A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1895 – Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
Well, we begin our first day with the obvious… the film generally thought of as the “first” film. Typically, when you think about the first movies ever made, this image will pop into your head.
This is, of course, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Or, I guess, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. You know. For those who speak Yiddish.
Since it’s pretty obvious why this is here, mostly I’m just going to talk about its importance in the history of cinema. This is almost a kind of #0 to the list. Since, most people know this as the first movie, that was screened at August and Louis Lumière’s first public film screening on December 28, 1895. In fact, it wasn’t, and the film wasn’t actually publically screened until a month later. So I’m kind of fudging the timeline a little bit, but I’m mostly using it as an example of the “start” of film. (Just treat it like one of those Oscar movies you get the screeners for before Christmas and isn’t released widely until January.)
That’s really its importance. It represents all of the first movies. That’s what the first five years of movies were, essentially. 50 second bursts of whatever was put in front of a camera. These early movies were more about, “Holy shit, we’re watching these pictures move” more than anything else. You’re actually watching an everyday occurrence – a train entering a station and people getting on and off – but that occurrence was filmed. We’re watching it happen. That’s the thing about early film. Some scholars called this early era the “cinema of attractions.” This is the kind of stuff they put in those little tents and cinematograph shops. Pay five cents, watch this thing over and over. A hundred years ago, it was no different than going to one of those NASA museums and being able to go into a flight simulator. It’s about the experience of seeing something that you haven’t seen before. It’s not for a few years that people started treating film as an art form that can tell a story on its own and actually do more than just show you things.
The other thing about this film in particular, formally, is that they use a wide shot, and, despite the camera not moving, it actually becomes a medium shot and close up by the end, with the train coming in (on a diagonal as well. Diagonals are very important in the first fifteen years of cinema to accurately depict space. This will be brought up in future articles) and stopping right in the foreground, and people getting off and populating the space, right in front of the camera. (Plus, people know this is being filmed, so you can see some of them clearly not knowing how to act in front of the camera. It’s pretty great.)
And I also don’t need to mention the whole legend of people jumping out of their chairs when the train came toward them on the screen, as has been mentioned so many times.
If you’re going to start a list that talks about the most iconic images or films in the history of film, you pretty much have to start it with this one.