“Perhaps the most explicit example of the late nineteenth century technological imaginary is the cinema – an entertainment which began as a short term technological spectacle of a kluge of existing hardware that produced the illusion of instrumental vision and, for complex reasons which we do not fully understand, was able to constantly reinvent itself an enduring industry by integrating new knowledge with hedonistic visual and aural pleasure. Although it was absolutely crucial that certain social, technological and economic factors were in place, what seemed to save the Cinématographe from oblivion was its emergence at a moment when science, technology and entertainment, which had hitherto been inextricably intertwined, became quite distinct ways of engaging with similar objects. The irony is that a technology such as the cinema, allegedly borne of instrumental science illuminates a world of non-mechanistic connections. The chemical precision of photography combined with the regulated progress of each frame past the source of light in both taking and projection mode appeared to guarantee that what we see, is what was there. An inspection of the film strip, however, confirms this not to be the case. In the context of public engagement in amusement parks and world’s fairs, the Cinématographe was not merely an exciting novelty to be marvelled at, but also offered the intellectual thrill of a profound contradiction since it both endorsed and repudiated the claims of positivist science.
“This philosophical question of reality and how we apprehend it was at least as important as the putative novelty of movement that audiences responded to. The British Mutoscope and Biograph Co. Ltd., for example, was advertised in 1900 on a poster with an image of a woman floating in a theatre above the audiences’ heads holding a camera aloft as a ‘magic box’. Through this box the world spinning in the universe was mediated onto a screen as a text which reads: ‘The Biograph reproduces the Latest Events from All Parts of the World’.” As the audience sits inside the astral world whose image is being mediated by technology which is both chained to that world and separate from it the metaphysical conundrum the image poses are quite breathtaking and continuous with the ‘other history’ of the Cinématographe – the history of occult and philosophical fascinations.
“But of course from the very start the photochemical image and the projection of incrementally different samples of a movement were philosophical and metaphysical provocations as much as they are now. The Thaumatrope, for example, invented by Sir John Herschel and often cited as an early ancestor of the Cinématographe comprised a cardboard disk with an image on either side which, when spun, produced a superimposition of the two (ie a bird in a cage). As Michael Chanan points out it was Dr Paris who popularised it as a philosophical toy and wrote about it in 1827 in a book entitled Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest. In the photo/cinematic image however the metaphysical stakes are raised even higher.
“The ghost of what was there in the time it takes for light to travel from the object to the film is written on the chemicals as the camera shutter closes – the photograph is not just a nanoseconds behind the material world but more an emanation of it – an auratic phenomenon. When the image is projected in a cinema, another ghostly presence is conjured up as though it were there by the passage of light over the audiences head producing an image as an outcome of its essentially fugitive nature. Not for nothing was the cinema received as a means of connecting the living with the other-worldly presence of the dead, not for nothing is the cinema at its most profitable in its most unrealistic mode – the animated feature and the effects driven action movie. For all the institutional insistence on realism, if we could believe our eyes in the movies who would go?”