Soon after Auguste and Louis Lumiere devised their pioneering motion-picture system in 1895, the French brothers hired cameramen to travel around the world with their portable invention, the Cinematographe, which served as a camera, film printer, and projector. After arriving in a new city, the cameraman would shoot film on the streets, occasionally processing it and projecting the movie for the locals a few nights later. These views of everyday life were typically single shots of less than a minute, without editing or elaborate preplanning, almost like moving photographs. The movies are popularly thought to be crude artifacts that remind us of how far cinema has advanced, but they also show how subsequent technical developments have in some ways closed down the medium: filmmakers today have greater control over imagery, editing, and sound, but that control is often used in the service of crude audience manipulation rather than real vision. The Lumiere films, by contrast, have the freshness, openness, and expansiveness of someone looking at the world for the first time.

The Film Center is presenting a one-night program of Lumiere movies accompanied by live music and by commentary from French director Bertrand Tavernier and archivist Thierry Fremaux. Some of the films are straight documents–a pompous police parade in Chicago and a wonderfully fluid view of Venice from a moving boat–but there are also a few more theatrical films, such as an amazing example of early hand coloring in which a dancer’s dress keeps changing hue. The program as a whole has a wonderfully synoptic quality, as if the brothers’ project was to record everything, from acrobats in France to an opium den in Indochina. I especially love the views of city streets from Moscow to Lyon to New York: streetcars and pedestrians and carriages enter and exit the image, reminding one of the world outside of the frame, and the street life has a naturalistic randomness so often absent from narrative films today.

Lumiere: The Birth of the Movies will be shown at 8 PM Saturday at the Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson; admission is $6. Call 443-3737 for more.

–Fred Camper