“A Chronology of Film. A Cultural Timeline from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Screen” by Ian Haydn Smith (published by Thames & Hudson)

Widescreen approach shows broader picture

As is often the case in a history of cinema, Haydn Smith opens up with Auguste and Louis Lumière’s short films that they unveiled to startled audiences in Paris in 1895, the first real moving pictures to be seen by a paying public. How then does the author suddenly switch back to paintings by early cave dwellers, the work of Egyptian artists in the years Before Christ, the Bayeux Tapestry and Chinese shadow plays?
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The common link between these and others, the author contends, is that Man has always been interested to study optics and light, and the ways in which they could be used to represent movement and some form of narrative. Thus, for instance, some of the creatures painted on the cave walls in France before 28,000 BC have six legs, indicative perhaps, Haydn Smith contends, of the primitive painter attempting to grapple with the illusion of quick movement.

The same, or similar, could be said to apply in the work of Egyptian artists whose ancient wall and tablet paintings featured a front and side perspective simultaneously, and although the individual figures appeared static, when seen as part of a group they gave the impression of movement, at least in the author’s eyes. Ditto the Bayeux Tapestry that depicted the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Other examples by Haydn Smith of early inventions and innovations aimed at presenting fluid moving images include the interest of ancient Greeks and Romans in optics and the photosensitive properties of certain chemicals, also the projection onto screens of Chinese shadow plays, a tradition that travelled the world and remained popular up until the arrival of cinema.

Whatever the reader might think of these theories about the distant past, they make for an unusual and interesting introduction to the more familiar ground of the zoetrope, the magic lantern, the camera obscura, the cinematograph, photomontage, the Lumières, the magic of Georges Méliès, the ground-breaking “The Great Train Robbery” from 1903 and so on. (And the not-so-familiar, such as the Phenakistoscope, the Fantoscope and Chronophotography.)

“A Chronology of Film” is a journey through the development of cinema, from the Lumières’ initial 10 films – their “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” is considered the first motion picture – from 1885 and 1886, up to the advent of the modern money-hungry “blockbuster”.

The book primarily features narrative film-making, because generally when people talk about “film”, “cinema” or “the movies” this is what they are referring to, says Haydn Smith. Experimental and documentary cinema, for instance, play a significant role but do so in tandem to the behemoth of the narrative feature.

After the innovation and invention that led to the Lumière brothers’ breakthrough, the book looks at the medium’s infancy and the golden age of pre-sound films before the arrival of the talkies at the end of the 1920s. There then emerged a fully mature cinema, from Hollywood’s golden age to the work of directors such as Jean Renoir, whose “La règle du jeu” (“The Rules of the Game”, 1939) is said to remain a high point of French cinema.

A chapter is devoted to the rise of new generations that challenged the language of the cinematic establishment while employing the form as a revolutionary tool to kick against social, cultural and moral codes. Examples of this desire for change are Russian film-maker Andrei  Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” (1966) and “Zerkalo” (“Mirror”, 1975), which Haydn Smith says elevated cinema to high art.

Great technological advances are discussed and  in the 21st century there has been “a growing chorus of voices that more accurately represent the world  in terms of identity, across race, gender and culture”. Attention is drawn, for instance, to the undervalued role that women have played in cinematic history: since the Academy Awards began in 1929, only one Best Film has been directed by a woman, namely “The Hurt Locker” by Kathryn Bigelow in 2008.

Thankfuly, Haydn Smith acknowledges that while films are occasionally discussed in terms of their box-office returns, the idea of judging one by its commercial success is no indication of its quality. While some great films have achieved significant commercial success, many fared poorly at the box office initially, only to attain greatness with the passage of time.

Alongside special features about the important technical advances and key films and pratcitioners, Haydn Smith presents commentaries and context about world events – social, political, cultural – of the particular period. For example, in 1957-58, when audiences first saw Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Poland’s “Ashes and Diamonds”, the Suez Crisis, Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and racial trouble in Little Rock, US, were in the news.

Here are revolutionary cinema, Italian neorealism, war, westerns, Bollywood, propaganda,  new queer films, feminist features, horror, colour, fantasy and much more. It’s a lot of ground to cover, made attractive by more than 300 illustrations. The Budapest Times looked for some of our great favourites – France’s Jacques Tati, Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki, “Happiness” by Todd Solondz, “Requiem for a Dream” by Darren Aronofsky, Ealing Studios, noir, “The Card” with Alec Guinness and dozens more. Some are included, some aren’t.

What’s there, and it’s a huge amount, is fascinating and can be dipped into at will. Read, then be inspired to rewatch some and track down others that you don’t know but catch the interest.

Ian Haydn Smith is the author of “Selling the Movie” and “Cult Filmmakers”, and is also the update editor on “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, as well as editing “BFI Filmmakers Magazine” and “Curzon” magazines. He has written and broadcast widely on film and photography.

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