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Essential Films
Chapter 5

Buy this film
(Early Cinema - Primitives
And Pioneers, DVD)

L'arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat
(Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat)
Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière
Lumière / France / 1895

Cinematography by: Louis Lumière


Ion Martea
posted 16 June 2006

Whether or not a work of art can exist without an audience, artists will always crave critical comment on their work (though rarely admitting it). Film, just like theatre, literature or music, did develop with an imaginary spectator in mind. The new artform was meant to awe, to create a physical experience, kindled by emotional reactions to the material on screen. Filmmakers desired this effect, but audiences were at first unaware of the potential of the new medium, despite the popularity of magic lantern shows or Muybridge's photographs in motion, all screened to more than one viewer at a time.

In December 1895, the Lumière brothers invented cinema, making multiple spectators an intrinsic element of the concept. In a dark room at Grand Café in Paris, the audience would have been chitchatting, then a loud crank, and a still image on a large screen would have lit up the room. For a brief second, somebody might have thought of Monet's 'Arrival of the Normandy Train, Saint-Lazare Station', and found himself caught up in the wonders of the industrialised world. Paris had longed ceased to be a quiet place, haunted by the whinnying of horses, and the chatter of the market crowds. Life had become one loud mechanical chaos. The crank to start the projector would have been like a train whistle announcing the vehicle's approach.

But then, Monet's picture ceased to be motionless, and in the audience's imagination it would have become reality. After a few seconds, the train would have seemed to approach the audience, slowing down, but not stopping. The impression that the Grand Café had transformed itself into a train station, instantaneously, as if everyone was caught in a unique surrealist dream, would have been too much to resist. Legend has it that spectators ran from the building, others screamed with fear, and even the reserved ones jerked their left shoulders to avoid being hit by the train. A British correspondent, emphasised this experience in 1896: 'In the distance there is some smoke, then the engine of the express is seen, and in a few seconds the train rushes in so quickly that, in common with most of the people in the front rows of the stalls, I shift uneasily in my seat and think of railway accidents' (The Sketch).

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat proved to be an unforgettable experience for early audiences. It is not simply that their reactions were naïve or backward, but that film engendered 'an aesthetic of astonishment' (Gunning), in which the fulfilment of human curiosity provokes frantic reactions. The key to the Lumières' success lies in frame composition. A perpendicular shot would have been impossible at the time (unless the camera operator had been suicidal), while a parallel one would have stopped at reproducing motion, with little effect over the audience. The emergence of the train on a diagonal line, however, both provided a sensation of identifying with the point of view of the travellers at La Ciotat, and created the illusion of a real vehicle, growing in size, making its grand entrance into the lives of the spectators. Therefore, audiences were not engaged as passive voyeurs, but were invited to join in the excitement actively, reacting passionately, experiencing something totally new.

Modern audiences have long been accustomed to seeing a train approaching the screen; we even know how it feels to sit on the tracks, and see the train rushing over us, but there is still a certain amazement when watching the Lumière film for the first time. One explanation might be that we are trying unconsciously to reproduce the sensations experienced by the original audience. It is as if the film offers us a rare chance of experiencing life as it happened more than a century ago.

Another explanation of the modern reaction might be simply that the Lumière brothers directed an effective piece of cinema. The directors took the concept of an active audience into account when making the film. The image is simple, and rather raw, but these very attributes make it appealing. The illusion of reality was achieved without much difficulty. Film, as a medium, was becoming a form of art not so much concerned with imagination, as transcending imagination by defying the audience's expectations. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat allowed film to achieve that potential. Unarguably, the tradition of cinema-going in its early period was dominated by a desire for that 'aesthetic of astonishment'. The important thing is not the image itself, but the exhibition of moving images in unnatural (greater or smaller) proportions, and the collective experience of the resulting sensations.

Jean-Louis Baudry, describing the development of projection for large audiences, ended up coining the concept of Cinematic Apparatus. Film discourse found itself much more concerned with how films are appreciated rather than their intrinsic narrative value. Film became a truly unique artform in that it became possible to talk about any specific work with little reference to the plot, without losing too much of the film's substance.

In consequence, the influence of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat is revolutionary and damning at the same time. The development of mass spectatorship was the main factor in the growing popularity of film, as after December 1895 ordinary people adopted the custom and concept of 'going to the pictures'. This allowed for the development of a profitable business; but it also moved the centre of attention from the artistic value of the film as conceived by the director to the need to fulfil the spectator's expectations.

Unfortunately, the rawness and the thrill achieved from a film such as Lumière's one, made film producers and often directors confuse originality with entertainment. The great volume of forgettable shorts made in the early period is testament to this. Audiences in consequence were devalued at the very moment they were elevated. Films were aimed at entertaining at the lowest level, automatically dismissing the possibility that film might engage the audience not only on a physically instinctive level, but also on an intellectual one. Entertainment, in its wider meaning, was seen as the province of other arts, the depth of which cinema would never achieve.

The irony is that, starting with Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the Lumières themselves ended up directing films that were not only exciting, but offered food for thought to those who refused to see the medium merely as entertainment in a narrow sense. Cinema, for the art lover, has not managed to kill film (though it hurt it badly). For the greater part it transformed the medium into a melting pot, with pearls blackening only in rare instances.


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