Comment: The New Consciousness and the Origins of Film
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 9, Number 1, February 1979
- pp. 16-19
- View Citation
- Additional Information
COMMENT: THE NEW CONSCIOUSNESS ANDTHE ORIGINSOF FILM By Tim Travers Historians who describe the origins of film usually emphasize the technical background—the animated picture, the photograph, and the innovations of Marey, Muybridge and Edison. Roger Manvell's earlier analysis probably sums up the general feeling: "The cinema was invented out of the machine-world ___ n1 However, most historians also comment on the fact that film arrived at an interesting point in the late nineteenth century. Thus, Paul Spehr writes that the "movies were born at the end of the 19th century, during one of the most remarkable periods of scientific and industrial growth in the history of mankind. "^ Yet this emphasis on technical origins, together with a feeling that there was and is something unique about the phenomena of the movies, plus a good deal of confusion among early analysts of film^—all these factors tend to obscure the fact that in the 1890s film did not emerge in an intellectual vacuum—but can and should be related to prevailing ideas and themes. The decade of the 1890s was remarkable for a wide-ranging rejection of the certainties and values of the mid-nineteenth century. Not only among social reformers, but also on an intellectual level many leading thinkers began to reject the positivism of the previous generation which had sought to apply cut-and-dried scientific analysis to society and human behavior. The positivism which the generation of the 1890s rejected could be summed up by words such as 'materialism,' 'mechanism,' 'determinism,' 'scientific fatalism,' and 'naturalism.' In place of this creed, the late nineteenth century thinkers now emphasized what lay beneath the surface of reality and human experience, and investigated areas such as consciousness, the unconscious, and the world of dreams. The same approach could be seen in a revision of the meaning of time, space and TIm Tnavers teaches at the University ofa Calgary. 16 duration, and their relationship to each other, and in a general emphasis on what was relative, subjective and intuitive. Finally, there was a romantic stress on the emotions of the individual, and on the significance of immediate personal experience. In general, the anti-positivists of the 1890s found a new, less rational, reality behind and beneath the surface of the confident mid-nineteenth century.^ In his recent book, Movie-Made America, Robert SkI ar perceptively remarks that men such as Marey and Muybridge "were seeking a way to make visible what was not apparent to the human eye...," and that both they and the general public were attracted to film "because movies subjected time and motion to the human will." And again, the public wished "for mastery over time and motion," and desired to tamper "with reality. "^ Perhaps unwittingly, Sklar argues the anti-positivist bias of the early film public and innovators who envisaged a new reality beneath the surface, and who wished for a subjective and immediate experience of time and motion. It is also the case that the first public showing of film in 1895 (the Lumiere brothers and various others in the U.S.) coincided with at least two other innovations that similarly revealed another reality beneath the surface—the experiments of Marconi with radio waves between 1894-96, and Rontgen's discovery of x-rays in 1895. Both these discoveries initiated in their own way a new control of time, space and motion, as did Einstein's theory of relativity in 1905, pointing out that no single observation from a fixed point could be relied upon to provide the full truth. This relative conception of how to observe is curiously paralleled by the movie (moving) camera, which also had the ability to perceive reality from several points of view, each of which had its own validity, and which, taken together, may be said to result in the relative 'truth' of the completed film. Close to film as an art form in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was painting. Here again is an interesting parallel with anti-positivist trends. From about 1907 following, Cubist painters were rearranging reality on their canvases by looking at objects "from several points of view, no one of which has...