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CINEMA AND PROGRESS – THE WRITERS’ FLOOR

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If, on the one hand, cinema was considered to be a marvellous medium for representing and imagining reality at will, on the other hand, it seemed to have little relevance as far as real scientific and technical progress was concerned. Numerous debates concerning cinema and progress took place especially from the end of the 19th century until the early 1910s. And it was mainly writers who initially raised such questions.

Trivial art or worthy invention?

As is natural, every new invention inevitably raises numerous debates and discussions about it. This, then, was also the case with the invention of cinema, which, while on the one hand, was considered to be a marvellous medium for representing and imagining reality at will, on the other hand, it seemed to have little relevance as far as real scientific and technical progress was concerned. So it happened that, especially from the end of the 19th century until the early 1910s, cinema and progress were often called into question in endless debates about the real usefulness of the seventh art. And it was mainly writers who initially raised such questions.

If, in fact, we think of a name like Ernst Lothar, although he contributed to the screenplay of the feature film The Angel with the Trumpet (directed by Karl Hartl in 1948) – in which his wife, the actress Adrienne Gessner, also played a role – in the novel from which the film was inspired, (The Vienna Melody, written by him in 1946) it is also true that he always considered cinema to be a trivial art. As if cinema and progress were, then, two totally incompatible realities. As if cinema itself was in no way comparable to the worthy arts that existed before it. And he was not the only one in his field to hold this opinion, even several years after cinema was invented.

Going back to the origins of cinema, however, we cannot fail to mention the famous Russian writer Maksim Gor’kij, who, for the first time in 1896, attended some screenings organised by the Lumière brothers. The author was undoubtedly fascinated. It was enough, in fact, just to sit in front of an enormous white screen to be able to see – once the lights went out – scenes from everyday life, workers coming out of a factory, a group of men playing cards in the garden of their house or, even, a locomotive arriving at the station. A phenomenon, this one, undoubtedly appealing, capable of transporting the audience into a completely new world, while at the same time simply sitting in an armchair. But what happened, however, when the lights came back on? Simple: the huge screen on which so much had happened a few seconds earlier turned white again. Suddenly, everything was over. The screening had come to an end and everything inevitably went back to the way it was before. How, then, could cinema one day be useful to science? According to Gor’kij, then, cinema and progress were two words that seemed, in fact, to have nothing in common with each other. And of the same opinion were several of his colleagues of the time.

Yet, not everyone hold this opinion. Moving, in fact, to Austria (where cinema arrived several years later than in the rest of the world), we find another renowned name who did not hesitate to have his say about this new invention. We are talking about the writer Max Brod, who, unlike his colleague Maksim Gor’kij, was immediately enthusiastic about this new, extraordinary invention.

His first experience in a cinema, then, dates back to 1909 (i.e. a good fourteen years after Lumière had invented it). It aroused such strong emotions in him that he wrote the essay Kinematographentheater, in which he initially concentrated on describing the theatre itself, its rooms, the box office, the cloakroom and even the seats, and then devoted himself exclusively to the magic of the screening. And here, finally, the miracle happened. Suddenly one found oneself in the streets of the city watching scenes from everyday life, or even in Austrialia, which, initially, seemed so far away. Or even in Chicago, thousands of kilometres away from Vienna. One could see people, streets, environments that in everyday life would have been impossible to encounter. And all this while simply sitting inside a small cinema hall.

True, as soon as the lights came back on and the screen became white again, everything was over. Still, the desire to see, to explore, to know prevailed over everything. This new invention, the seventh art was, therefore, for Max Brod, a new way of stimulating the imagination, a new way of imagining reality at will, even dreaming of impossible dystopian futures. And wasn’t what a filmmaker did with his camera the same as a writer did with words? Both attempted to recreate worlds in which readers or audiences could – if only for a few minutes – lose themselves. So, then, cinema and progress were not two such distant realities. Cinema and progress went, according to Max Brod, practically hand in hand. And like him, fortunately, many of his colleagues hold this opinion.

Yet this debate was to last for many, many years. It even reaches the present day and still raises many conflicting opinions.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag; Von der Gesamtrussischen Ausstellung, Maksim Gor’kij, 1896; Kinematographentheater, Max Brod, 1909
Info: the page of Maksim Gor’kij on the website of the Enciclopedia Treccani; the page of Max Brod on the website of the Enciclopedia Treccani; the page of Ernst Lothar on Wikipedia