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Story of Film - September 2013
Remind Me

Lumiere's First Picture Shows (1895-1897)

Imagine you are walking down the Boulevard des Capucines on December 28, 1895. As you walk along the sidewalk on your errands, there's some poor nutter on the corner handing out flyers. "Movie show," the shill is saying, or something like that in French. It doesn't much matter what words he's using, you have never heard them before anyway. Outside of an inner coterie of photographic professionals, scientists, and venture capitalists the words for "film," "movies," and "cinema" are unheard of in any language.

Maybe you just want in out of the cold, maybe you are just curious, but you take the bait. Inside the Grand Café, you descend the stairs to the lavishly decorated Indian Salon in the lower level. The man who takes your franc and welcomes you to the show is no pimply-faced usher earning pocket change after school--this is the famed photographer Clément Maurice, one of the world's very first cinematographers. Not that you have any idea who he is, as you step inside the auditorium to take one of the 120 seats arranged in front of the white screen.

Thankfully, the Lumières have also seen fit to invite a few specially selected guests (mostly members of the press) or the room would seem sadly empty. Only thirty-two other of your countrymen have chosen to join you today. At a franc a seat, that's a take of just 33 francs. Since the Indian Salon cost thirty francs to rent, things are not shaping up very profitably for the Lumières.

They had asked the proprietor, Mr. Volpini, if he would accept 20% of the receipts in lieu of the standard 30 franc rent. Noting tonight's meagre receipts, Mr. Volpini is pleased he insisted on the flat rental fee. In the weeks to come, as the box office take will rise to 2,000 francs a day, Mr. Volpini will come to rue his decision.

The lights dim, and the first film that the Lumières have threaded up is a little something called Leaving the Factory. There will be a total of ten of these movies on the bill, and all told the evening's entertainment will not account for more than ten minutes or so of the spectators' time. Over time, the Lumière program will change as new shorts are substituted in and older ones rotated out, but one portion of the show will remain invariant. Leaving the Factory will always be there, and always be first.

The reason why is simple. It begins with an image of the door of the Lumière factory in Lyons, shut. A moving picture that begins with a picture that does not move. There is an impish perversion at work here, a conscious manipulation of audience expectations designed to create the maximum impact.

This opening image is designed to momentarily fool the viewer into thinking they are watching a magic lantern show. Old time magic lantern shows involved an enormous number of movable lenses and slides operated by a manic presenter, resulting in sophisticated and dramatic performances. Magic lantern shows were in color, with sound, and could tell complex stories. The one thing they could not do, was move. And it is this one feature that primitive cinema boasted, at a loss of color, sound, and complexity. To sell movies to an audience well familiar with the magic lantern meant playing up film's assets, and thus Leaving the Factory.

No sooner has the crowd had a chance to feel a twinge of disappointment, a sense that the Indian Salon is simply playing host to a disguised magic lantern program, than the room suddenly goes deathly quiet. At this point, no one in the room is breathing.

On the screen, the door of the factory has... opened.

It is not a real door, it's a photograph. And the people coming out of it--women, men, a dog, now there's a guy on a bicycle--they aren't real, either. They are ghosts, shadows. They are the residue of real people, who in some other place at some other time did these things. The image of that event has been preserved, severed from its cause, and transported elsewhere to be replayed, the reflection of something that is no longer true.

The crowd is stunned. Without exaggeration, they have literally never seen anything like this.

Soon Leaving the Factory is over and the next clip has taken its place. Over the next ten minutes, a variety of scenes are shown. The crowd will smile warmly at a baby being fed his lunch, laugh at a practical joke played on a gardener, marvel at a horse jumping.

One of the later additions to the cycle was a film called Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Legend has it that when the Lumières first showed this, the audience cringed in mortal terror that the train was going to mow them down. This is of course nonsense. A single woman at a single screening did faint, but the reasons why were not recorded at the time and could just as well have been a too-tight corset, or her fearful knowledge that dozens of people had burned to death in movie-related fires during those early years of screenings. Her swooning reaction was picked up by later writers, with less regard for the truth, and exaggerated into a more compelling myth, which has since propagated itself wide and far. The myth persists, in part because it is no longer possible to replicate the experience of seeing these films in 1895.

If you want to, it is fairly easy to see Leaving the Factory today, to invite over your friends and make them marvel at the fact that--lookit! Those people are moving! Which, of course, is not the reaction you would get.

Leaving the Factory, Arrival of a Train, and their contemporaries from the late 1890s are relics of that critical moment of transformation, when audiences were still innocent. Watching someone walk through a door will never again have the jaw-dropping ohmigod-didja-see-that effect it did in the very beginning.

By David Kalat

Richard Abel, .
Robert Klepper, Silent Films, 1877-1996.
Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.


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