1895: the cinematograph has been invented a few months earlier and the Lumière brothers – in constant exploration of the potential of the new medium – decide to shoot (using lenses that would help the depth of field) the arrival of a train at the La Ciotat station.
A scary story
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat is definitely one of the most discussed film of all time (yes! 1895!). The accounts of the time would go a long way to describe the audience reaction: at the train arrival, apparently, the audience reacted with dread and ran away from the cinema. The analysis were telling a story about the realistic representation that the new medium had: the audience ran away because they feared that the train was actually getting into the theatre.
Well, if the Lumière’s staging – with the train heading towards the camera – could definitely be seen to go in the direction of suggesting this sensation, it is really paradoxical to think that men and women could be confused by the projection (and by the illusion of depth, not an actual depth) so much so that they could assume that a black and white moving image was the actual reality of their world.
The accounts of the even are obviously trying to magnify the power of the new medium and its verisimilitude aspect (a very smart marketing idea all the way), but in doing so they’ve reduced the spectator to a kid that believes every illusion that he faces: in 1895 humanity was already in the vortex of the modernity and was used to experience strong sensations. In New York, for example, in Coney Island, an attraction called Leap Frog Railroad – two wagons, containing 32 people each, launched at full steam against each other until just a few seconds before the clash when one of them would raise up and literally go over the other’s people heads (1)- was already giving a thrilling experience.
Men and women at that time were looking for this kind of thrilling experience: but at the same time they knew that their safety was assured by the safety measures in place for these experiences. Nobody would have done that attraction if they knew that they would actually crash, would they? For the attractions, the safety measures included belt and a number of things to make sure that nobody would get hurt, while for cinema it was symbolized in the same position of the spectator, sat comfortably (hopefully!) in a theatre.
How it worked
Let’s think about the general aspect of the view in a cinematographic apparatus. Often, the viewing of a show, was accompanied by an introduction from an announcer, a presenter that, with the image still frozen, would prepare the audience and influence them so that they could reach the mood and mindset that would help the experience and only then – when the house was ready – would start the film and the images would slowly begin their moving (and we can definitely imagine that this could be seen as a magic trick).
With this in mind, the shock that the audience would feel was already announced and prepared by the cinema apparatus itself. The presenter had a very strong pre-text that would help the audience to read the images. Nonetheless, the spectators weren’t that naive, at all.
We’re very close to the new century – men and women, especially the ones living in the big cities (and the cinema, at this stage of his life, was a strong attraction in the cities) already felt the sudden change of space and time concepts (electricity) and what they would live in their everyday lives was already very similar to the coherence-less and discontinuous experience that we nowadays face. It’s very strange to believe that the people at that time, very far from the cultural and memorized aspect of the suspension of the disbelief could think that there was an actual danger to their lives.
They almost should be characterized as the opposite – as if they suspended the belief and wanted to live and feel and experience such strong sensations in a world that was confusing the space-time coordination. They wanted to feel the danger, they wanted to feel something new (maybe something lost, more than new), something strong that would remind their senses that they were alive. They wanted to believe that the train was actually smashing the fourth wall – that was the reasons why they paid for such attractions. And they decided that the train, one of the signs of this modernity and responsible for the bending of some space-time categories, was a good enough symbol to do so.
This short film still is a masterpiece for its important value and historical moment: it was probably the first time that the spectators got finally the best seat in the cinema, showing not only the power of the medium – not only on the verisimilitude level, but more on the film apparatus in general – but also, anthropologically, the weakness of the mankind facing the quick pace of the modern world.
And you, are you guys still running away from this train?
1)Tom Gunning in “An aesthetic of astonishment: early film and the (in)credulous spectator” in Leo Brady and Marshall Cohen (edited by), Film Theory and Criticism, New York, Oxford UP, 2009, pp. 736 – 750. A recap for the attraction can be found here: http://www.westland.net/coneyisland/articles/dreamland.htm