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09.11.2021 Feature Article

America's Hay Days

America's Hay Days
09.11.2021 LISTEN

America laughs at themselves now, but years back, this was a very crucial lifesaving national move. The matter regards crime and the curbing thereof. The matter, today, specifically regards Hollywood and the further deterioration it was capable of causing to the then increasingly crime-dense society, and the route of country-saving it rather endeavoured itself to take. In today’s episode, we are watching movies

In 1915, the US Supreme Court had ruled in the landmark case of Mutual Film Corp v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that the doctrine of free speech did not extend to motion pictures. Motion pictures, a.k.a. movies although then, still at an incipient age, was quite the influential medium of communication—as influential as it is now. And wielding such influence, these art forms could not go about communicating just about anything they wanted under the guise of free speech.

What followed this judicial precedent was strides by various states within the country to regulate, as much as possible, the things this new age medium could communicate to the general public—in the form as supposedly innocuous as entertainment. Because even in frivolity, society finds seriousness ensuing. Crime accepted on TV by the viewing populace is crime accepted by society in its very real existence. This fact is only at best semi-untrue, depending not on the inherent untruth of the fact itself, but where society finds itself. We will delve more into this later.

Moving on: states within the US enacted their own individual laws to regulate the movie industry. But with each state having for itself a distinct body of rules regulating cinema, what ensued was an inconsistency of regulations for an otherwise national phenomenon—movies. There had to be an across-board, standard set of rules to regulate the movie industry. Hence the Hay Days—the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code—after its president, Will H. Hays.

We, the Story Tellers…
Having engaged in the art of living for so long—longer than can be accurately accounted for, humankind have morphed into storytellers. It makes perfect sense, since living has since time immemorial entailed communication. And in communicating, humankind have been, with each passing moment of telling, adding to the stock of information—stories in their warehouse. Stories being the fulfilment of a human need for ‘knowing’, the science of ‘telling’ has in itself, been an art form since time began. Arguably, it is this need for this art form, that led certain great writers of the past, trying to find the meaning of life as they knew it, to create many and varied creation stories, mythologies, folklore around their creator—God, some of which arguably form the basis of the many religions we have today. This is not a disparaging comment. I daresay it is heroic rather—to yearn so much to know that humankind attempts knowing the creator Him/Herself, attempts demystifying the creator, and do so by forming stories that trap Him/Her in a definite form—a form knowing, a form telling.

So then in fulfilment of this need to ‘tell’ and ‘know’ the movie industry, was very gradually formed—sometimes intentionally, other times by complete accident.

Take any book by the edge, or even this newspaper you are reading, release the edge page by page rapidly, see the pages flip open in quick succession, and witness as the words and pictures in this newspaper or book you are holding move—mimicking actual movement. There you have it a motion picture, a.k.a. a moving picture, a.k.a. a movie, written and directed by you. It is perhaps not the best demonstration of the notion of motion pictures, but motion still.

This is a phenomenon mostly attributed to the 19th century British scholar, Peter Mark Roget, a phenomenon described as the ‘persistence of vision.’ Persistence of vision is that which keeps the viewer from seeing those blank or black spaces, or breaks existing between those successive images made to move past in awfully quick paces. Whether it is the human brain that tricks the eye into believing; or the eye, the brain; or as some conclude, both, this phenomenon is, at the end of the day, made possible—courtesy our sensory organs.

Science meets Art, meets Industry
The discovery of this science saw the development of the movie industry. With the art of photography having been developed somewhere early 19th century, humankind had already witnessed and had in their stock of human experiences, the magic of life trapped in still images—a feat that took centuries of experiments to attain. But with this feat already mind-blowing, yet attained and normalised by the insatiable humankind, human beings yearned for more magic. So then, experimentations began to determine if life as we knew it—life which wasn’t still but moved, could be replicated—trapped on film and made to live on even as movement ceased, and persons trapped within it were dead and gone. This was crazy thinking—but science had had its numerous successes with attaining the ‘impossible’, so experiments on this notion were endless.

Centuries before the invention of photography and the consequent thirst for ‘videography’, human beings, in their perception of nature, had observed, time and time again, that sometimes otherwise still objects are able to don the appearance of movements. This may be due to a number of reasons—reasons of which they undertook to find reason why—such as when these objects are viewed in successive motion, or sometimes by the nature of the objects themselves. This knowledge being already in our grasp, the notion of making a still photographed object move, was not perceived as far-fetched for nature had on its own accord in many instances proved this to be possible.

In the course of the 19th century, the yearn to have more—to have these still images successfully invented move were driving inventors across the globe. By the mid-to-late 19th century, what has come to be termed ‘pre-film animation devices’ were being invented as a result of this thirst. Objects such as the Zoetrope, an object with slits all around it with successive images bearing slight differences painted within it was invented. A spin of this object and a peering through of these slits creates an illusion of the pictures painted within it moving meaningfully.

The Writing’s on the Wall
In the late 19th century, attempts were made to replicate the science and art of these pre-film devices—on much bigger platforms. In 1888, a certain French inventor and artist, Louise le Prince registered the first patent for a device that could film motion. It featured le Prince and members of his family—four people in all—walking frantically in a garden. The runtime of the image filmed was less than two seconds—but it was revolutionary.

There was no story to it, no art to it—just the science of capturing the act of walking alone, that was art. Go and watch that lovely 1.66 second-film, now dubbed the ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’—and see for yourself how far mankind has come.

One year later, the king of ruthless capitalism, Thomas Edison—the pseudo-inventor, had his people invent the Kinetoscope. How best do I describe a Kinetoscope? It was basically a bulky device built on this same persistence of vision concept, made for singular viewing at a time. So, there you had it, then, a long, long line of people paying and waiting to see a very, very short movie (the longest being just sixteen seconds) and doing so one at a time—each peering through a peephole when it was their turn. Sometimes, these movies featured just a man standing shirtless, flexing his muscles; other times it was women engaged in a pillow fight. There were no stories to them, just the act of movement trapped. I think it was during this time that the rule of ‘spoiler alert’ was created. Because, I bet, one did not dare, after watching this movie, come out blabbering about it, spoiling it for the rest of the people in line waiting to see it.

It reminds me of a story my mother told me of her elder sister. She would, I was told, invite her classmate to come “watch a TV my parents have bought.” So, you had these classmates of my mother’s sister’s in line, one by one, having their turn through a keyhole, at the majestic TV, then a novelty. There was never a TV actually. But these are children we are talking about… it must have been just the curtain moving against the window they saw. But illusion is entertainment. So, TV or no TV, from the keyhole, with the help of an adventurous brain, that was a TV they were watching.

Magic on the Wall
I am almost deviating from the topic at hand, but I cannot help but proceed still on this road we are on—the history of film.

Very soon the one-person viewing Kinetoscope wasn’t just enough—the public had grown tired of the invention. They wanted more.

Having witnessed as Edison raked in thousands and thousands of dollars from the Kinetoscope, inventors around the globe were working tirelessly to further advance film—to get their share of the patent-driven American dollars. Further advancement came from France—from the Lumiere brothers, with their invention that saw to the projection of film for audience-viewing as opposed to the singular-viewing Kinetoscope. No longer were movies to be viewed one person at a time with the invention of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematograph—literally meaning ‘writing with movement’. And writing with movement they did, as they screened their first projected movies (ten short films in all) in 1895 in front of an enthusiastic, cinema-virgin audience. The first of the bunch was dubbed ‘Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station’. Go watch it—powerful movie. It features a moving train, arriving at a station—mind-blowing, eh?

You should have been there as these people, it is rumoured, having had their only experience with moving pictures through a tiny peephole, frantically left their seats, running for their dear lives as this moving train approached them—the camera. Just a rumour.

Few years later, one American Woodville Latham, having in fact succeeded in the first projected film, even before the Lumiere Brothers, developed a technology that could project even longer films—longer than those showed by the Brothers.

Few years later—early 20th century, France’s George Melies, a former stage magician, was, following from a happy accident, adding pizzazz to motion pictures with his editing tricks and brilliant special effects. Alice Guy-Blache, also of France, came into the movies picture adding colour to the otherwise black and white imageries of cinema. America’s Edwin S. Porter also came into the movies scene, further advancing editing, and pioneering camera movement and close-up shots.

All further advanced what motion pictures could be—the level of entertainment they could attain. And as for the latter (Porter), he pioneered the era of cinema as a tool for storytelling—not just a medium for the flashing of moving images.

Now that strides had been made getting still images to move, and moving pictures to move on large screens, and motion pictures projected on large screens to move meaningfully—actually advancing storytelling, there was still something missing. Sound.

If Walls Could Talk
The development of motion pictures did not see, in its early days, an accompanying development of synchronised sound—sounds that were captured alongside those images captured. During the early days of theatre, as discussed above, these inventors/filmmakers had to employ orchestras to play live music alongside these images showed to the public in theatres, or sometimes employ the use of title cards—some early form of subtitles, if you will—for audience’s edification.

Attempts to remedy this problem were made by inventors across the globe. W.K.L Dickson, Edison’s secret fairy, invented the Kinetophone, as an attempt at synchronising moving pictures with sound. This was, unlike the Kinetoscope, an unsuccessful attempt.

The phonograph, invented in the late-19th century even before the era of moving pictures, was the closest we seemed to be able to get in pairing moving pictures with sound. But this object, although utilised in the early days of cinema, failed at actual synchronisation.

The only way around this seemed to be: sound had to be trapped the same way images, photography were trapped. Sound had to be recorded phonographically. Sound-on-film, it was called. This was when sound was transformed into light waves and recorded on film as done images in photography. Inventors set out to get this theory down to practice. In 1910, one of Edison’s other genies, Eugene Lauste successfully recorded sound phonographically.

In 1919, three German inventors came together to develop and patent what was dubbed the ‘Tri-Ergon’ process, a system to enable the successful recording of sound on film. It was not a perfect system. For one, there was the issue of amplification. Yes, devices created from this system could record sound phonographically, but could the entire audience of movie-goers hear these sounds? No.

In 1922, an American inventor Lee de Forest, having attempted working on developing sound-on-film technology for years, building on the Tri-Ergon process finally developed his own sound-on-film technology, solving, specifically, the problem of amplification. From the chain of events narrated thus far, you already know that during the early days of the movie industry, the inventor was automatically the writer, cameraman, and director of their own movies. So, de Forest established his movie production company, churning out what he called ‘Phonofilms’, moving pictures that could actually talk, sing, make sounds.

Further strides were made on the sound-on-film technology by inventors. In 1926, the AT&T, for one, invented its own device, the Vitaphone, improving on the recording time of de Forest’s device.

Soon, the heavily infiltrated silent film industry, was slowly but surely, churning out movies with sounds. Moving pictures, i.e., movies were becoming talking pictures—talkies. Warner Bros was one of the first studios to show these sound-on-film movies in their theatres. It started off with a film called Don Juan. But before the movie began, a short message from our guy, Will Hays, the man after whom today’s piece is named, was played to the audience. The real blockbuster was not in the movie being shown but in the audience themselves—minds were utterly blown. An image captured on film was actually speaking to them. That must be sorcery!

You know what, we have to be able to strip ourselves off the present to actually get a full grasp of the bewilderment the people of the past experienced with the unveiling of each of these new technologies. Just imagine, right now as we sit, should there be invented a device that enables us, with the press of a button, to be transported—not by plane nor vehicle—to another city. What a ridiculous thought! You can only imagine the sheer awe that such an invention would be met with. That’s precisely how mind-boggling these technologies we take for granted today, were to the people of the past.

The Hay Days
Just look at this very scientific, very industrious journey undertaken by the brilliant people of centuries past, one which has culminated in the invention of movies as we know it. But human beings worldwide being now used to the ‘science’ behind it, and viewing these devices as part of nature—no longer intrigued by the ‘how’ but by the ‘what are you showing me’, focus in the late 20th century to this 21st century has shifted from awe (awe at the science of filmmaking) to the art of filmmaking (to its storytelling ability).

The audience of centuries past took whatever visuals and sounds that were presented them as entertainment in their own right. Because the inventions, themselves, being novel were the main centre of attraction. No recourse was made, during the early days of film, to storytelling. That would be asking too much. The movie industry transformed from an avenue of technological wonder to just another medium of storytelling.

And if a thing is going to be a medium of storytelling, of communication, for the propagation of ideas, etc., to the general public, such a thing must do so with some level of duty of care. Because experience shows us that slowly but surely stories are concretised into culture. Creators could not create stories and show them to the general public without some sort of accountability, especially at a time, in America’s case, for instance, when development was arguably still a work-in-progress, and the rising of capitalism with its ensuing increasing gap between the rich and the poor was causing an ever-increasing rise in crime. Storytellers in their feeding of the public consciousness had to be held to some level of accountability. Because what is freedom of speech to society when with our individual ‘free speeches’ we have caused a deterioration to society? What is freedom of speech when that which is being propagated is a feeding of the public consciousness with devious acts, romanticising crime, causing a normalisation of the obscene, and an overall deterioration of public consciousness?

America makes fun of their Hay Days now—because admittedly these codes and enactors had flaws of their own. But it can be argued very strongly that it was a necessary step towards national growth and societal advancement.

It is pretty weird the narrative road we have taken in this week’s article, but the plan is to make all this make sense next week—and we will do exactly that by watching movies.

[Published in the Business & Financial Times (B&FT) - 4th November 2021]

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