Julie Hassett explores how comedy, fantasy and horror have changed over the years, and asks just what modern audiences would make of some of the first films.
Crammed into a dark theatre, a projector hisses and cranks. A flickering image appears on the screen ahead – but wait a second, this image is moving! A train is arriving at a station; workers are leaving a factory; a baby is being fed by its parents on a hot summer’s day. Little do the people within the theatre realise, they are witnessing the birth of a phenomenon that will soon foster a world of endless possibilities!
It’s difficult to credit how far we’ve come in the world of cinema since the Lumiére brothers first unveiled their masterpieces in France in 1895. Yet, despite little more than one hundred years having passed, cinema has evolved into something almost unrecognisable –and its audience is no exception. Our expectations have grown with every new film to hit our screens, and each and every time we clamber into a stuffy, dark cinema or gather in front of a glaring computer screen we expect intricate car chases, apes ruling the world or human beings taking to the stars – the most the first audiences would have hoped for was to hear an actor speak! It all just goes to show: what impressed cinema-goers before simply wouldn’t cut it now.
Let’s take comedic cinema as an example. Everyone knows the name “Charlie Chaplin” but how many people have sat through his films? Many of us simply find his over-exaggerated antics and lack of spoken word, dare I say, boring. But can we really judge? Modern comedy is going through a rough time. It’s a genre where tried techniques are growing stale fast – we crave variety. If we take a second to look back on what made Chaplin’s comedy so appealing, we might learn something. Simple, goofy and over-the-top actions, like over-dramatic reactions to the everyday, sufficed to bring a smile to viewers’ faces. Presented with a similar style today, how would we, as an audience, react? Probably: “Where’s the laughing track to remind us to laugh?!”
Then, there are horror and thriller films: works now overflowing with blood and gore and death. In the earlier days, filmmakers didn’t have to go to such extremes to spook their audiences. Take Hitchcock’s Psycho as an example. This film fit under the horror/slasher genre and ensured viewers would never shower in peace ever again. However, if the same film was released today, it would be unrecognisable. Glimpses of the gangly Mrs Bates would become gruesome jumps-scares; the infamous shower scene would be bloodier and more graphic. The mere implication of horror no longer suffices our expectations: spectators need to be shocked and disgusted to secure the same response Hitchcock did only fifty-six years ago.
But are we taking our admiration for violence so far that this disgust could become unbearable to deal with? When do we reach a point where cinema takes a step too far? I shudder to think what early filmmakers would make of contemporary gore!
Fantasy film is also immensely different: what one film can achieve today would seem an impossible dream to the earliest filmmakers. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. For example, Méliés’ Trip to The Moon: the sequences shown are all clearly sets, miniatures and tricks of the camera – simple but effective uses of the technology at hand. However, when faced with the artistic CGI in the likes of The Martian, older fantasy films simply wouldn’t do today. This calls into question: what has become of our imagination? Do us modern viewers rely so heavily on special effects that we are unable to immerse ourselves in weird and wonderful worlds without them?
So what does all this say about the future of cinema? It’s fascinating to think that merely putting a camera in a certain position and filming whatever was in front of it was enough to impress the audiences of a late 1800s cinema-goers and how we now demand blood, gore and CGI to impress us. Techniques of earlier filmmakers are now so clichéd that we roll our eyes if they appear on screens. But now, taking into account how far cinema has come, imagine where we’ll be in one hundred years’ time! Cinema theatres could become the middle-ground for holographic films. Audiences may no longer be expected to sit and observe, but be allowed to move through the action. Whatever the future, one thing will never change: change.