Dalton Delan | The Unspin Room: Tide turns against the movies

The Unspin Room

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WESTPORT, Conn. — The movies were my school. From a very early age I started recording alphabetically everything I saw in a theater in little address books. You can trace my penmanship and writing utensils from the earliest crayon entries to when I finally gave it up at boarding school. By then, the fare at the Ioka Theatre in Exeter, New Hampshire tended towards entries such as "Barbarella" and "Girl in Gold Boots" (don't ask) on their last legs, with prints so scratched from circuiting New England that they looked as if cats had at them. Raised in the city on a steady diet of John Ford and Henry Fonda, I closed the book on daughter Jane.

Last year, in a defining moment for cineastes, the revenue from digital home entertainment worldwide finally surpassed money spent on tickets to the palaces of soda pop and popcorn. It took a century-and-a-quarter for the balloon to go up and down and, in its deflation, to take with it the magic and mystery of the darkened theater of communal viewing. Now, we may play video games with teammates and opponents all over the globe, but they are remote and we are alone. The shared sigh at the big-screen kiss is faded like an old love.

The origins of what Americans call "movies" and Europeans refer to as "films" go back a lot farther than most of us imagine. In the 1650s, Christiaan Huygens stunned his fellow citizens of the Hague not only with a pendulum clock, but with an amazing invention known as a "magic lantern," in which a progression of mechanical slides projected apparent animation. By the mid-1800s, the zoetrope employed a dozen drawings in a sequence that simulated motion.

In a last iteration before single-camera filmmaking entered the stage, British photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1878 set up a row of two dozen cameras to capture a horse in seeming full "Gallop." The race was on, and by 1895 the first true cinema had opened for business in Berlin, the Wintergarten Theatre. History does not record popcorn on the premises; more likely a stein or two of beer was to be had, smoothing the wieners' digestion.

The very existence of what came to be called moving or motion pictures relies upon a psychological effect, "persistence of vision." As a rotating shutter with interstices of darkness moves still frames into position in front of the light of a movie projector, our eyes retain each visual image for a fraction of a second after the source disappears. Thus, with 24 frames moving past the lens in each second, the illusion of motion is born. For inquisitive minds out there, the reason we see wheels appearing to spin backwards in car commercials is because videotape moves at 25 frames per second, so if a commercial is shot at a one-frame-per-second slower speed, fast motion such as a spinning wheel appears to reverse course.

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When D.W. Griffith perpetrated his colossal Civil War calumny "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, aptly followed the next year by "Intolerance," cinemas employed pianists or organists to accompany the silent film as it told its story with text cards to point the way to understanding. A stripe of recorded sound made its way onto film a decade later, and by 1930 the talkies had triumphed totally and silent pictures were a defunct medium. The movies came alive.

Yet audiences were still seeing the world in a shadow play of black-and white. It was not until 1932 that the first three-stripe Technicolor animated cartoon appeared as a film short preceding the main feature. A year later, the theater's back row, seemingly made for necking and petting by young lovers, was mightily improved by the advent of a drive-in theater on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. The back seat Saturday night was on.

As the decades gave way and the cathode ray sparked to life on television screens across the country, the movies were threatened but not cowed, and directors and film studios continued to up the ante on superiority over the more pedestrian fare on advertiser-driven network television. 3D was introduced all the way back in 1922 with a showing of "Power of Love" at the Ambassador Hotel Theater in Los Angeles, the hotel where Robert Kennedy was shot. 3D was a sporadic thrill, however, and by the time Alfred Hitchcock used it for some screenings of "Dial M for Murder" in 1954, it was on the wane, only to be resurrected in recent years for effects-driven, big-ticket feature films.

Now, with 495 original scripted series premiering on American television this year, the movies are Marvel-ous superhero franchises. It is a new golden age for TV, leaving the silver screen behind. Microwave popcorn for one and a Barcalounger.

Dalton Delan, a regular Eagle contributor, has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.



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