Magic Lanterns

“Those who had the least confidence in the future of the cinema were precisely the two industrialists Edison and LumiËre. . . . As for the real savants such as Marey, they were only of indirect assistance to the cinema. They had a special purpose in mind and were satisfied when they had accomplished it. The fanatics, the madmen, the disinterested pioneers, capable, as was Bernard Palissy, of burning their furniture for a few seconds of shaky images, were neither industrialists nor savants, just men obsessed by their own imaginings. The cinema was born from the converging of these various obsessions, that is to say, out of a myth, the myth of total cinema.”
–AndrÈ Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema”

I attend a lot of film related events in Los Angeles, but last night’s sold-out lecture, “Magic Lanterns and the Evolution of Film Narrative” at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (co-presented by the estimable Filmforum) was an exceptional one. Professor Joss Marsh from the University of Indiana offered a lively and highly informative, multi-media crash course in magic lantern technology and 19th century visual culture.

A predecessor of the slide projector, the magic lantern was a technological marvel for 250 years; it stayed in fashion well into the 1920s. A network of itinerant lanternists fueled a thriving pop culture in a Victorian Britain captivated by dioramas, narrative paintings, illustrated books, comics, and advertising. Magic lanterns evolved over time, incorporating multiple lenses for dissolves or levers for simple movements (all precursors of cinematic grammar), gathering an audience eager for mechanical enchantments in a darkened room. As Bazin suggested in his famous 1946 essay, the motion picture wasn’t a new idea so much as the latest expression of an ongoing cultural desire for an ultimate, “realistic” screen experience.

Marsh was joined by archivist and lantern collector David Francis (pictured above), who carefully choreographed an antique slideshow with a vintage lantern throughout her lecture. I was amazed at the clarity and vibrant colors the lantern produced; these weren’t crude projections but detailed photographs, etchings, and drawings printed on 3.25 square-inch glass slides and hand-tinted; subjects ranged from the exotic (moonlit landscapes and seaside caverns) to the everyday (domestic interiors and taverns) to the abstract (moving kaleidoscopic patterns). A whole genre of phantasmagoria slides featured demons and ghosts that were once projected on smoke or transparent screens.

The Victorians were obsessed with narrative, and magic lantern shows told stories comprised of long slide sequences, dramatic readings, live music–even audience singalongs (none of which we at AMPAS were spared); it was a spirited evening. I can’t say I belted out a chorus of “Cherry Ripe” at the appropriate time, but many in the audience did, and it was an undeniably fun event that evoked a genuine feeling for the lantern in its heyday; additionally, it was easy to perceive the “mythic” elements that link such technology with today’s visual technology, and beyond.

One of the more fascinating themes of Marsh’s presentation was her emphasis on the role lanterns played in popularizing the British Temperance movement, which wasn’t funded by reactionary moralists so much as capitalists and merchants who wanted consumers to spend less money on drink and more on their products. Buy Your Own Cherries (1864) was a prototypical example, with its tale of a worker who decides to avoid the pub and invest in his family’s future by–you guessed it–buying his own produce and thus becoming a model citizen. (As the singalong cheerfully reminds us, it’s not who you are but how rich you are that matters in this world.) The show was remade into a 1904 short film by Robert W. Paul included on Kino’s The Movies Begin DVD set. Many early films were adaptations of popular lantern shows.

Equally engrossing was Marsh’s assertion that Charles Dickens–a lifelong lantern lover whose stories of sullen protagonists redeemed by watching images of their lives (Gabriel Grub, A Christmas Carol)–was the single author most inspired by, and inspiring to, lantern culture; the fact that Dickens himself performed popular readings of his works further encouraged their adaptation. Coincidentally, Dickens and early cinema are highlighted with the British Film Institute’s new 2-disc Dickens Before Sound DVD release, which includes “an entirely original attempt to animate a series of original lantern slides depicting the story of Gabriel Grub“; likely the very show screened at AMPAS.

Yet no matter how professionally the BFI recreates the lantern show, I doubt the experience of watching it will compare with seeing it live. Marsh and Francis combine scholarship with an evident love for the technology and its entertainment value in a way that is positively infectious. Antique magic lanterns are apparently not the most portable of devices, which may be a good thing for Marsh and Francis–if the enthusiastic AMPAS audience was any indication, I could see their program becoming a highly sought after touring event.

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