Fire and light: tracing the cinematic desire

Dan Owen

Man has long looked towards light, towards the glowing sun which is the giver of life, for many things – not least for artistic fulfilment. The primordial desire for the moving image which enchants so many of us in theatre houses around the world today is one which can be traced back through our history. Our cave-dwelling ancestors sought entertainment in a distinct form of proto-cinema that involved creating wonderful paintings on their cave walls which, by the light of a flickering fire within the cave, are animated into life. In his awe-inspiring 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, illustrious director Werner Herzog traces “the beginnings of the modern human soul” [1] to the Chauvet cave in the south of France where sophisticated drawings of mammoths, horses and lions hunting caught the imagination of early man.

In these caves there is an uncanny sense of shared consciousness with beings that once seemed so distant to us, twenty thousand years distant to be exact. Light was shown to give life in these caves, providing impressions of reality which aimed to satisfy our cinematic desire. Whilst these cave paintings can hardly be called cinema, they do show a fascination with the moving image that caught human curiosity and was never let go.

Technological restrictions meant that proto-cinema remained just that. The cinematic desire, however, can continue to be traced in our history. The projection of an object reality, that is the outside world, has been focused on by great thinkers such as Aristotle in Ancient Greece and Mozi in Ancient China who both made references to the camera obscura in their writings. This rudimentary ‘camera’ was placed inside a darkened room (where the properties of light can be most practically honed) with a hole in one side which light passed through, creating an inverted image of the object world before the onlooker. As time and technology progressed, an array of inventions was created with the aim of satisfying our cinematic desire; including the zoetrope and daguerreotype to name just two.

 Keith Cohen in Film and Fiction: the Dynamics of Exchange asserts that cinematic desire could only truly be realised “when the two essentials of motion pictures where at hand: the pictures (i.e. the photographic principle) and the motion (i.e. the means of mechanically synthesizing the discrete part of any action).”[2] The gradual perfection of the photographic medium in the nineteenth century gave birth to a cinema which projected movement, albeit within a fixed spatial frame at first, of workers leaving a factory[3], or a train pulling into a station.[4] This documentary style of filmmaking became synonymous with the Lumière brothers (a suitable name deriving from the French word for ‘light’) and led to a wealth of important works rooted in reality, such as Herzog’s film cited here. It was magician Georges Méliès, however, that first understood the creative capacity of cinema. By use of camera tricks and elaborate sets Méliès created a cinema in which time and space were at the hands of the filmmaker. With this came the birth of modern cinema and an unprecedented acceleration in the technology of the medium (sound, colour, widescreen, 3D…) and the symbolic language of film which engrosses us all.


[1] Werner Herzog, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Creative Differences, 2011).

[2] Keith Cohen, Film and Fiction: the Dynamics of Exchange (Yale University Press, 1979).

[3] Lumière, La sortie des usines Lumière (1895).

[4] Lumière, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896).

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