The Crowd at the Cinematograph

Source: Jules Romains, ‘La Foule au cinématographe’ [The Crowd at the Cinematograph], Les Puissances de Paris (Paris: Eugène Figuière, 1911), pp. 118-120, reproduced and translated in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism: a History/Anthology, 1907-1939 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), vol. 1, p. 53

Text: The lights go down. A cry escapes from the crowd and immediately is taken back. It begins much like the great clamour which dying throngs have wailed into the night down through the centuries. These people are creatures who love the daylight. Their kind emerged from the compressing and transforming power of light. But the night of the cinema is far from long. They scarcely have time to suspect their death and the happiness of imperishable feeling; they are like swimmers who plunge their heads underwater and then keep their eyelids and lips and teeth tightly clenched, in order to experience a discomfort, an oppression, a suffocation, and then suddenly burst back through the surface into life.

A bright circle abruptly illuminates the far wall. The whole room seems to sigh, “Ah!” And though the surprise simulated by this cry, they welcome the resurrection they were certain would come.

The group dream now begins. They sleep; their eyes no longer see. They are no longer conscious of their bodies. Instead there are only passing images, a gliding and rustling of dreams. They no longer realize they are in a large square chamber, immobile, in parallel roads as in a ploughed field. A haze of visions which resemble life hovers before them. Things have a different appearance than they do outside. They have changed color, outline, and gesture. Creatures seem gigantic and move as if in a hurry. What controls their rhythm is not ordinary time, which occupies most people when they are not dreaming. Here they are quick, capricious, drunken, constantly skipping about; sometimes they attempt enormous leaps when least expected. Their actions have no logical order. Causes produced strange effects like golden eggs.

The crowd is a being that remembers and imagines, a group that evokes other groups much like itself – audiences, processions, parades, mobs in the street, armies. They imagine that it is they who are experiencing all these adventures, all these catastrophes, all these celebrations. And while their bodies slumber and their muscles relax and slacken in the depths of their seats, they pursue burglars across the rooftops, cheer the passing of a king from the East, or march into a wide plain with bayonets or bugles.

Comment: Jules Romains (1885-1972) was a French poet, novelist and creator of the Unanimism literary movement. He later wrote a ‘cinema-novel’ that attempted to combine the two artforms, Donogoo-Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique (1920). The impression of the projected image as a circle comes from knowledge of magic lantern practice, and is a mistake reproduced in several illustrations of film shows from this period.