Thoughts On: Every Year In Film #1 - Origins


Every Year In Film #1 - Origins

Thoughts On: Cinema's Origins

This is the beginning of a long journey in which we will pick one film from every year in cinematic history to discuss and pull apart. But, before we can begin this, we have to find our footing and the origins of cinema.

"Where to start?" is a question you'll surely ask yourself when wanting to discuss the origins of anything. And the more you research into a beginning of something, the looser and looser the idea of an origin becomes. This is because very few things, technological or otherwise, ever just appear; they're born, they develop, they grow or they evolve from something else. For instance, if you wanted to discuss the origins of modern aeroplanes, would you look back to the Wright Brothers? Would you look further back to the invention of hot air balloons? Maybe the invention of balloons themselves? Maybe kites? Maybe you should start by tracing all the way back to the first humans that saw a bird spread its wings and take off before looking down at their feet and then up to the skies? Or, should you look even further back into our evolutionary origins and consider that we came from single celled organisms floating in an ocean; a genetic singularity based on a 3-dimensional plane of movement free of land and gravity as we know it? Then again, why not consider the fact that we are made of particles; entities that exist because of the exchange and flow of energy? Maybe these particles have a physical inherency for free motion through space and time - what we may define to be flight?

Alas, these aren't questions we have to consider, thankfully, because we are not interested in the origins of the modern aeroplane. Instead, we are interested in cinema; film; flicks; movies; motion pictures. But, with the conceptual idea of 'cinema' comes a history that cannot really be traced. This is because cinema, if we were to look at the etymology of the term, comes from the French word "cinéma" and means "cinema hall", which is a shortened version of "cinématographe" meaning "motion picture projector and camera". However, the French term "cinématographe" was coined by the Lumière brothers and was derived from the Greek words "kinema" and "graphein" which mean "movement" and "to write". If we were to consider Jurassic Park, It's A Wonderful Life, Fast And Furious as well as The Passion Of Joan Of Arc as 'cinema', then we have to accept that this term conceptually connotes the idea of movement as writing; movement as a language that can be both projected and captured. Thus, the origins of cinema become incredibly fuzzy. A baseline which we may dip below and above would consider that cinema comes from memory, as memory is both the reception of movement (spacetime) as well as the means through which we communicate. After all, if we didn't retain anything then we would be trapped in the present, unable to communicate what happened 7 milliseconds ago. However, we could push towards even more fundamental, and entirely speculative, grounds to suggest that something evolved or shaped into a human form; a form that had memory and so the ability to perceptual write and read in spacetime. So, by discovering the origins of life, or even of the universe, scientists could maybe one day identify the reason why memory and conscious thought developed in the human mind. In such, we would find out that, for a purpose or by some mathematical and physical accident/probability, cinema was triggered and incentivised by the code of the matrix in which we exist. What wrote that code? A question we could eternally ask, pushing further and further back toward the unreachable infinite singularity of somethingness (if such a thing even exists).

So, pulling back a moment, we have to realise that "where does cinema come from?" is a really abstract question that probably can't be answered without unlocking the most fundamental mysteries of reality, the universe and all that may be beyond it. All we can then recognise to be the tangible birth of cinema (considered conceptually; movement as a language) is the act of storytelling. Because humans favour sight as their key perceptual way of engaging the world, most avenues of perception lead towards an image. For instance, if someone says to you "Stanley Kubrick", you may think of this face...

... or maybe these movies...

Moreover, if you read the word "onion", you probably think of something such as this:

And I assume that if you smelled an onion, a similar image would arise. The reason why this paradigm exists is because... it kind of doesn't. Through linguistics, you will quickly find yourself at semiotics - which is the study of, the exploration or making of, meaning. A branch of semiotics, probably the most famous and relevant, would be that of Saussure. Through his work, you can come to see the world as an infinite set of symbols that connote perceptual signifiers. In other words, that onion is not an onion - it is a package of particles that your brain can perceive either through sight, sound, taste, touch or smell. And as a symbol, a perceptual signifier, an onion has to signify something; as a package of particles, it has to interact with your senses so that you can understand what the symbol means. Now, before moving on, this doesn't suggest that there is a universal communication between particles. I'm simply using metaphors to suggest the manner in which the mind interprets reality. That said, with the onion being perceptually identified as such by the mind, we come to think of it as a concept before anything else. In such, that "onion" is an abstract amalgamation of every interaction you ever had with something linked to something someone once said was an onion; the first time your mother uttered the word as you wandered into the kitchen as she was cooking; the first time you cried when the house was flooded with its tear-jerking chemicals; the first and last time you ate some. This is why you can recognise that this too...

... is an onion. You can't smell, touch, nor taste that drawing, just like you can't smell, touch or taste this word "onion", yet it all means the same thing because of your mind's ability to associate many signifiers with one abstract, fluid and working concept.

That said, there are around 6,500 languages in use in the world right now. That means there are 6,500 different ways of saying, hearing, reading and writing the word "onion". This in turn means that it'd be quite hard (in all likelihood) for a woman in Australia to communicate to a man in Cambodia what an onion is - that is, without some kind of visual aid. Whilst she could spray an onion scent to explain to him what she means, far less things have an olfactible (smellable) quality than they do a visible one. That is to say that the Australian woman can't spray an iPhone scent and be understood. This is why the image is so important to human beings; it is an almost universal language. There are downfalls to this language, however. The obvious downfall is the ambiguity of certain images.

More pertinent than optical illusions and mind tricks would, however, be this:

This is not what an atom looks like - not nearly. This image comes closer:

But, it still does not explain, nor communicate what an atom really is. This is because the rings around an atom are a haze of probability that suggest where an electron could be. And we see many more examples of this when we consider the largest macro levels on which you could perceive the universe as well as the smallest quantum levels; these shades of reality cannot be fully understood through the language of imagery - rather, mathematics for the most part.

What this all says about cinema is that it is probably the most powerful, but not the absolute best, form of communication. The best way of communication would transcended the need for signifiers and is something you might want to define as telepathy, but let's not dive into that. Instead, let us return to the idea that the origins of cinema lie in the act of storytelling.

If the image is the strongest form of communication and a visual understanding is the ultimate goal of most forms of communication, then cinema comes from grunts, nods, and the waving of hands which became the auditory telling of stories that eventually was abstracted from time with paintings of various sorts...

In such, cinema started as reality and a signifier for the image - as space that speaks a language; it was a grunt, a hand motion, the showing of an onion. Cinema soon became the recording of this communication in space alone that attempted to signify movement; notice the implied motion blur...

This is the height of cinema; an illusion that has only become a little more crafty. And this is what we'll continue to explore next in Every Year In Film.

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