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Savoring a century of 'the cinema'

As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies. Naturally, Sex and Art always took precedence over the cinema. Unfortunately, neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen. --Gore Vidal, Screening History

We know more, much more, about Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson than we know about Julius Caesar and Thomas Jefferson. We know what they looked like when they stood up and walked to a window, how they sounded when they were sad, and how they smiled when something struck them as funny. We know because we have seen them in the movies.

Oh, we have a lot of facts about Jefferson--but we don't know what he was like. In the everyday world we base our judgments of people on countless little clues of bearing, voice and expression; we size them up and render a verdict, based on instinct and experience. That's why people never get hired from resumes, only after interviews, and why people can't really fall in love on the Internet.

The movies allow us to size someone up without ever meeting them. We sit in the dark, privileged voyeurs, watching actors express moments so intimate we rarely experience them in our own lives. If we go to the movies a lot, we can honestly say we've seen Gerard Depardieu or Jessica Lange through more of the critical moments of life than anyone in our own families.

It has been only 100 years since "the cinema" became possible--a century, since the Lumiere brothers in Paris patented the first projector. The invention had been a long time coming, and "moving pictures" were available much earlier in various forms, from flip-cards to the spinning Zeotrope to Edison's Kinetoscope, but the Lumieres invented the cinema as we know it by combing the three crucial elements: A projector behind, an audience in the middle, and a screen in the front. Their 1895 film of a train arriving at a Paris station caused audiences, so it is said, to dive out of the way. If the Lumieres invented cinema, another Frenchman, George Melies, invented "the movies," by using the medium to tell stories. He was the producer of "Voyage to the Moon" (1902), with its famous image of a space ship plunging into the eye of the Man in the Moon.

Although there are all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons, for most people "the movies" will always mean sitting in a darkened theater with a crowd of strangers, watching imaginary stories on the screen. Francois Truffaut said the most moving sight he ever saw in a theater was when he walked up to the front and turned around, and saw all those eyes lifted up to the screen.

The 20th century was the first in which men could fly, could send voices and pictures through the air, could peer into the soul of the atom and glimpse the most distant reaches of the universe. But the invention that most profoundly affected us may have been the movies. They allowed us to escape from our box of space and time, and they allowed us to see the past as it was actually happening.

The movies are still too young for the full impact to have settled in. But imagine what it would be like if movies had existed 500 or 2000 years ago. If we could see moving, talking pictures of Jesus, how would that affect us? Would it enhance his stature in our imagination, or diminish it? If we could see Shakespeare's plays as they were originally performed, would we be moved, or only confused by strange accents and acting customs? What if we could see our great-great-great grandmother as a little girl? Movies are pieces of time, Peter Bogdanovich said. Bogart is dead, but he still walks across the floor of Rick's Place and stops in the middle of a sentence when he sees Ilsa sitting next to the piano player. And he still has the power to move us in that moment. "Casablanca" is an experience that for many of us was as real as anything else that has happened in our lives.

"The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie," Walker Percy wrote in his novel The Moviegoer. "Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship... I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in 'Stagecoach,' and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in 'The Third Man'."

Books and plays can provide us with stories. But the movies uniquely create the impression that we have had an experience. The key word is "we." I have seen a lot of movies by myself, but the experience is not the same as seeing a film with a large group of strangers. The greatest moviegoing experiences of my life--the premieres of "Apocalypse Now" and "Do the Right Thing," both at the Cannes Film Festival--were great not just because of the movies but because nowhere else do more people gather in the same theater to see them. Together, we --a cross-section of humanity--had an experience, and because it mirrored our shared humanity, it was somehow spiritual; we were giving witness.

That is what movies can do at their best. At their worst, they can cheapen us, and make us think less of ourselves. Here I'm not talking about subject matter, because subject matter is neutral: It is possible to make a great, uplifting film about the worst imaginable subject (Spielberg did it with "Schindler's List") or a demeaning film about the most innocent (this would be true of movies that congratulate the audience on its stupidity).

The best movies are usually made because one person, or a small group, have a story they believe must be told, because it strikes a chord in their hearts. It can be a comedy, a musical, a drama, a polemic--the important thing is that they feel it.

The worst movies are made out of calculation, to reach a large audience. There is nothing wrong with a large audience, nothing wrong with making money (some of the best films have been the most profitable), but there is something wrong with the calculation. If the magical elements in a movie--story, director, actors--are assembled for magical reasons--to delight, to move, to astound--then something good often results. But when they are assembled simply as a "package," as a formula to suck in the customers, they are good only if a miracle happens.

Today movies are promoted with skillful advertising and marketing campaigns. A herd mentality encourages us to go to the "hits." This is the wrong approach. We have, after all, only so many hours in a lifetime to see movies. When we see one, it enters into our imagination and occupies space there. When we see movies that enlarge and challenge us, our imaginations are enriched. When we see dumb movies, we have left a little of our better selves behind in the theater.

A century ago "the movies" were invented, and allowed us to empathize with other people in a way never before possible. But like all inventions the cinema is neutral, and we decide whether it makes our lives better or worse. As the second century begins, are choices are about the same as they were in the beginning: We can fly to the moon, or duck to get out of the way of that train.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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