Before we decided film should tell stories, we were content with the Lumière brothers’ slices-of-life and Méliès’ magic tricks, with workers leaving factories and trains arriving at stations, with the miracle that pictures were moving at all. And a young film viewer’s ontogeny recapitulates film-historical philogeny. Young children are at a protocinematic stage of development: they enjoy picture books and nonsense nursery rhymes, improvisational dance, scribbling with crayons, and other repetitive, relatively drama-free, narrative-free, content-free entertainments. They are attracted to cinema for its motion and its color and, for lack of a better word, its “magic.” Uncorrupted by exposure to more sophisticated entertainments, they ask no more of motion pictures than that they be what they are: motion-pictures.
As cinema grew up and learned to talk in the 1930s, it developed more rules and conventions. And as children grow, they learn how a movie is “supposed” to go; they internalize the beats of the structure. Most people spend the rest of their lives watching a type of film they were taught to enjoy in their childhood. Those who venture into the world of international film, art film, and counter-cinema may find that it’s not just about developing a taste for the slow or unusual, or getting out ahead of our desire for traditional narrative—it’s about getting back to our cinematic state of nature. Perhaps our mistake is in wanting to use films, to have them cater to us and keep us from boredom, rather than to see them, love them, and respect them as the free, precious, ephemeral things that they are.