Something about the peril of oncoming vehicles seems to capture how startling motion pictures were when they first appeared. By the early 1890s, of course, people were familiar with still photographs and even with images moving across a flat screen: Huge painted panoramas, unscrolling from one side of a stage to another, gave theater audiences the impression they were seeing a landscape move past a train window. But when films came along, they looked entirely new; they had an immediacy combined with an immateriality that seemed uncanny and perhaps a little disorienting. The novelty of these earliest films, most of which simply offered glimpses of the real world in motion, lasted for about a decade. By 1907, more fictional narratives than documentary scenes were being shot; and by 1915, Charlie Chaplin was using movies to generate a new kind of star power. A show this spring at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., recalledthe astonishment that turn-of-the-century films provoked: The show brought together 60 of these early films—vast natural landscapes, views of city streets, cozy domestic scenes, vaudeville turns and dance numbers—and offered a portrait of the medium in its infancy.
Click here to read a slide-show essay on early films.