What and When is Cinema? — Raise a Glass to the Phénakistoscope

7 February 2020

Dizzy yet?

The bare-bones definition of cinema is the simulation of movement, one which tricks the eye and mind into undergoing a true, immersive encounter. A brief encounter, but one which can worm its way into you and resonate, as Lars Von Trier put it, “like a stone in your shoe.” Whenever I go to the movies, I close my eyes just before it all begins, as if entering a hallucinatory state. It’s a different realm. If art is nature interpreted by humans and then spat back out, cinema is distinct from the other media. It is the union of science and art, and best of all, it’s preservable. A miracle of chemistry that can literally pickle dreams.

But there is a difference between ‘cinema’ as an industry, process, place, technology, area of study, personal experience, and art form, which makes it tricky to pick a birthday. Even those who cling to the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe as the true naissance of cinema bicker over the exact date: Was it in March, or the 28th of December, when their shorts were first exhibited to a paying audience? Further, if Edison’s Kinetoscope isn’t cinema because it could only be used through a peephole, then is a newspaper no longer a newspaper when viewed on microfilm, a lymphocyte no longer a lymphocyte when viewed through a microscope? So, you see, we end up in a strange sort of “Schrodinger’s cinema” situation.

Martin Scorsese lobbed yet another wrench into the works with a recent op-ed in The New York Times, in which he declared that Marvel movies are not cinema. His rationale was that films coming out of the Marvel pipeline don’t take risks, and are mere products of a formulaic process. But does that make them not cinema, or just bad cinema? Choosing a definition, and a specific date/invention that started it all, seems as possible as declaring the precise moment when prehistoric tetrapods crawled out of the water. But for the sake of this essay, let’s try. Or, in the words of Philip Roth, “How far back must you go to discover the beginning of trouble?”

The prevailing idea is that cinema was a technological invention, arising around the 1890s. In Film History: An Introduction, Bordwell and Thompson make a clear delineation: “the cinema was invented in the 1890s in the wake of the industrial revolution… a technological device that became the basis of a large industry” (p. 3). They detail the technological requirements for the birth of motion pictures: first, the knowledge that slightly different images in rapid succession (16 fps, roughly) could simulate motion. Though Bordwell and Thompson acknowledge that “similar principles were later used in films,” they stipulate that “in [optical] toys, the same action was repeated over and over.” It also had to be possible to project these images, to “use photography to make successive pictures” on a clear/flexible base (pointing to Eastman’s 1888 invention of motion picture stock) and an intermittent mechanism for cameras and projectors.

Cinema, as I understand it, began with Plateau’s phénakistoscope and Stampfer’s stroboscopic disk, both invented in late 1832. To say that these inventions of early cinema are not cinema is like saying that Proto-Slavic is not a real language because it morphed into modern slavic languages and is no longer spoken, or my ancestors aren’t people just because they’re dead. Early techniques of projection like shadow puppetry, camera obscura, or magic lantern shows are theater, because though they could be used to create the illusion of moving images, they are ephemeral and irreproducible. One could also argue that the zoetrope (invented by William Ensign Lincoln around 1865, although that’s disputed) would be a more accurate place to start, as the phénakistoscope could only be viewed by one person at a time.

However, cinema as a social experience began with the zoetrope, but cinema as an art form did not. (Besides, in the age of streaming, the communal aspect of cinema is growing rarer and rarer, so the social side is a bit of a flimsy criterion to go by.) The thaumatrope (invented by John Ayrton Paris in 1824) is a predecessor: it uses the persistence of images on the eye to create the impression of a composite image, not of movement.

The phénakistoscope might not seem like much compared to the wonders that followed, all of cinema’s incarnations — Muybridge’s cabinet cards, Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, Potemkin and so on — and to say that a flipbook is cinema seems absurd. But the revelation that the eye could be lied to in this way meant everything. Optical toys were the first indication of what was possible: overlaying a new sensorial reality over our own, and in such a way that could be experienced again and again and still maintain its own shape. In truth, cinema history is a hodge-podge of histories that have unfolded in conjunction, and at times in conflict, with one another. The public screening. The business. The development of more and more audacious technologies. The use of moving pictures to tell stories. These disparate and interweaving stories were all made possible by the phénakistoscope: the crude granddaddy of the modern moving image.


Roth, Philip. “Epstein.” The Paris Review, Issue 19, Summer 1958, https://www.theparisreview.org/fiction/4804/epstein-philip-roth.

Scorsese, Martin. “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.” The New York Times, 4 November 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film history: An introduction. Vol. 205. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

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