David Robison, Foreword by Martin Scorsese, Columbia University Press, 1996, Hardcover, 176 pages. First printing, First edition.


One hundred years ago, the crude realism of early cinematic exercises caused shockwaves among audiences - some even panicked. "On one occasion", read a news report from the time, "an old lady in the audience, quite unable to suppress a scream, started up in her seat and tried to scramble out," knocking over others on her way. This sort of reaction was not uncommon - on a screen that might have featured nothing more than minute-long dips of a running horse or a moving train, what modern viewers might see as a pale shadow of the explosive, full-colour blockbusters of 1995. This work recounts the enchantment of the early years of film, a trajectory which began with the "magic lantern" in the 17th century and progressed rapidly from 1893 to 1913, when the modern motion picture was born. It offers an account of the haphazard process which was the birth of American film. Including more than 150 drawings and photographs of the earliest devices of cinematic prehistory - colourful names like the thaumotrope, the phenakistiscope, the stroboscope, the Wheel of Life - the book leads readers along the winding path of missteps and innovation that led to the filmmaking technology we know today. In his pictorial essay, the author shows readers how these early gadgets actually worked and describes the shortcomings that led inventors to try, try again. He chronicles the early use of film as vaudeville sideshow, where it ran alongside contortionists, strongmen, performing animals and jugglers. He documents an age when the sheer spectacle of moving images precluded any notion of plot development or drama. The text goes on to describe fledgling dramatic efforts, ranging (without much variation of treatment) from prize-fights to Passion plays, which brought audiences back to the theatres in record numbers after they became bored with clips like "Moving Train". It takes a look at the nickelodeon theatres - the rise of venues with names like Nickolette, Dreamland, Theatorium, and Bijou Dream - the first places where cinema was the feature presentation.


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