My goal in writing this article is to prove that “L’Arrivee d’un train” is remarkable not merely as one of the early examples of moving image, but more importantly, as an early work of cinema as art – thanks to its profound philosophical controlling idea. I know the film in two different versions, marked with the same number: Lumiere #653. One of the two versions includes the footage of a lavishly dressed woman and her tiny daughter, running together hand in hand alongside the railroad track. The other version can be recognized by the image of a man wearing a light suit and a cap, walking backwards in front of the camera, likely aware that he’s in the shot, but probably not realizing that the apparatus he’s being filmed with is Le Cinematographe Lumiere.
According to the famous urban myth, during the premiere of this 50-seconds-long film in 1896 in Lyon the audience was so terrified of the image of the arriving train that many people leaped up from their seats, screaming, and ran to the back of the screening room. That myth may or may not be true, and yet, it appears certain that Auguste and Louis Lumiere, when they captured the approaching train on film at the most expressive angle they could think of, did expect to elicit strong emotional reaction from their audience. This was the likely reason why they didn’t stop the camera immediately after the train arrived to the platform, but kept rolling to record the hubbub of disembarking passengers and people greeting them on the platform: the pre-climactic buildup of the locomotive filling the screen was too powerful and needed a relatively longer period of relief.
People at the premiere of the film knew that the train was merely an illusion, a sequence of photographs projected onto a white screen – and yet their reaction to the illusion was real. Seeing the arriving train made people tense up, hold their breath, perhaps even gasp, their heartbeat quickened, the palms of their hands moist, their mouths dry – or, if the legend had any basis in reality, maybe some of the viewers did scream and run in panic. Whatever the reaction was, it was intended by the Lumiers, the masters of illusion. And their intention can help us to recognize the controlling idea, the intrinsic philosophical message of this early example of the art of film.
“L’Arrive d’un train” says that even though we may be aware of the illusory nature of a certain event, that event is nevertheless likely to elicit a strong emotional response from us, and therefore, to motivate us to action. The emotion provoked by an event may be positive or negative, and therefore we may act out of fear or desire – but whatever the motive, we end up acting all the same, and become involved, entangled, in the various manifestations of the material world – or, metaphorically, in the idle dither of the crowd greeting the proverbial train that rushes on to crush us. With that crowd we chase that train, no more capable of releasing ourselves from the claws of illusion than the tiny girl on the platform can free herself from the grasp of her oblivious mother – and even if we realize the hidden mechanisms of the occurrence and decide to move against the flow and avoid being “in the shot”, like the backward-walking gentleman in the light suit and a cap, we still can’t help being “captured” – objectified by the material and social system – against our will.
Obviously, this message refers to much more than just the illusion of images moving on a screen. Any type of illusion works in the same way, whether it’s money (in our age, nothing more than abstract arrangement of particles on the disks of banking computers), terrorists (modern boogeymen, replacing communist conspiracy in public mind and forcing countries into wars), medicine (pills that promise to save us but put our health out of balance instead) and myriad of other things. So the idea at the core of this film is not only deep but also practical.
Despite its apparent pessimism, the Lumieres’ philosophical warning offers hope. If we know where the trap is laid for us, we have a chance to avoid it, so by being aware of our human propensity to act on impulse stirred by the illusion, we can counterpose our conscious refusal to follow that impulse.
The idea, expressed by the Lumieres, is congruent with their chosen medium: the method fits the message. With “L’Arrivee d’un train”, Auguste et Louis became the founders of the tradition of cinema exploring and exploiting its own illusory nature. The pinnacle figure of that tradition was, of course, the great Ingmar Bergman who, remarkably, titled his autobiography “Laterna Magica”, thus implying that his life and creative work constituted a mere succession of illusory projections.
The complete title of the film discussed in this article is “L’arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”. It was produced and directed by the French inventors of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, in 1895.