On the Movie
One of the things I’m glad to have learned in high school physics was the explanation of why movies “move.” The fact is that those projected pictures don’t really move at all.
But, if your eye sees a number of still pictures in rapid sequence, and each one is only slightly different from the preceding one, your brain somehow “blends” them together, creating the illusion of a single picture that is moving. This peculiarity is called “Persistence of Vision.” It is really a defect in our optical apparatus, making us unable to process images separately, if they appear for too short a time. But in this case, it’s a convenient defect.
Movies have now existed for more than a century. But for the first 30 years, they were all “silent.” This has always seemed strange to me, because sound recording actually pre-dated movies by about 20 years. But things don’t always happen as you expect they should. Thomas Edison himself, when he wrote down all the things he thought his new “phonograph” might be used for, didn’t even put “entertainment” on the list!
I’ve also been puzzled by the fact that, in the whole long era of silent movies, apparently nobody ever thought of inserting “subtitles,” at the bottom of the screen, the way we now still often do in translating foreign-language films. Instead, for every piece of dialogue, they had to interrupt the action, and insert the text on an otherwise blank screen.
I was born in 1933, when “talkies” were still only about five years old, and “Technicolor” did not begin to appear in major movies until five years later. “Animation” had been progressing for many years, but I myself came along just in time for the first movie I was taken to see (at age 5) to be the world’s first full-length film to have sound, color, and animation. It was, of course, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Movies were a big part of my childhood in Washington, D.C., where – every Saturday – having attended Sabbath synagogue services in the morning, I would walk up to the Sheridan Theater on Georgia Avenue and pay my 17 cents to see whatever was showing. It was always a single feature, and you had no choice. (Once, my mother, wanting to find out what was playing, called and asked, “What are you featuring this week? There was a pause, and then the answer came back, “Two cans of sardines for 15 cents.” There also happened to be a Sheridan Delicatessen – and she had dialed the wrong Sheridan!)
That is a true story, which became part of our family lore. But, speaking of truth, there is another somewhat mystifying aspect of movies, which also applies to most other forms of drama. How can we enjoy and somehow believe what we know isn’t true? How can we accept stories, which we know are fictitious, being presented by people whom we know are only “actors” – especially when we may already have seen the same person pretending to be entirely different people in other movies?
Once again, the experts – this time the psychologists – have an answer for us. They call this phenomenon “Suspension of disbelief.” Some part of our brain is ready to go along with what some other part knows can’t be factual, as long as there seems to be no real danger in the situation. We can even let the magician saw a woman in half, if we’re confident that “It’s all part of the act.”
But there is one other thing which sets the movies apart from all other forms of forms of art and business – and that is the enormous scale upon which any major production operates. Never before in history has any single creative endeavor involved so many people with so many different talents, plus so much investment of time, money, and effort. I myself was once lucky enough to get a small glimpse of this process when, as a teenager, I was, among some scores of boys from several London schools, fortunate enough to be an extra for a few days in a production of the British film The Browning Version, which was set in an English public school.
That whole experience was a revelation to me. I saw how much labor – and how much fakery – often went into the shooting of a single scene. From then on, I understood why Hollywood has for many years been called “The Dream Factory.”