- The story of film begins around a fire, in darkness. Gathered around this fire are primates of a certain species, our ancestors, an animal distinguished by a peculiar ability to recognize patterns.
There is movement in the fire: embers glow and crawl on charcoal. Fire looks like nothing else. It generates light in darkness. It moves. It is alive.
The surrounding forest is dark. Is it the same forest our ancestors know by day? They can’t be sure. At night it is another place, perhaps no place at all. The abode of the dead, of gods and demons and that which walks without a face. It is the self turned inside out. Without form, it is that on which our ancestors project the patterns their interestingly mutated brains generate.
This patterning-reading mutation is crucial to the survival of a species that must ceaselessly hunt, ceaselessly gather. One plant is good to eat; it grows in summer in these lowlands. But if you eat its seedpods, you sicken and die. The big, slow-moving river-animal can be surprised and killed, here in these shallows, but will escape in deeper water.
This function is already so central, in our ancestors, that they discover the outlines of the water-animal in clouds. They see the faces of wolves and of their own dead in the flames. They are already capable of symbolic thought. Spoken language is long since a fact for them but written language has not yet evolved. They scribe crisscross patterns on approximately rectangular bits of ocher, currently the world’s oldest known human art.
They crouch, watching the fire, watching its constant, unpredictable movements, and someone is telling a story. In the watching of the fire and the telling of the tale lie the beginning of what we still call film.
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