Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The birth of cinema: A Review of The Lumière Brothers’ First Films (1895-1897)

The Lumière Brothers’ First Films

The Lumière Brothers’ First Films presents the viewer with 85 full-length films (each one running for 50 seconds)  filmed by the Lumières and their associates, selected from over 1,500 films in the Institute Lumière's archives.


Before discussing the films themselves, a brief look at the Lumière Brothers’ background will be helpful, given their pivotal role in developing film from both an inventor’s and artistic perspective.

In the summer of 1894, the Lumière Brothers’ father Claude-Antione (an artist, photographer and entrepreneur) observed a demonstration of Edison’s Kinetoscope. Sufficiently impressed by the device’s potential, he returned to his sons in Lyon, stating that they could do better than Edison – and their aim should be to ‘get that image out of the box’.

On 13th February 1895, the Lumières registered a patent for a device they called the Cinématographe (which can be seen in the picture above). They made two significant improvements on Edison’s device. Firstly, it was a lot lighter than the Kinetograph – which was a bulky piece of machinery that was resigned to the studio. This allowed the Lumière’s Cinématographe to be portable – and allowed them to have a far greater range of subjects and locations to shoot. Secondly, Edison’s peephole Kinetoscope meant that it could only be viewed by one person at a time. The Lumière brothers had invented a device which combined a camera with both a printer and a projector – allowing for the first commercial exhibition of on 28th December at the Grand Cafe on Paris’s Boulevard de Capuchines – a date widely acknowledged as the day on which cinema was born. (They also used a film width of 35mm, and a speed of 16 frames per second, which would be accepted as the industry norm until the talkies.)


The 85 films are narrated by the French director Bertrand Tavernier, who provides a humorous and insightful analysis of the Lumière’s films. He manages to balance amusing anecdotes with an incisive historical understanding of the films’ progression. Most importantly, his Gallic passion for the Lumière’s oeuvre is infectious.

The structure of the films is helpful; beginning with the earliest films shot by the brothers themselves, Tavernier goes on to introduce films which chronicled the city of Lyon and then the subject family life in general. It is interesting to note the rapidity of the Lumières’ success, and within a year they were commissioning their associates to shoot films in areas as diverse as Venice, Egypt and Indo-China. Even at cinema’s inception, there is a marriage between capitalist expansion and artistic expression.

The Lumières’ decision to name their device the Cinematograph, which in Greek means the writing of movement, is telling. There is a sense that a new language is being formed and explored in these early films – and many of the results are of great interest to the contemporary viewer.

Here is a closer look at four of the Lumières' films:

La Sortie des Ouviers de L'Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory)  

This film was shot on the 19th March 1895, and is described by Tavernier as the date when the history of invention stopped and the history of film making began. It documents workers (mostly female) leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon.

As with many of the Lumières’ films, the interest you derive from this film goes beyond that of historical documentation. The movement of the workers is random, chaotic and hypnotic. It is also a prime example of the observer effect, the idea that the act of observation influences the subjects being observed. Several of the women look directly at the camera, while others exaggerate their actions. This particular aspect of the relationship between the viewer and subject of the film will continue to fascinate and perplex observers throughout film's history.  

When the film was initially projected to audiences, the projectionist would initially freeze the first frame of the film, thus amplifying the amazement of the audience when the film began to run. Georges Méliès (whose films we shall look at next) was one of the audience members who was impressed: "I must admit we were all stupefied as you can understand. I immediately said, 'That's for me. What an extraordinary thing.'"

Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat (1895) (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat)

This film is Lumière’s most famous and well-recieved work, and has been described by many a film scholar as the first masterpiece of cinema. It also attracted cinema’s first urban legend: that upon the first screening of the film, the audience was so overwhelmed by the image of the train bearing down upon them that they fled the room in terror.

The Lumière Brothers are often seen as the fathers of cinematic realism, but what comes across in this film is their grasp of the illusory effects made possible by film, a trait normally associated with Méliès. The combination of mounting the camera towards the edge of the platform and the diagonal composition of the shot gives the audience the impression that they are standing in the train’s path and that it is heading towards them, giving credence to the aforementioned urban legend.

Le Jardinier (l'Arroseur Arrosé) (1895) (The Gardener or The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

This is cinema’s first comedy and suspense film; in researching the film, most observers state the former, but few have described it as being the latter. I would suggest that it does qualify as a suspense film. Commenting on the suspense genre, Hitchcock once said that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”.

As shown in the picture above, in this film; a young boy creeps up behind a man who is watering a garden with a hose pipe, and for several seconds he stands with his foot directly above the pipe. He then stamps on the hose pipe, and once the gardener points the pipe at his own face, he releases his foot from the pipe, subsequently spraying the man with water over his face.

It is during this ten second span that the film truly excels. The comedic timing of the whole prank is slightly off-tempo and the man’s subsequent chasing of the boy feels forced. But from the moment where the boy places his foot above the hose pipe, there is a sense of the aforementioned Hitchcockian anticipation, exhilaration even, that will be repeated over feature length movies for the next 115 years and beyond.

Smoking the Opium (1896-7)

This film involves a couple who are lying on a carpet and sharing an opium pipe in Japan. The viewer is immediately struck by the peculiarity of the camera’s extremely low setup in comparison to the films viewed so far; providing a glimpse of the relationship shared between this couple. The moment where their hands brush when the male character passes the pipe to the female character - see the picture above -  is acutely intimate. For the first time in cinema, the viewer is acting as a voyeur.

Although this film comes later in the careers of the two brothers and was filmed by one of their associates, there is an artistic thread that is apparent in most of the work on offer in The Lumière Brothers’ First Films: their cinematographic decision-making is both deliberate and effective. Whether it was their decision to employ a diagonal shot in Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat or the low setup employed here, the Lumière brothers were very much the first ‘auteurs’ of cinema.

Availability: Unfortunately, this film is both difficult and expensive to get hold of. In America it is being sold for $129.99 and in the U.K. it costs an incredible £399.99 (and that is for the NTSC import). Luckily, many of the individual Lumière films can be found on Youtube. But if you are a newcomer to the Lumière Brothers, I highly recommend trying to get a hold of The Lumière Brothers’ First Films (which I am told can be found online).


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