Travel and Transport in Early Cinema

[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Katie Newstead. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. See more student work here.]

This selection of films from the period 1895 to 1906 shares the common theme of travel. During this time, few people travelled for leisure and tourism; those that did, usually did so on the basis of military service or for business purposes.  The invention of the steamboat in the late 1700s, and the passenger train in 1821 coincided with the development of pre-cinema; with devices such as Shaw’s Stereotrope (1861) presenting a number of still images in quick succession to create the illusion of one moving image.  Thus, a connection can be drawn between society’s desire to travel, and cinema’s attempts to represent movement.

These devices could generally only be viewed by one individual at a time.  It was not until 1895, when the Lumière brothers invented the Cinématographe, which captured, processed and projected images on screen, that films could be shown to multiple audiences.  One of the most famous Lumière films is L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, due to the myths surrounding its initial public reaction.  Allegedly, a number of spectators were so frightened by the image of a train driving towards them, that they fled the screening.  German writer Hellmuth Karasek described the film as having a ‘particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic.’ (2004:89-119)

While the accuracy of these tales has been debated, it is easy to imagine how audiences must have responded.  The oblique angle of the camera parallels that of the railway track, providing a sense of distance and perspective.  The fact that the train directly approaches the audience actively engages them with the image; they witness its increase in size as it speeds towards them, which further enhances the scene’s verisimilitude.  The camera takes a point of view stance, allowing for identification between the spectator and passenger; they both patiently wait on the platform, whilst watching the train’s arrival.  It could be argued that this plays on the current ideological desires of travel; the audience can fantasise that they too will be boarding the train.  If the camera had been placed on the opposite platform to the waiting passengers, for example, this would have meant that the audience would not have been able to see the train approaching, and its arrival would have obscured those boarding it.  Therefore, the camera’s clever positioning enables it to record a large amount of action; the train’s arrival and the people waiting, which functions together to form a coherent narrative.

The first public screening by the Lumière brothers took place on 28 December, 1985 and, while it did not include the above film, one member of the audience was particularly significant.  Georges Méliès, the son of a wealthy shoemaker, had long been interested in the creative arts; reportedly drawing caricatures of his teachers as a boy.  At around 10, he was taken to see legendary French magician Robert-Houdin, who later tutored Méliès in the art of magic during his military service.

After his father’s retirement in 1888, Méliès sold his shares of the shoe factory to purchase the theatre in which he had been inspired; The Théâtre Robert-Houdin, and reopened it that year.  After the Lumière’s debut screening, he approached them with the intention of buying a Cinématographe, which they refused to sell.  Unperturbed, he bought a British invented camera, and began to make his own films from 1896.  He made films across many genres, including: documentary, comedy, pornography, and what is considered to be the first science-fiction film: Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Le Voyage Dans La Lune was believed to have cost 10,000 francs, and consequently is also regarded as the first big-budget film.  Influenced by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1901), Méliès’ film starred several acrobats looking to earn more money than they normally would on stage.

The excitement of travel is clearly evident; note the ceremonious nature of the rocket launch, complete with trumpeters, the flying of the tricolore, and the cheering crowds.  The women who insert the shuttle into the rocket then turn to wave at the camera, allowing the audience to feel part of the action and the celebration.  This sense of the active audience is similar to that of  L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat, and serves to make the activity of viewing a film more engaging and appealing, and allows for greater empathy with the characters.

The shot of the moon increasing in size as the rocket speeds towards it mirrors the train’s approach of Ciotat Station.  While the Lumière brothers used this technique to enhance reality, Méliès arguably uses it to create suspense and excitement; the viewer eagerly anticipates the moon-landing, and the imminent adventure.

The image that follows is the most iconic of the whole film and, indeed, of Méliès’ entire filmography; the rocket crashing into the anthropomorphic face of the moon.  This has been reproduced many times: from the iron railings between 8th and 9th Avenue in New York, to the logo and statue of the Visual Effects Society’s yearly awards ceremony, therefore indicating the importance of this image among the public.

This image also appears in the third and final film of this selection: The ? Motorist or The Mad Motorist (1906), which was produced by keen motorist and engineer R. W. Paul.  The film takes place between London’s Holborn and Muswell Hill, and the Orange Tree Pub, which the motorist drives up the face of, served as a production base for location shooting.  The theme of the film must have been very close to the bone for Paul; who had previously been charged for speeding.  The film does not seem to be condoning bad driving; on the contrary, the driver and his passenger appear to be enjoying the thrill of movement, and the feeling of freedom; which is illustrated by the car’s journey into space.  During this fantastical voyage, the car drives around a moon that is similar to the one that features in Le Voyage Dans La Lune.

The ? Motorist could be cited as influencing such literary figures as Toad in The Wind in the Willows; both characters revel in the pleasure of speed.  Furthermore, in a 1907 essay by Russian writer Andrei Bely, a character very similar to that of the mad motorist is described as: ‘Death in a top hat – [...] baring his teeth and rushing towards us.’ (Bely, 1907; in Tsivian & Taylor, 2005:120) While this is not a particularly accurate physical description of the motorist, the fact that a Russian author should be writing about this film suggests evidence of a wide distribution, as well as an inspired and excited audience reaction.

As a whole, the three films that make up this selection demonstrate a desire to travel for pleasure, the need for individuals to broaden their horizons, and the positive anticipation of the future; a modern, industrialised world that is constantly striving towards speed and immediacy.

Bibliography:

  • Grahame, K. (2005), The Wind in the Willows, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.: New York.
  • Gunning, T. (2005), ‘Lunar Illuminations: A Trip to the Moon, 1902′, in: Geiger, J. & Rutsky, R. (eds), Film Analysis, Norton & Company, Inc: New York & London, p.64-80.
  • Herbert, S. (2000), ‘Introduction’ in: A History of Pre-Cinema, Routledge: London.
  • Joyce, S. (2000), A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences, (Online Essay).  Available from: http://silentsf.com/Project_Melies/Melies_HTML/Essay.html (Accessed 7 November, 2009)
  • Karasek, H. (2004), The Moving Image: Volume 4, Number 1, p.89-118
  • Taylor, R. & Tsivian, Y. (2005), ‘The Reception of the Moving Image’ in: Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception, Routledge: London, p.108-129.
  • Verne, J. (1865), From the Earth to the Moon, (Republished in 2005), Barnes & Noble Publishing: America.
  • Wells, H. G. (1901), First Men in the Moon, (Republished in 2008), Arc Manor Publishers: Rockville, Maryland, USA.

Filmography:

  • L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumière, 1895)
  • Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon (Méliès, 1902).
  • The ? Motorist (Paul, 1906)

©Katie Newstead 2009

About these ads

4 thoughts on “Travel and Transport in Early Cinema

  1. Excellent post. Inspired me to attempt Paul Virilio again. Speed, travel, technology – and cinema. Just all the bad bits!

    Best, Sean.

  2. Pingback: Joyce karasek | UsGraphic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s