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cinema motion history pictures

T his book, the first in a multivolume history of American film, looks at the initial twelve years of cinema, from 1895 to the fall of 1907. Here, cinema refers to projected motion pictures and their sound accompaniment, but two closely related developments must also be considered. First, there is the history of screen practice —projected images and their audio complement—which dates back to the seventeenth century and includes the magic lantern, a precursor of the modern slide projector. As the title of this book suggests, cinema was neither “born” nor a “new art form”: it emerged out of, even as it soon dominated, screen practice. For this reason, the first chapter briefly traces the history of earlier projected images as they originated in Europe and subsequently developed within the United States. Second, this volume is concerned with the history of motion pictures , which includes not only cinema but forms of exhibition that did not involve projection. Of these exhibition formats, individualized or peephole viewing was the most important. The history of commercial motion pictures in fact began in 1894 with Edison’s peephole kinetoscope, while the mutoscope, a peephole flip-card device, was an important presence during the late 1890s and early 1900s. The cinema, the screen, motion pictures—these involve distinct though overlapping practices.

Although the cinema was to become known affectionately as “the movies” or “the flicks,” in the 1890s and early 1900s it was called “animated photographs,” “moving pictures,” and sometimes even “life-model motion pictures.” Today, some turn-of-the-century terminology may seem foreign or quaint, while other expressions retain the seeming freshness of contemporary idiom. Correspondingly, as Judith Mayne has pointed out, turn-of-the-century images appear to combine similar qualities of strangeness and familiarity. 1 Whatever the case, these films and the corresponding practices do not readily open themselves to our understanding: they are frequently strange and familiar in unexpected ways. The methods of production and representation were so different from today’s mainstream cinema that apparent parallels can readily deceive rather than illuminate. But, properly understood, the foreignness of the earlier period gives us a remarkable perspective on present-day moving images, whether those of Hollywood and its blockbusters, television and the evening news, or American independents and avant-garde explorations. The purpose of this study is not to revel in the seeming eccentricities of early cinema (the label historians often apply to this period and the one used here as well) but to make its methods understandable within the context of its own norms and practices.

Any multivolume history must justify its periodization. While starting with the “beginnings” is logical enough, it remains to explain why this volume ends around September 1907. Here a combination of factors must be cited. The brief economic recession that started in October 1907 encouraged important changes in the organization of the industry, including the formation of various patent-based alliances that culminated in the Motion Picture Patents Company. Moreover, the modes of representation and production began to change in new and far-ranging ways late in 1907. Finally, although American cinema experienced many transformations between 1895 and 1907, there were also fundamental continuities that make it appropriate to see the period as a coherent one.


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