Culture //

Magic Lanterns: Illumination, Innovation, Isolation

Projecting the past, present and future of cinema.

Art by Shania O'Brien.

When one traces cinema’s history, they can come to understand it as a history made up of repetitions, recurrences and cycles. There are the obvious cycles such as genre cycles, or star cycles — the waves of Western films that occurred in the 30s and then were reinvigorated in the 70s, or everyone gushing at the big return of a star after years in obscurity. On another level, there is just the pure repetition of films themselves, with remakes and reboots occurring since the dawn of the medium. Yes, in some ways, the movement of cinema is much like the film reel itself, going round and round and round…

In What is Digital Cinema?, Lev Manovich points out that there are other cycles not as easy to define as those interested in genres or stars, ones in which technology is bound up in the theoretical, and cinema moves backwards and forwards through no conscious decision of its own. Usually, it is brought about by some innovation in the medium of film, and it is through this very innovation, that we find ourselves ironically right back where we started.

The most eloquent of these we’ll call ‘looping cinema’, where cinema’s origins in the zoetrope meant it began as a cyclical form of storytelling. These depicted short little scenes of repeating actions — a couple kissing, an athlete walking, a ball bouncing — operated by the user, via a crank. Beginning with the small scale zoetrope, Edison’s kinetoscope operated in a similar fashion. When technology advanced and greater narrative opportunities were available, film reels eventually had a definitive beginning and end, the film was no longer about the pure attraction of seeing motion, and actually told compelling stories. Through an even greater technological advancement over a century later, the mobile phone and the proliferation of social media facilitated applications like Vine and TikTok. As a result, looping cinema has made a comeback. One might be led to wonder if this series of innovations, which only lead right back to where they started, is an evolution, or devolution.

Where my interests lie, however, is not in the zoetrope and its history of cyclical cinema, but in the magic lantern, a device which highlights the cinema as one not based in spectacle, but in privacy. When one thinks of cinema, they often think of it as a communal activity, with a fixed spatial location, such as the cinema, becoming the converging point in which the movie-going public huddles together to watch a film. Filmmakers and media figures were decrying the closure of cinemas in 2020 as a result of COVID, claiming that movies must be viewed on the big screen. On the contrary, cinema’s origins are much more humble, interpersonal and isolated.

The magic lantern, also known by its Latin name lanterna magica, is a 17th century invention by Christiaan Huygens that uses candlelight to project images painted on glass. These images depicted various scenes, and through the use of handcranks or motors, could be slightly animated — looping like those early forms of cinema. Due to the fact that electricity hadn’t been invented yet, the projection power of the magic lantern was limited, only able to depict what was on the glass within a small confined space. From this, the audience for these magic lantern shows were too confined, and would often be limited to the members of a household. Here we see cinema’s origins as a domestic medium, housebound and limited, or perhaps even savoured, by the people with the most personal connections.

As technology improved and inventors were able to harness the power of electricity, the projecting potential of the magic lantern grew exponentially. From this, the spaces where the magic lantern could be used grew as well, and so did the audiences. They began to be used in a variety of ways, from aiding in theatrical shows and phantasmagorias as special effects, to even telling stories on their own, like when Charles Dickens had his works adapted to this burgeoning medium. The magic lantern, and the seeds of cinema, were now being associated with large crowds and big projection spaces.

Fast forward to now, where television sets are in almost every household, and streaming services have confined film viewing to the home. Cinemas around the world are closing due to their inability to compete with the medium’s return to domesticity. One can see this as a sign of the times, of the failings of film and the monopoly these services have on our entertainment. But it can also be viewed as a natural extension of cinema’s constantly cyclical history. Much like how two people might have huddled around the glowing zoetrope centuries ago, or people sitting close to one another in a living room marvelling at the wonders of the magic lantern, so too do my partner and I curl up together on the couch to watch a movie on our laptop.