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Up, Up, and Away

November 11, 2013

A little traveling music, please.

While reading a review of Falling Upwards: How We Took To the Air, Richard Holmes history of ballooning in the 18th and 19th centuries, a white rabbit coursed through my mind and slid down a black hole deep into my subconscious. I quickly gave chase. I’m not quite sure what happened next, that’s why I’m telling you all this. Perhaps you might understand better, help me get a handle on the neuro/illogical stuff that goes on down there.

I began to spark on the story I was in the midst of reading; two French brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, initiated the first hot air balloon flights in Paris in 1783. From then on balloonists, untethered, viewed our world anew, some early daredevils even soaring to heights of 10,000 feet.

Then, in 1858, the great French photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) became the first person to take aerial photographs, allowing a greater number of people to view the world anew. And who knows what happened on a molecular, neurological, phenomenological  level to our minds once we were able to escape the pull of gravity both physically and by proxy through the photographic image.

Jumping ahead to 1895, another pair of French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, are credited with presenting the first public movie screening at the Salon Indien du Grand Cafe in Paris. As the story goes, the Lumieres had photographed, head-on, a steam locomotive, smoke billowing, entering the Gare du Nord train station. The experience so untethered the audience gathered, that they ran from the theater, fearing for their lives.

Paralleling this story is the story of the magician George Méliès, who in 1888 purchased the Theatre Robert Houdin from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the famed French magician, who is considered the father of the modern style of conjuring. As I understand it, Méliès rented office space in his newly purchased building to Auguste and Louis Lumière. Still following? After the Lumieres made their groundbreaking presentation Méliès chucked his magic gig, ultimately to take his place in history as  cinema’s first great fantasist. Martin Scorsese paid homage to all this in his wonderful film Hugo.

And here’s the kicker. A slew of professional magicians, mountebanks, and grifters immediately appropriated the Lumiere’s invention as their own and scattered to the four corners of the earth introducing new populations to the cinema.

If this were Sesame Street, today’s blog would be brought to you by the word untethered.

Movies, mountebanks, and balloonatics; concepts to conjure with.

Et que dire de la connexion française dans tout ça? Je ne vais même pas y aller.


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