Published by Koenig Books in 2013, Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle, is, in every sense, one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.
It centers on an extremely elegant theme — how costumes created dream-like spectacles that no one had ever seen before in the early days of cinema.
One of the pioneers who explored the various concepts of modern life was a man named Baudelaire. He suggested that fashion and clothing are fascinating in a sense that fashion is almost the very definition of “ideal”. It is a desire that constantly weighs on the human mind and can never be satisfied.
On 28 December 1895, twenty-eight years after Baudelaire’s passing, the Lumière brothers held a film screening at the Salon Indien du Grand Café at 14 Avenue Capucine in Paris. The ten films that were shown on that day were subsequently brought to Brussels, Mumbai, London, Montreal, New York, and Buenos Aires in the following year, marking the beginning of a new era.
An era in which mankind dreams together.
In the 1890s, a form of dance called “serpentine dance” grew out of a rebellion against the “academic” forms of ballet and became popular throughout North America and Europe. Loïe Fuller, the founder of this dance form, developed the dance by chance when she accidentally discovered that the stage light cast on the gauze fabric of a costume would produce beautiful shadows on the ground. During the serpentine dance, the dancers wear costumes consisting of hundreds of yards of China silk. They hold the skirt in their hands and wave it around. It takes shapes reminiscent of flowers, clouds, birds, and butterflies.”
The serpentine dance not only captured the zeitgeist of the 1890s, but also the attention of those who were advancing the film technology of the time. While film technology emerged in response to the need to capture a complete sequence of movements, the serpentine dance, which was known for its nimble and agile moves, presented itself to be an ideal film subject that showcased how film can capture and replicate the beauty and agility of movement.
Short films of serpentine dance that were made over a hundred years ago can be found on YouTube. Veiled by the waving costume, the dancer’s face can only be seen intermittently; this is perhaps why these short films are appealing — the act of concealing and revealing. What we watch repeatedly is a visual sculpture that is yet to finish; perpetually constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing.
In the 1910s, female vampire films became a big hit. These films usually feature the female vampires, dressed in grotesque, overly dramatic, and exotic costumes, venturing into the world of danger and provocation. In the 1920s, which is also known as the Jazz Age, the concept of a modern woman began to gain attention and even made its way into movies. It was also when movies started to lead the way of consumerism by making an impact on buying behavior — moviegoers would buy the merchandise they saw in movies such as personal items, furniture, and even cars.
This inevitably caused much criticism from the academic circles, including the Frankfurt School that was headed by Theodor W. Adorno and known for their criticism of mass media and consumer culture. Yet, in my opinion, it is cinema that allows us to take a real look at different things – ideas, cultures, and even physical landscapes.
If there were no movies in this world, the various things that we are seeing now would eventually disappear and be lost without a trace; whether it is food, clothes, stones, our body, or the landscape. With movies, we are able to capture human actions and stories, things and forms. In other words, what we have done, seen, and touched can be preserved in a certain way. It is as if, from that moment on, we could finally see the world for real for the very first time and come face to face with the inherent essence that lies in different things.
Film, as a medium, is not merely a “special machine”, but a way of viewing the world. Through films, we manage to see the world from another perspective. There are only a few art forms, film being one of them, that have such a clear development path which allows viewers to trace back to the origin, while at the same time, connecting human beings so profoundly and comprehensively and shaping our visual ability to help form memories. Flipping through a list of movies is like going through a memory database of mankind.
During the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, German director Wim Wenders invited several directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Hesso, and Steven Spielberg, to Room 666 of Hotel Martinez to sit for an interview next to a TV. One of the questions asked was: “Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?”
Jean-Luc Godard said, “We have to leave eventually, and I will die eventually.”
Michelangelo Antonioni said, “I think it is not very difficult for us to transform ourselves into new human beings to adapt to new technologies.”
We live in an era where movie-watching is easily done with a smartphone. David Lynch once said, “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film.” The reality might not be as bad as he makes it sound, but I do miss time spent sitting in darkness, staring at the large glowing screen; it offers a feeling that lies between existence and non-existence.
And a slight floating sensation when leaving the cinema.