The Lumière brothers were the first to project films publicly. They did not ‘invent’ film,
but rather invented its projection, that is, they invented the industry, and that it is what is
celebrated as the birth of the cinema. They did so in 1895 in Paris. The films shown were
only a few seconds in length, a single shot sequence, and for the most part scenes of daily
life, some staged, others taken directly: workers leaving a factory, trains coming into a
station, passersby on the street, a row boat at sea, waves, parades, scenes of coming and
going, that is, of movement taking place before an immobile camera at a fixed distance.
The images were autonomous, that is, not linked to any other and only linked to the
reality they represented. The cinema then was what was filmed and what was filmed was,
like a photograph, a fragment of reality as a coherent, uninterrupted image of it. It was
only later that the single image was further fragmented and then joined to other images
equally fragmented. It was photography however with its framing that first cut the image
out of a larger reality and thereby introduced the image as a fragment both of of space
and of time (the instant). This notion of the fragment, temporal and spatial, was refined
by film by extending the fragment in time, giving it duration, and then linking one image
with another (a series of fragments), thus extending the reproduced fragment into space.
By 1917/1918, the period of the Russian Revolution, and the conclusion of five years of
World War in Europe with its slaughter and destruction, the cinema was little more than
two decades old. During the period, 1895-1918, the forms, possibilities and realisation of
films were relatively fluid, full of promise and potential because as yet the cnema was not
institutionalised, not subject to rules and codes. There were at this time various efforts to
discover what film was capable of, what it might express and what might specified it, that
is, distinguished it from the other arts (photography, painting, literature, and above all,
theatre) and also what it lacked (sound).
Because film was mute, that is, it was without the spoken word, though not silent (music
was often present to accompany film shows), ‘silent’ film developed ways ‘to speak’ (to
be like language) and ‘to sound’ (to be like music). These attempts suggested various
possibilities, some later codified: to tell a story (film as narrative), to document events
(film as record and report), to create poetry (film as art and composition), to exhibit a
performance (film as traditional ‘quality’ theatre and film as popular spectacle). Often
such pathways overlapped and the line between them ill-defined and open.
The ability of film to ‘speak’ or ‘sound’ despite being mute was not a function of single