- Cinema's First Flight
Out of the Archive provides a regular forum for the publication of rare or little-known documents concerning the history of modernism and the avant-gardes. Its compass is global and its aim is to prompt critical reflection on how the past's material remains shape present understandings. [End Page 443]
As the Lumière brothers' cinématographe and its expanding catalog travelled around France and then the world in 1896, its projectionists, more than its famous inventors, became cinema's true pioneers. This group of twenty-four men covered the six inhabitable continents within a single year, their geographical conquests matched by their many improvised artistic and technical feats. With their ingenuity, these operators developed the cinematic practices that would long outlast their contemporary camera-projector technology, that notorious 'invention without a future.'1
Beginning with the Lumière brothers' L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, early cinema's fascination with motion had found iconic form in the locomotive. The popularity of The Arrival of a Train inevitably led to its imaginative reverse shot, with one of the Lumière projectionists mounting a camera on board a train in order to record the station's arrival from the train's perspective. The Algerian-born projectionist Félix Mesguich was the first to strap the motion picture machine to the front of the locomotive: the resulting film's speed was arresting, culminating with the camera's plunge into a tunnel's darkness. Film historian Jacques Rittaud-Hutinet posits, in light of this seemingly unprecedented maneuver, that "Perhaps [Mesguich] 'truly' invented the subjective camera."2 Rittaud-Hutinet's grammatical montage of 'perhaps' and 'truly' screens the way in which the stories of early cinema are just that, stories that share the fleeting enthusiasm of their objects, before descending as myths.3
Mesguich, more than the other under-sung projectionists, takes part in cinematic history's sensational and sometimes apocryphal myth-making. In 1933 he published Tours de manivelle: [End Page 445] souvenirs d'un chasseur d'images, which charts his career beginning with his chance application to work at the Lumière factories in 1895. Once experienced with the cinématographe, Mesguich would be dispatched to the United States, to Russia, and to Algeria, and later, he embarked on his own Jules Verne-inspired world circuit. Along these itineraries he filmed Niagara Falls, state coronations and state funerals, and the first modern Olympic Games.4 In 1908 and 1909 he joined royalty, dignitaries, and industrial magnates in Southern France to record the premiere of another heralded invention, the Wright brothers' flying machine. After filming a flight from the ground, Mesguich joined Wilbur in the air, taking the subjective camera to higher velocities and altitudes than ever before.
Unlike the Lumière films of and from a moving train, Mesguich's sixty-five meters of celluloid shot aboard the Wright brothers' plane has not endured in the archive. Neither is this event noted in the voluminous writings on the Wright brothers; at the aerodrome at Pau, the presence of King Edward VII and King Alonso XIII drew much more attention. But among the many published photographs from that period, there is one shot with an anonymous passenger, captioned simply: "Wilbur taking a passenger at Pau."5 The image is comparatively stark; it shows the plane flatly against the sky, silhouetting its frame and the two figures. This passenger could be Félix Mesguich, his camera strapped—perhaps, truly—to the girder. But the figures and the machinery prove indistinguishable from the terrestrial lens. Instead, what records the first flight most distinctly, like most events in early cinema, is its recounting, by the under-sung inventor of the subjective camera. [End Page 446]
- A Translation from Felix Mésguich's Tours de manivelle6
With Wilbur Wright, September 1908
After auto racing, the flying machine became cinema's next star. Icarus was resurrected. Flying men began to traverse the skies: Ader, Blériot, Voisin, Santos-Dumont, Farman, Bréguet, Latham, and many others astonished the world.
The Wright brothers, the American aviators whose invention...