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Criticism: The birth of the Kinematograph by Geoff Brown


cover of the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly

The act of criticism played little part in the earliest British print coverage of cinema. Local and national newspapers carried news reports as projected moving pictures began to be publicly exhibited early in 1896. "The movements of the people leaving the carriages and the bustle on the platform are reproduced with lifelike fidelity," proclaimed The Times on 22 Feb 1896 after viewing Lumière's Cinématographe. Photographic and scientific journals, which already gave coverage to magic lantern shows, also noted the new arrival, as did The Showman, a publication aimed at the fairground community. But in both arenas, the artistic possibilities of moving pictures, beyond the straight recording of reality, were never sensed. Even the most thoughtful early commentator, O. Winter, writing in the February 1896 New Review, stuck fast to cinema as a recording tool, and one with no artistic future. Winter allied the Cinématographe to the realism and "fecklessly impartial eye" of the French novelist Emile Zola and Britain's minutely detailed Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the Lumière presentation, Winter declared, showed us "life moving without purpose, without beauty, with no better impulse than a foolish curiosity.... it proves the complete despair of modern realism". If beauty was found in the Cinématographe, Winter insisted, it would only be by accident.

Feckless or not, moving pictures steadily increased their hold on both public and the entertainment showmen. Founded in 1889, The Optical Magic Lantern Journal acknowledged cinema's inexorable rise by changing its name in 1904 to The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal. Rudimentary film reviews were featured. Three years later, the journal, published by E. T. Heron, became The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly - Britain's first cinema trade paper and, through several mergers and further name changes, the ancestor of today's Screen International. "Everyone in the profession should obtain the latest data of what is practically a new business," declared the first editorial on 16 May, 1907. Regular coverage of new films appeared from the start. "Our representatives," the paper explained, "will make a call upon all of the makers on the Monday and Tuesday of each week, and particulars of the subjects shown will appear in the issue of the paper on Thursday." As with The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal, the particulars were mostly plot descriptions, sometimes with an approving phrase added, like "another good comic subject", or "one of the prettiest child studies we have seen for many a long day". The paragraphs emerged between pages lavish with advertisements for films, projectors, cameras and other equipment, crucial for the paper's finances. The reviews functioned essentially as advertisements themselves: in the issue of 28 October 1909, for example, there was little to choose in purpose and material between Charles Urban's full-page advert for his special effects spectacular The Airship Destroyer and the review coverage 22 pages earlier.

By 1908, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly had a rival, The Bioscope, formed from the bones of two other trade papers for showmen, The Amusement World and The Novelty News. The new publication, edited by John Cabourn until 1929, continued until 1931. Both journals shared the same brief to boost the new industry and its wares, and the Bioscope film commentators, equally dependent on trade advertising, didn't hesitate to look on the bright side. "Walturdaw's have touched the top notch with this number," the paper declared about what now sounds a routine comedy, The Troublesome Trombone Player (1908). Nonetheless, The Bioscope under Cabourn also showed an independent spirit, and wasn't beyond negative criticism, especially of topographical and interest shorts. Witness Nordisk's A Day in York, covered in March 1909: "A rather commonplace travel subject, the quality of which does little to relieve its drabness. Nordisk can do better than this." This is not yet rigorous film criticism; but it shows some sign of a commentator standing back, observing, and weighing in the balance.

Throughout the 20th century's first decade, newspapers continued to treat the medium as a source of news, rather than critical comment. Cinema fires and the shifting regulations of local councils regularly reached the columns; so did the presentation of new technical marvels, like the Kinemacolor films presented by Charles Urban and George Albert Smith. Viewing the scenes of Cannes, Nice, Brighton beach, troops, and animals at the Palace Theatre in February 1909, The Times noted a "lack of brilliancy" in the colour, but still found the pictures "more restful to the eye than those of the ordinary bioscope". Most observers, however, were content to praise without quibbles: for the Daily Telegraph, the results were "of the most beautiful and amazingly realistic description". Over ten years after Winter's comments, cinema's value to British journalists still lay in its ability to record, not invent or transform.

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