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Movies and the French Revolution...

Louis Carrogis, 1717 - 1806, a k a Louis de Carmontelle, a draftsman, painter, garden designer, party planner, and military surveyor invented a visual amusement to which he gave no name. A miniature diorama, an apparent precursor of the movies, it displayed landscape art on transparencies in a box device. The story of the invention is told in a wonderful little book by Laurence Chatel de Brancion, Carmontelle's Landscape Transparencies: Cinema of the Enlightenment, a J. Paul Getty Museum publication, 2007.

The transparencies, some reproduced for the book, are described as a "fantastic traveling shot through the places where the ancient regime went up in flames and a new world was starting to emerge."

There was in the period much competition for optical entertainments sought after to relieve the boredom of the privileged class, tireless in their pursuit of diversion and absolutely oblivious to the world beyond their immediate pleasures. Magic lantern shows employing painted glass plates were in high fashion as were theatrical productions employing sound, music and lighting effects, some featuring simulations of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and firestorms. A spectacle called Jerusalem Delivered, based on a 16th century Italian epic about the crusades, made the rounds.

In the 1780s, when landscape painting fell out of fashion, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, a landscape painter, sought a livelihood in the creation of an optical show he named an Eidophusikon: "a portable ministage, measuring eight feet deep by six feet wide....a theatre without actors, but with sound effects, executed in a small room....a pianoforte provided the musical accompaniment of the show, as in silent films....the "stage" - or "screen" - at the back was framed like a painting....a complex mechanism ...activated panels of gauze and painted glass and cardbord objects." Eidophusikon shows included the simulation of lightening, the sound of thunder amplified by a bass drum; for realism, "a drawer filled with pebbles and shells was pushed back and forth to simulate the rhythm of ocean waves striking the beach."

Loutherbourg created exotic landscapes and scenic Eidophusikon travelogues: the dawn in London, midday in the port of Tangiers, sundown on the Bay of Naples, moonlight on the Mediterranean. Exhibited in London, the Loutherbourg shows appeared to cheer up the town depressed by the defeat of the king's armies in the colonies. In addition to Eidophusikon programs he produced large tableaux: a seaport scene, a view of the Alps in winter, a woodcutter attacked by wolves, a summer evening, a shipwreck caused by a storm.

Loutherbourg, like other showmen of his time, turned his attention to the production of visual entertainment constructed out of observed detail through the careful use of paper, paint materials and methods of construction and exhibition. His work was part of a shift in visual narrative away from biblical and historical allegory to contemporary events. France's first daily newspaper, "Journal de Paris", began publishing in 1777.

Carmontelle, looking to exploit the demand for visual diversion, investigated the work of Loutherbourg, magic lantern shows and other period optical amusements but saw his future elsewhere, in visual presentations for home display, "like a video one plays". To combine the portability of the magic lantern and Loutherbourg's theatrical format, he created a box with a 26-inch square opening designed to be placed at a window to illuminate the transparencies from the rear for viewers seated in the space of a darkened room. Carmontelle wanted to improve on the Eidophusikon's immobile single venue views by the application of a scrolling technique employing a box-like display device that "looks surprisingly like our modern television sets". The inspiration came from a Japanese scrolling invention called an Emakimono, a one viewer at a time device whose paper scroll may have been an ancestor of the film roll. The innovation of Carmontelle's shows was that they involved uninterrupted scene-to-scene sequences in continuity, virtually all of them of men and women at leisure, in landscapes, gardens, and pleasure craft on the river.

While Carmontelle's transparencies, first completed in 1783, possessed an impression of depth there was no attempt to deconstruct motion and the images lacked the photographic detail seen in painting done in the decade leading up to photography by Delaroche and others. Accompanied by spoken narration and sound effects, the images were not projected. Moreover, this was not entertainment for mass audiences.

The transparencies, panoramas on special translucent paper, were done in gum colours, Prussian blue, carmine, India ink, vermillion; the miniaturized actor-less theatre cost much less to put on than live stage works and opera.

A Carmontelle transparency of "the seasons" was 138 feet in length, 119 sheets, each 17 3/8 by 20 1/8 inches. The first few sheets were painted black, resembling motion picture leader. The scenes are of exteriors, images seen from a window, each view intended to be viewed for no longer than a few seconds. Like silent film shows, the transparencies incorporated soundtracks, of a galloping horse, the cracking of a whip. Carmontelle for the most part avoided images of the streets of Paris; we almost never see people doing anything other than having a good time, the weather always pleasant, the men gallant, the women charming. The audiences of viewers were pretty much the same people seen at promenade in the views.

A 1792 government report that referred to Carmontelle as Citizen "C" said the effect was like looking out a window through which one saw objects in the distance. The device, the report continued, "can offer the most pleasant objects of the most beautiful seasons during winter and bad weather....you would think you could see an expanse of 3 or 4 leagues where there were trees, pavilions, mountains, and rivers." "C", the report pointed out, exploited the transparency of the paper by painting on both sides thus heightening the impression of depth which drew the viewer into the fiction.

A large post-Revolution transparency Carmontelle completed between 1800 and 1804 measured 70 feet by 18 7/8 inches was exhibited in a box with proscenium opening 18 1?2 by 27 15/16 inches more or less the size of a large television screen."

Coinciding with the death of Carmontelle in 1806, a Belgian physicist, Etienne Gaspard Robert - who called himself Robertson - invented a device called a phantascopethat projected horrific images onto walls. All this activity formed part of the technological environment of Nicephore Niepce and others who began researching the problem of photography, i.e. fixing "an image of reality on a solid support in order to keep it in the collective memory". Niepce's one time partner in invention, Louis Daguerre, drew upon the ideas of Loutherbourg, Carmontelle and Robert Baker in the creation of his dioramas, panoramic scenes on a cylinder 39 feet 4 inches high that anticipated the development of photography. Early experiments in the necessary chemistry were conducted by the German chemist J. H.Schulze in 1727.

It is perhaps no surprise that there are among Carmontelle's documentary impressions few members of the army of labouring men, women and children who kept the ancient regime afloat, of the 20,000 Parisian water bearers who, with the scheme to install running water, became unemployed and available to political leaders for street action. The daily hauling of water and wood employed thousands. It is, said an unnamed observer, "heartrending to see the work of taking all that wood from the mucky banks of the Seine, which is pulled out, separated and carried on human backs to the work sites. The workers are naked their bodies half immersed in the river, their foreheads drenched with sweat. The pallor of their faces foretells that they will not long withstand such hard labor." There were likewise no images of the flocks of crows that descended on Paris driven by famine to peck at the garbage in the brutal winter of 1776 or of the blocks of ice that flowed down the Seine, the general public misery endured in the terrible winter of 1789, or the outbreaks of violence that coincided with the end of the reign of Louis XVI, an expression of the "mute discontent" a traveler observed on the faces of the lesser classes. On 13 July 1788 a six-minute hail storm devastated the harvest. The following spring food stores ran low, France went hungry.

By the conclusion of the summer of 1789 Carmontelle sensed that the final hours of his world was at hand. Never, sighed the marquise de la Tour du Pin, were we as festive as on the eve of the Reign of Terror. An educated eye may observe the changes in fashion in Carmontelle's post-Revolution transparencies - corsetless women dressed in white, wigless men in supple pants."

There are of course other things one might say about the book, that its organization is effective, that the research impressive. As regards the technological kinship issue, the work of Carmontelle has, despite the sub-title, little in fact to do with cinema. On the other hand, his work like that of Loutherbourg and others was an element in an environment inherited by Edison and the Lumieres and others. Among the errors of historiography has been the pursuit of imaginary continuities in the form of precedents and ignoring the overdetermined realities out of which media innovations in fact emerge.

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