Movies and the American Experience

On this great Independence Day Weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to pay homage to the medium of cinema, which has symbolized and propagated American culture since its invention. 

Speaking of invention, the debate has long raged over who actually invented the motion picture.  History recognizes a few individuals as earning the credit -- New Yorker George Eastman (founder of the Eastman Kodak Company) invented celluloid film and the portable camera in 1889, which became the standard for popular photography and cinematography. 

The French Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, are the historic pioneers who invented projection film as we know it in 1895, with their patented and now familiar perforations that enabled film strip reels to move through a projector (their revolutionary Cinematographe) and illuminated on a big screen -- they were reportedly the first to offer public screenings of what would become known as movies: photographs shown in sequence that would create the illusion of motion. 

But the Lumiere brothers owed much to American inventor Thomas Edison who developed the electric light bulb (movies would not exist without illumination) and also the Kinetoscope, which Edison invented with William Dickson and produced as early as 1891-- the device was a kiosk with a hand-crank that enabled individuals to view short motion pictures.  Edison later improved on the Lumiere brothers' innovations with his Vitascope projector, which became the American standard.

The early films by the Lumieres, Edison, and others were primitive experimentations of a new technology, showing static scenes of trains in motion, people dancing or doing other actions -- but they nevertheless sparked the public's imagination.  It took other film pioneers like D.W. Griffith to develop the "language" of narrative film (cross-cut editing, close-ups, tracking shots, dissolves, etc.). 

While there are plenty of examples of global contributions throughout the history and evolution of film as an artistic tool of expression in both fiction and non-fiction, America has led the industry through the influential movies produced in Hollywood and distributed worldwide.  Such movies not only reflected American culture, but also influenced American culture, while also spreading American messages and pop culture to the four corners of the Earth, for good and ill.

Movies have been a centerstone for the symbols of the United States of America, from the ideology of the Western genre, to the excess in violence of the action film and the over-the-top blockbuster spectacle.  The stories popularized through American cinema were a respite for the nation during the Great Depression, showcased the American psyche through other periods of national turmoil, captured the spirit of many of the positive characteristics that Americans wish to claim as examples of their collective persona, and mastered the notion of film as the greatest form of escapist entertainment.

Two books from my film studies days in high school and Fordham University really stuck with me and fueled my love for movies, and both of those books are excellent examples of the major role Americans played in the development of cinema as an art and as a business, and still hold up as examples of the impact movies have had in shaping America.  Those books, in case any of you would like to hunt them down and read them, are Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies by Robert Sklar and On Film: A History of the Motion Picture by Frank E. Beaver.

As America celebrates another birthday, the legacy of the motion picture industry has served as a mirror (intentionally and unintentionally) to its soul.