The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures by Paul Fischer book review

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Author Paul Fischer specializes in disappearing filmmakers. His well-made first book, “A Kim Jong-Il Production,” told the bizarre story of two South Korean film industry veterans – a director and a recently divorced actress – who were abducted in the late 1970s and heavily armed to to make films that glorify the Hermitage.

Fischer’s new book also takes place in a foreign realm, Europe and America in the late 19th century, when artists, scientists and engineers ran to figure out how to bring movement to photography. Most of them were hoping to make money on this technological advancement. Along with the American icon Thomas Edison, there were candidates like Eadweard Muybridge and the Lumière brothers and lesser-known characters like Charles-Émile Reynaud and Louis Le Prince. Two years after making what is now credited by many experts as the first film, Le Prince disappeared in France, just as he was preparing to unveil his invention in New York City, his family’s new home. His body was never found.

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The enchanting subtitle of “The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures” promises obsession and murder and gives readers an exciting thriller. Will it move back and forth, like “The Devil in the White City”, between human creative ingenuity and its killing abilities? The prologue ends with a surprising theory – that Edison ordered Le Prince’s kidnapping and death.

But the real strength of the book is not its crime-solving (Fischer ends with a plausible, if not demonstrable, suspicion); that’s the way Fischer, who is also a filmmaker, helps us see how revealing films were at the time. Le Prince, 49, when he disappeared, had studied optics, chemistry, photography and painting, and he used them all as he struggled to create a new art form.

Fischer reconstructs the life of Le Prince, the places that meant the most to him and his English wife, Lizzie, and the controversy over inventions and patents. One of Le Prince’s greatest inspirations came from his work on the then popular attraction of panoramas, huge 360-degree paintings created in a closed circle, enhanced by photography and electricity, and filled with clients staring at representations of historical events. While working in Upper Manhattan and in Lizzie’s hometown of Leeds, Louis figured out how his film camera and projector could capture a “moving panorama” of real life. He foresaw the “movies” as a collective experience, rather than the individual offered by the peep-show machine that Edison announced in 1891.

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Le Prince’s disappearance (and possible murders) cast a melancholy shadow over the book, in part because he acts as such a man, even as he dealt with endless mechanical challenges, money problems, and a U.S. patent process that was both cumbersome and unfair. He was adored by Lizzie (whose lives and worries play an important role in the narrative), their children and his in-laws and warmly respected by colleagues and staff. As one young patent applicant later remembered him, Le Prince was “the finest, most charming and interesting man I have ever met.”

Two other inventors come out less well, though neither of them has a meaningful connection to Le Prince’s death. Muybridge killed a man in 1874, but he was acquitted because of what the California jury called “the law of human nature”; the deceased had had an affair with Muybridge’s wife.

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Edison, on the other hand, was responsible for murdering many of its competitors’ hopes and prospects. Before addressing Edison’s inflated reputation as the film’s father, Fischer describes how the Menlo Park wizard had often been condemned by other inventors for “underhand tactics” and “public dishonesty” in claiming the credit for and ownership of devices that were not his. or not his alone. An already rich and famous Edison is quoted in 1878, “I do not care to earn my fortune as I do to get ahead of the others.”

Fischer shows how Edison and his legal team used disclaimers filed with the patent office to claim innovations, “they had not yet formulated, but intentional develop in the near future. “(In 1910, one of his lawyers estimated that Edison had filed” about 120 reservations, involving no less than 1,500 inventions “in areas ranging from electricity to mining to film.) Fischer describes , how one of Edison’s assistants, WKL Dickson, did more work than Edison on Kinetograph and Kinetoscope (a motion camera and a display device, respectively) and Black Maria, the first film studio in the world.

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That growing leisure class in the late 19th century was, as Fischer writes, “driven to consume, eager for diversion and entertainment.” But Le Prince was steadfast in his quest because he saw movies that provided more than entertainment. His widow remembered her husband’s almost solemn thoughts … about the effects his invention was destined to have.… He believed that movies would prove more potent than diplomacy in bringing nations into closer contact, and that it as peace propaganda was without a rival. ” Such thoughts may seem like a distant dream, one that disappeared when Le Prince did, but they are also reminders of how ingenuity can create new hope along with innovation.

Abby McGanney Nolan often writes about American history and pop culture.

The man who invented movies

A true tale of occupation, murder and the movies

Simon & Schuster. 416 pp. $ 28.99

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