Cinema Pioneers and YouTube: Cocteau, Muybridge and a Woman Walking and Texting in the Mall

Jean Cocteau was a child of 6 when the Lumiere brothers first projected a motion picture to a paying audience. History tells us the audience that Dec. 1895 evening saw a number of short films lasting about one minute each, including one of workers exiting a factory and another where a character was comically soaked with water.

Jean Cocteau was a little boy when the movies were invented. He was among the first generation of artists for whom the magic of filmmaking was even a possibility.

But Cocteau's childhood assumptions about filmmaking and a 6 year old's assumption about filmmaking today are very different.

Jean Cocteau grew up with filmmaking as an expensive - and therefore restricted - form of expression. Cocteau reportedly said: "Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper."

The first sequence above is from a 1950 Jean Cocteau film, Orphee. Orphee required a relatively large sums of money (even though it was shot outside the Hollywood industrial system) to make and distribute.

We're getting closer to Cocteau's vision of film as an artform with materials that "are as inexpensive as pencil and paper."

In 2011, the materials necessary to make and circulate films are becoming ubiquitous, allowing thousands of new filmmakers - and their online audience - to experience the excitement and sense of discovery that thrilled Cocteau and his predecessors, the early motion picture pioneers.

If, like me, you enjoy finding parallels between the early days of filmmaking and today's user-generated video (compare, for example, the first Lumiere films and the kinetoscopes of the 1890s which are short presentational films - and the short films that go "viral" on YouTube), you might also be interested in James Polchin's excellent blogpost about a fascinating 19th-century pioneer - Eadweard Muybridge.

The second video is a short film about Eadweard Muybridge, who famously captured images of a horse in motion in the 1870s and then proceeded to make thousands of images of naked - or nearly naked - humans in motion.

I find the similarities between early pioneers (like Muybridge, the Lumieres and Edison) and the current line-up of YouTube videos striking.

Short sequences that explore the magical (and sometimes comic) ways that the human form can move through space (and sometimes into liquid, see the mirror in Cocteau's Orphee) have been a constant source of inspiration to filmmakers an audiences. The final sequence above, of a girl "texting and walking" into a fountain, has been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

While some things remain the same, the filmmaking similarities between the 1890s, the 1940s and today should not oversold: I honestly have no idea what the Lumiere Brothers, Eadweard Muybridge or Jean Cocteau would make of Justin Bieber or the keyboard cat.

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