Paris’s CinémathÃ¨que franÃ§aise was closed. I was left staring at locked doors, an expanse of concrete and a poster for a Jim Carrey retrospective. Lemony Snicket wasn’t part of the plan. It was Lanterna Magica I wanted, not Ace Ventura. Still, I resolved to re-trace my metro ride and find my phantasmagoria. The exhibition – ‘Lanterne magique et film peint – 400 ans de cinéma’ – was fairly humble by the standards of a national film institution. Narrow and dimly-lit, the room presented long wooden cabinets simply filled with slides and magic lantern apparatus spanning nearly four centuries. There were some projections and cornered-off screening rooms but, on the whole, the viewer could leisurely pore over and ponder these illuminated glass artworks: from grotesque 18th-century caricatures to delicate, ethereal paintings of polar expeditions; from sentimental 19th-century stories of childhood illness to playful sequences on a skipping rope; from religious didacticism to diabolical, dancing figures of death. Links from the magic lantern to early cinema were plain to see: a painted Muybridge-like sequence of Loie Fuller echoed the LumiÃ¨re Brothers’ Serpentine Dance (1896); a staged photographic enactment of a lunar voyage mirrored MéliÃ¨s’s A Trip to the Moon (1902). But with a primarily static presentation of the exhibition, it was left to the imagination to bring the majority of the slides to life. It was an enthralling, wonderful experience to spend a few hours trying, but I was eager to experience a full Lanterna Magica show for myself. The magic lantern bug had started to bite.
Luckily, two months later these enchanting slides came to life for real at Birmingham’s Ikon Eastside Gallery, as part of a special event organised by Flatpack Festival. The show demonstrated Flatpack’s continuing fondness for proto-cinema and early cinematic pioneers. Last year, artist Kevin Timmins presented his bicycle-powered phenakistoscope and filmmaker Mark Simon Hewis talked about making a life-size zoetrope. This year, magic lanternist Mike Simkin and his wife, Teresa, brought their Lanterna Magica to Flatpack audiences. There were travelogues with speeding trains and boats sailing across the channel. There were dancing American sailors and Victorian fairies. And there was my particular favourite: a dissolving view slide, which provided a feast of mesmerising, hypnotic optics, water pouring out of an ornate fountain. Like a strange 19th-century prog-rock video, the vision elicited a round of oohs and aahs from the assembled viewers. Happily, audience participation was actively encouraged as the lanternists asked for sound effects and heckles. This re-enactment of a historical show tied in nicely with the festival’s aim to explore not only film itself, but also how people view film. Elsewhere in the programme, there was a particular focus on the 30s’ cinema-going experience with a bus tour of art deco Odeon cinemas and a talk by Juliet Gardiner sharing surveys and diaries of everyday film enthusiasts. The limited technology – slides were mechanised with cranking handles; they accidently appeared upside down and back to front; they became stuck and were freed to a series of cheers – created a refreshing change from the uniformity of modern cinema experiences. There was a real sense of wonder rippling through the Ikon.
It was this same magic that had bitten Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas back in the 1960s. Preceding the magic lantern show, Flatpack hosted a screening of Lanterna Magicka (2009), a documentary exploring the rather fraught making of Douglas’s epic film Comrades (1987), which was released on DVD by the BFI last year. Comrades tells the tale of the 19th-century Tolpuddle martyrs punctuated by magic lantern shows and pre-cinema illusions. (Mike Simkin himself acted as lanternist for the production). Douglas was an avid collector of proto-cinema paraphernalia; the London flat he shared with friend Peter Jeffries soon became an extension of his ‘brain’, filled with books, slides and advertisements relating to Lanterna Magica. Douglas continued to be enchanted by the ‘magic’ of the lantern’s optical effects until the end of his life, taking an escapist delight in the aesthetic and technology of the past. And this escape provided a perfect retreat from Thatcherite Britain – the thinly-disguised allegorical target of Comrades. Douglas’s extraordinary collection is now housed at the University of Exeter. After the screening, directors Sean Martin and Louise Milne explained how thrilling it was to visit and film this archive, the embodiment of ’30 years of tenacity and obsession’.
Another tenacious, obsessive lanternist to make an appearance at this year’s Flatpack was Julien Maire. Maire is a French artist preoccupied by the mechanics of technology and the possibilities of illusion. Unlike Douglas, who sought a refuge in the escapist fantasy of early cinema pioneers, Maire looks at ways to reinvent and expand on the concept of the magic lantern. In his projection-performance, Demi-pas, Maire uses a computer-assisted projector, which he has dismantled and rebuilt in order to project fantastically intricate, multi-layered motorised slides. By adjusting the focus to highlight different layers and by using mechanical devices, Maire creates a live performance within each slide. Demi-pas presents a simple story of one man’s daily routine, but the effects are far from ordinary; real-life water boils and fizzes within the slide as the man cooks his dinner; drawings appear outlined through a mini etch-a-sketch; rain droplets spatter onto the screen one by one.
Flatpack presented work by three different types of people inspired by the magic lantern – a historian, a filmmaker and a performance artist. Those still glass slides I saw in Paris came to life; and they did so in so many different ways and formats. Flatpack put on a magical, joyful spectacle and simultaneously raised illuminating questions about what constitutes a ‘film’ by programming events based around proto-cinema technology. After all, cinema itself is born out of the illusion of rapidly juxtaposing still images, but how many festivals are exploring and celebrating this fact? It is an important technological element of film but also a key to understanding the potential playfulness provided by film. At the beginning of Comrades, an itinerant lanternist knocks on doors to promote his act as ‘a show for the family, a show of comical pictures and colour: endless rollicking laughter’. Here is a description befitting of the Flatpack experience and the possibilities of film itself.