By focus­ing on the hid­den details of explor­ing com­mon­place milieus under the inge­nious guid­ance of the cam­era, the film, on the one hand, extends our com­pre­hen­sion of the neces­si­ties which rule our lives; on the oth­er hand, it man­ages to assure us of an immense and unex­pect­ed field of action. Our tav­erns and our met­ro­pol­i­tan streets, our offices and fur­nished rooms, our rail­road sta­tions and our fac­to­ries appeared to have us locked up hope­less­ly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asun­der by the dyna­mite or the tenth of a sec­ond, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calm­ly and adven­tur­ous­ly go trav­el­ing.” 1

This pas­sage from Wal­ter Ben­jam­in’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion seems to allude to the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion of ques­tion­ing the nature of vision and its rela­tion to real­i­ty and truth. Pla­to’s para­ble of the cave describes how an unen­light­ened exis­tence, one with­out phi­los­o­phy, is akin to the impris­on­ment of humans with­in a cave. Chained in posi­tion, reduced to the sta­tus of sta­t­ic spec­ta­tor, one watch­es the danc­ing shad­ows pro­ject­ed on the wall, igno­rant of the source of these shadows–actual objects being pro­ject­ed by the light of a fire. Strange­ly enough the para­ble seems well-suit­ed to the fun­da­men­tal ele­ments of film which are essen­tial­ly images lit up on a screen for a mass audi­ence via a hid­den appa­ra­tus that flick­ers in behind. Ben­jamin ver­sion of events how­ev­er pro­vide a more unortho­dox sys­tem of agency than Pla­to’s, one that is square­ly on the side of the mass­es, posit­ing that it is the every­day, the neces­si­ties which rule our lives”, that has become a prison; it is mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion, the advances of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and tech­nol­o­gy, that allow one to momen­tar­i­ly escape: the sim­u­lat­ed expe­ri­ence of calm­ly and adven­tur­ous­ly” trav­el­ing pro­vid­ed by motion pic­tures. The ini­tial shock of film, its unbri­dled poten­tial to branch off into any num­ber of dis­cur­sive for­ma­tions, was what was so excit­ing about ear­ly film, before the reg­u­lat­ed struc­tures of leisure and plea­sure, the cul­ture indus­try, became part and par­cel of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my. Ben­jam­in’s crit­i­cal his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness relat­ed to film came well after the days of prim­i­tive cin­e­ma,” but well before the enforced nar­ra­tive norms of Hol­ly­wood. His ideas reflect a guard­ed opti­mism, how­ev­er, as to the poten­tial­ly pos­i­tive uses of new modes of pro­duc­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion by and for the mass­es (who he saw as impris­oned with­in the alien­at­ing con­fines of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of pro­duc­tion). He saw in the flick­er of one-tenth of a sec­ond the mech­a­nisms and tools for their future lib­er­a­tion. He ends his essay with a warn­ing of the dan­ger of cin­e­ma’s fascis­tic uses that were start­ing to haunt his present moment, 1936.

Although the Lumiere broth­ers’ films pre­ced­ed Ben­jam­in’s essay by about forty years, I find the above pas­sage by Ben­jamin par­tic­u­lar­ly appro­pri­ate to under­stand­ing the real­i­ties of every­day life for the bour­geoisie and the work­ing class­es at the close of the 19 th cen­tu­ry. The eco­nom­ic and class upheavals that char­ac­ter­ized the lat­ter half of the 19 th cen­tu­ry could be momen­tar­i­ly escaped through new visu­al forms of diver­sion. The view­ing of these very first films bear all the mark­ings of active spec­ta­tor­ship and a col­lec­tive recog­ni­tion of the famil­iar aspects of every­day urban expe­ri­ence, an alter­nate vision of cin­e­ma, a range of film/spectator rela­tions that dif­fer from the alien­at­ed and alien­at­ing orga­ni­za­tion of clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma.” 2 Fur­ther­more, the very fact that this new art form” was made by tech­ni­cal means only, and not by any need for exclu­sion­ary tal­ent or man­u­al exper­tise, made the author/reception rela­tion­ship seem all the more democratic–anyone could make a film, any­one could be in a film, but also any­one could under­stand a film.

As view­ers new­ly posi­tioned with­in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, we may find it dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what it would have been like to expe­ri­ence the very first films by the Lumiere broth­ers over a cen­tu­ry ago. A fre­quent­ly repeat­ed sto­ry claims that mem­bers of the first audi­ences of the film Arrival of a Train at Cio­tat had react­ed by jump­ing out of their seats as the train appeared to be on the verge of exit­ing the screen to run them over in the dark­ness of the the­atre. Anoth­er sto­ry tells how spec­ta­tors would approach the screen at the end of a pro­jec­tion and poke at it with their fin­gers or walk­ing sticks, won­der­ing whether any props exist­ed behind the screen. Could a water tank exist behind the screen to account for the verisimil­i­tude of the boat row­ing out to sea? But then how could one account for the quick scene changes from the train to a busy Paris street stream­ing with horse-drawn car­riages? Of course most of the first spec­ta­tors did­n’t real­ly expect the train to run them down nor did they real­ly believe that they were duped by smoke and mir­rors. This was the first time that they had ever expe­ri­enced any­thing that tran­scend­ed the arti­fices of illu­sion that the panora­ma, dio­ra­ma, pho­to­graph or stere­o­scope had pro­vid­ed them with. The only expe­ri­ence that they could ever have had that even came close to these films was a real train pulling into a sta­tion, a real boat leav­ing the har­bour, a real street bustling with traf­fic. Even the move­ment of inan­i­mate objects with­in film such as leaves rustling in the wind or dust set­tling after the demo­li­tion of a wall aroused the most intense fas­ci­na­tion in the view­er who had nev­er seen such spon­ta­neous move­ment and accu­rate detail togeth­er cap­tured cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly. Sud­den­ly over­looked fleet­ing events and prac­tices of every­day life took on gigan­tic pro­por­tions. As a social and aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, the recep­tion of films was with­out insti­tu­tion­al prece­dent. The prop­er” rela­tions among view­er, pro­jec­tor, and screen, the pecu­liar dimen­sions of cin­e­mat­ic space, were part of a cul­tur­al prac­tice that had to be learned.” 3 These first instances of film spec­ta­tor­ship reflect the erup­tion of a new sub­jec­tiv­i­ty cre­at­ed through the col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion of human per­cep­tion: the blur­ring of the actu­al time and space of film expe­ri­ence with a past time and dis­tant place cap­tured on film ran through the audi­ence like a shock. It was­n’t until a peri­od of adap­ta­tion and trans­for­ma­tion in the cin­e­ma towards fic­tive forms of lin­ear nar­ra­tiv­i­ty (after 1906) that this blur­ring would become com­mon­place and even effec­tive in pro­duc­ing a com­plete sub­jec­tive flu­id­i­ty between who was see­ing and what was being seen. Cer­tain sub­ject posi­tions and view­ing habits could eas­i­ly be enforced. Even the devices of tem­po­ral ellip­sis, spa­tial sep­a­ra­tion, and the idea of simul­ta­ne­ous action would soon be visually/diegetically log­i­cal and tak­en for grant­ed. After the ini­tial shock of dis­be­lief would sub­side, the accep­tance of repro­duc­tion over the unique­ness of real­i­ty, the elim­i­na­tion of aura that brought things clos­er spa­tial­ly in the dark­ness of the the­atre, was to be expe­ri­enced as a com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of space-time that was in keep­ing with the expe­ri­ence of oth­er fields of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism such as labour and trav­el: With its dialec­tic of con­ti­nu­ity and dis­con­ti­nu­ity, with the rapid suc­ces­sion and tac­tile thrust of its sounds and images, film rehears­es in the realm of recep­tion what the con­vey­or belt impos­es upon human beings in the realm of pro­duc­tion” 4

My analy­sis of Lumiere films will be based on this dis­tinc­tion between the prison-world of social and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties of late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry life and the escape from the con­fines of such real­i­ties through the sem­blance of a flu­id­i­ty of iden­ti­ty, time, and space via the cin­e­mat­ic medi­um. At the lev­el of the opti­cal uncon­scious” how­ev­er, these first instances of film con­tained all the traces of the alien­at­ing effects of a prison-world; the nov­el­ty of view­ing a mov­ing pic­ture was less dis­tract­ing than shock­ing, less an adven­ture than a medi­at­ed reflec­tion of the actu­al con­di­tions of work and leisure, per­haps an uncon­scious reac­tion to the shift­ing class and gen­der posi­tions at the end of the 19 th cen­tu­ry: We pen­e­trate the mys­tery only to the degree that we rec­og­nize it in the every­day, by virtue of a dialec­ti­cal optics that per­ceives the every­day as impen­e­tra­ble and the impen­e­tra­ble as every­day.” 5

While Ben­jamin saw in film and pho­tog­ra­phy (as forms of mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion) the pos­si­bil­i­ty of agency for the mass­es, the exhi­bi­tion val­ue of these art forms seemed also to be in dan­ger of falling under the log­ic of exchange val­ue under cap­i­tal­ism (the com­mod­i­ty reflect­ing the social rela­tions of the time: prof­it made by the own­ers of prop­er­ty from the exploita­tion of work­ers, alien­at­ed from the means of pro­duc­tion, and depen­dent for their liveli­hood on the machines of mass pro­duc­tion pro­vid­ed by own­ers of cap­i­tal). While Marx made the notion of super­struc­ture (art and cul­ture) sup­ple­men­tary to the base (econ­o­my) in the grand scheme of pow­er rela­tions, Ben­jamin was one of the first to antic­i­pate the blurred lines between the eco­nom­ic and the cul­tur­al, the begin­nings of their sym­bi­ot­ic union. Under the aegis of mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion, art forms came to reflect new indus­tri­al modes of pro­duc­tion, these very modes that, if placed in the right hands, could rev­o­lu­tion­ize the bal­ance of pow­er, and dis­trib­ute across class lines.

Accord­ing to Ben­jamin, the repro­duced image is deprived of aura, of a unique exis­tence in real time and space, an exis­tence that looks back at us on an equal foot­ing: The per­son we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in return. To expe­ri­ence the aura of a phe­nom­e­non means to invest it with the capa­bil­i­ty of return­ing the gaze.” 6 The images, cities, and peo­ple that the spec­ta­tor per­ceives in a film speak of a world spa­tio-tem­po­ral­ly inac­ces­si­ble to the view­er: the spec­ta­tor and the actor are each impris­oned in their respec­tive spaces, with­out aura, that unique appear­ance of a dis­tance” that allows for rec­i­p­ro­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the return of the gaze. While ear­ly film pro­vid­ed a com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence for spec­ta­tors, who could not help but feel like they were par­tic­i­pat­ing in a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary form, with­out set rules in terms of pro­duc­tion and recep­tion, this could too eas­i­ly lead to absorp­tion and dis­trac­tion once the expe­ri­ence became habit­u­al. In the right hands, film could either become a vehi­cle for mass action or the begin­ning of pas­sive recep­tion to invis­i­ble” ide­o­log­i­cal con­structs. The lat­ter for­ma­tion reflects the present con­sump­tion of film, the alien­ation of one indi­vid­ual from anoth­er while expe­ri­enc­ing the same phe­nom­e­na as they sit side by side in the the­atre. The one-way direc­tion of spec­ta­cle, the despa­tial­iza­tion of expe­ri­ence, and the paci­fy­ing effect of dis­trac­tion dimin­ish­es the neces­si­ty for intersubjectivity.

This notion of a prison-world of every­day life also ties in quite well with Fou­cault’s notion of a panop­tic gaze result­ing from new modes of social and polit­i­cal con­trol insti­tu­tion­al­ized by the regime panop­tique”. The dis­ci­plines of imag­ined scruti­ny ren­dered the body the site of an inter­nal­ized gaze, rein­forced by the cre­ation of tight­ly admin­is­tered insti­tu­tions that came to struc­ture all facets of pub­lic life. As an emerg­ing insti­tu­tion, cin­e­ma could be ana­lyzed as embody­ing the panop­tic gaze vir­tu­al­ly, a gaze that fil­ters through all modes of admin­is­tered cul­ture, in terms of pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, recep­tion, and con­tent. Being con­struct­ed on a mobile and vir­tu­al gaze, the plea­sure of cin­e­mat­ic spec­ta­tor­ship seems to be based on a mask­ing or a rever­sal of the inter­nal­ized panop­tic gaze. Even though one is sta­t­i­cal­ly posi­tioned with­in a pub­lic space, the dark­ness of the the­atre makes one feel as if one has escaped the prison-world of every­day life, that one has tran­scend­ed the con­fines of a fixed iden­ti­ty, a fixed time, and a fixed space. As a film spec­ta­tor obscured in dark­ness, one almost feels as if one has tak­en on the posi­tion omnipo­tence; one feels freed from the effects of sur­veil­lance as well, more in the posi­tion of an empow­ered voyeur. How­ev­er, one only pos­sess­es an imag­i­nary visu­al omnipo­tence since the film being viewed is only a recon­sti­tu­tion of real­i­ty. One choos­es to view such and such a film but is not in con­trol of the cam­er­a’s gaze. In fact, the manip­u­la­tion of the gaze only moves in one direc­tion in film spec­ta­tor­ship, from that of the pro­ject­ed image to the view­er. Although the spec­ta­tor may feel omnipo­tent and relieved of dis­ci­pli­nary con­straints, s/he is actu­al­ly engaged in a form of visu­al con­trol by a new insti­tu­tion of cod­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies and behav­iours are by no means forced upon the view­er but insin­u­ate them­selves through a num­ber of dis­cur­sive forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and repres­sion. In ear­ly cin­e­ma, if the spec­ta­tor feels like the tow­er guard in his/her vic­ar­i­ous iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the cam­era eye, then those subjects/actors being filmed must have a sense of being under sur­veil­lance. The self-con­scious­ness of so many of the filmed sub­jects in the Lumieres’ ear­ly films attests to this. The actors” acknowl­edge that they are being scru­ti­nized by a future anony­mous audi­ence, a dis­em­bod­ied, vir­tu­al audi­ence rather than a phys­i­cal­ly present body. The con­fined archi­tec­tur­al space of the the­ater, adapt­ed to the pur­pos­es of mass diver­sion, and the spe­cial atmos­pher­ic con­di­tions of dark­ened audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion as opposed to the seduc­tive, epiphan­ic glow of the mirac­u­lous­ly detailed inci­dents on screen kept the spec­ta­tor in awe. Nev­er in the his­to­ry of sec­u­lar cul­ture did an expe­ri­ence come so close to an expe­ri­ence of the sub­lime, of sus­pend­ed dis­be­lief. And yet this cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus was based on the prin­ci­ples of exhi­bi­tion val­ue, the erad­i­ca­tion of aura, not cult val­ue (Ben­jamin).

In the space of this essay, the con­struc­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in ear­ly spec­ta­tor­ship will be ana­lyzed in four well-known films by the Lumiere broth­ers: Work­ers Leav­ing the Lumiere Fac­to­ry, Arrival of the Con­gress Mem­bers at Neuville sur Saone, Arrival of a Train , and Leav­ing Jerusalem by Rail­way . The first two and the last two films will be paired up because of their par­al­lel and con­trast­ing struc­tures and con­tent. The gen­er­al analy­sis of the Lumieres’ films will in turn be bro­ken down into three categories:

• How new mate­r­i­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal demands put forth by the bour­geoisie paved the way for the inven­tion of the Cinematographe; 

• How doc­u­men­tary style and sub­ject rep­re­sen­ta­tion was deeply embed­ded in a bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy, along with its atten­dant anxieties;

• How the cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus was to con­tribute to the pro­duc­tion of a dif­fer­ent type of view­ing sub­ject, one that was in keep­ing with the pos­i­tivist project of opti­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion on the body, that had already been under­way since the begin­ning of the nine­teenth century.

The Lumieres’ doc­u­men­tary style was par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive in insti­tut­ing a slip­page between real­i­ty and its sim­u­la­tion because it for­ward­ed images of every­day life under the guise of sci­en­tif­ic truth, all the while enter­tain­ing the audi­ence through the shock of the real” pro­duced by the appa­ra­tus. As Ben­jamin not­ed, the blur­ring of real­i­ty and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in film could be con­ceived as relat­ing to the fusion of sci­ence and art as an inte­gral ele­ment of fas­ci­na­tion for the spectator:

In com­par­i­son with the stage scene, the filmed behav­iour item lends itself more read­i­ly to analy­sis because it can be iso­lat­ed more eas­i­ly. This cir­cum­stance derives its chief impor­tance from its ten­den­cy to pro­mote the mutu­al pen­e­tra­tion of art and sci­ence. Actu­al­ly, of a screened behav­iour item which is neat­ly brought out in a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion, like a mus­cle of a body, it is dif­fi­cult to say which is more fas­ci­nat­ing, its artis­tic val­ue or its val­ue for sci­ence (p.236).

As well as being invalu­able his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments of every­day social life at the end of the 19 th cen­tu­ry, what I hope will become appar­ent from my analy­sis of these films is the Cin­e­matographe’s fusion of sci­en­tif­ic inven­tion with the bur­geon­ing com­pet­i­tive enter­tain­ment indus­try. The suc­cess of this indus­try was depen­dent on the pro­duc­tion of a new sub­ject, one dri­ven by the com­pul­sion to see and con­sume all things new and all things sim­u­lat­ing the real . The con­struc­tion of iden­ti­ty from iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with actors,” while nascent in ear­ly cin­e­ma, was only the start­ing point for a com­plex sys­tem of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with and sub­jec­tion to the gaze that was to be de rigueur in sub­se­quent pro­duc­tions (Mul­vey).


Between 1891 and 1896, an inven­tion of inter­na­tion­al scope was in the mak­ing. Thomas Edi­son in the Unit­ed States, Robert W. Paul in Eng­land, Max and Emil Sklandows­ki in Ger­many, and Louis and Auguste Lumiere in France were rac­ing to invent and mar­ket the first film cam­eras, pro­jec­tors, and reels of cel­lu­loid film that were to record the hiero­glyphs of time and space, to be pro­ject­ed onto a screen. The cin­e­ma was in fact an idea that had been matur­ing for a long time. As an appa­ra­tus it was not an inven­tion in the strict sense of the term, but more of a brico­lage of many dif­fer­ent inven­tions, aes­thet­ic and opti­cal (as with its inspi­ra­tion from the chronopho­to­graph, and the dio­ra­ma), and tech­ni­cal (as with the use of the mech­a­nisms of the sewing machine and the bicy­cle for the appli­ca­tion of con­tin­u­ous motion). Alan Williams believes that this ever-widen­ing cir­cu­la­tion of over­lap­ping ideas and tech­niques con­tributed to motion pic­tures being invent­ed con­comi­tant­ly around the globe:

The cin­e­ma, as brico­lage, com­bined three nine­teenth cen­tu­ry tech­nolo­gies that had exist­ed for well over fifty years as sep­a­rate devel­op­ments. These were the analy­sis of move­ment, the opti­cal syn­the­sis of move­ment, and pho­tog­ra­phy. Once all three tech­nolo­gies were wide­ly dif­fused, cin­e­ma was con­ceiv­able as a goal to almost any­one in the edu­cat­ed upper-mid­dle class­es, which explains why so many peo­ple in vir­tu­al­ly all West­ern coun­tries tried to invent” the medi­um so des­per­ate­ly, long before the last nec­es­sary ingre­di­ent, flex­i­ble cel­lu­loid for film stock, was avail­able (p.11).

In 1891, Edi­son had made a break­through with his Kine­to­scope, the first device in which opti­cal syn­the­sis of pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly ana­lyzed move­ment was accom­plished, but it was far from per­fect; images could not be pro­ject­ed onto a screen and the extreme­ly heavy equip­ment could not leave his stu­dio, the Black Maria, where he was restrict­ed to film­ing vaude­ville-type acts against a black back­drop. The fact that the mov­ing pic­ture could only be viewed by the soli­tary spec­ta­tor made com­mer­cial dis­tri­b­u­tion of the device dif­fi­cult. When the Kine­to­scope made it into Europe, it was the Lumiere broth­ers’ father Antoine who saw the com­mer­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties of this appa­ra­tus: the pro­jec­tion of the flow of images/events before a mass audi­ence which account­ed for the com­mer­cial suc­cess of Daguer­re’s dio­ra­ma. The Lumiere Broth­ers, under the inspi­ra­tion of their father, were the first to man­u­fac­ture and dis­trib­ute films that were made out­side the con­trolled envi­ron­ment of the stu­dio, cap­tur­ing the out­door world of every­day con­tem­po­rary life using the most effi­cient light­weight equip­ment yet: Louis Lumiere designed his device on the mod­el of the portable still cam­era … which was almost a hun­dred times lighter than the Edi­son machines and mechan­i­cal­ly sim­pler. He also made his machine reversible, capa­ble not only of tak­ing cin­e­mato­graph­ic views, but of pro­ject­ing them as well” (Fin­ler, p.24).

It is essen­tial to under­stand the inven­tion of film with­in the con­text of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry eco­nom­ic mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion between nations, and espe­cial­ly of pri­vate enter­prise, that drove inven­tors to want to be the first to per­fect and dis­trib­ute the cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus. In his book Age of Empire , Hob­s­bawm explains how lib­er­al cap­i­tal­is­m’s ini­tial inter­na­tion­al­ism, whose basic build­ing-blocks were the atoms of enter­prise, became increas­ing­ly nation­al­ist around the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry: “…the devel­oped world was not only an aggre­gate of nation­al economies. Indus­tri­al­iza­tion and the Depres­sion turned them into a group of rival economies, in which the gains of one seemed to threat­en the posi­tion of oth­ers. Not only firms but nations com­pet­ed” (p.42). This nation­al­ist ten­den­cy is reflect­ed in the com­pet­i­tive­ness between film inven­tors from dif­fer­ent coun­tries. New inven­tions meant quick prof­its, and poten­tial­ly big busi­ness. There­fore, entre­pre­neur­ial fore­sight was as impor­tant as tech­ni­cal insight. Before the inven­tion of film, the Lumiere Broth­ers had been suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neurs in the inven­tion and mass pro­duc­tion of pho­to­graph­ic plates, and it was no acci­dent that their first film, the Work­ers Leav­ing the Lumiere Fac­to­ry , was one of the many self-pro­mo­tion­al film events they were to make in the first years of pro­duc­tion and mass dis­tri­b­u­tion. When Edis­on’s Kine­to­scope appeared in Paris, the Lumieres’ had the com­mer­cial vision to see great poten­tial in a more effi­cient way of dis­trib­ut­ing ani­mat­ed pho­to­graph­ic images. One of the rea­sons why Edi­son was not more hasty in try­ing to per­fect and dis­trib­ute mov­ing pic­tures was because, like many of these ear­ly inven­tors, he could not see the long term appli­ca­tions of the mov­ing pic­ture. As a device for sci­en­tif­ic research, it seemed lim­it­ed to the type of exper­i­ments in human and ani­mal motion that Marey and Muy­bridge had done suc­cess­ful­ly a few years ear­li­er. The devel­op­ment of cin­e­ma also seemed to have been sparked by the short­com­ings of pho­tog­ra­phy for estab­lish­ing evi­dence; there has been an increase in demand for a doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice that could estab­lish the truth of events through ver­i­fi­able live action (as opposed to reen­act­ments of actu­al­i­ties that pho­tog­ra­phy had already attempt­ed to do). But in terms of pure opti­cal enter­tain­ment val­ue, the mar­ketabil­i­ty of such an appa­ra­tus was not yet obvi­ous. The suc­cess­ful bricoleur who came up with the cin­e­mat­ic device in the end had to be part inven­tor, part entre­pre­neur and part show­man; between Louis Lumiere, his broth­er Auguste, and their father Antoine, each con­tributed their tal­ents in mak­ing it to the fin­ish­ing line before the oth­ers. They not only had the tech­ni­cal apti­tude to make pho­to­graph­ic images move with the sem­blance of real life, they saw it as a prof­itable enter­prise and as a future form of enter­tain­ment for the masses.

At first sight, these one-minute sin­gle frame film shots seem to deal exclu­sive­ly with doc­u­ment­ing, in a com­plete­ly objec­tive man­ner, the quo­tid­i­an life of the bour­geoisie and work­ing class peo­ple of their native city of Lyon (and lat­er that of for­eign peo­ples in oth­er parts of the world). But with­in this doc­u­men­tary objec­tive” style, the man­ner in which the sub­jects are shot and framed speak of a some­what priv­i­leged take on real­i­ty. On the one hand, the fram­ing of these sub­jects by the cam­er­a’s adop­tion of a long shot”, a dis­tant per­spec­tive, always allowed ample space for the devel­op­ment of action in all direc­tions, thus reveal­ing a qua­si-sci­en­tif­ic atti­tude toward the nat­ur­al move­ment of the sub­jects in every­day activ­i­ties. This dis­tant, deep sense of space, and depth of focus, as well as the con­tin­u­a­tion of action hors-champ (in-and-out of the frame), was impor­tant in con­vey­ing a sense of nat­u­ral­ness to the scene while the film-mak­ers clas­si­fied’ their sub­jects. Under the scruti­ny of the dis­em­bod­ied cam­era eye, one gets a def­i­nite sense of a desire to present a cat­e­go­riza­tion of sub­jects accord­ing of class, gen­der, and race, all the while allow­ing the uni­fied body of peo­ple to dis­perse with a sense of spon­tane­ity of move­ment. How­ev­er, it has been not­ed that Lumiere actu­al­i­ties dis­play a spa­tial coher­ence through a com­plex pat­tern of sym­me­tries that offer clo­sure,” are struc­tured by diag­o­nal lines of per­spec­tive that have a long tra­di­tion in West­ern paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy” and often dis­play a deep stag­ing and com­po­si­tion to locate a plot…with a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end” (Jonathan Auer­bach, p. 799).

The sub­tleties of fram­ing and con­struct­ing a con­tin­u­ous sin­gle shot film are also accom­pa­nied by a no less sub­tle choice of con­tent. One could under­stand the doc­u­men­tary impulse as being neces­si­tat­ed from the out­set by a cer­tain self-pro­mo­tion­al need and because of the type of audi­ence they ini­tial­ly addressed. The very first film they pro­duced, Work­ers Leav­ing the Lumiere Fac­to­ry , was made not just because the sub­ject and site were con­ve­nient. There were a mul­ti­tude of oth­er sub­jects the Lumiere’s could eas­i­ly have filmed. The first film they chose to pro­duce and screen for the pub­lic was a film about their work­ers leav­ing the Lumieres’ very suc­cess­ful enter­prise, spe­cial­ized in the man­u­fac­tur­ing of pho­to­graph­ic equip­ment. While this could be seen in part as an instance of self-pro­mo­tion first and fore­most, the film also reveals oth­er cod­ed mean­ings. The fact that the work­ers are leav­ing the fac­to­ry, and not enter­ing it for instance, seems sig­nif­i­cant; leav­ing the fac­to­ry reflects a time when the work­er is hap­py to be off work, ready to go about occu­py­ing their time with more leisure­ly activ­i­ties per­haps. The work­er is also no doubt relieved to be released from the sur­veil­lance-type sit­u­a­tion that char­ac­ter­ized so many fac­to­ries at that time, the new Tay­lorist-style meth­ods of sci­en­tif­ic work man­age­ment that would assure that they worked effi­cient­ly. The work­ers do appear to be by-and-large hap­py and eager to be leav­ing the fac­to­ry, all appears to be in dynam­ic motion, a few run­ning, or on bicy­cles, play­ing with a dog, or con­vers­ing in a live­ly man­ner. The fact that the major­i­ty of them are very tidi­ly dressed and don­ning hats fit for a petit-bour­geois sta­tus, reflects per­haps a cer­tain uncer­tain­ty as to their class sta­tus, work­ing class and yet per­haps strad­dling the low­er mid­dle class as well. This uncer­tain­ty and flu­id­i­ty of class bound­aries was char­ac­ter­is­tic of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Appar­ent­ly the cam­era was con­cealed so that a com­plete nat­u­ral­ness of atti­tude was to be attained and so that no direct acknowl­edge­ment of the cam­era was pos­si­ble by the work­ers. Anoth­er impor­tant aspect is the fact that most of the work­ers appear to be women. In an age of increased mass enter­tain­ment and of increased cir­cu­la­tion of pho­to­graph­ic images, employ­ment in the pho­to­graph­ic indus­try meant good work for women since it did not entail heavy labour and tend­ed toward more assem­bly line pro­duc­tion. This image of the hap­py, healthy work­er is one that the bour­geois entre­pre­neur wants to pro­mote in terms of their own priv­i­leged class posi­tion, espe­cial­ly since there had been so much social unrest amongst the work­ing class­es after the Depres­sion of the 1870s. The suc­cess and then sud­den defeat of the Com­mune de Paris in 1871 was a reminder to the bour­geoisie of the poten­tial of social rev­o­lu­tion amongst the mass­es that could erupt at any time and the unfor­tu­nate blood­shed that this could entail. There­fore the por­tray­al of the work­ing class­es in a favourable and pos­i­tive fash­ion was no doubt an uncon­scious deci­sion on their part to coun­ter­act any poten­tial hos­til­i­ty from the mass­es toward the cap­i­tal­ist struc­ture of bour­geois lib­er­al­ism. This pos­i­tive view of the fac­to­ry work­ers should be inter­pret­ed as a prac­ti­cal, com­mer­cial­ly dri­ven deci­sion on the part of the Lumieres but also, on a more uncon­scious lev­el, as a way of appeas­ing the anx­i­eties that the bour­geoisie felt vis-à-vis the work­ers. This recur­ring image of the work­er in many of the Lumieres’ films (road work­ers, ship­yard work­ers, laun­dress­es, etc.) was offer­ing up an ide­al, docile image that the ouvri­ers could iden­ti­fy with and upon which the bour­geoisie could project feel­ings of con­fi­dence. It was impor­tant to make work­ers as well as the bour­geoisie the main pro­tag­o­nists” in these first films since the low­er and mid­dle class­es were pro­ject­ed as the chief future consumers. 

Anoth­er rea­son why the Lumieres’ chose this doc­u­men­tary genre was no doubt because of their first imme­di­ate audi­ences, those who would be their first investors: they filmed for the pho­to­graph­ic con­gress­es, for con­fer­ences of learned soci­eties and acad­e­mies, and per­formed demon­stra­tions for sci­en­tif­ic peri­od­i­cals. Because they were inven­tors and men of sci­ence by nature, the Lumiere broth­ers chose the won­ders of sci­ence” route to mar­ket their appa­ra­tus. Sci­en­tif­ic soci­eties would hard­ly be impressed by Edi­son-style dance num­bers on the screen so the Lumieres chose to film images that would be suit­able for con­tem­pla­tion by the seri­ous and tech­ni­cal­ly informed bour­geois pub­lic — a pub­lic inter­est­ed in the ques­tion of real­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion and analy­sis of move­ment, not trick pho­tog­ra­phy. Anoth­er one of the first films they made, which was also self-pro­mo­tion­al, was the Arrival of the Con­gress Mem­bers at Neuville-sur-Saone . In com­par­i­son with the Work­ers Leav­ing the Lumiere Fac­to­ry , this film is dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent in intent. Here, the Lumieres filmed the pho­tog­ra­phy con­gress mem­bers dis­em­bark­ing a boat on their arrival at Lyon as a way of flat­ter­ing the mem­bers the next day when the broth­ers were to unveil their inven­tion to them. What bet­ter way to impress an audi­ence than by mak­ing them the focus of a ground-break­ing inven­tion? In this film they did not hide the cam­era from view as they had done with the work­ers. These full-fledged bour­geois sub­jects not only acknowl­edge the pres­ence of the cam­era by direct­ly star­ing into the cam­era but also dis­play a dis­tinct­ly bour­geois bod­i­ly rhetoric, the removal or tip of the hat to the cam­era marks them as mem­bers of polite soci­ety. Anoth­er con­trast to the fac­to­ry work­er film is the pre­dom­i­nance of men dis­em­bark­ing the boat. This is yet anoth­er sign of class; for although low­er class women worked out­side the home, and although bour­geois women were slow­ly mak­ing some head­way into the pro­fes­sion­al world, it was still prop­er for bour­geois women to stay at home and attend to domes­tic affairs.

One of the main fea­tures that dis­tin­guish­es these two films is the pres­ence or absence of the gaze. The bour­geoisie are grant­ed the pow­er to see, acknowl­edge, and even inter­act with the process of film­ing through his/her dis­play of politesse . The work­er is not. As with their infe­ri­or posi­tion with­in the fac­to­ry, the work­er is held up to scruti­ny by the gaze of the spec­ta­tor with­out being giv­en the priv­i­lege of look­ing back. Such an inten­tion­al class con­trast between these films, that oth­er­wise are so sim­i­lar in their struc­tur­al unfold­ing (the long line of bod­ies leav­ing a par­tic­u­lar space and dis­ap­pear­ing off-frame), seems to elic­it some­thing more than just an objec­tive doc­u­men­ta­tion. The films seem to betray an under­ly­ing anx­i­ety vis-a-vis the poten­tial break­down of class bound­aries. The very fact that a doc­u­men­tary-style por­tray­al of these dif­fer­ences should be offered up to audi­ences points to the Lumieres’ unwit­ting wish to main­tain such class dif­fer­ences. They prob­a­bly felt that their very liveli­hood depend­ed on it.


The so-called prim­i­tive” cin­e­ma of the turn of the cen­tu­ry was far from being the cin­e­ma of today as an insti­tu­tion­al form of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and mass con­sump­tion. Apart from the first screen­ings of the Lumieres’ films at sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ences, the films were to enjoy wide dis­tri­b­u­tion with­in urban cen­tres at fair grounds, vari­ety shows, sum­mer parks, and trav­el­ing shows. The sci­en­tif­ic inter­est in the mov­ing image was obvi­ous­ly lim­it­ed com­pared to the unan­i­mous shock and pure visu­al excite­ment the films pro­duced in the first view­ers. It was inevitable that the motion pic­ture would move to the next most log­i­cal site, that of insti­tu­tion­al­ized leisure spaces. Unlike the insti­tu­tion­al­ized con­text of film spec­ta­tor­ship today, these loca­tions of a dis­tinct vari­ety for­mat’ were appro­pri­ate to the one-minute length of the films, eas­i­ly slot­ted in between acts, so as to empha­size the diver­si­ty of enter­tain­ment. Fur­ther­more, the silent nature of the films meant that musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment became an inte­gral part of the film expe­ri­ence. It may seem sur­pris­ing that Lumiere films, pre­dom­i­nant­ly doc­u­men­tary in char­ac­ter, should find them­selves sand­wiched indis­crim­i­nate­ly amidst com­ic skits, dances, and mag­ic shows. How­ev­er, it seems that these pop­u­lar sites, in offer­ing such diverse forms of diver­sion, accom­mo­dat­ed a het­eroge­nous pub­lic whose class bound­aries were increas­ing­ly flu­id, espe­cial­ly in terms of cul­tur­al taste. With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of pho­tog­ra­phy amongst the bour­geoisie and with the panora­ma’s and dio­ra­ma’s depen­dence on mass spec­ta­tor­ship and the mobi­lized gaze, we find a dis­ci­pli­nary crossover between high art” and mass forms of spec­ta­cle based on a com­mon inter­est in sim­u­lat­ed real­i­ty (e.g. history/city panora­mas). Film spec­ta­tor­ship seemed to favour this mix­ing of mid­dle and work­ing class­es in the very vari­ety of its gen­res: news films and actu­al­i­ties, views of every­day life, work, and leisure, trav­el­ogues and scen­ics, dance num­bers, acro­bats, trick films, and come­dies. What film his­to­ry has tend­ed to obscure is the very het­eroge­nous char­ac­ter of the medi­um’s ori­gins, shar­ing many view­ing prac­tices with such visu­al­ly-depen­dent forms of mass enter­tain­ment as the dio­ra­ma, the vaude­ville act, the fair, the wax muse­um, even the morgue. In her dis­cus­sion of film-view­er rela­tions before Hol­ly­wood, Miri­am Hansen writes: Just as it bor­rowed inven­tions from oth­er areas of tech­nol­o­gy (such as the bicy­cle and the sewing machine), ear­ly cin­e­ma relied for its sub­ject mat­ter and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al strate­gies on a vast reper­toire of com­mer­cial amuse­ments that flour­ished around the end of the cen­tu­ry” (p.29). This unpar­al­leled diver­si­ty, nov­el­ty and real­ism” of amuse­ments, dis­tinct from the con­tem­pla­tive prac­tices of high­er class cul­ture, reflect­ed the increas­ing­ly frag­men­tary expe­ri­ence of urban every­day life and its con­sump­tion by the masses:

The rapid suc­ces­sion of seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed films and live per­for­mances encour­aged a mode of recep­tion incom­pat­i­ble with that man­dat­ed by the tra­di­tion­al arts — a ten­den­cy toward dis­trac­tion’ or diver­sion’ that notably Siegfried Kra­cauer, and fol­low­ing him, Wal­ter Ben­jamin val­orized as a prac­ti­cal cri­tique of bour­geois cul­ture. If the tra­di­tion­al arts required an extend­ed con­tem­pla­tion of and con­cen­tra­tion upon a sin­gu­lar object or event, the vari­ety for­mat promised a short-term but inces­sant sen­so­r­i­al stim­u­la­tion, a mobi­liza­tion of the view­er’s atten­tion through a dis­con­tin­u­ous series of attrac­tions, shocks, sur­pris­es. This type of recep­tion was per­ceived very ear­ly as a specif­i­cal­ly mod­ern form of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, reflect­ing the impact of urban­iza­tion and indus­tri­al­iza­tion upon human per­cep­tion (Hansen, p.29).

Jonathan Crary describes the frag­men­tary nature of such visu­al attrac­tions as hav­ing a desta­bi­liz­ing effect on one’s sub­ject position:

Vision, in a wide range of loca­tions, was refig­ured as dynam­ic, tem­po­ral, and syn­thet­ic. The demise of the punc­tu­al or anchored clas­si­cal observ­er began in the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, increas­ing­ly dis­placed by the unsta­ble atten­tive sub­ject… It is a sub­ject com­pe­tent both to be a con­sumer of and an agent in the syn­the­sis of a pro­lif­er­at­ing diver­si­ty of real­i­ty effects,” a sub­ject who will become the object of all the indus­tries of the image and spec­ta­cle in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry (p.68).

The very nov­el­ty of ear­ly film was such that it was the cin­e­mat­ic appa­ra­tus itself rather than the con­tent of the films them­selves that most attract­ed the spec­ta­tor to the the­atre or vari­ety show. When adver­tis­ing their films it was the new­ly invent­ed appa­ra­tus that was fore­ground­ed, the Cin­e­matographe Lumiere”, not the actu­al titles of the films. Ear­ly audi­ences would go to demon­stra­tions of the cam­era and pro­jec­tion appa­ra­tus just as they would go to exhi­bi­tions of all types of inven­tions, such as the X‑ray and the phono­graph. This was a form of edu­ca­tion­al enter­tain­ment for the mass­es who were curi­ous about all nov­el­ties that dis­played the progress of sci­ence and indus­tri­al­iza­tion. It was this curios­i­ty vis-à-vis visu­al demon­stra­tions, visu­al exper­i­ments, and visu­al plea­sures and com­modi­ties, that increas­ing­ly came to char­ac­ter­ize the pub­lic sphere of the bour­geoisie. It was no longer just one homo­ge­neous pub­lic that had the leisure and where­with­al to engage in ratio­nal dis­course (between edu­cat­ed, prop­er­tied equals); indus­tri­al­iza­tion and its atten­dant increase in com­modi­ties, inven­tions, and leisure time paved the way for new pub­lic con­fig­u­ra­tions, span­ning flu­id­ly from mid­dle to work­ing class, bound ever more close­ly by an attrac­tion to display/exhibition and an atten­tive­ness to diver­si­ty and detail:

With­in the new sys­tem of objects, which was found­ed on the con­tin­u­al pro­duc­tion of the new, atten­tion, as researchers learned, was sus­tained and enhanced by the reg­u­lar intro­duc­tion of nov­el­ty. His­tor­i­cal­ly, this regime of atten­tive­ness coin­cides with what Niet­zsche described as mod­ern nihilism: an exhaus­tion of mean­ing, a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of signs. Atten­tion, as part of a nor­ma­tive account of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, comes into being only when expe­ri­ences of sin­gu­lar­i­ty and iden­ti­ty are over­whelmed by equiv­a­lence and uni­ver­sal exchange (Crary, p.63–64).

The indi­vid­ual body, as well as the social body, became the repos­i­to­ry of new microp­ow­ers, not only through the con­trolled move­ments of a Tay­lorist assem­bly line work, but also in the acqui­si­tion of cer­tain expe­ri­ences through the shocks and starts of new ways of see­ing brought about by tech­nol­o­gy (pho­tog­ra­phy, trav­el, etc.) and new insti­tu­tions of cul­ture and entertainment. 

In his essay The Cin­e­ma of Attrac­tions: Ear­ly Film, Its Spec­ta­tor and the Avant-Garde”, Tom Gun­ning advances the term cin­e­ma of attrac­tions” as a more his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate descrip­tion of ear­ly films:

The poten­tial of the new art did not lie in imi­tat­ing the move­ments of nature or in the mis­tak­en path of its resem­blance to the­atre. Its unique pow­er was a mat­ter of mak­ing images seen. It is pre­cise­ly this har­ness­ing of vis­i­bil­i­ty, this act of show­ing and exhibit­ing, which I feel cin­e­ma before 1906 dis­plays most intense­ly (p.56).

Rather than being based on nar­ra­tive events and actions, ear­ly films were char­ac­ter­ized by con­scious dis­play, even exhi­bi­tion­ism. The spec­ta­tors as well as the indi­vid­u­als with­in the film seemed to take great plea­sure in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the spec­tac­u­lar­iza­tion of the event rather than pas­sive­ly con­sum­ing as an unac­knowl­edged voyeur. Films were often replayed a few times over, so much was won­der and shock appeal an inte­gral part of the mov­ing pic­tures expe­ri­ence. In terms of the dis­tinc­tions that could be made between dif­fer­ent gen­res, such as Melies’ fan­tas­ti­cal nar­ra­tive ver­sus Lumiere’s doc­u­men­tary film-mak­ing, Gun­ning pro­pos­es that one unite them in a con­cep­tion that sees cin­e­ma less as a way of telling sto­ries than as a way of pre­sent­ing a series of views to an audi­ence, fas­ci­nat­ing because of their illu­so­ry pow­er. In dis­tin­guish­ing the cin­e­ma of attrac­tions from that of lat­er Hol­ly­wood par­a­digms, Gun­ning emphasizes:

…the recur­ring look at the cam­era by actors. This action, which is lat­er per­ceived as spoil­ing the real­is­tic illu­sion of the cin­e­ma, is here under­tak­en with brio, estab­lish­ing con­tact with the audi­ence. From come­di­ans smirk­ing at the cam­era, to the con­stant bow­ing and ges­tur­ing of the con­jurors in mag­ic films, this is a cin­e­ma that dis­plays its vis­i­bil­i­ty, will­ing to rup­ture a self-enclosed fic­tion­al world for a chance to solic­it the atten­tion of the spec­ta­tor (p.57).

Although I agree with Gun­ning in terms of the impor­tance of dis­play and exhi­bi­tion­ism in ear­ly films and of the impor­tance placed on the spec­ta­tor’s plea­sur­able shock and sur­prise at images nev­er seen before out­side their nat­ur­al set­ting, I do think that there is a dis­tinc­tion to be made in terms of whose gaze is priv­i­leged with­in the film, espe­cial­ly when com­ing from dif­fer­ent class posi­tions. As I mapped out in the films Work­ers Leav­ing the Fac­to­ry and Arrival of the Con­gress Mem­bers , one must first nego­ti­ate who appears to have been giv­en the pow­er to see with­in the film, who is being seen, who is implic­it­ly being scru­ti­nized, who the film appears to be address­ing and why, and what kind of spec­ta­tor is being con­struct­ed in the view­ing of cer­tain sub­ject mat­ter and in the man­ner in which the film is shot. There are indeed many instances of the direct stare or of the self-con­scious per­for­mance of the sub­ject in these Lumiere films. This exhi­bi­tion­ism as acknowl­edge­ment of the cam­er­a’s record­ing of actions and of the view­ers act of see­ing must be ana­lyzed not only in light of the actu­al injus­tices of class inequal­i­ty, but also in light of the anx­i­eties caused by the flu­id­i­ty of class struc­tures implic­it­ly dis­played through the inten­tion­al seg­re­ga­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion of class, gen­der, and race with­in these films. Fur­ther­more, the sci­en­tif­ic accu­ra­cy of the cam­era in record­ing the details of one’s phys­iog­no­my, com­po­sure, and dress, is such that the result­ing behav­iours could be under­stood as being in line with the self-dis­ci­plin­ing atti­tudes towards meth­ods of sur­veil­lance. The film cam­era becomes an instru­ment of accu­ra­cy which the body tends to want to con­form to. Under the objec­tive gaze of the cam­era that enforces the truth”, that nev­er lies about what it records, the filmed sub­jects tend to exag­ger­ate their move­ments, to over­act in a self-con­scious (some­what stiff­ened) man­ner, as if the cam­era eye were enforc­ing an indi­rect form of sur­veil­lance, an indi­rect judge­ment on their actions. A case in point is a film of the Lumieres’ called Par­tie de cartes (Card game) where the wait­er who serves the bour­geois men drinks puts on an act of exag­ger­at­ed amuse­ment as he watch­es the men play cards while the men remain rel­a­tive­ly calm. This con­trast in demeanor reflects class dis­tinc­tion. The ser­vant offers him­self up to the view­er as an object of amuse­ment while he is at work, while the well-to-do men have to keep up their image of self-con­trol and of self-sat­is­fac­tion dur­ing their leisure time.


It was­n’t until after the pho­to­graph­ic and sci­en­tif­ic press pre­sent­ed the Lumiere films as not being a true inven­tion like the pho­to­graph or the X‑ray — strad­dling the enter­tain­ment and sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy indus­tries — that the Lumieres found them­selves oblig­ed to do the fair­ground cir­cuit. But the instant com­mer­cial suc­cess of their many pri­vate and pub­lic pro­jec­tions allowed them, with­in the first few months of pro­duc­tion, to hire a group of pho­tog­ra­phers to shoot scenery and peo­ple in oth­er parts of the world, footage that was to make up a large part of their film reper­toire. The footage these Lumiere rep­re­sen­ta­tives shot was to imi­tate the Lumiere doc­u­men­tary film sig­na­ture, mak­ing their prod­uct con­sis­tent, thus rec­og­niz­able and mar­ketable. Sur­pris­ing­ly, I think that the deci­sion to quick­ly exploit this new medi­um all over the world was relat­ed to the fact that both Edi­son and Lumiere con­sid­ered the cin­e­ma to be an inven­tion with­out a future, anoth­er opti­cal inven­tion in a long line of nine­teenth cen­tu­ry illu­sion­ist inven­tions like the stere­o­scope that would nev­er get past its sta­tus as nov­el­ty or as anoth­er fair­ground attrac­tion: The great suc­cess of the first screen­ings, along with a fear that the cin­e­ma might prove to be a short-lived phe­nom­e­non, meant that dur­ing the fol­low­ing months the Lumieres sought to exploit the new inven­tion quick­ly by expand­ing their activ­i­ties all over the world” (Fin­ler, p.14). This meant that they would film footage of actu­al­i­ties occur­ring in all areas of the world, includ­ing oth­er Euro­pean cities, Rus­sia, North Amer­i­ca, the French colonies of Africa and Indochi­na, and the Mid­dle East. This ten­den­cy of course was a direct result of increased eco­nom­ic inter­ac­tion between nations, colo­nial­ism, and tourism, facil­i­tat­ed by the inven­tion of the rail­road and the steamship. The cin­e­ma was but one cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non amongst many that was to direct­ly reflect this increased trend toward glob­al­iza­tion occur­ring through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, that which David Har­vey describes as the shrink­age of space that brings diverse com­mu­ni­ties across the globe into com­pe­ti­tion with each oth­er” (p.271), a pro­gres­sive time-space com­pres­sion between all places in the world effect­ed by the cir­cu­la­tion of resources and cap­i­tal. This had been occur­ring at an accel­er­at­ed rate espe­cial­ly since the depres­sion that swept out of Britain in 1846–7 and which quick­ly engulfed what com­prised the whole cap­i­tal­ist world at that time. This moment of cri­sis changed the con­cep­tions of time and space irrev­o­ca­bly because of the rapid increase in the cir­cu­la­tion of mon­ey and com­modi­ties as well as of migrat­ing cap­i­tal­ist labour prac­tices between coun­tries and con­ti­nents. Thus, when dis­cussing the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of film one must keep in mind the intense com­pe­ti­tion between coun­tries brought about by increased glob­al­iza­tion, and by exten­sion, the race for acqui­si­tion of colonies for eco­nom­ic profit:

The vast expan­sion of for­eign trade and invest­ment after 1850 put the major cap­i­tal­ist pow­ers on the path of glob­al­ism, but did so through impe­r­i­al con­quest and inter-impe­ri­al­ist rivalry…En route, the world’s spaces were deter­ri­to­ri­al­ized, stripped of their pre­ced­ing sig­ni­fi­ca­tions, and then reter­ri­to­ri­al­ized accord­ing to the con­ve­nience of colo­nial and impe­r­i­al admin­is­tra­tion. Not only was the rel­a­tive space rev­o­lu­tion­ized through inno­va­tions in trans­port and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but what that space con­tained was also fun­da­men­tal­ly re-ordered. The map of dom­i­na­tion of the world’s spaces changed out of all recog­ni­tion between 1850 and 1914. Yet it was pos­si­ble, giv­en the flow of infor­ma­tion and new tech­niques of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, to sam­ple a wide range of simul­ta­ne­ous impe­r­i­al adven­tures and con­flicts with a mere glance at the morn­ing news­pa­per (Har­vey, p.264).

The con­tent of ear­ly cin­e­ma, its cap­tur­ing of for­eign land­scapes and peo­ples, images of trains and steamships, was­n’t the only aspect that reflect­ed time-space com­pres­sion. In its very form, the cin­e­ma was a syn­the­sis of time and space through the man­i­fes­ta­tion of con­ti­nu­ity and move­ment. The cap­tur­ing of a past time and dis­tant space, an else­where and else­when oth­er than the time and place of cin­e­mat­ic recep­tion, makes the cin­e­mat­ic device the very embod­i­ment of time-space com­pres­sion. And because the process is pho­to­graph­ic and repro­ducible, an iden­ti­cal film can be viewed in many dif­fer­ent places at the same time. In his book The Cul­ture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 , Stephen Kern describes the eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, social, and cul­tur­al reper­cus­sions of this phe­nom­e­non of space-time com­pres­sion in which cin­e­ma would play a major role:

It is pos­si­ble to inter­pret how class struc­tures, modes of pro­duc­tion, pat­terns of diplo­ma­cy, or means of wag­ing war were man­i­fest­ed his­tor­i­cal­ly in terms of chang­ing expe­ri­ences of time and space. Thus class con­flict is viewed as a func­tion of social dis­tance, assem­bly lines are inter­pret­ed in con­junc­tion with Tay­lorism and time man­age­ment stud­ies, … the phono­graph and cin­e­ma are eval­u­at­ed in terms of the way they mod­i­fied the sense of the way they mod­i­fied the sense of the past…the pol­i­tics of impe­ri­al­ism is seen as the uni­ver­sal impulse to claim more space (p.4).

Much of the poignan­cy and beau­ty of the Lumiere films as a doc­u­men­tary genre, cap­tur­ing com­plete slices of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry life, was in how these var­i­ous social, eco­nom­ic, and ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tors inter­sect­ed in the very form and con­tent of vir­tu­al­ly all of their films.

With Arrival of a Train at Cio­tat and Leav­ing Jerusalem by Rail­way we not only have a ref­er­ence to the phe­nom­e­non of increased trav­el and tourism in the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry; we are also grant­ed a view of the priv­i­leged mobile sta­tus of the bour­geoisie ver­sus the sta­t­ic posi­tion of the for­eign oth­er with­in their nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. The train was the tech­no­log­i­cal inven­tion par excel­lence of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, one that rev­o­lu­tion­al­ized trav­el for the Euro­pean bour­geoisie; it was a deter­min­ing fac­tor in the phe­nom­e­non of space-time com­pres­sion, the bridg­ing of dis­tances between cities by the rise of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, impe­ri­al­ism, and cap­i­tal­ist trad­ing prac­tices. Just as film was depen­dent on the tra­vers­ing of bound­aries of time and space in its pro­duc­tion, the trav­el genre film and the rail­way film were impor­tant for the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma as being based on the expe­ri­ence of sep­a­ra­tion. As Charles Muss­er notes:

The trav­el­er’s world is medi­at­ed by the rail­road, not only by the com­part­ment win­dow with its frame but by tele­graph wire which inter­cede between the pas­sen­ger and the land­scape. The sen­sa­tion of sep­a­ra­tion which the trav­el­er feels on view­ing the rapid­ly pass­ing land­scape has much in com­mon with the the­atri­cal expe­ri­ence of the spec­ta­tor. Sep­a­ra­tion joins dis­con­ti­nu­ity as one of the fun­da­men­tal con­di­tions of the new mode of per­cep­tion which the cin­e­ma was to intro­duce into mod­ern soci­ety and help to insti­tu­tion­al­ize as nat­ur­al (p.20, Ear­ly Cinema).

This expe­ri­ence of the pass­ing land­scape was already uti­lized with resound­ing suc­cess in the mov­ing panora­ma and dio­ra­ma through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and lat­er was to find its apogee in the phe­nom­e­non of Hale’s Tours in the Unit­ed States when an entre­pre­neur turned a train car into a the­ater that showed images of pass­ing land­scapes filmed from a train. Angela Miller describes how the panora­ma, and lat­er the cin­e­ma, would use for­eign land­scapes, and the impres­sion of sim­u­lat­ed trav­el, to con­struct an ide­o­log­i­cal narrative:

[The panora­ma] did not mere­ly allow space to be imag­i­na­tive­ly inhab­it­ed; it also put this space in the ser­vice of a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy. Visu­al appro­pri­a­tion was a step toward the con­cep­tu­al con­trol which accom­pa­nied the exten­sion of Amer­i­ca’s and Europe’s emerg­ing urban-indus­tri­al order over increas­ing­ly wide areas of human expe­ri­ence. The panora­ma, with its sense of an ampli­fied geo­graph­i­cal and polit­i­cal per­spec­tive, served well the needs of a pub­lic for infor­ma­tion about new areas being col­o­nized by Europe. As the cin­e­ma would lat­er do, it offered a sen­sa­tion­al­ized sim­u­lacrum of the real — ren­der­ing the new­ly col­o­nized regions of the world acces­si­ble and vis­i­ble, glo­ri­fy­ing the impe­r­i­al state…(p.47).

Both Arrival of a Train and Leav­ing Jerusalem by Rail­way refer to the expe­ri­ence of a priv­i­leged mobile gaze. As has already been not­ed in the begin­ning of this paper, Arrival of a Train could prob­a­bly be con­sid­ered to be the first hor­ror’ movie ever made. The focus of the first half of the film is on cre­at­ing an intense visu­al impact on the view­er by the diag­o­nal deep space of the train advanc­ing from a point of invis­i­bil­i­ty until it seems to come direct­ly upon the spec­ta­tor through the screen. So much of the force of the film comes from the great use of black and white con­trast, the grad­ual and then very sud­den inva­sion of the black train’s diag­o­nal move­ment against the white emp­ty space of sky and land­scape. The inten­tion of this per­spec­ti­val view and diag­o­nal motion seems to have been to shock the first audi­ences, thus sat­is­fy­ing their grow­ing desire for exhil­a­rat­ing expe­ri­ences of speed. The sec­ond part of the film focus­es on the to-and-fro motion and the off-frame move­ment of pas­sen­gers dis­em­bark­ing and embark­ing onto a train. The accent seems to have been placed on the rapid­i­ty of the process of exchanged posi­tion, the dynam­ic flow of motion, the effect of deep space with­in the film as pas­sen­gers advance into the screen, recede into the dis­tance, and sashay this way and that across the visu­al field. The odd pas­sen­ger looks sur­pris­ing­ly into the cam­era but only sus­tains a fleet­ing glance for they seem to be in a rush to keep to the train sched­ule. Only one low­er class pas­sen­ger is present with­in a sea of well-dressed bour­geoisie. As in Work­ers Leav­ing the Fac­to­ry , what is strik­ing about this film is the pres­ence of so many women in com­par­i­son to the num­ber of men. Although mid­dle-class women were not as promi­nent in the work force, their increased pres­ence in the pub­lic sphere was insti­gat­ed by their new sta­tus as priv­i­leged con­sumers. Shop­ping, trav­el, and lat­er, going to the cin­e­ma, were amongst the most pop­u­lar forms of leisure activ­i­ty for bour­geois women dur­ing this peri­od. This inter­ac­tion between machine and bour­geois pas­sen­gers speaks of the pri­ma­cy of the mobi­lized gaze in terms of the very activ­i­ty of train trav­el and the mobile sta­tus of the bour­geoisie in every­day life and abroad. Train trav­el was­n’t just a way of get­ting from one city to anoth­er but was fast becom­ing a priv­i­leged expe­ri­ence mar­ket­ed as a com­mod­i­ty. The tourist indus­try, like the motion pic­ture indus­try lat­er on, was to cap­i­tal­ize on the increased leisure time and dis­pos­able income of the well-to-do bour­geois cit­i­zen. Fur­ther­more, the tourist indus­try was to suc­cess­ful­ly mar­ket an orga­nized mobil­i­ty, designed as pack­aged sights” in nar­ra­tive sequence. Anne Fried­berg explains how:

[t]he sub­jec­tive effects on the tourist are not unlike those of the cin­e­ma spec­ta­tor. Tourism pro­duces an escape from bound­aries, it legit­i­mates the trans­gres­sion of one’s sta­t­ic, sta­ble, or fixed posi­tion. The tourist simul­ta­ne­ous­ly embod­ies both a posi­tion of pres­ence and absence, of here and else­where, of avow­ing one’s curios­i­ty and dis­avow­ing one’s dai­ly life (p.59).

Leav­ing Jerusalem by Rail­way how­ev­er reflects train trav­el in a dia­met­ri­cal­ly oppo­site man­ner. In approach­ing this film I wish to call atten­tion to two pas­sages from Edward Said’s Ori­en­tal­ism in order to set the para­me­ters for the promi­nence of the West­ern gaze on the for­eign other:

The idea of rep­re­sen­ta­tion is a the­atri­cal one: the Ori­ent is the stage on which the whole East is con­fined. On this stage will appear fig­ures whose role it is to rep­re­sent the larg­er whole from which they emanate. The Ori­ent then seems to be, not an unlim­it­ed exten­sion beyond the famil­iar Euro­pean world, but rather a closed field, a the­atri­cal stage affixed to Europe (p.63).

To save an event from obliv­ion is in the Ori­en­tal­ist’s mind the equiv­a­lent of turn­ing the Ori­ent into a the­ater for his rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Orient…Moreover, the sheer pow­er of hav­ing described the Ori­ent in mod­ern Occi­den­tal terms lifts the Ori­ent from the realms of silent obscu­ri­ty where it has lain neglect­ed (except for the inchoate mur­mur­ings of a vast but unde­fined sense of its own past) into the clar­i­ty of mod­ern Euro­pean sci­ence (p.86).

These pas­sages are par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant in terms of how train trav­el and film can be envi­sioned as a way of eras­ing the phys­i­cal dis­tance between geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tinct places and peo­ples, and can be con­strued as the­atri­cal in terms of dra­mat­ic visu­al fram­ing that is inte­gral to the expe­ri­ence of both film and train trav­el. The first strik­ing dif­fer­ence between Leav­ing Jerusalem and Arrival of a Train is the fact that in the lat­ter film the cam­era is sta­t­ic and the peo­ple move, while in the for­mer, the cam­era moves and the peo­ple stay fixed, as if being left behind. Also, in Leav­ing Jerusalem , the train is not vis­i­ble at all; only the move­ment of the cam­era shoot­ing sug­gests that one is per­ceiv­ing as an omnipo­tent” spec­ta­tor from a posi­tion on the back of the train. The invis­i­bil­i­ty of the image of tech­nol­o­gy (the train) in this land­scape is impor­tant in con­struct­ing the illu­sion of a non-pro­gres­sive space, one that is stuck in the past and untouched by indus­tri­al­iza­tion. This absence of the image of the train as indus­tri­al progress helps per­pet­u­ate the image of the exot­ic that Euro­peans have attached to the Ori­ent through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, an image that ratio­nal­izes their col­o­niza­tion of the region. The for­eign oth­er’ on the sta­tion plat­form is sta­t­ic, as if being left behind by more priv­i­leged pas­sen­gers. Ini­tial­ly the focus of this film is on the back­ground land­scape: the image of the ancient walls of Jerusalem that look almost like ruins in the dis­tance. The land­scape is evoca­tive of a myth­i­cal place with­in the con­text of a prop­er bour­geois Chris­t­ian upbring­ing. By film­ing Jerusalem then, one is not only cap­tur­ing a dis­tant place, but a dif­fer­ent time, a his­tor­i­cal and myth­i­cal place of the past. As Said explains it in the above pas­sage, Jerusalem, as an exten­sion of the neb­u­lous cat­e­go­ry of the Ori­ent, has been buried in the sands of its own past up until the moment the Occi­den­tal gaze came along to doc­u­ment it with the pro­gres­sive eye of sci­ence. The cam­er­a’s pan­ning across and away from a dis­persed crowd of men of mixed races and reli­gions rein­forces in a struc­tur­al man­ner the idea of a space and peo­ple fixed in the past. Arab, Turk­ish, African, Jew­ish, and the pres­ence of one Fran­cis­can monk, con­trasts sig­nif­i­cant­ly in its mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and in the strong reli­gious his­to­ry of this space that con­tin­ues to exist in the Mid­dle East. When Said says that the Ori­ent is the stage on which the whole East is con­fined”, the image of this mul­ti­plic­i­ty of races and reli­gions in Jerusalem is a per­fect exam­ple in terms of con­vey­ing the non-speci­fici­ty of the term Ori­ent in the Euro­pean imag­i­na­tion. It only seems to con­firm a sense of the unknown in the eyes of the Occi­den­tal spec­ta­tor. In Arrival of a Train , one only dis­tin­guish­es the dif­fer­ences between wealth and pover­ty, women and men; the West­ern con­text is decid­ed­ly sec­u­lar and eco­nom­ic in com­par­i­son to oth­er cul­tures, reflect­ing their embrac­ing of cap­i­tal­ism, pos­i­tivist, and liberalism. 

While not explic­it­ly colo­nial-mind­ed in con­tent, Leav­ing Jerusalem advances a some­what roman­ti­cized vision of the Ori­ent in its choice of fram­ing, sequen­tial jux­ta­po­si­tion, and active pan­ning over the land­scape and peo­ple. There is an uneven exchange of pow­er struc­tures implic­it in the way these men are por­trayed. These for­eign oth­ers do not move from this space, they only watch the train (as image of indus­tri­al progress) go by. These men are look­ing direct­ly at the cam­era, but as observers they are deprived of the active, mobi­lized gaze (from a West­ern per­spec­tive) from the mov­ing train. They seem to look back at the spec­ta­tor as mys­te­ri­ous oth­ers.” A few of the men do walk for­ward along the plat­form and smile at the cam­era, but the major­i­ty are immo­bile and just seem to stay fixed in place. The ide­o­log­i­cal sub­text seems to be that these for­eign­ers are docile, and do not pose a threat on the Euro­pean view­er. They are reduced to the com­mod­i­fied West­ern image of the Ori­en­tal as con­struct­ed in touris­tic dis­course. For the mid­dle class or low­er class spec­ta­tor, this serves as a form of arm­chair trav­el, either an image of where one might want to vis­it or a place that one can’t afford to vis­it (but does­n’t need to because they already feel as if they have been there). This fix­ing of the image of the Ori­en­tal oth­er” in a sta­t­ic, obscure, and unchang­ing sub­ject posi­tion seems to be act­ing as a pur­pose­ful ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work that yet again seemed to serve to enforce a false sense of secu­ri­ty for the mid­dle class­es at a time when class posi­tions seem more and more flu­id at home. This fixed image of the oth­er also seems to rein­force the need for strong nation­al­ist iden­ti­fi­ca­tions with­in Euro­pean coun­tries at a time when com­pe­ti­tion between coun­tries con­tin­ued to grow, just before the whole exploita­tive ven­ture of col­o­niza­tion was begin­ning to be ques­tioned. The objec­ti­fy­ing West­ern gaze onto the for­eign oth­er in Leav­ing Jerusalem seems to be ratio­nal­iz­ing the inva­sion of the pro­gres­sive Euro­pean influ­ence onto for­eign pas­sive soil through the voyeuris­tic com­mod­i­fy­ing act of tourism.


It is not a coin­ci­dence that the image of the bour­geoisie, the work­er, and the for­eign oth­er’ were to be amongst the most priv­i­leged objects of study with­in the Lumieres’ films. As sep­a­rate social cat­e­gories that were increas­ing­ly inter­con­nect­ed and merg­ing with one anoth­er in the vast web of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry cap­i­tal­ist labour and exchange prac­tices, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of these local and for­eign images pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly sat­is­fied a grow­ing thirst to pre­serve his­tor­i­cal and social mem­o­ry, thus serv­ing to legit­imize, through cer­tain fram­ing prac­tices, the very per­sis­tence of such social and eco­nom­ic structures.

From its incep­tion the pho­to­graph was chan­nelled sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly and anthro­po­log­i­cal­ly in the ser­vice of estab­lish­ing evi­dence. A way of mak­ing his­to­ry, like the record­ing of scenes of a crime”, the pho­to­graph did not lie, it made real­i­ty trans­par­ent, and there­fore could be used as proof of sci­en­tif­ic truth and as ide­o­log­i­cal rein­force­ment of pre­con­ceived mid­dle class ideals. Through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, pho­tographs were cir­cu­lat­ed more and more in shops and bill­boards and news­pa­pers and books, in asy­lums, hos­pi­tals, labs, and in police sta­tions. The record­ing of the body became a sci­ence through pho­tog­ra­phy and phys­iog­nom­ic the­o­ries so as to sup­port the notions of class supe­ri­or­i­ty by the bour­geoisie. Under the objec­tive eye of the cam­era, all was con­sid­ered to be sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence. Cat­e­go­riza­tion of bod­ies, body parts, body move­ment, dress, pos­ture, and facial expres­sion, all were used as ide­o­log­i­cal proof of the supe­ri­or­i­ty of a bour­geois iden­ti­ty, a class of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion, of bought sta­tus. And yet, it was through the pho­to­graph that all were con­sid­ered to be ana­lyzed on an equal footing.

The images of the body of the work­er and of the for­eign oth­er’ that pro­lif­er­at­ed and cir­cu­lat­ed through pho­tog­ra­phy, and lat­er film, through­out the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry are homol­o­gous to that of the exchange of mon­ey as a sign of social power:

They are equal­ly total­iz­ing sys­tems for bind­ing and uni­fy­ing all sub­jects with­in a sin­gle glob­al net­work of val­u­a­tion and desire. As Marx said of mon­ey, pho­tog­ra­phy is also a great lev­el­er, a democ­ra­tiz­er, a mere sym­bol,” a fic­tion sanc­tioned by the so-called uni­ver­sal con­sent of Mankind. Both are mag­i­cal forms that estab­lish a new set of abstract rela­tions between indi­vid­u­als and things and impose those rela­tions as the real” (Crary, p.13).

All forms of pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice, this priv­i­leged medi­um embody­ing a hier­ar­ch­less way of see­ing the world, par­al­lels the rise of democ­ra­cy, and the dis­so­lu­tion of the bound­ary between sacred and pro­fane. This is rem­i­nis­cent of what Wal­ter Ben­jamin wrote about in terms of the loss of cult val­ue in images, mak­ing way for exhi­bi­tion or exchange val­ue that reduces all sub­ject to the sta­tus of commodities:

Unmis­tak­ably, repro­duc­tion as offered by pic­ture mag­a­zines and news­reels dif­fers from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Unique­ness and per­ma­nence are as close­ly linked in the lat­ter as are tran­si­tori­ness and repro­ducibil­i­ty in the for­mer. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a per­cep­tion whose sense of the uni­ver­sal equal­i­ty of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of repro­duc­tion. Thus is man­i­fest­ed in the field of per­cep­tion what in the the­o­ret­i­cal sphere is notice­able in the increas­ing impor­tance of sta­tis­tics. The adjust­ment of real­i­ty to the mass­es and of the mass­es to real­i­ty is a process of unlim­it­ed scope, as much for think­ing as for per­cep­tion (p.223).

As doc­u­men­tary films, found­ed on their pho­to­graph­ic truth con­tent, the Lumieres’ enact­ments” of the bour­geoisie at leisure, low­er class leav­ing work, or for­eign­er in his age­less envi­ron­ment, are pre­sent­ed as nat­u­ral­ized occur­rences, as objec­tive snip­pets of his­to­ry, by their attach­ment to the real.’ In film as in pho­tog­ra­phy, images were cir­cu­lat­ed en masse, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing one anoth­er, as exchange­able signs on a sim­i­lar lev­el, yet all refer­ring to their place with­in the social myth sys­tem, as with all com­modi­ties. The work­er, detached from the prod­uct of his/her labour, or the oth­er” detached from any sense of agency, became a way of lev­el­ing the sub­ject to being no more that an object of voyeuris­tic analy­sis, or of pure spec­ta­cle, with­in pho­tog­ra­phy and film. These exchange­able images are rep­re­sent­ed reflex­ive­ly, as part of a new val­u­a­tion of visu­al expe­ri­ence: the visu­al, through such devices as film, is giv­en an unprece­dent­ed mobil­i­ty and exchange­abil­i­ty through being abstract­ed from any found­ing site or ref­er­ent, as an object pried from its shell. They are lit­er­al­ly cir­cu­lat­ed around the world out­side the con­straints of real time and real space. Ahis­tor­i­cal. The record­ing of the body in pho­tog­ra­phy or film becomes a free-float­ing sign on a sim­i­lar lev­el to the cir­cu­lat­ing com­mod­i­ty and how it is dis­played for con­sump­tion. What the cir­cu­lat­ing images mask how­ev­er, in the very ubiq­ui­ty and stan­dard­ized depic­tion of the same recur­ring images, is the under­ly­ing ide­o­log­i­cal fram­ing that ren­ders all of these images nat­u­ral­ized and inter­change­able. Against the self-sat­is­fied gaze of the bour­geoisie who vis­i­bly pos­sess the pow­er to manip­u­late these images and the pow­er to exploit, the image of the hap­py and pas­sive work­er and for­eign oth­er’ mask the inher­ent inequal­i­ties and anx­i­eties that lie beneath the sur­face. Ide­olo­gies nat­u­ral­ize rep­re­sen­ta­tions”( T.J. Clark, The Paint­ing of Mod­ern Life, p.8).

Indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion and new forms of tech­nol­o­gy were devised with the eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy of labour and invest­ment prac­tices in mind. Mon­ey, resources, and man­u­fac­tured goods cir­cu­lat­ed rapid­ly thanks to trains and steamships. But once machine labour freed up time for leisure activ­i­ty these same inven­tions and meth­ods of sci­en­tif­ic research were used indi­rect­ly to manip­u­late the mass­es by cre­at­ing admin­is­trat­ed cul­tur­al spaces where they could spent their leisure time. In oth­er words, film could be under­stood as the appa­ra­tus around which a new insti­tu­tion of knowl­edge would be devel­oped under the guise of leisure activ­i­ty. If one con­sid­ers how Fou­cault con­ceives of the sub­ject as man­aged through insti­tu­tions that reg­u­late actions through sur­veil­lance, through deter­rence and the accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge of the body, and through the spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion of these bod­ies, one can detect to what extent the body, espe­cial­ly in the very begin­ning of film, is ana­lyzed and ren­dered the site of con­scious exhi­bi­tion before the cin­e­mat­ic cam­era and indi­rect­ly before the future audi­ence who is wit­ness to the pow­er of the cam­er­a’s exact record­ing of bod­i­ly move­ment with­in urban or for­eign spaces. Film becomes part and par­cel of the sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods as dis­persed mech­a­nisms of pow­er that coin­cid­ed with new modes of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in the observ­er. The body is the site of that which sees but also, as is evi­dent from the self-con­scious stare of the filmed sub­ject in Lumiere films, of that which is seen, that which is under con­tin­u­ous scruti­ny and manip­u­la­tion. The very fact that a dis­ci­ple of Fred­er­ick W. Tay­lor, Frank Gilbreth, applied the motion stud­ies of humans as derived from Muy­bridge’s chronopho­tog­ra­phy, in his sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment of labour prac­tices (by pho­tograph­ing the move­ments of the most effi­cient work­ers and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly break­ing down the process­es into timed com­po­nent ele­ments), proves to what extent the sub­ject was being con­trolled by the new visu­al record­ing tech­nolo­gies and by its ide­o­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic admin­is­tra­tion. As Eti­enne Jules Marey was to dis­cern back in 1874: Liv­ing beings have been fre­quent­ly and in every age com­pared to machines, but it is only in the present day that the bear­ing and the jus­tice of the com­par­i­son are ful­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble” (Burch, p.12). Per­haps it is not that the body is direct­ly com­pa­ra­ble to a machine, but rather that the body is sub­or­di­nate to and con­trolled by the eco­nom­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus. The log­ic of opti­cal machines, being based on the body’s own lim­i­ta­tions in what and how it sees, makes vision the most manip­u­la­tive fac­ul­ty by which to con­trol and nor­mal­ize the behav­iour of the subject:

The relo­ca­tion of per­cep­tion into the thick­ness of the body was a pre­con­di­tion for the instru­men­tal­iz­ing of human vision into mere­ly a com­po­nent of new mechan­ic arrange­ments. This dis­in­te­gra­tion of an indis­putable dis­tinc­tion between inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or became a con­di­tion for the emer­gence of spec­tac­u­lar mod­ern­iz­ing cul­ture (Crary, Unbind­ing vision”, p.47).

As one can see, it is not enough to mere­ly ana­lyze the con­tent of film, i.e. the place occu­pied by the bour­geoisie, the work­er and the oth­er” in these films. It is also nec­es­sary to reveal how cin­e­ma was always already ground­ed in pre­vi­ous sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies on the nature of vision and its recon­nec­tion to the body in the begin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. At this moment in time there was a sweep­ing trans­for­ma­tion in the way an observ­er was fig­ured in a wide range of social prac­tices and domains of knowl­edge. One must trace a cer­tain geneal­o­gy of vision as it is relat­ed to a new con­cep­tion of the dis­ci­plined sub­ject as Fou­cault was to define it in Power/Knowledge:

One has to dis­pense with the con­stituent sub­ject, to get rid of the sub­ject itself, that’s to say, to arrive at an analy­sis which can account for the con­sti­tu­tion of the sub­ject with­in a his­tor­i­cal frame­work. And this is what I would call geneal­o­gy, that is, a form of his­to­ry which can account for the con­sti­tu­tion of knowl­edges, dis­cours­es, domains of objects, etc., with­out hav­ing to make ref­er­ence to a sub­ject which is either tran­scen­den­tal in rela­tion to a field of events or runs in its emp­ty same­ness through­out the course of his­to­ry (p.117).

From about 1820 a whole set of opti­cal devices were invent­ed that act­ed as sites of both knowl­edge and pow­er that oper­at­ed direct­ly on the body of the indi­vid­ual. This was the result of an increased under­stand­ing of vision as being inex­tri­ca­bly bound to the human sub­ject and trans­lat­ed as phys­i­o­log­i­cal opti­cal reac­tions (e.g. the phe­nom­e­non of the per­sis­tence of vision or after­im­ages). In the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, vision had been con­ceived as a phe­nom­e­non occur­ring out­side of and autonomous from the pres­ence of the human body. This had been based on the cam­era obscu­ra as par­a­dig­mat­ic of the nature of opti­cal phe­nom­e­na. The visu­al had been under­stand as firm­ly root­ed in the objec­tive ground of empir­i­cal data. In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the stere­o­scope, zootrope, and dio­ra­ma, fol­lowed by Muy­bridge’s and Mar­ley’s inves­ti­ga­tions of human and ani­mal motion through meth­ods of ser­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy, were all a result of a change in the con­cep­tion of vision and its rela­tion to the human body. Vision was uproot­ed and made mobile by being placed with­in the site of the human body; the reper­cus­sions of such a shift in the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal nature of vision could only have result­ed in the inven­tion of new devices used to study the sub­jec­tive basis of vision. What is inter­est­ing is how these sci­en­tif­ic instru­ments became amuse­ments in them­selves, eas­i­ly mar­ketable because of the increased demand for opti­cal sim­u­la­tions of real­i­ty. Jonathan Crary defines the pro­duc­tion of a new sub­ject as the result of a his­tor­i­cal shift in how vision is seen and used to con­sol­i­date new pow­er struc­tures: Vision and its effects are always insep­a­ra­ble from the pos­si­bil­i­ties of an observ­ing sub­ject who is both the his­tor­i­cal prod­uct and the site of cer­tain prac­tices, tech­niques, insti­tu­tions, and pro­ce­dures of subjectification”(p.7). These new inven­tions based on analy­sis of the nature of human per­cep­tion and of bod­i­ly move­ment in turn paved the way for the inven­tion of cin­e­ma and its atten­dant depen­dence on a par­tic­u­lar type of observ­er, one that was not yet a pas­sive spec­ta­tor but who was nonethe­less more and more shaped by and adapt­ed to a frag­ment­ed, tran­sient vision of the sur­round­ing world, espe­cial­ly as a chaot­ic urban experience.

The same knowl­edge that allowed the increas­ing ratio­nal­iza­tion and con­trol of the human sub­ject in terms of new insti­tu­tion­al and eco­nom­ic require­ments was also a con­di­tion for new exper­i­ments in visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion” (Crary, p.9). In oth­er words, visu­al art” or visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions and sci­ence were not sep­a­rate but were part of a sin­gle inter­lock­ing field of knowl­edge and prac­tice. The sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries of vision and of the observ­er worked in tan­dem with the increased cir­cu­la­tion of peo­ple and cap­i­tal across the globe result­ing from the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion and such inven­tions as the train and the tele­graph. These inven­tions increased the fas­ci­na­tion in the view­er with all rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the real”, or rather of the sim­u­la­tion of the real”, as well as rein­forced a grow­ing taste for the new”, espe­cial­ly in the form of com­modi­ties and enter­tain­ment as a result of indus­tri­al modes of pro­duc­tion, more leisure time, increased trade and a grow­ing inter­est in for­eign places (as colonies and com­pet­ing coun­tries). The desire for the new” was per­pet­u­at­ed by the con­tin­ued efforts by inven­tors and entre­pre­neurs. The con­tin­ued exper­i­men­ta­tion was to result in the break­through of mov­ing pic­tures. Cin­e­ma, then, could be envi­sioned not only as the result of dis­ci­plin­ing of the human body but also as a means of dis­ci­plin­ing the human sub­ject in the prac­tice of increased con­sump­tion of all things new” (in the form of com­modi­ties and enter­tain­ment), and of all sim­u­la­tions of the real”. These cin­e­mat­ic sites were archi­tec­tur­al forms of con­tain­ment and sub­ject con­struc­tion (through process­es of imag­ines pro­jec­tion and sub­jec­tion) par­tic­u­lar­ly tar­get­ing the work­ing and low­er mid­dle class body out­side the work space.


What I find inter­est­ing in these films is that, although they are the first instances of a con­tin­u­ous motion record­ing of real’ every­day life with­in a West­ern con­text, the film­mak­ers still man­aged to con­vey the false inno­cence” of a dom­i­nant set of bour­geois val­ues and one is able to dis­cern implic­it anx­i­eties relat­ed to the dizzy­ing changes result­ing from mod­ern life–the sense of increased com­pe­ti­tion with oth­er coun­tries, threats from the low­er class­es, and increased con­tact with the for­eign Oth­er”. This desta­bi­liz­ing sense of one’s place and sta­tus in the world is a prod­uct of the flu­id­i­ty and frag­men­ta­tion of human and class rela­tions brought about through indus­tri­al­iza­tion. I feel that the threat of eco­nom­ic and social col­lapse is ever more present because of the insta­bil­i­ty of class bound­aries and rela­tions and because of the tran­sient nature of city life. Per­haps the focus on the colo­nial oth­er” pro­vid­ed an out­let for the per­pet­u­al anx­i­ety of the flu­id­i­ty of class bound­aries, a sta­bi­liz­ing anchor from which the mid­dle and low­er class­es be moored so as to make them feel a cer­tain secu­ri­ty from being swept adrift into the unknown waters of pre­car­i­ous­ly shift­ing eco­nom­ic and social struc­tures. By por­tray­ing the for­eign oth­er’ as unciv­i­lized yet com­pli­ant, charm­ing, and mys­te­ri­ous, that is by rob­bing them of any of their own sub­jec­tiv­i­ty through a com­plete­ly clin­i­cal and neutralizing/superior gaze, the spec­ta­tor was allowed to feel uncon­scious­ly empow­ered with­in their sub­ject posi­tion as a supe­ri­or” civ­i­lized observer.

Like the prison guard sur­vey­ing the panoram­ic cells from on high, the cin­e­mat­ic spec­ta­tor was pro­vid­ed a com­pro­mised view of the social cat­e­gories of mod­ern life pro­vid­ed to them by the Lumieres. Work­er, bour­geois, and colo­nial oth­er, each made up a struc­ture of uni­fied vision, that of the reign­ing bour­geois ide­ol­o­gy of the time.

The begin­nings of film with the Cin­e­matographe in 1895 there­fore seem to embody a moment of extreme flu­id­i­ty, uncer­tain­ty, and of great con­tra­dic­tion. The first spec­ta­tors were not quite the pas­sive view­ers we have come to know today. Although the medi­um was depen­dent on a sub­jec­t’s posi­tion of pas­siv­i­ty, the shock of these first films on the spec­ta­tor gave them a sense of being wit­ness, as a par­tic­i­pat­ing group, to the dis­cov­ery and expe­ri­ence of a new inven­tion and a more glob­al­ized vision of the every­day. The film­ing of doc­u­men­tary facts and actu­al­i­ties around the globe gave a sci­en­tif­ic valid­i­ty to this new form of enter­tain­ment. But being nei­ther pure sci­ence nor pure spec­ta­cle, nei­ther insti­tut­ing pure pas­siv­i­ty nor active engage­ment, nei­ther total­ly real nor total­ly fic­tive, nei­ther pro­vid­ing an out­let of tan­gi­ble free­dom nor serv­ing as a form of mass-cul­tur­al mind con­trol, nei­ther prison nor adven­ture, ear­ly Lumiere films appear to our con­tem­po­rary eyes as embody­ing the unlim­it­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties of a new medi­um, espe­cial­ly as a doc­u­men­tary genre. The medi­um’s capac­i­ty for ide­o­log­i­cal manip­u­la­tion how­ev­er, is already very appar­ent in the case of Lumiere’s films. These are the traces that allow us to con­nect the ear­ly cin­e­ma with the con­fig­u­ra­tion it has today. Although such film the­o­rists as Tom Gun­ning see prim­i­tive cin­e­ma as car­ry­ing the seeds of lat­er avant-garde film prac­tices that resist the stan­dard­iza­tion of lat­er Amer­i­can film, we can also cer­tain­ly trace the begin­nings of a manip­u­la­tive priv­i­leged point of view under the guise of doc­u­men­tary truth. In the post­war peri­od cin­e­ma lost most of its polit­i­cal and doc­u­men­tary intent, instead turn­ing to enter­tain­ment, hand­ing the task over to tele­vi­sion (and radio).

In 1900, when the sales of the Cin­e­matographe and of their films had estab­lished the pre­em­i­nence of their pho­to­graph­ic firm, the Lumiere broth­ers sold their cam­era rights to Charles Pathe so as to fol­low more ortho­dox sci­en­tif­ic ven­tures. Because of the obvi­ous­ly pop­u­lar appeal of cin­e­ma as a form of diver­sion out­side the edu­ca­tion­al con­text, the Lumieres had lost inter­est in the cin­e­ma’s future. They had always desired to be per­ceived first and fore­most as sci­en­tists rather than as entre­pre­neurs or businessmen–a class that was per­haps becom­ing more preva­lent in Amer­i­ca. And so ends the begin­ning of a piv­otal moment in film pro­duc­tion and recep­tion, as it cross­es from its reign in the old world to estab­lish itself in the new .


1 Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion”, Illu­mi­na­tions , New York: Schock­en Books, p.236.

2 Hansen, Ben­jamin, Cin­e­ma, and Expe­ri­ence”, p.181.

3 Hansen, p. 25.

4 Hansen, p. 184.

5 Ben­jamin, Illu­mi­na­tions , p. 192.

6 Ben­jamin, Illu­mi­na­tions , p. 188.


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