What Did The Lumière Brothers Ever Do For Us?

A lot or bugger all? Or something in between? Those of you who read my blog posts about the 125th birthday of cinema last year will not be surprised to hear that I am sceptical, to say the least, about the mythological status attached to the Lumières’ first show on December 28th 1895 in Paris. As some of you will have seen, I have just had an article published in Sight & Sound about the subject (link at the bottom of this post) but there are a few things I’d like to add.

Programme for the first Lumière show in London with ad for their photographic plates

Oddly enough, I’m not swayed by the recent statement of Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival and the Institut Lumière – that put out a video to commemorate this anniversary and support Thierry’s grand declaration – which began with, “Let’s start at the end: France invented cinema”. He went on to reinforce this with “The 28th of December [1895] was therefore the ‘first paying public screening’. The first cinema screening.” And in case you were considering talking back to him, he then describes anybody who disagrees with this as “grincheux” a word that translates as ‘grumpy’, ‘grouchy’ or ‘petulant’. He’s basically calling people like me “The Grinch that stole cinema”.

I was profoundly disappointed and depressed by this declaration/outburst. It’s riven with the kind of chauvinistic nationalism that I dearly hoped we’d left behind in the 1950s. This is the intellectual equivalent of talking over anyone who disagrees with you, calling them “smelly” and then declaring that you won the argument. I can only think that he’s auditioning for the role of Culture Secretary in the event of Frexit.

Thierry Frémaux: could this be the face of Frexit? (source: Le Dauphiné)

That the Lumières were not the progenitors of cinema is neither a matter of opinion nor national pride but historical record. Others had already designed equipment, shot films and projected them to a paying public in both dedicated spaces and variety halls, in other countries.

The Lumières had financial muscle and a quality product which they were good at marketing. The name “Cinématographe” and variations of it became widely used, but that name was not original to them. In 1896, the year when an international film industry kicked off, and when the Lumières were getting maximum attention, two thirds of the references to the ‘Cinematograph’ in the British press had nothing to do with them. For the great majority of people in the world, their first experience of seeing moving pictures was totally unrelated to the Lumière Cinématographe.

The Cinématographe in camera and projector mode (Source: the Malkames Collection)

It may sound like I’m knocking the Lumières, but I’m really not. One of my favourite cinema experiences of all time was seeing a programme of restored Lumière films on the big screen in 1998. It was an extraordinary, vivid window on the past. It’s a testimony to the planning of the Lumière company and the dedication of the French archives that almost all their films are preserved, whereas in most cases the great majority of early films have been lost. I have handled and operated a Lumière Cinématographe that belonged to the Lumière family: it was a beautiful piece of engineering that still ran very smoothly, over a century down the line.

Unfortunately, the real and considerable achievements of the Lumières have been obscured by wreaths of mythologising. It’s not just the undeniable fact that they didn’t start cinema. French cineastes and filmmakers have waxed rhapsodic about every tiny detail of their films in an attempt to prove that the Lumières thought of every aspect of cinema right from the start, whereas in fact over several years they didn’t figure out how to put two shots together or make a film last more than fifty seconds. Or, indeed, shoot the vast majority of ‘their’ films.

There are many wonderful subjects in the Lumière filmography, that are to be treasured. But there are currently little more than a hundred of these short films officially available to view, out of a total of 1,422, despite the fact they have all been digitised. The rest are tightly controlled under bizarre copyright laws that keep them under lock and key, over 70 years after Louis Lumière passed away. It’s a strange kind of honouring to strive so hard to preserve their work and then not let the world see it. But the truth is that whilst some items are unique records from the four corners of the earth in the late 19th century (that we can’t watch), there are also hundreds of routine and repititious subjects – including endless military parades, assorted distant royalty and a plethora of trains entering stations.

Even those who promote the Lumières ignore their lesser achievements. I don’t know how many lyrical outpourings I’ve read about Alexandre Promio shooting from a boat on a Venice canal. This, we are told, is the birth of the ‘travelling’, the French name for a moving shot – although that does conventionally refer to the camera being on tracks. In fact, a moving shot from a boat had already been filmed in Cologne by another Lumière camera operator, Constant Girel, and screened before this – which is inconvenient, as Venice is sexier and years have been spent building up Promio as the first great cinematographer, so this isn’t discussed. And best not even mention that the great Georges Méliès shot a film of Le Havre harbour, taken from a boat, before either of them.

Cologne: great cathedral but sadly still not as sexy as Venice.

To try and cut through the fog, I proposed an article to Sight & Sound, the British Film Institute’s excellent film magazine, and was delighted that they commissioned it. It’s my attempt to lay out the start of the film industry and put the Lumière myth to bed – all in 1100 words. It’s in the current issue, March 2021. To see more about it, click on the cover below – and let me know your opinion!

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