Spiral Progression in the Story of Cinema

ALL things in the Universe, whether planet or a grain of seed planted on its surface, whether men and women or the drama or anything else, conform to certain habits of movement common to all. These habits or characteristics have been observed by men who, for the sake of convenience in terminology, call them universal laws.

A part of the inner nature of things is the law of the spiral progression from quality to quantity and from quantity to quality. Then upwards to a higher plane from quality to quantity again, and so on continuously. People are apt to be frightened by such theoretical formulations, but nowhere is this law of progression more clearly or easily demonstrated than in the story of the cinema. A grasp of this law may make a great many things understandable which at first may have seemed obscure.

Let us start at any point in the cinema’s history, say the period 1890-95. As we have already seen, this period is characterized by the intensive research that was going on both in America and in Europe to advance the motion picture peep-show to a point where it might be seen by more than one person at a time, that is, projected upon an enlarged screen. This period, therefore, presents an appearance of a huge quantitative dead level, a wilderness of Kinetoscopes, Mutoscopes and hosts of other ‘scopes.’

Thus we start with quantity on a very low qualitative plane. Here and there, however, are tiny little shoots struggling to force themselves up above the dead level.

Out of and proceeding from quantity, there emerges the new quality, the picture-on-the-screen machine, the cinematograph. The moment this machine makes its appearance, no matter how limited its quantity (there may have been only three at one time in all the world), progression starts again immediately, and the new machine begins to multiply and is spread to the four corners of the earth.

Now we have quantity again, but on a higher plane, and for some little time there appears to be no forward upward drive to the next stage. This is quite understandable because the urge is for expansion, multiplication. The urge for quality is temporarily overwhelmed by the insistent primary need of satisfying millions of people who are content to thrill at pictorial movement and very little else.

But the apparently insatiable wonder and curiosity of the people does eventually reach a point of saturation. Things are now ripe for sprouting a new quality, and again isolated shoots begin to be visible. Until finally the new quality emerges. It is story.

The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was the first of this new growth to appear in America. But as early as 1901, Melies was making truly wonderful pictures about ten minutes in length which deserve to rank as classics amongst early primitives of the screen. An example is the famous Trip to the Moon.

Melies was the proprietor of the Theatre Houdin, a home of magic in Paris, and in a most skillful way he managed to capture the atmosphere of his theatre in every picture he made. His training as an illusionist enabled him to think up all manner of ingenious tricks with the camera, long before its potentialities were discovered by anyone else.

Again, nearly the whole world had to have its surfeit of scenics, trick films, short crude story films, cowboy dramas, mawkish domestic problems, chase comedies before the ground was prepared for the next qualitative stage, a period which started about 1909 and coincides with the emergence of the long feature film, the photo-play and the rise of the stars.

So throughout the history of the cinema, progress has taken place in stages from quantity to higher quality. The higher quality first appears in small doses, and then becomes widespread; then a new still higher quality appears. This process is still continuing. It cannot stop, as will be made clear in the course of this book.

(from ‘The Film Answers Back’ [1939] by E.W. & M.M. ROBSON)