Sunday, 5 December 2010

Not-So-Mini Essay | Magic Lanterns, by Nicolas Pillai | Introduction

Part 1: The Frontier
Part 2: The City
Part 4: The Bedroom

Written by Nicolas Pillai, Illustrations by JH
The twentieth century is on film. You have to ask yourself if there’s anything about us more important than the fact that we’re constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves.
Don DeLillo

You’re sitting in the dark, surrounded by strangers.  For two hours, you and your companions are subjected to a series of stimuli designed to induce common responses.  Your bodies tense as you feel fear; they relax as you laugh. You are aroused, elated, involved.

Then the lights come up and you find you’ve got a lap full of popcorn.

Going to the cinema has always seemed a perverse occupation to me. Perhaps it’s because I never went as a child. Or perhaps it’s because when I was a child I was taught never to stare. Never mind that they’re fictional, there’s something weird about obsessively ogling people who can’t look back at you. And yet I’ve spent a good proportion of my adult life watching and rewatching films. Our reality is enriched, and significantly affected, by the worlds we observe onscreen.

When moving pictures were first exhibited, the public’s excitement over the new technology drew the concern of moralists. This was an art form that reframed reality, not posed but captured. A commonly repeated, and possibly apocryphal, story is that the first cinema-goers panicked when shown a train approaching the screen. True or not, it speaks to that thrill engendered by cinema: that it can extend beyond its frame, enveloping us in its fictional space.

In Panorama du Gran Canal vu d’un Bateau (1896), we see the moving camera being invented. Shot for the Lumiere Brothers by Alexandre Promio, the film consists of just one simple forty-second shot of movement down a Venetian canal. By placing his tripod in a gondola, Promio redefined movement in film. The camera was no longer static – now when the train rushed toward the screen, the camera hopped aboard.

Promio’s camera moves from left to right, taking in the facades of houses on the canal. Another gondola comes into frame from the right, crossing the field of vision and giving a sense of contrasting movement. We are assured of a world going on beyond the parameters of the image. Unlike its contemporaries, the film is less about pointing the camera at a subject and more about articulating that subject’s relation to the surrounding world.

We fall under a spell when we’re at the pictures. Entranced by the dance of light and shadow, our bodies confined, we open our minds to virtual worlds. In this series of short essays, I want to think about how we interact with the spaces created by film. So please turn off your mobiles. The lights are going down.

As Tony Curtis used to say, I’ll see you after the main feature.

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