Mervyn Heard. Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern. Hastings: The Projection Box, 2006. ISBN: 978-1903000120. Price: US$75.00.[Record]

  • Joss Marsh

“Cinema is born” in 1895 (or so we used to say)—and all other forms of visual entertainment suddenly are dead: the new replaces the old; and the new distinguishes itself as new by not being like the old. Indeed, the old now approaches the new: all those forms that came before are labeled and understood as “pre-cinema.” But forms of entertainment don’t begin and end: they evolve, change, and merge with one another. And when we look at cinema in light of the long history of what might best be called the “screen experience,” it reveals itself very much not as a “new” invention, different to everything that came before: it is cousin to the diorama, the panorama, the eidophusikon, etc., etc. Above all, it is the direct descendent of the magic lantern, the single most important visual entertainment in Western culture from c. 1659 to the early years of the twentieth century (for the lantern competed with cinema—courtesy of colour, music, and the human voice—well into the silent film era). The lantern’s luminous imagery, “dissolving views,” mechanical tricks, and optical transformations, gave inspiration and master-metaphors to Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Thomas Hardy; to Stevenson and Stoker; to Carlyle, Strauss, and Froude; it is important to nineteenth-century studies, to the histories of entertainment, popular culture, visuality, and the imagination. Yet the magic lantern has rarely been a subject for sustained academic research, and there is a dearth of readily-available, serious information on the subject. Two problems have inhibited such study. Film history may no longer dictate that cinema was born in 1895. But film history books still relegate the lantern to a few (inevitably inadequate) prefatory printed pages on “pre-cinema.” DVD, CD-ROM, and online resources are limited. The second problem is more fundamental: lack of access to primary materials. There are few significant collections of slides, lanterns, and the paper materials and ephemera that are critical to research (posters, hand bills, dramatic readings, catalogues, etc.) in universities, museums, archives, or libraries; and when such material, exists, it often sits in the basement, uncatalogued. There is only one substantial collection in Britain; the best collection in the United States (in San Antonio, Texas) is accessible by invitation only. This is a research field in which progress will depend for some time on private collections, personal passion, and the extra-academic volunteer efforts of organizations like the British Magic Lantern Society; it will also depend on performance and collaborative creativity—experimental film-maker Ernie Gehr’s wonderful installation in fall 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art (“Panoramas of the Moving Image”), for example, or Belgian film-maker Pierre Levie’s reconstruction of Étienne Gaspard Robertson’s fantasmagorie at the Convent des Capuchines in January 1799, and his miniaturized working 3-D model phantasmagoria for the now-closed and much-lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London. (Here, the reviewer discloses a personal interest, since she married one of MOMI’s creators last year, and now lives with, if not in, his magic lantern collection.) Mervyn Heard has the passion, the collection (the source for this book’s superbly generous illustrations, including colour illustrations), long experience as a lantern showman and media adviser, and a long history of Lantern Society work (including years as chairman and co-editorship of the Society’s very useful Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern). He is both a soi-disant “Professor” (in the style of nineteenth–century exhibitors) and a “Doctor” and trained scholar. His Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern, then, is an important and an unusual book. It is flawed and somewhat misconceived in tone, but it is above all a research …