Bright Lights Film Journal

(Re)Staging the Story: The Pre-History of Cinema

“Though most people in earlier times could not even have imagined the present role of science and technology, nor, even more implausibly, the apparently alternate life offered by the cinema and its recent offshoots, the human imagination refused to be tied down.”

For a century now, movies, in the broadest sense, have come increasingly to dominate our lives. At first they were mainly sources of entertainment and distraction; then they became adjuncts to texts in providing a record of history. Next came the many electronic offshoots of movies, all allegedly providing us with a version of reality: the TV and then the various forms of taping, and, lastly, the ubiquitous computer screen and the cell phone camera. It is nearly impossible now to enter a room in which a portion of the outside world, virtual or imagined, is not being presented on some type of screen. We thus live in a screen dimension, and we wonder how people in all those earlier eras managed to function without these necessary portholes through which we look out of what now seems (to mix the metaphor) a cocoon.

What, then, is this thing called movies or cinema? Essentially it is the fusion of something old — narrative and theater — with something new — technology. Cinema shares with such narratives as the epic or the novel the telling of a drawn-out story with multiple scene shifts, though the camera replaces the narrator, and the language is image instead of word. This last detail has had a tremendous sociological impact: Novels used to be read by only a fraction of mankind, but now movies have made novel “readers” out of nearly everyone in the world by means of this simple change in mode of communication.

Cinema shares with theater the staging of the story, the same time span of performance (a couple of hours as against the many required for reading a novel), and, above all, the phenomenon of actors pretending to give life to characters who otherwise exist only on the pages of the text and in the imagination of the reader. The difference is that the theatrical performance is notoriously transitory and usually repeated, while the cinematic enactment is once and forever. That immortality also entails portability; Lawrence Olivier’s famous Othello could be seen only in London and a few other cities for a while in the middle 1960s, but, transferred to film, it can be seen anywhere any time (even though he himself is dead) until the earth crashes into the sun.

The shift from narrative and theater to cinema also changes the nature of interpretation. That is, the reader of a book must assess the significance of a character or scene, while the viewer of a theatrical production must assess not only the character in the text but also the way in which the actor presents that character; hence a double interpretation is needed. When Lady Macbeth, for example, goads her husband into committing murder, he hesitates, “If we should fail?” Her simple response is, “We fail?”

What does she mean? Her words may well be an exclamation of incredulity, as in “We fail? Don’t be silly! It’s out of the question; success is a sure thing.” But, given that the punctuation in the First Folio is, as Dr. Johnson suggested, not carved in stone, one could argue that the question mark is more variable than it seems. Without tampering with Shakespeare’s words, therefore, a performer may replace it with a period or an exclamation mark, resulting in two other major interpretations. “We fail,” period; that would be an expression of resignation, the words spoken with a shrug and with face lowered, with stoic acceptance of the inevitable; “so be it!” Or “We fail!”, words spoken with triumphalism and pride: “Having given it our best effort, we will go down swinging; we will depart with grandeur!” What the elocution of the otherwise self-evident words of the text says about Lady Macbeth’s personality impacts on all her other words and actions. Is she a boisterous immoralist from the beginning, or a stoic soul, or someone who evolves? And the interpretation of her in turn affects the portrayal of her husband. In the theater, moreover, the actress’s emphases may vary from performance to performance, and the viewer’s interpretation in turn is contingent on which performance he saw. But cinema does away with that uncertainty: There is only one permanent staging, and the scope of interpretation is accordingly simplified somewhat.

As for the new dimension added to narrative and theater — technology — it is simply the product of chemistry (photography) and physics (electric light projection). Though most people in earlier times could not even have imagined the present role of science and technology, nor, even more implausibly, the apparently alternate life offered by the cinema and its recent offshoots, the human imagination refused to be tied down. A few thinkers, functioning in isolation and lacking a technology or a theory to work with, yet came upon the cinematic idea. The first one was Plato, a philosopher who, unlike many in his discipline, had literary gifts that manifested themselves in vivid images, metaphors, hypotheticals, and anecdotes. In trying to convey the complex idea that the senses, notably eyesight, by presenting us the physical world, keep us from perceiving a transcendent realm that constitutes reality — the true or higher or immaterial or immortal reality — he uses the lively theoretical case of people sitting in a dark cave and facing a wall. A fire burning behind them sheds light. Between the fire and the seated people is a place where puppets are manipulated, and the firelight causes the shadows of the puppets to be cast on the wall. The puppeteers utter sounds that echo in the cave and that the people facing the wall attribute to the shadows projected onto the wall. The viewers conclude — incorrectly, as Plato asserts we all do about this sensory world — that these shadows of puppets are real beings (313).

Socrates’s interlocutor calls the scene “remarkable” or “strange,” and well he might, for, living before the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, he has just been introduced to the basic optics of cinema. (No doubt some unheralded entrepreneur in classical antiquity may have thought of this phenomenon and used it to entertain children and perhaps adults, as people do today in using a hand to portray the shadow of a dog’s head, but Plato is the first to record the idea.) The cinema substitutes a projection light for the fire; it has a translucent celluloid film with a succession of rapidly moving photographs instead of puppets or persons; a voluntary audience instead of confined and confused troglodytes; a screen instead of the wall of a cave. But the effects are the same. And so, some two and a half millennia before technology enabled the movie, we have a crude version of it — and, be it noted, a talkie, at that! Dare one call this passage, this leap of the imagination, the Platonic Idea of cinema?

A few centuries later, Lucretius added psychology to optics. Where Plato was eager to make the reader turn from sight of the material realm to insight into the supernatural realm, the Roman poet was more concerned with liberating the reader from anxiety and fear. To do that, he conjured up, in a passage as famous as Plato’s, an image of disinterested observation or the idea of audience: a man standing on the seashore and calmly beholding some people struggling in stormy waters, or a man in a citadel, sheltered by wisdom, bemusedly beholding (as one would on the observation deck of the Empire State Building) the rat race in the streets below of those ant-like creatures seeking wealth and power. He hastens to add that the witness’s motive is not pleasure over some other person’s pain but the comfort that comes from feeling oneself safely out of harm’s way. Actually, when Lucretius depicts those faraway ant-like creatures as blind and benighted, he comes close to echoing (in, to be sure, an inexact parallel) the epistemological limitations of Plato’s troglodytes; for both thinkers, the normal perception of the quotidian life is in some sense misleading. But Lucretius has no higher reality to offer people, only relief from perturbation in this world.

That solution conjures up another basic principle of the cinema — detachment. The modern audience beholds characters in a film who undergo great stress, but even if the viewers get carried away with sympathetic identification in the form of anxiety and grief, they can remind themselves during the film — and need no reminder when exiting the movie house — that they are happily spared (at least physically here and now) the ordeals of the onscreen characters. Like Lucretius’s remote observer, they can with relief say, under the operations of Aristotelian pity and fear, “There but for the grace of God or Chance go I — but so far I remain unscathed.”

To put it differently, Lucretius has introduced a form of narrative, or at least extended its range. For Plato, the images seen by the troglodytes have no particular tale to tell because they are all figments of the imagination, meaningless products of the illusory sensuous world. For Lucretius, on the other hand, the persons at sea trying to preserve themselves from drowning in a storm or involved in the rat race of acquisitiveness offer dramatic stories for the delectation of the viewer fortunate enough not to be caught up in the disaster.

It might, of course, be suggested that Lucretius is, in contrast to Plato, not innovating, that he is merely describing the workings of the theater, which, unlike the cinema, existed in his era and with which he must have been familiar (if only by hearsay in the case of Greek tragedy). True enough, but the theater even at its best lacks the power to place the audience in the midst of the hypothetical events; it cannot hypnotize and mesmerize the way movies, with their technological enhancement of normal sensory experience, do. That sounds like a heretical assertion, but have we not the testimony of that archetypal man of the theater, the shareholder, actor, playwright Shakespeare, who, in the Prologue to Henry V, apologizes for the theater’s limited capacity to reproduce reality: “Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?” And one of his older contemporaries spoke of the oddity of having “four swords and bucklers” onstage represent clashing armies.

Little did the Elizabethans know that the future would bring a solution to this perceived problem. For only movies, with their legendary “casts of thousands,” their rambling cameras, and their Brobdignagian proportions (at least on the movie screen) can give the spectator the illusion of actually being physically present at the portrayed scenes. (Recall the famous moment at the dawn of cinema, when the untutored audience ran in panic out of the movie house because a locomotive onscreen was rushing right at them.) What Galileo and his telescope did for astronomy, cinema does for our fantasy life: In both cases, the range of new experiences is vastly enlarged.

To be sure, while his senses are feasting, the viewer’s imagination, which Shakespeare depended on, is thereby being somewhat curtailed. And thinkers may favor, in an unconscious Platonic choice, those devices that appeal to the imagination over those that appeal to the senses, but the vast majority of people, too much akin to Plato’s cave dwellers, prefer TV or movie over the imagination-liberating radio or text. Cinema’s greater reliance on the senses than on the imagination may indeed be one of the intellectual costs of “progress.”

The psychology here is complex, as is indicated by another one of the hypotheticals offered by Lucretius — that of watching scenes of battle without being oneself in any danger. (60) That example is more important than one might think, for the harsh truth is that human beings, notably the male variant, love violence, disasters, wars, killing. The evidence for that bloodlust is ubiquitous. Think of rubbernecking at highway crash scenes, of the motto of the nightly news — “If it bleeds, it leads” — of the popularity of boxing, football, ice hockey, as well as of the gangster and battle epics that top the list of the best selling films of all time.

Another harsh truth is that most of us are cowards, terribly fearful of being injured. So Lucretius has adumbrated the great invention that caters at once to both our sadistic impulses and our cowardly fears — the war movie. Here, with far greater verisimilitude than onstage, we can lodge in the midst of unlimited violence, as bullets, shells, bombs fly or explode everywhere, without the slightest chance of the viewer-participant suffering so much as a scratch. For the duration of the film, the audience undergoes the experience of being godlike; specifically, like the gods in the Iliad — on Olympian heights watching with great satisfaction and security human beings smashing each other. Like chess, the war movie turns violence into metaphor.

A third author has contributed to the unconscious theoretical construction of the cinema by adding one element that addresses both the optics and the psychology of the cinematic experience — variety. Francis Bacon wrote an essay on masques (short allegorical dramatic performances given at the royal court or at a nobleman’s mansion). This was about as close as he came to discussing the theater, which to him was part of the infra dig popular culture. He dismissed these theatrical shows as “but toys” even though they “do naturally take the sense [=engross the senses].” But what he concedes is that “the alteration of scenes, so it be done quietly and without noise, are things of great beauty and pleasure, for they feed and relieve the eye before it be full of the same object [=before satiety sets in].” (111) Indeed, in the theater, only a limited number of set changes can take place, and these do create some empty time and are sometimes accompanied by irrelevant sounds. But how much more pleased would Bacon be by movies, which do just what he desires: In them are perhaps a hundred set changes (give or take a dozen), and they are instantaneous and noiseless, even while providing all the variety Bacon’s eye could possibly want.

So just as Leonardo dreamed of tanks and planes, and others dreamed of trips to the moon or of computing devices or other contrivances that needed the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions to bring to fruition, so did some souls dream of something like the cinema. History’s rule of thumb is that solitary visionaries make imaginative leaps that seem bizarre to their contemporaries, and then, epochs later, when the intellectual environment and social circumstances have opened many possibilities, persons who are more mentally nimble than visionary use technology to realize the dream. That, at any rate, was the story of those few who thought about the manipulation of images, about flexibility in scene shifting, about overwhelming immersion into an alternate reality, and about rich and safe vicarious experience. Just another ancient human aspiration fulfilled — for better or worse — by innovative modern civilization.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. Essays, etc., ed. R. F. Jones. New York: Odyssey Press, 1937.

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, tr. R. E. Latham. New York: Penguin, 1951.

Plato, Great Dialogues, tr. W. H. D. Rouse. New York: New American Library, 1956.