The Cinematic Art

    For the first half of the 20th century the cinema dominated all other forms of popular entertainment in the world. During the heyday of the 'movie theatre' or the 'picture house'-as the Americans and British variously called their cinema halls-millions of people throughout the world developed the habit (almost the addiction) of going to see a film at least once a week. This was the golden age of Hollywood, film capital of both the United States and the world. 

     The first silent films (in black and white, of course) were shown during the 1890s as part of music-hall entertainment, taking turns along with various live acts such as singers, dancers and magicians. Such films were simply to give the audience a thrill; the vision of a huge locomotive racing towards you out of the screen usually produced the effect that both the promoter and the audience desired. Indeed, this thrill element continues to be very significant in movies, as is witnessed by the demand for more and more spectacular 'special effects' in various science-fiction extravaganzas. 

     A Frenchman, Georges Melies, created the first actual story-related movies around 1900 and the first American story film was The Great Train Robbery in 1903. From then until 1914, American and European film-makers were more or less equal, but after the outbreak of the First World War Europeans had other more pressing concerns, and far away in California, near the city of Los Angeles, the film-makers of the New World went ahead on their own, producing first the 'talkies' and then 'technicolor'. Many European countries (including France, Britain, Russia and Germany) have continued to make films, but they have never really managed to catch up with the lead that Hollywood established during and after the Great War. 

     The only nation that can nowadays be said to rival the United States in the volume of films produced, money made and numbers entertained is India, which has an extremely successful home and export business in films; it makes movies available both to Indian communities established in other parts of the world and to countries whose people are culturally closer to Bombay than to Hollywood.

     The cinema, since its inception, has been in direct competition with a variety of other forms of entertainment. These include: participating in and watching sports and games, acting in or going to the live theatre, performing for or listening to radio, watching television, and-most recently- playing video games. The live theatre has not done particularly well in the face of competition from the cinema, while in turn the cinema has not done too well when faced with the domestic miracle of millions of private screens in people's own homes. Looking back at the way in which television has displaced the movies since the early 1950s, we might even say that the cinema was the dinosaur ancestor of TV, rather than that TV is a miniature cinema. 

     The only clear advantage that the public movie has over the private tube is the size of the picture offered. Even that advantage may not last much longer, however, as more people in affluent parts of the world become interested in large TV wall screens for their living rooms. 

     Not, of course, that Hollywood is going to stop making films; the TV companies will need them for a long time to come, as will the videotape industry. The framing of celluloid dreams goes on, with whole galaxies of 'stars', 'starlets' and 'superstars' whom we can watch, love, hate, envy or disdain (according to our inclinations). It is a state of affairs that could never have been imagined in, say, 1839, the year when Sir John Herschel first offered the world the term 'photography'.