03/01/2018

Every Year In Film #32 - When Did Cinema Become An Art?

Thoughts On: Cinema As An Art


Today we will be referencing some early posts in the series to question when cinema became an art.


It has been quite a while since the last Every Year post. The delay is because of the holidays and the amount of viewing required for the next post (we'll be talking about silent film serials). In researching and thinking about the series, an interesting question that may prove pertinent has come up many times over in my mind: When did cinema become an art?

There is an inherent subjectivity embedded into the idea of 'art', which, to some, would nullify this question: cinema became an art whenever an individual perceives it to have become one. If I were to take this conclusion seriously, I would suggest that cinema became an art as soon as it was conceived of. After all, looking at the early work of Muybridge or Marey, it is hard to not be struck by the artistry in their moving imagery. However, there is far greater complexity to be recognised before this can be explored. Firstly, was Muybridge or Marey's 'cinema' even cinema?

This is another difficult question to confront: When did cinema become cinema? Whilst it is obvious that chronophotographic exposures projected with a zoopraxiscope are far from cinema as we know it in the present day, we are still dealing with moving imagery that we can watch with devices - projectors, VHS, DVD, internet streaming services - that we use to consume modern cinema. So, even though Marey's work was not made like present day cinema, present day cinema can makes Marey's moving imagery cinema:


This idea throws a monkey wrench into the idea of 'present day cinema' as what defines a large part of the cinema we know today is its ability to work with, and in direct conjuncture to, previous mediums. We can conceptualise this by merely thinking about how we've watched, for example, Citizen Kane or City Lights. I personally have never had the chance to see either of these movies in a theatre with an actual projector. I have, however, seen digitised versions of these films in theatres as well as on T.V through satellite services, DVD, BluRay, and I've seen them on the internet through a computer screen and on my phone. This forces a plethora of complex questions about cinema in the modern age that we will save for much later in the Every Year series. But, for now, this leaves us rather stuck, and with our only open pathway being the immaterialist definition of cinema.

To think of cinema as moving images, or, as Deleuze would phrase with a more complex and nuanced term, movement-images, we find it hard to say that Muybridge is not cinema when the Lumières are, when Griffith is, when Lucas is, when Villeneuve is.

Let us now ask another question to throw us into another tailspin. What about television? Is television cinema? Television, after all, uses moving images and is far more resemblant of cinema as we have known it for decades than the work of Muybridge or Marey is.

Let us stop there. We have, in fact, already discussed this complication in the series and concluded that television is not cinema because cinema has certain run-times. Considering this, it then seems that Muybridge isn't cinema - unless maybe Muybridge is a cinema of the short or experimental film.

If we can accept the cinema of Marey or Muybridge as a form of short, experimental filmmaking, one that utilises moving images in a way that is beyond television, then we can now question if it was art. But, how do we do this?

Art, as we have discussed many times on the blog, can be thought of as a form of communication. This communication is sometimes linked to practical craftsmanship as with, for example, architecture. However, what art connotes transcends practicality in the most obvious sense. Art's worth is self-manifested; it is because people want art to be that it is, we don't need it like we do shelter and clothes. Much like talking is then unnecessary for basic living, so is art. However, communication beyond practicality is a defining aspect of humanity as it is hard to imagine life without, for example, a friend. After all, what is a friend? Maybe they are someone who you make food and money with, someone you travel with - someone who is the modern equivalent of a hunting partner in a basic society. However, we use this the term 'friend' not for someone who fulfills just this, but provides more. In such, someone who you merely work with or for - a colleague - is far from a friend. A friend is a slightly impractical part of you; someone who provides emotional support of various kinds: you talk to them, you laugh with them, you experience things with them as without that person by your side, there wouldn't be much of a point in doing it. A friend is the crucial, yet impractical, crutch of your being and an entity which imbues your days with a sense of purpose and meaning that you rarely think about, but always feel and recognise with this idea of 'friend' - a similar thing can be said for girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, etc.

Art is to craft what friend is to colleague. And in such, art is something transcendent of practicality that provides meaning and emotional support on scales greater than small-group relations and across generations. When looking at the work of Marey or Muybridge we are then forced to ask if we are seeing a colleague to contemporary cinema, or a friend: are these works of cinematic craft, or art?

Taking a step back in time and away from Marey and Muybridge, let us first ask a question easily answered: Is painting cinema's friend? The clear answer: No. Whilst painting is a visual art, a friend to humanity, that has much in common with cinema, we think of this as a colleague to cinema as the artistry - the qualitative modes of communication - speak to audiences in very different ways.

That asked, is photography a friend of cinema? Again: no. Because of the lack of moving imagery, it is clear that these two forms can only speak to each other with limited dialogue. The same, in my opinion, remains true when we look at forms of moving imagery that pre-date cinema: phenakistoscopes, for example.


Moving imagery is here, but the phenakistoscope has more to do with painting than cinema in my view. Unlike animation, this then does not use the materials of cinema (i.e, celluloid and projection systems). However, let it now be noted that we're not talking about art, but craftsmanship. As a result, what we are saying here is that this is not just a mere colleague to cinema because it communicates in a manner too different - is an art too separate - but that it is also a craft far too removed from cinema. This is forcing us to again consider the question of the art in cinema, but also cinema becoming cinema. Recognising that this is an issue still unresolved, let us then take another step forward and consider early forms of chronophotography in the work of Juels Janssen:


Here, we come ever closer to the bounds of cinema: photographs are made to move. For the fact that this was shot on metal plates, it is clear, however, that this is a colleague of cinema. And such a distinction falls heavy on the work of Muybridge and Marey who often exposed their chronophotographic sequences on to, and presented them using, glass. This leaves us with a contradiction. Marey and Muybridge's work can't even be considered short form or cinema; it's too far removed as a craft. Even the label of experimental cinema is a big ask. As a result, we can begin to see exactly why cinema's birth is sometimes pushed forward onto the shoulders of Le Prince, who not only shot onto paper film, which resembles celluloid stock, but utilised single lens camera technology. Nonetheless, there are limitations to comparing Le Prince's methods to that of modern day cinema - as is even more true with the Edison's devices - which is why the classically accepted birth of cinema belongs to the Lumières.


Because the Lumière cinematographe combined the key components of cinema as it existed for decades after - single lenses, celluloid stock propelled intermittently with sprockets, etc. - we can understand why this invention marked the birth of cinema. However, let us take a step back. We have just implied that we are forced to think of the work of Marey and Muybridge as a colleague to cinema, not a friend, and so cannot officially accept their works as even short films. However, is there nonetheless art to be found in these two figures?


In my opinion, both Marey and Muybridge were artists, and so created art. Neither was just an artist, however. Both were, to varying degrees, scientists, businessmen and inventors. This affected their art.


In comparison to Marey, it seems that Muybridge was not so much of a scientist; let us merely consider the scientific validity and purpose of his works on the human figure. When looking at the wide shots of naked bodies, it seems that Muybridge was playing with this new power he had in his hands. It may be unfair to disregard him as a pervert taking pictures of naked women - far more of his work was focused on animals, men and children - but it is clear that Muybridge embodies an intrigued artist's eye before an intrigued scientist's eye; he seemingly wanted to see how things worked before knowing how they worked, and this is how his work is perceived.


Whilst Marey would use chronophotographic exposures like this to build scientific models of birds in motion...


... and so clearly had an eye for understanding mechanisms of motion, we perceive his work much like we do Muybridge's: with an eye for seeing how things works. Above the title of 'scientist'  differentiating these two figures, it then seems that they are bound together by the way in which their work speaks to us. As we see evidenced through artists like Duchamp who were inspired by the likes of Muybridge...


... these two figures communicated impractically; they are a friend to modern audiences of art and cinema, and are a very close colleagues of the form even if they aren't one and the same. As a result there is an art in the chronophotographic craft of Marey and Muybridge that does more than teach us science, but transcends direct, basic communication as to speak to us in the abstract just like cinema does (almost).

Considering this, though the work of these two figures' work may not be cinema, I think it represents most directly the kind of art that cinema would come to embody. In such, Marey and Muybridge consciously preserved the world, it beauty, its mysteriousness and its spectacle in motion just like Edison would go on to do, just like the Lumières did. Seemingly an expression of differences between cultures, the Frenchman Marey's works differs from the American-based Muybridge's quite like the Lumières' and Edison's did. So, like Muybridge, Edison meant to capture and preserve the spectacles of the world...


... whilst the Lumières meant to capture and preserve its more inert beauties or truths with their actualities like Marey did with his scientific work...


This bedrock dichotomy of art is incredibly important to cinema, and has been continually expressed throughout film history with a European art cinema contrasting Hollywood entertainment, or, to speak more accurately and broadly, films having to balance artistry and entertainment within themselves.

My answer to the question of cinema becoming art lies here: 'Cinema' was an art before it was even cinema as it inherited artistic qualities from Muybridge and Marey. There is of course so much more to be said about how cinema became a specific art with a broad range of complex and evolving conventions - and this is what we are currently exploring as we move through the 1910s and into the 1920s. Moreover, there is an awful lot to be said about the way in which art was perceived by audiences and even the law that will challenge much of what we have discussed today. However, these are topics that we will confront soon, and so I will end this post here with: What are your thoughts? When did cinema become an art in your view? Are there greater complexities and nuances that I have overlooked?

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