Book Review: “The Man Who Invented Cinema”, by Paul Fischer

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CINEMA: A true story of obsession, murder and cinema, by Paul Fischer

The moving picture may have many fathers, but full custody of the credit, more or less, always went to Thomas Edison. And why not? He held the patents and fit the myth: a crumpled American genius whose phonograph and incandescent light bulb had already fundamentally changed the course of history. Paul Fischer isn’t the first to call this presumption a lie, but he mounts a passionate and detailed defense of Louis Le Prince, the mutton-chomped Frenchman at the heart of “The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession.” , Murder, and the Movies”, as the true ancestor of cinema. And as the subtitle breathlessly suggests, there will be blood – “a ghost story, a family saga and an unsolved mystery” – rolled out with all the cliffhangers and red herrings of scripted melodrama. .

As with most things, reality is both messier and more academic, and ultimately sadder. But “Man” begins quite cinematically with just one striking image: a still of what is commonly referred to as the “Roundhay Garden Scene”, taken on the sparse autumn lawn of a private home in Leeds, England, on the 14th October 1888. Several figures in Victorian dress stand scattered, their faces blurred with movement; a speckled participant is caught in the act of hijacking, his tails flaring behind him. All four were friends or relatives of the man behind the camera, The Prince, and the surviving clip, a rare artifact lasting less than two seconds, is now widely credited as the earliest known motion picture.

“A tall, soft-spoken gentleman” with a fine-boned face and flowery facial hair, The Prince trained as a chemist in his native France and worked itinerant throughout his life as a teacher. , potter, painter and industrial designer. His raison d’etre, however, was invention – specifically the creation of a device he called a “taker” or “receiver” of moving photographs. The mechanics were rudimentary (an early single apparatus, made of Honduran mahogany, weighed nearly 40 pounds), but its limitless potential loomed excitingly, writes Fischer: “Events which previously could only be observed only once would be available to be replayed that many times. as desired. Something that had happened on one side of the planet would be visible, only a few days late, to an audience on the other side of the world. The past would become available for the future. The dead moved, walked, danced and laughed, whenever you wanted to see them do all those things again. … No human experience, from the most benign to the most momentous, would again need to be lost to history.

And how, of course. But The Prince wouldn’t be there to witness it, or even earn a penny from the breakthrough that cost him almost everything he had in equity, materials he could ill afford, and long and painful absences from his family. Less than two years later, at the age of 56, he boards a train from Dijon to Paris and is never seen again. His disappearance officially remains unsolved, although his English-born wife, Lizzie Whitley, had a working theory: he had unraveled the mystery of a machine Edison wanted for himself and was killed for it.

In the more than 300 pages that follow, Fischer, a UK-based producer and film scholar, whose latest book, “A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise ‘to Power’, landed on several year-end best non-fiction lists, lays out its case meticulously and with plenty of footnotes, though it strives to entertain. These two aims do not always coincide, especially when its more poetic flights collide with the granular realities of R&D. (Everything you might not know about silver halides and photon activation, you will learn.) Unsurprisingly, human elements, not halides, register the most strongly. Like the love story between the Princes, which looked like a real romance and a surprisingly fair marriage for the time: Lizzie was a pretty, intellectually curious engineer girl from Yorkshire who came to Paris at 20 to study with the famous sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, Rodin’s mentor; Louis was a sophisticated friend of his brother.

They married and settled in Leeds, where Louis joined the Whitley family foundry as a draftsman and overseas sales agent, although trading was never his forte. (“Trading held no fascination for him – in fact, he would prove time and time again in life that he was a rather poor businessman when forced to try his hand at it.”) The first of six children followed, and a harrowing interlude in the Franco-Prussian War, but the prospect of a comfortable if mundane continental life would be sidetracked, naturally, by America’s siren song.

It was after the couple’s migration to New York in 1881 that Le Prince began to experiment in earnest, a progression that did not go unnoticed by his peers. The increasingly stuck-up Edison made a point of knowing what the most successful amateurs like The Prince were up to, and his Goliath-like villainy makes it easy to spin the mustache here — along with his lawyers, his fame, and his vast resources he was effectively able to bombard the U.S. patent office with preemptive claims, and had no small sway over the court system – although his passion for the actual product proved remarkably limited. His real interests, it seemed, lay in his own exaggerated sense of eminent domain; if it was called an American innovation, Edison reasoned, it should by right be his.

In fact, several men (if women ever entered the equation, it’s not recorded here) contributed far more to the cause than the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park, and Fischer gives just because of the many small-fish prospectors toiling away in DIY labs, their efforts are a kind of beehive of industrial-age hope and innovation. These players join a tapestry of bold names, some of whom – photography pioneer Louis Daguerre, lying California tycoon Leland Stanford – directly encountered The Prince during his lifetime, Zelig-style. Others run parallel or cross by mere coincidence, from the Lumière brothers and George Eastman to Aaron Burr, who lived briefly in the same 18th-century mansion in Washington Heights where the Le Princes settled for several years. (It’s also where Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote parts of “Hamilton,” though the focus of the book doesn’t extend that far.)

Thanks to historical records, Fischer can confidently say whether a particular day in 1883 was cold and clear or mild with an east wind. But when the Le Princes lose a son as a toddler and another child later in more obscure circumstances, the page, so to speak, goes blank. Who knows how deeply it affected the couple’s psyche, their work habits, their marriage? Short of an incredibly rich paper trail, no conscientious biographer can claim to be sure, and it’s a danger Fischer must navigate: the editorial line between strictly available truths and bringing the dead back to life. His eloquent, sometimes exciting style of writing goes a long way when he doesn’t stray into the weeds of celluloid. And the final pages offer, if not harsh conclusions, a bittersweet postscript and even genuine catharsis – too late for The Prince, perhaps, but a kind of justice nonetheless.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CINEMA: A True Story of Obsession, Murder and Cinema, by Paul Fischer | 392 pages | Simon & Schuster | $28

Leah Greenblatt is general reviewer at Entertainment Weekly.

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