Like most areas of study, film history has been largely reduced in the public eye to a pat narrative: Edison filmed a sneeze, silents begat talkies, talkies begat BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA. But as with any popular history, the full story is more elusive. It is estimated that 90% of all films made before 1929, and half of all films before 1950, are lost forever. Those numbers are staggering, especially in today’s world of cyber eternity, but they also mean that any understanding of film history is, by definition, incomplete. Like the fossil record, we’re working with what we have, but the rest can only be extrapolated (for the sake of this analogy, feel free to imagine D. W. Griffith as a racist T. Rex). There is an entire world of film out there that few have any idea of.
Take, for example, the magic lantern, an early ancestor of the motion picture which existed more than two hundred years before Edison. Looking like a literal magic lantern, these devices would project candle or sunlight through an etched glass slide; more advanced models would have multiple lenses, which the projector could switch between to create an effect not unlike animation. Initially used by magicians, the lanterns eventually found their way to the vaudeville circuit, where they would be accompanied by live narration and music. Sadly, the magic lantern would ultimately be replaced by their spiritual offspring, and their 250-year legacy would be relegated to a footnote in film history books.
Fortunately for us, there are still a select few who proudly keep the faith. This weekend marks the 16th annual convention of the Magic Lantern Society of the US and Canada, and tonight, five expert lanterneers bring their craft to the Brattle. On the itinerary are Richard Balzer with “Terrors of the Night”; Dick Moore with “Cirque de Magique”; Terry Borton with “A Sea Show”; Larry Rakow with “Making Something Out of Nothing”; and Mervyn Heard with “How Bill Adams Won the Battle of Waterloo.” You’re not going to get anything like this on Netflix, so come on out and party like it’s 1849!
AN EVENING OF MAGIC LANTERN ENTERTAINMENT
Saturday, July 12, 7:30 PM
Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)
$15 ($10 for Brattle members and children under 12)