Gilbert Adair began the first chapter of Flickers (1995), his deeply personal and often eccentric odyssey into the history of the movies – written to mark the centenary of the Lumière brothers’ public exhibition of short films shot and projected on their Cinematographe device in Paris’s Grand Café Boulevard des Capucines in 1895 – with a grandiose “Let there be light!”. It is a mark of cinema’s uniqueness as an art form, that it can be so fittingly compared to such a momentous and mystical occasion as the Big Bang. Adair’s wonderful book, mixing selected film stills (one for each year) and textual analysis, kicks off with a Lumière short, known as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.
It is that sacrosanct date in time (December, 1895) that we have fixed upon as the miraculous birth of the movies. But even if Adair hadn’t heard of Louis Le Prince (1841 – 1890) or his achievements at the time of writing – he cautiously added in his introduction: “but the cinema, in truth, like many an ageing actress, is a few years older than it cares to admit.” David Nicholas Wilkinson’s fascinating but occasionally flabby documentary, The First Film (2015), is the story and counter-historical narrative of those years before the Lumières came along and makes a compelling case for their compatriot, Le Prince, as the first man to ever make a movie and think like a director. A French inventor living in England, Le Prince was a brainiac with a passion for the arts. Even before he started tinkering with the notion of film cameras, he pioneered a ceramics process, where upon photos were printed onto crockery.
In October 1888 Le Prince shot, on a single-lens camera using Eastman paper film, two shorts that exist now only in seconds-long fragments. Wilkinson wholeheartedly believes, and makes a generally persuasive case, that these two pieces of surviving material, known as Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, are in fact the earliest and truest starting points for what we call ‘the cinema’. The First Film does question what it means to be ‘the first’ and doesn’t gloss over other achievements made by engineers and scientific figures concurrent with Le Prince’s. It also demonstrates how constructing historical narratives and conjuring the past can be infuriatingly non-linear and messy. Le Prince was not a solitary figure of genius working in isolation. There were plenty of other men of distinction working on cameras and projection systems. Only the litigious Thomas Alva Edison comes across in a poor light; and that’s because his reaction to competition and obsession over patents speak for themselves. The First Film should be a worthy resource for cinema history enthusiasts and students alike.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn