For Documentary: Twelve Essays

By Dai Vaughan

University of California Press

Copyright © 1999 Dai Vaughan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520216946

Let There Be Lumière

To look critically and sympathetically at the beginnings of cinema—at those programmes of one-minute scenes first publicly exhibited in Paris in December 1895, and in London the following February—is like pondering what happened to the universe in the first few microseconds after the big bang.

We need not doubt that, so far as the genesis of film art is concerned, these early shows mounted by the Lumière brothers represent the nearest we will find to a singularity. Before them, notwithstanding such precedents as the photographic analysis of animal movement by Marey and Muybridge, the public projection of animated drawings in Reynaud's Théatre Optique, or anticipations of film narrative methods in comic strip and lantern slide sequence, cinema did not exist. A story so frequently repeated as to have assumed the status of folklore tells how members of the first audience dodged aside as a train steamed toward them into a station. We cannot seriously imagine, though, that these educated people in Paris and London expected the train to

emerge from the screen and run them down. It must clearly have been a reaction similar to that which prevents us from stepping with unconcern onto a static escalator, no matter how firmly we may assure ourselves that all it requires is a simple stride on an immobile flat surface. What this legend means is that the particular combination of visual signals present in that film had had no previous existence other than as signifying a real train pulling into a real station.

Yet already, in this primitive world, we find structures tantalisingly prophetic of some we know today. Compare the Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory , very few of whom return our gaze with even a glance from the screen, with the members disembarking from a riverboat for the Congress of Photographic Societies at Neuville-sur-Saône , who greet the camera with much waving and doffing of headgear. Do we not see here that distinction, very much a part of our television experience, between those who wield the power of communication and those who do not: between those granted subjectivity and those held in objectivity by the media?

Perhaps, if we wish to infer a state of cinema anterior to this almost instantaneous spawning of connotatory formations—and it is worth bearing in mind, in this regard, that the photographers arriving at Neuville-sur-Saône did not even know they were confronted with a ciné -camera—we should perhaps examine more closely the recorded responses of the earliest viewers. A curious example is offered in Stanley Reed's commentary to the BFI's sound version of the first British Lumière programme. This programme ended with A Boat Leaving Harbour ; and we are told that visitors came forward after the performance to poke at the screen with their walking sticks, convinced that it must be

made of glass and conceal a tank of water. Whilst we may allow this to pass as a measure of the wonderment caused by the first cinematographic projections, it becomes on consideration rather puzzling. How could people have supposed that the screen concealed a tank of water when it would also, by the same supposition, have had to conceal a garden, a railway station, a factory, and various other edifices? Yet I believe that this little story, like the one about the train, is telling us something important.

A Boat Leaving Harbour does, even today, stand out among the early Lumière subjects. (Indeed, an ulterior motive behind this article is my desire to pay tribute to a film I have loved since first encountering it very many years ago.) The action is simple. A rowing boat, with two men at the oars and one at the tiller, is entering boldly from the right foreground; and it proceeds, for fifty-odd seconds, toward the left background. On the tip of the jetty, which juts awkwardly into frame on the right, stand a child or two in frilly white and two portly women in black. Light shimmers on the water, though the sky seems leaden. The swell is not heavy; but as the boat passes beyond the jetty, leaving the protection of the harbour mouth, it is slewed around and caught broadside-on by a succession of waves. The men are in difficulties; and one woman turns her attention from the children to look at them. There it ends. Yet every time I have seen this film I have been overwhelmed by a sense of the potentiality of the medium: as if it had just been invented and lay waiting still to be explored.

I do not think it is just the Tennysonian resonances—crossing the bar, and so forth—which invest this episode with nostalgia for cinema's lost beginnings: a nostalgia which one would expect to be prompted equally, if at all, by the other items in the programme. One thing which will be obvious even from the

above brief description is that the subject, with its waves glimmering to a distant horizon, could not possibly have been simulated in an indoor tank. So why were those early visitors poking at the screen with their walking sticks? A superficially similar reaction, this time to Edison's "kinetoscope," is quoted in the first volume of Georges Sadoul's Histoire générale du cinéma . The kinetoscope was an individual viewing box which ran continuous bands of film, the subjects being photographed by daylight in a blackened studio which could be revolved to face the sun; and in 1894 Henri de Parville wrote of it in Les Annales politiques et littéraires: "Tous les acteurs sont en mouvement. Leurs moindres actes sont si naturellement reproduits qu'on se demande s'il y a illusion." What he presumably meant by "illusion" was some system whereby the images of live actors might have been brought by mirrors under the eyepiece of the machine. But it is clear that the relevance of this lies not in similarity but in contrast: for there was no way that the image of a French harbour could have been reflected by mirrors into the auditorium of the Regent Street Polytechnic. The gentlemen with their walking sticks were not trying to discover how the trick worked. Their concern was not that they might have been the victims of an illusion, but that they had experienced something which transcended the cosy world of illusionism altogether.

We need look no further than Sadoul's standard Histoire générale for ample evidence of the fact that what most impressed the early audiences were what would now be considered the incidentals of scenes: smoke from a forge, steam from a locomotive, brick dust from a demolished wall. Georges Méliès, a guest at the first Paris performance (who was soon to become a pioneer of trick filming), made particular mention of the rustling of leaves

in the background of Le Déjeuner de bébé —a detail which, as Sadoul himself observes, would scarcely be remarked today. It is worth asking why this should be so—and why, by implication, we consider Lumière cinema and Edison not: for surely, it might be argued, what mattered was the photographic rendering of movement, regardless of what moved. Sadoul entitles his chapter on Lumière "La Nature même prise sur le fait"; and Stanley Reed points out that audiences had hitherto been familiar only with the painted backdrops of the theatre. But to put it this way round is to understate the most revealing aspect of it: that people were startled not so much by the phenomenon of the moving photograph, which its inventors had struggled long to achieve, as by the ability of this to portray spontaneities of which the theatre was not capable. The movements of photographed people were accepted without demur because they were perceived as performance, as simply a new mode of self-projection; but that the inanimate should participate in self-projection was astonishing.

Most of the people in the Lumière show either are performing for the camera—whether knocking down walls or feeding babies—or are engaged in such neutral activities as leaving the factory or alighting from a train. What is different about A Boat Leaving Harbour is that, when the boat is threatened by the waves, the men must apply their efforts to controlling it; and, by responding to the challenge of the spontaneous moment, they become integrated into its spontaneity. The unpredictable has not only emerged from the background to occupy the greater proportion of the frame; it has also taken sway over the protagonists. Man, no longer the mountebank self-presenter, has become equal with the leaves and the brick dust—and as miraculous.

But such an invasion of the spontaneous into the human arts, being unprecedented, must have assumed the character of a threat not only to the "performers" but to the whole idea of controlled, willed, obedient communication. And conversely, since the idea of communication had in the past been inseparable from the assumption of willed control, this invasion must have seemed a veritable doubling-back of the world into its own imagery, a denial of the order of a coded system: an escape of the represented from the representational act. Thus what the early audiences suspected was not the presence of a water tank but the presence, in some metaphysical sense, of the sea itself: a sea liberated from the laboriousness of painted highlights and the drudgeries of metaphor. And their prodding of the screen was comparable with our own compulsion to reach out and "touch" a hologram.

Yet if this helps to explain why, in 1896, a representation of the sea should have caused greater bemusement than that of a factory or railway station, it does not explain why A Boat Leaving Harbour should have retained its fascination for a hundred years. To understand this, we must turn the other way: not toward a notional first moment but towards the future already latent in Lumière. The earliest programme contained an episode, L'Arroseur arrosé , which is generally considered to mark the initiation of screen narrative. A man is watering a garden; a boy puts his foot on the hose and stops the jet; the gardener peers into the nozzle; and the boy removes his foot so that the gardener is squirted in the face. But is this a fiction film or simply a filmed fiction?

One answer would be that the fiction film comes into being only when the articulations of camera movement and editing form an inalienable component of the narration. Another, slightly more sophisticated, would be that the distinction is

meaningless at this primitive level of organisation, and that L'Arroseur arrosé may be said to be filmed fiction and fiction film at once. But let us consider the question from the point of view of what seemed at the time the essential triumph of Lumière: the harnessing of spontaneity. It is clear how this applies to the men rowing the boat out of the harbour; but it is far from clear how it applies to the Arroseur episode.

At first it may seem that there are two simple alternatives: either this was an event observed in passing, perhaps with a concealed camera; or it was a scene staged by the filmmaker with the complicity of both parties. Furthermore, the gaucheness of the performances suffices to resolve any doubt in favour of the latter, thus perhaps leading us—our definition swallowing its tail—to say that what we see is an attempt at fiction film which, insofar as it is perceived only as an attempt, reverts to the spontaneous. But it is not so easy. Suppose, for example, that the camera had been set up only to record the garden-watering, and that the boy had played his trick unprompted; or that the boy and the cameraman had been in collusion to trick the unsuspecting gardener; or the boy and the gardener in collusion to surprise the cameraman. . . . Spontaneity begins to seem, in human affairs, a matter less of behaviour than of motivations—and of transactions in which the part of the mountebank behind the camera cannot long be excluded from question. "Spontaneity," that is to say, comes down to what is not predictable by—and not under the control of—the filmmaker. As for the gaucherie, it is arguable that flawless performances would have given us not true fiction but mendacious actuality.

Fiction film arises at precisely the point where people tire of these riddles. As audiences settle for appearances, according

film's images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex. True, the movement of leaves remains unpredictable; but we know that, with the endless possibility of retakes open to the filmmaker, what was unplanned is nevertheless what has been chosen: and the spontaneous is subsumed into the enunciated. Even in documentary, which seeks to respect the provenance of its images, they are bent inexorably to foreign purpose. The "big bang" leaves only a murmur of background radiation, detectable whenever someone decides that a film will gain in realism by being shot on "real" locations or where the verisimilitude of a Western is enhanced, momentarily, by the unscripted whinny of a horse.

A Boat Leaving Harbour begins without purpose and ends without conclusion, its actors drawn into the contingency of events. Successive viewings serve only to stress its pathetic brevity as a fragment of human experience. It survives as a reminder of that moment when the question of spontaneity was posed and not yet found to be insoluble: when cinema seemed free, not only of its proper connotations, but of the threat of its absorption into meanings beyond it. Here is the secret of its beauty. The promise of this film remains untarnished because it is a promise which can never be kept: a promise whose every fulfilment is also its betrayal.


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