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Toward a History of Screen Practice

cinema cultural lantern film

S tarting points always present problems for the historian, perhaps because they imply a “before” as well as an “after.” For the film historian, “the invention of cinema” is customarily viewed as the creation of a new form of expression, a new art form. Such a perspective presupposes not only cinema proper but “pre-cinema,” an area of historical inquiry that raises significant methodological and ideological issues. This chapter (and the entire volume) questions the value of that starting point and the historical models it supports. Nonetheless, it does not seek to forsake starting points entirely nor, as Jean-Louis Comolli has done, to offer the possibility of so many starting points that the notion of a beginning is not only diffused but ultimately avoided. 1 Rather, it suggests an alternative perspective, one that places cinema within a larger context of what we shall call the history of screen practice.

In such a history, cinema appears as a continuation and transformation of magic-lantern traditions in which showmen displayed images on a screen, accompanying them with voice, music, and sound effects. In fact, this historical conception of cinema was frequently articulated between 1895 and 1908. The Optical Magic Lantern Journal of November 1896, for example, observed that “The greatest boom the lantern world has ever seen is that which is still reverberating throughout the land—the boom of the living photographs.” In Animated Pictures (1898), C. Francis Jenkins wrote:

It has frequently been suggested that the introduction of chronophotographic apparatus sounded the death knell of the stereopticon, but with this opinion I do not agree. The fact is, the moving picture machine is simply a modified stereopticon or lantern, i.e. a lantern equipped with a mechanical slide changer. All stereopticons will, sooner or later, as are several machines now, be arranged to project stationary pictures or pictures giving the appearance of objects in motion.

These observations were echoed by Henry V. Hopwood in Living Pictures (1899): “A film for projecting a living picture is nothing more, after all, than a multiple lantern slide.” 2 In essence, these writers were emphasizing continuities where recent film histories have tended to see difference. It is this sense of continuity that must be reasserted if we are to understand transformation as a dialectical process.

The origins of screen practice—as distinct from either earlier uses of projected images or the later introduction of cameras—can be traced back to the mid 1600s and the demystification of those magical arts in which observers confused the “lifelike” image with life itself. The much later invention of motion-picture projection was only one of several major technological innovations that transformed screen practice in the course of its history—the development of the magic lantern during the 1650s, the adaptation of photography to projection around 1850, and the synchronization of film with recorded sound, which achieved permanent commercial standing in the late 1920s.

In contrast to this historical model, most histories of cinema and pre-cinema apply three different levels of inquiry to what are seen as discrete and successive historical phases (often but not always by making use of a biological metaphor). First, there is the history of invention, which is associated with pre-cinema. As presented by Jacques Deslandes and Kenneth Macgowan, the historical paradigm is formulated in terms of, and based on, court cases disputing patent rights, where lawyers argued the fine points of technological priority for their industrialist clients. 3 This phase culminates with the invention of the "basic apparatus, " the camera/projector that made cinema possible. With the advent of cinema, the focus then shifts to a history of technique, the development of basic procedures such as the interpolated close-up and parallel editing (many of which were part of the screen repertoire before cinema came into existence). Only in the third stage do these historians focus their attention on film as art, as culturally significant work.

The three-stage historical treatment implies a kind of technological determinism in which film language is a product of technology and film art exists within the framework of that language. The model presented here, in contrast, argues that screen practice has always had a technological component, a repertoire of representational strategies, and a social-cultural function, all of which undergo constant, interrelated change. This model refines a second historical approach that explores film’s debt to other forms of cultural expression and sees the motion picture as a new medium/technology in need of a content and an aesthetic. In early, methodologically crude studies such as Robert Grau’s The Theatre of Science and Nicholas Vardac’s Stage to Screen, cinema is treated as a void that adopted the essentials of a theatrical tradition and then pushed them to new extremes in the “photoplay.” John Fell and Erwin Panofsky have argued that film borrowed freely from many different forms of popular culture, including comic strips, dime novels, popular songs, the magic lantern, and theater. More recently, Robert Allen’s work has foregrounded the connections between film and vaudeville. Thus, in the nature (technology) vs. nurture (cultural context) debate, these authors have emphasized the cultural determinants. 4

The continuities of screen practice offer an alternative to tabula rasa assumptions of a new “medium.” At the same time, moments of profound transformation (such as the adaptation of photographic slides or Edison’s moving pictures to the screen) allow for new possibilities, for an influx of new personnel, and for disruption and considerable discontinuity. When the screen enters a period of flux, it is particularly receptive to new influences from other cultural forms; it is at such moments that its cultural interconnectedness becomes most apparent and perhaps important. During periods of comparative stability, the screen continues to function in relation to other cultural forms, but because the nature of these connections does not change so drastically, they appear less obvious or are taken as givens. A history of the screen can offer a more fruitful model for analyzing those cultural borrowings that Fell and others rightly see as crucial. Such influences, however, existed before there was cinema. Cinema did not emerge out of the chaos of various borrowings to find its true or logical self: it is part of a much longer, dynamic tradition, one that has undergone repeated transformations in its practice while becoming increasingly central within a changing cultural system.

A history of the screen also helps to define the subject of “pre-cinema.” In the past, the boundaries of pre-cinema were limited by preoccupations with technology and invention, and an obvious teleology. Once this framework is demolished pre-cinema loses its specificity; anything that the historian might subsequently consider relevant to our understanding of cinema as a cultural, economic, or social practice becomes a fitting subject of inquiry. Thus, a work such as Michael Chanan’s The Dream That Kicks explores the pre-cinema development of photography, music halls, consumption, patent law, and cultural institutionalization. 5 While shedding light on the world in which motion pictures “appeared,” the book often functions simply as a cultural history of nineteenth-century England. Certainly such history is fascinating and important. Certainly context is crucial. But what is being contextualized? Something that does not yet exist. Simply put, it is a history of screen practice that provides the context with an appropriate object and so gives the field a necessary focus and framework for historical inquiry.

A history of the screen is not new in itself. Historians such as Olive Cook have argued the case of Hopwood and the Optical Magic Lantern Journal —that cinema is an extension of the magic lantern. 6 Unfortunately, they do so by arguing that the invention of the magic lantern is the crucial technological innovation and so the appropriate starting point. Such a starting point is no different from the invention of cinema chosen by most film historians: both begin with a technology, not with a cultural practice; both see the technology as determining practice, not as a component part of this practice. Here the work of Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680), a German-born Jesuit priest and scientist, proves to be crucial. A proper reading of his texts makes it clear that the practical use of screen technology was more important than the technology itself. Furthermore, it was this practice that provided a framework in which technological innovation became possible.

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