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Lumiere Illuminated: 'Moving Image' Debunks Myths Surrounding 'Arrival of the Train'

By Ray Zone

The Moving Image:
The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists

Volume 4, Number 1 (Spring 2004)
University of Minnesota Press
176 pps. Subscriptions, One Year $75
ISBN 0-8166-4530-2


Published twice a year, The Moving Image is a journal devoted to issues of preservation, archiving and presentation of historic motion pictures, whether on film or videotape. The current issue, devoted to programming of historic films, features a cover story that will be of interest to all students of documentary history. Titled "Lumière's Arrival of the Train, Cinema's Founding Myth," and written by Martin Loiperdinger, a professor of media studies at Trier University in Germany, this provocative paper challenges many long-held assumptions about this historic Lumière film.

At issue is what Loiperdinger characterizes as the "founding myth" of cinema, the report that audiences panicked when viewing the onrushing locomotive in screenings of L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat which commenced on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard Les Capucines in Paris. The Russian author Maxim Gorky, in a famous essay titled "The Kingdom of Shadows," describes the effect of this historic moment: 

"Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you—watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice."Citing several such anecdote , Loiperdinger counters the myth. "The moving images projected onto the screen with the Cinematographe Lumière could hardly be mistaken for reality," writes Loiperdinger. "Contemporary reports of panic reactions among the audience cannot be found. The repeatedly reiterated anecdote that the contemporary audience felt physically threatened and therefore panicked must be relegated to the realm of historical fantasy."

The panic legend certainly became prevalent through subsequent film histories. Here, for example, is what Erik Barnouw, an exceedingly objective film historian, wrote in Documentary, A History of the Non-Fiction Film: "The arrival of the train—virtually 'on camera'—made spectators scream and dodge. As we see passengers leave the train, some pass close to the camera, seemingly unaware of it. The use of movement from a distance toward the viewer, and the surprising depth of field in the sequence, offered audiences an experience quite foreign to the theater..."

Loiperdinger contests the idea that the very first audiences for cinema were unable to distinguish between filmed images and reality. The founding myth of L'Arrivée d'un Train, he states, reinforces cinema's "inherent suggestive force" and elevates it to a fundamental principle. "The myth's dissemination thus serves to ascribe manipulative power to the film medium and thereby fulfills a need that seems to be widespread among film journalists and even film historians," Loiperdinger writes. "A historically untenable claim, a panic legend, became the founding myth of the medium."

Disregarded by Loiperdinger and the film historians is the fact that on October 23, 1895, two months before the Grand Café screenings, a runaway locomotive at the Montmartre Station in Paris broke through a second-story wall and plummeted down into the street. It seems highly likely that this train disaster may have been on the minds of patrons viewing L'Arrivée d'un Train at the Grand Café and affected their response to the motion picture image of an approaching locomotive. It's curious that this real-life disaster, which undoubtedly caused great public panic, is not mentioned in any of the standard histories dealing with the Lumiere film.

A second controversial idea is put forth by Loiperdinger. After giving L'Arrivée d'un Train repeated close viewings, Loiperdinger says that the film is a profilmic scene and not actually a documentary. "In fact, the people waiting on the platform and those getting off the train are extras in a performance staged by Louis Lumière," writes Loiperdinger. "They have been instructed not to look into the camera during the shooting, and they follow these instructions." Loiperdinger identifies several Lumière family members in the film who portray passengers. "The apparent naturalness of the passengers who pay no attention to Louis Lumière and his Cinematographe is an artificial achievement. The impression of documentary authenticity, which film historians emphasize with regard to this film, is achieved by the extras strictly following Louis Lumière's direction."

Loiperdinger's provocative essay is highly recommended. It will undoubtedly prompt additional scrutiny of Lumière's landmark 50-second film.  


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