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The AMMI in Astoria celebrates early works on celluloid

Pictures of our world moving on a screen are so commonplace that it is hard for us in the 21st century to even begin to understand how exciting, even magical, this was to people of the late 19th century and early 20th.

After all, it not too many years earlier that “writing with light” — photography — was discovered and applied.

Thomas Edison soon realized that if movement could be broken down into a series of photographs, and those pictures could be projected one after the other very quickly, the mind, with its habit of retaining an image for a fraction of a second after the image is gone, would create the illusion of movement.

The quite simple principle — it can be demonstrated with a cartoon “flip book” — revolutionized art and communication, even more so than has the Internet in our time.

The American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria pays homage to the beginnings of the moving image with its new series, “Shadow Play: Avant-Garde Views of Early Cinema” from Nov. 3 through Nov. 18. The series, says the AMMI, “explores the fascinating affinity between contemporary avant-garde filmmakers and the earliest film pioneers.”

It opens with a presentation by film scholar and historian Tom Gunning, combining a selection of restored early films by Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, Malcolm Legrice, and Peter Hutton. Ken Jacobs, the filmmaker whose seminal 1971 film “Tom Tom the Piper’s Son” was made by re-photographing a 1905 one-reeler shot by Billy Bitzer, will present two days of programs , on Nov. 4 and 10, featuringthe premiere of a new live shadow play performance, and several works using his two-projector apparatus to create three-dimensional effects.

AMMI curators hope the series will dispel the myth that early movie viewers would scream and leap from their chairs in fright if they saw Lumière’s “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.” Yes, they were fascinated with the new medium, but no, they were not scared of it — they knew perfectly well that the train was a moving image and not a real locomotive coming at them. As the AMMI puts it: “The amazement expressed by the Lumière audiences may have been a genuine response to the shock of the new, but it is unlikely that audiences thought that a real train was hurtling toward them. Rather, these viewers were most likely astonished by the dynamic tension inherent to movies: 3-D life transferred to a 2-D screen; real time and space frozen on celluloid and turned into a repeatable, mechanical experience. With its ability to compress time, capture reality and re-shape it, and transport viewers vicariously to any location in the world, cinema from the beginning was far from primitive. It was always a modern — and modernist — invention.”

For tickets and schedule, call 718-784-4520.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at glenn@timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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