Cinematic legend has it that, back in the early days of motion pictures, audiences would see a train coming toward them on the screen and dive out of the way in a panic. “There turns out to be very little confirmation of that in the actual newspaper reports of the time,” says critic and Museum of Modern Art film curator Dave Kehr in the video above, “but you can still sense the excitement in seeing these gigantic, incredibly sharp, lifelike images being projected.” But aren’t they only sharp and lifelike by the standards of the late-19th century dawn of cinema, an era we filmgoers of the 21st century, now used to 4K digital projection, imagine as one of unrelieved blurriness, graininess, and herky-jerkiness?
By no means. The footage showcased in this video, a MoMA production on “the IMAX of the 1890s,” was shot on 68-millimeter film, a greater size and thus a higher definition than the 35-millimeter prints most of us have watched in theaters for most of our lives.
Only the most ambitious filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson making The Master, have used such large-format films in recent years, but 120 years ago an outfit like the Biograph Company could, in Kehr’s words, “send camera crews around the world, as the Lumière Company had,” and what those crews captured would end up in movie theaters: “Suddenly the world was coming to you in ways that people just could not have imagined. That you could go to Europe, that you could meet the crowned heads, that you could go to see elephants in India…”
Thanks to the efforts of film archivists and preservationists, a few of whom appear in this video to show and explain just what degradation befalls these cinematic time capsules without the kind of work they do, much of this footage still looks and feels remarkably lifelike. “It’s worth returning to these images to remind us that movies used to be analog,” Kehr says. “They saw things in front of the camera in a one-on-one relationship. This was the world. It was an image you could trust. It was an image of physical substance, of reality. Nowadays we tend not to trust images, because we know how easily manipulated they are.” We’ve gained an unfathomable amount of imagery, in terms of both quantity and quality, in our digital age. But as the sheer “ontological impact” of these old 68-millimeter clips reminds us, even when felt in streaming-video reproduction, our images have lost something as well.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.