101 Imaginary Nights At The Movies
Second in a series of 101 imaginary movies, Cinema of Forgotten Dreams is my attempt to dramatize film history by creating and commenting on a repository of imaginative film viewing. From the earliest days of cinema to the era of blockbusters, my century (plus one) of Movies I Made Up will proceed chronologically through an alternate dimension of films. Will it be allowed? Will anyone read? Though I have no answer to either question, I’m doing it anyway: fortunately, there are no rules in the land of dreams.
1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere
One month after brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere organized the first commercial exhibit of their films in the basement of a Parisian cafe, which took place on December 28, 1895, and which included a program of ten 40 – 50 second film shorts, the pioneering cinematographic siblings returned early the next year with a film held over from the initial public screening: January 1896’s The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Combining the everyday elements captured from that inaugural event in such content-explanatory titles as Bathing in the Sea, Baby’s Breakfast, and Workers Leaving a Factory, along with mildly sensationalized screen moments seen in Horse Trick Riders, Jumping Onto the Blanket, and The Sprinkler Sprinkled, the comparative grand scale of Arrival of a Train impressed early audiences with its fixed image of a roaring locomotive seemingly rushing towards a stationary camera.
Taken from the pictorial view of the rural train station’s raised platform, the initially candid moments of milling, conversing, waiting, and departing people on the right of the screen quickly switches to the smoky billowing overrun of the massively halting train engine. With its canny exploitation of visual perspective, in which the train appears to grow in size as it approaches an audience’s view, this sequence of both documentary fidelity and staged trickery announces not only the arrival of its photographic subject but also, conceivably, the succeeding century of rapidly advancing progress and technology soon to follow.
What is most astonishing about this sequence, however, is not the possibly exaggerated response the film apparently elicited – with accounts of its first audiences running from tent fair or music hall exhibitions in stark terror – but rather the unconcern registered by those onscreen. It invites a question: Does a photographed image impress itself on the mind’s eye with more effect than those same sights seen in reality? Put another way: Are most people largely unaware of the dramatic backdrop of their everyday lives? While the answer is undoubtedly “yes” to both questions, Arrival of a Train certainly represented the most vivid instance in the medium’s infancy when a moment, sequence, or view – captured, isolated, and projected in the dark – gained impact beyond the mere advantage of its artistic presentation. And while the next century of commercial filmmaking would equally build upon that moment of screen spectacle, less attention has been paid, for reasons later to be discussed, to the continuing influence of the Lumiere Brothers’ immediate follow-up to their movie train’s arrival: the astonishing documentary capture of 50 seconds of actual historical import in February 1896’s exhibition – and immediate suppression – of Railway Strike.
A long-framed view, through the cinder-smudged glass of a box-shaped window, opens on the platform of what discerning viewers may recognize as the very railway depot depicted in Arrival of a Train. Equally discernible from the pinstripe suits and peaked caps, a small crowd of uniformed railway employees – one of whom, with his handlebar mustache, can also be recognized as the station master who appeared in Arrival – gathers on the right side of the literal window “frame”, backing away from an as yet concealed and apparent threat from offview left. The stationary camera jolts upward momentarily, a billow of steam creasing the top-side of the box window, as the train car interior begins to move forward with the lurching motion of the departing train.
The framed image now itself “moving” – or, more literally, side-tracking – across the group of train workers, the faltering progression of this increasingly dramatic diorama soon transitions from our first photographic subjects – slowly, of accord, raising their arms in obvious distress – and introduces our second, as a long row of glinting metal barrels becomes visible from the extreme left edge of the box window. Dressed in dark, heavy overcoats fitted with large, visibly reflective brass buttons, the military file of chin-strapped metal helmets, topped with breeze-swaying feather plumes, passes slowly into view and gradually assumes the center of the image; rifle stocks slung over shoulders pointed directly at the alarmed gathering now offview right. The train picking up speed, the box window-frame now leaves behind the opposing groups and quickly advances to the empty edge of the train platform; but not before a sudden puff of smoke intrudes at the extreme right of the window view. The rural station left behind, the train is now en-route to Paris and the 50 seconds of screen time is marked with the title card “FIN”.
Originally titled Departure of a Train, the explosive content seems to have been captured accidentally, and had been initially undertaken as a rather sophisticated early attempt at what would later be known, in terms of film grammar, as a shifting perspective: offering an opposing axial view of an earlier scene or image, but from a different camera position or vantage point. Indeed, Arrival/Departure may have been intended as the first film to follow one shot or sequence with another, creating the illusion of continuity between two filmed passages that were actually filmed independently of each other. (This, of course, would become the very foundation of continuity editing, and therefore film storytelling itself.) Speculation over the Lumiere Brothers’ intended Train diptych ends there, unfortunately, as Railway Strike‘s 60-year later discovery in a collection of pre-existing Lumiere films, researched and restored by Cinematheque Francais archivists, included only its original title, its cataloged date of February 25, 1896, and its re-titled title directly beneath on its remarkably well-preserved, 35mm-width silver nitrate film elements. Unmentioned even in the Lumieres’ meticulous production records, the 17 meters of film received no known public screenings until its re-discovery, and has been since exhibited under only special circumstances.
Whatever Railway Strike‘s origin, purpose, or intended effect – to say nothing of the violent implications of its hand-cranked images – the day-to-day doings innocently captured in the Lumieres’ first screen efforts gained extra dimension in the one filmed moment that unaccountably escaped their usual firm control and benign photographic sensibility. Certainly no revolutionaries themselves – the sequence depicted in their earlier Exit From a Factory was in fact of their own employees – Auguste and Louis Lumiere had no personal stake in either side of a rural railway issue or the resulting strife such an issue might have caused. The impulse that kept Auguste’s or Louis’ hand cranking out self-developing images of a now unknown clash between workers and owners, and the larger interests behind both, was possibly nothing more than the mechanical will of their 16 lb. cinématographe, or even the mysterious and unquantifiable aspect of a camera’s inscrutable conscience.
Along with its Arrival, the train’s Departure announced the twin aspect to the revolutionary marvels soon to be captured by 20th century cameras: not only the visual beauty of the century of progress to follow but also the terror of an age of uncertainty to come. The camera’s eye dispassionately witnesses both views, while it is up to the individual viewer to interpret these continuing film-from-film, second-by-second, and frame-to-frame alternations between light and darkness and darkness and light.