phenakistoscope, the stroboscopic disk, the phantoscope, the daedalum, the zoetrope, the zoopraxiscope, the bioscope, the pantoptikon, the tachyscope and many more. But it was the Lumieres who brought the movies as we know them into being, when they assembled 33 people in their 100-seat theater to be shocked and amazed by a series of one-minute epics that showed workers leaving the Lumiere factory, a train arriving at a station, a baby having lunch and the first comedy smash, in which a man watering a garden gets the water smack in the kisser. The Lumieres' cinematographe was an advance on Edison, being both a camera and a projector.

It's doubtful if the human race will ever be as astounded by a new form of entertainment as it was by the advent of the movies. With this new art, wrote one observer, "the great potentialities of life ... shall overflow to the nethermost portions of the earth at the command of the humblest heir of the divine intelligence." There's an important point in that earliest of all movie blurbs. Movies, it was instantly seen, are something that appeals to everyone anywhere in the world. Of course this was especially true in the first quarter century of cinema, before sound. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton needed no words to communicate with people from New Jersey to New Guinea. In fact, the introduction of sound was seen as an artistic catastrophe by many of the great silent-film directors.

Their concerns were blown aside in 1927 by the explosive success of Warner Brothers' "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson. The Warner studio, in dire financial straits, gambled everything on the Vitaphone system, in which sound on records was synchronized with the film. When Jolson, then at the peak of his reputation as an entertainer, sang numbers like "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye" and uttered the immortal line "You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks!" the audience leaped up and cheered. This was the essence of the great populist art form of the movies: who ever rose to her feet while reading a Tolstoy novel?

Making images seem to move is an atavistic impulse that goes back to the Paleolithic cave artists. Jump--cut to 1906, when an American, J. Stuart Blackton, used stop-motion photography to make what is credited as the first animated cartoon, "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces." Three years later the great comic-strip artist Winsor McCay anticipated Steven Spielberg with "Gertie the Dinosaur," the first animated cartoon shown on a regular theatrical program. McCay gets credit for making the first full-length animated feature in 1918. No funny faces here; his unlikely theme was "The Sinking of the Lusitania." But comedy was the natural brother of animation, driving the great comic animators from Walt Disney, whose early cartoons like "The Three Little Pigs" were sensations, to Warner Brothers with its repertory group of sterling thespians like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, all voiced by the immortal Mel Blanc.

While animation evolved, live-action-film makers struggled with adding color to their black-and-white universe. Many lamented the inevitable incursion of color, which they thought would mar the expressive power and beauty that had been developed by great cameramen like D. W. Griffith's Billy Bitzer, who brought the sweep of history to Films like "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," and William Daniels, whose brilliant photography of Greta Garbo was a crucial factor in making her the biggest female star of her age. The master of spectacle, Cecil B. DeMille, predicted that no one would endure straining his eyes watching movies in bright color.

Color, in fact, had existed virtually since the beginning of movies. Some films, like the two great Griffith epics, had had some sequences laboriously hand-tinted, frame by frame. In Erich von Stroheim's 1924 masterpiece, "Greed," a character's pathological miserliness was expressed when Stroheim gold-tinted a scene in which she wallowed in a bed filled with gold coins. In 1915 Herbert T. Kalmus and Daniel F. Comstock formed the Technicolor Motion Picture Corp. In 1928, none other than DeMille used its two-color process in parts of "The Ten Commandments." In the early '30s, Technicolor created the first three-color process, but it was "Gone With the Wind" in 1939 that changed the palette of movies forever.

Cinema was moving closer and closer to the approximation of reality. First motion, then sound, then color--and then came the attempt to break free of two-dimensionality. Again, 3-D effects were as old as the movies, dating back to the "anaglyph" method, in which a camera photographed a scene with two lenses placed as far apart as human eyes. The resulting two images were merged (crudely) into a single stereoscopic image by special red and blue glasses worn by viewers. Refined 3-D methods were showcased in short films commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951. This led in the '50s to an outbreak of scare-'em 3-D movies like "Bwana Devil," with spears hurtling toward the audience, and "House of Wax," with Vincent Price turning corpses into wax exhibits.

It was Hollywood that was scared, as television began to eat into its monopoly on image entertainment. Enter wide-screen technologies like Cinerama and Cinema-Scope, in which Twentieth Century Fox took a French-developed technique (again, going back to the 1890s) and made the first wide-screen feature, the religious] epic "The Robe" (1953).

The culmination of the wide-screen technology is today's IMAX, developed by a group of Canadians. First shown at fairs and expos, IMAX used the largest film frame in movie history, 70 mm, shown on huge screens from four to eight stories high with multidirectional sound. Still pretty much a supergimmick; IMAX is shown at 154 theaters in 22 countries, 28 equipped with IMAX's own 3-D technology. But we still await the first use of this method to create a viable storytelling film.

As movie technology continues to go where no moviegoer has gone, what is the future of the popular art form of the expiring century? "I just want to say one word to you--holograph," as the guy in "The Graduate" didn't say to Dustin Hoffman. Holography, the evocation of fully dimensional, lifelike images, will almost surely lead to some movie-like form. The problem, as it was at the beginning with Edison's Kinetoscope, is how to show it not to one or two viewers at a time, but to a theaterful, a community of paying spectators. Alan Rhody, editor of the trade journal Holography Marketplace, predicts: "As laser technology progresses, optical barriers are crossed, and venture capitalists become actively involved in the hologram industry, theatrical holographic presentations will become a reality." Yes, and he might have added the prospect of computer-generated presentation replacing live performances.

Today, storytelling and character are both driven, many would say imperiled, by the explosive rise of special effects. Even this goes back to the early days of film, when the marvelous Frenchman Georges Melies made movies like the 1902 "A Trip to the Moon," in which he mixed real action and animation to create legendary sequences like the space travelers' rocket hitting the man in the moon right in the eye. "King Kong" was a big breakthrough in 1933, when the masterly Willis O'Brien created, with models and stop-motion, his super-ape and an island full of prehistoric monsters. The revolutionary move in f/x came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Helped by the twentysomething Douglas Trumbull, Kubrick won an Oscar for the tremendous special effects that even today remain the model for films about space and technology. George Lucas's "Star Wars" series is a kind of "Son of 2001"; the brainy Lucas formed Industrial Light + Magic, which became the Microsoft of special effects. The ambiguous triumph of today's special effects; is that anything--even reality--can be instantly "morphed" to anything else through the ubiquitous, omnipotent technology of the computer.

Is this the final Utopia of the movies? Or will it represent the muscling-in of inexorable technological progress on the most universally human art form ever devised? Have a vision: a vast theater, filled with people wearing headsets and huge visored helmets, tuning in to a 360-degree circle of images rippling with motion, coruscating with color and sizzling with sound. Are they experiencing the work of the new D. W. Griffith, John Ford, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman or even Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese? Or are they basking in the multidimensional supersauna of techno-entertainment, tuning in to the ultimate drug of virtuality for the price of a ticket? Roll credits.