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An L.A. museum pays homage to film’s birthplace (hint: It isn’t L.A.)

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ‘City of Cinema’ explores how film emerged in 19th-century Paris

A still from the film “Exposition Universelle 1900,” Gaumont, 1900. (Document GP Archives, Collection Gaumont/LACMA)
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LOS ANGELES — The sky is midnight blue, the crescent moon an equally vibrant yellow. On a secluded balcony, a lone figure dressed in the black half-mask of a commedia dell’arte Harlequin hides behind a column until a comely woman descends from an upper room, joined moments later by a suitor who serenades her between swigs from a bottle.

What unfolds is a triangular story of conflict, deceit, trickery and seduction every bit as complicated as a modern-day romcom. But this is “Pauvre Pierrot (Poor Peter),” an 1892 film by Émile Reynaud that has earned pride of place — not just as the first animated film ever made but as the first publicly projected moving picture. It’s an honor historically given to the Lumière brothers’ 1895 screening of “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.”

The two-minute “Pauvre Pierrot,” which plays on a reproduction of Reynaud’s signature invention, the Théâtre Optique, makes for a beguiling centerpiece in “City of Cinema: Paris 1850-1907,” a lively and engrossing exhibition on view through July 10 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Organized by LACMA and Musee d’Orsay in Paris (where a slightly different version of the exhibit closed in January), “City of Cinema” illuminates — literally and figuratively — how film began as an extension of 19th-century European ideas and art forms, eventually morphing into the quintessential medium of the 20th century.

Plunging visitors into the spirited street life of Paris, with its poster-covered kiosks, attractive signage and commercial enticements, this modest but keenly focused exhibition aims to locate cinema within an established lexicon of visual spectacles and immersive amusements, including magic shows, circuses, tableaux vivants, department stores and “Expositions Universelles,” Paris’s widely admired world’s fairs. A series of 19 photographs documenting the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 Exposition exemplifies the “persistence of vision” that will allow human eyes to accept 24 frames per second as continuous motion, just as the dots that make up Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting of the unfinished tower bear an uncanny resemblance to the grain texture of celluloid and, further down the road, digital pixels.

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Such are the intuitive connections that curators Leah Lehmbeck, Britt Salvesen and Vanessa R. Schwartz invite viewers to make throughout “City of Cinema,” which draws from painting, sculpture, photography and advertising to create a vivid sensory portrait of the city where cinema was invented — first as disposable software to help market the photography and projection hardware they were selling, then as one attraction among many within Paris’s bustling bazaar of diversions. It wasn’t until 1907, with the construction of the first salle de cinema, or single-purpose movie theater, that film came into its own as a discreet art form. “City of Cinema,” which ends that year, is far more interested in how film exemplified and extended a 19th-century Paris culture — rarefied and raffish, enthralled by movement and color and light — that was in a near-constant state of experimentation and ferment.

Compared with the bloated three-hour behemoths that currently pass for movies, “City of Cinema” unspools at a refreshingly concise clip: Composed of 195 objects, it rewards a wide range of museum-going temperaments. Visitors who choose to follow the show’s organizing principle will begin on the streets of Paris, then move into forms of entertainment including the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900, continuing through artists’ and filmmakers’ studios, and finally entering a screening room where they can take in a 25-minute collection of vintage films by the likes of Georges Méliès, Ferdinand Zecca and the Lumières. Others will want to dip in and out of the exhibit as mood dictates.

The dipping approach can result in moments of serendipitous delight. In a gesture worthy of any polite new neighbor, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, located just a few steps away from LACMA, has lent the exhibit optical toys such as phenakistoscopes and zoetropes — proto-cinematic innovations in the projection and animation of still images. In addition to “Pauvre Pierrot,” Reynaud’s “Autour D’une Cabine (Around the Beach Cabin)” plays on the Théâtre Optique an animation projection system that Reynaud patented in 1888 — which operates on weekends only. Just around the corner from rarely seen films by pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, recent visitors huddled around Charles-Marie Bourton’s oil painting “Diorama of the Camposanto” (1894), seemingly as captivated as viewers were more than a century ago. Illuminated from behind by an electric light, the painting predicted both the sofa-size luminism of Thomas Kinkade and the big-screen visual effects that still dazzle audiences today.

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Amid these felicities run the contradictions and tensions that have animated film since its inception. Among the questions that “City of Cinema” raises are whether film is properly understood as art or commerce, whether it shapes reality or reflects it, whether it’s best suited to capture the human experience or provide frivolous escape from its most mundane realities. (The correct answer, of course, is all of the above.) Included in the 25-minute compendium of silent short films are reenactments of actual events that audiences accepted as truth years before newsreels or documentaries were invented (fake news: It’s the future!). Méliès’s 1902 classic “Le Voyage dans la Lune (A trip to the Moon),” featuring an all-male team of explorers being launched into space by a bevy of leggy soubrettes, indicates that the male gaze has been a foundational and particularly stubborn fact of cinematic life.

Similarly, in sections of “City of Cinema” devoted to “ethnographic” and travelogue films of the era, the dynamics of representation — who wields the camera, what bodies are erased or objectified or exociticized — look distressingly familiar. And we, the spectators, aren’t left off the hook. One of the curators’ goals for the exhibition is to chronicle how a new audience was formed alongside a burgeoning medium: how 19th-century viewers, primed by the visual cacophony of their times, reflexively accepted movies — as art, entertainment or both — and instinctively assumed their role in the liminal psychic space between passivity and engagement.

“People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return of the dark,” Thomas Mann wrote in “The Magic Mountain” in 1924, “so that they could again watch things, whose time had passed, come to pass again, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.” Today, of course, spectatorship has taken on new contours, as social media has empowered consumers to become makers and exhibitors in their own right. Some of the most telling moments in “City of Cinema” are fleeting ones, when passersby being photographed on Paris streets catch the camera’s eye and look straight back into it. It will take 100 more years, but a power shift has already begun.

City of Cinema: Paris 1850-1907, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through July 10. lacma.org/art/exhibition/city-cinema-paris-1850-1907

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