Why celebrate the cinema's birthday on 28 December? Why
take as the date for the celebrations that of the famous evening at the
Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines and not, for instance,
22 March of the same year, when the brothers from Lyons showed La Sortie
de l'Usine Lumière to a group of scientists, or the day that the
patent for the Cinématographe was registered?
In recent years cinema historians have clearly shown the limits of a positivist reconstruction of the birth and development of the new device, and demonstrated the sterility of compiling lists of the gradually more advanced viewing machines. The innovatory scope of the cinema may be grasped more easily, and the context in which it appeared more fully portrayed, by drawing together the threads of a variety of entertainments over the centuries: magicians', conjurors' and illusionists' shows, all of which share with the cinema the ability to materialize shadows and give substance to dreams. Their history is a long one, which might be said to begin with the rock paintings at Altamira, the shadows of Chinese theatre, Leonardo da Vinci's treatises on the camera oscura, or the magic Lanterns of the seventeenth century; it is a history marked by special strides forward during the nineteenth century, when the widespread social need for extending the bounds of sensory experience provided a driving force for the establishment of new scopic contrivances.
Seeing is itself a way of knowing, and experience is a form of control over the world. The spectator asks to go on a journey beyond the range of his own eyes, beyond what he can normally meet, possess and know. Seeing "beyond", in space and time: the streets of distant cities, exotic lands presented by a panorama or diorama, famous battles of the past re-enacted through a magic lantern, the visual games of the phenakistoscope, the grandiose scenic effects of Robertson's phantasmagories. The history of the various forms in which images have been consumed coincides perhaps with the history of the ever more perfect machines for dreams and the realms of fantasy.
The cinema came at the end of this process, gratifying the obsession with seeing (already fed with views through the human body by the contemporary X-rays) by capturing movement. Capturing, because taken: like the earlier camera, the cinema - also known as "animated photography" - can only show what it has captured, surprised. And what is it that cinema takes, albeit naturally to return it, saved from the ravages of time? Life itself, as some of the early names given the device in English suggest: bioscope, vitascope.
Just as dreams elude the dreamer's consciousness, many of these devices followed paths curiously remote from those their inventors had intended: from Plateau's Phenakistiscope, originally a scientific instrument but destined to become a children's toy, to the cinématographe itself, which the Lumières imagined would lose its appeal in a matter of years.
Finally, all dreams - the more so waking dreams and reveries - need an ideal place in which to unravel: the intimacy of one's own home with its memories and private melancholy, or the impressions of a public space, with an audience gathered at random in the darkness and the uncertainty as to one's neighbours' experience, creating a chemistry ideal for the fantastic and the unknown. The cinema, which "captures" life, in its early days brought no new place of entertainment of its own, but breathed in the vitality of the typical places of the end of the last century: cabarets, vaudeville, city squares and fairground booths, music halls. Nonetheless, from the very beginning the cinema was well aware it could not do without a dark auditorium, to fascinate audiences and transport them to the dream world: this, perhaps, was the ultimate meaning of that 28 December on which the cinema was born.