The History of Cinema and Why It Matters
I’m a professor of Film and Television. I teach all the hands on, down and dirty technical stuff - editing, camera, lighting and such. I’ve worked every technical position on a film set and have the battle scars to prove it. But what I really love is the history of cinema. So, when I was given the opportunity to teach a class on the subject I was thrilled. The thrill dissipated however, when I realized how difficult it is to cram all there is to know about cinema into a ten week class. It can’t be done. For an art form that’s only been around for about a hundred and twenty years, there’s just too much to cover.
Yet every year in the Spring I do my best to convey the impact of the moving image even if it’s just offering a taste of what’s out there. Year after year I hone the class, striving to create the best possible taste in order to tantalize the undiscovered film fan who has yet to realize the importance of the medium’s history and why it matters. Do I succeed completely? No. However, you’d be surprised how many students leave the class with a new appreciation for the subject. They even acquire a new perspective on film in general and begin seeing the art form in a whole new way.
For many of them there is an annoying side effect: not being able to watch a movie as mindlessly as they once did. But for most it’s a real eye opener to a facet of pop culture people take for granted - a facet of pop culture that has a daily impact on our lives. It only makes sense to study its history and how it came to be not only what it is, but what it was, and it what it’s going to be. After all, this stuff directly impacts everyone who turns on a TV, goes to the movies, surfs the net, plays a video game, or uses a smart phone. If there’s a moving image involved then there’s a direct connection to the foundations of film which began with the trial and errors of inventors in the late 1800s.
A lot of stuff has happened since that time and now, and as time goes by the strides being made are swifter and more impactful. After all, the time of the “Silent” films was more than thirty years. The dawn of the “Sound Age” lasted about twenty years before stereophonic speakers came into use. The screen itself remained “square” for more than sixty years before “Widescreen” became the norm. Of course, other advances happened simultaneously in regards to technique, equipment and just how images are recorded. But, the speed of these advances were slow and cumbersome compared to the onslaught of innovations emerging in today’s constantly advancing world of technology. A world which would not exist without the earlier achievements of cinema.
So, on the first day of class every Spring, I try to make it as clear and simple as possible as to why the history of cinema matters. I ask them to take out their phones, and I ask them how much they use it and what they use it for. Ten weeks later at the end of the class I ask them to do the same thing again, but this time I ask them what they think is coming next for the moving image, beyond the cell phone. The man who invented the Nickelodeon couldn’t imagine watching movies in the palm of a hand, so what might be out there that you can’t imagine? I don’t have an answer, and I get no responses from the students. But the look of sudden understanding on their faces is priceless. Suddenly, ten weeks of lecture and study has culminated into one beautiful moment of realizing a small part of why the history of cinema matters to them. And then there’s the second moment. The one where they realize there’s even more to learn. OMG, can you imagine?