A Wonderful Invention

M. Trewey (photograph from The Sketch article)

Source: ‘A Wonderful Invention: The Cinématographe of M. Lumière’, The Sketch, 18 March 1896, p. 323

Text:
A WONDERFUL INTENTION.

THE CINÉMATOGRAPHE OF M. LUMIÈRE.

Although unwilling to quarrel with William Shakspere about his statement that the rose would smell as sweet under any other name, I can’t help thinking that “Cinématographe” is a nasty word for busy people. It has a terrifying effect upon the man in the street who calls an entertainment a “show.” But it must be confessed that, despite its name, M. Lumière’s invention is one that will ultimately emulate the telegraph and telephone in usefulness. Instantaneous photography developed to a surprising extent is, apparently, the secret of the Cinématographe. Photographs of a moving scene taken at the rate of fifteen per second, and thrown on to a screen through the machine at the same rapid rate, enable the eye to retain one image until the successor is presented. The result is a moving picture of the event, scrupulously exact in detail, whose importance it would be difficult to overestimate.

The columns of The Sketch are my confessional, and I do not hesitate to say that its long name kept me away from the hew invention when the scribes of London were bidden to its reception.

I saw the Cinématographe worked for the first time at the Empire Theatre last Monday week. Ten pictures were presented. I take one, “The Arrival of the Paris Express,” as a type. A railway-station is the subject of the first photograph thrown on the screen, and, from flashes in all directions, it is evident that the effect is sustained by rapidly continued exposures. In the distance there is some smoke, then the engine of the express is seen, and in a few seconds the train rushes in so quickly that, in common with most of the people in the front rows of the stalls, I shift uneasily in my seat and think of railway accidents. Then the train slows down and stops, passengers alight, the bustle of the station is absolutely before us the figures are life-size. Old country women ascend and descend some man jumps on to the platform, and then looks about helplessly, until other passengers elbow him aside. It is such a scene as I have often witnessed on a journey to or from the Riviera and, in the darkened house, it stands out with a realism that seemingly defies improvement. Granting, for the sake of argument, that this picture took one minute to present, it represented nine hundred photographs originally taken at the station in the same space of time, and there was no palpable break in the continuity of the series. The effect on the audience was shown by the applause that would not be silenced until the picture was presented again.

M. Lumiere’s five-syllabled invention is yet in its infancy its possibilities are almost awe-inspiring. At present the photographs are no bigger than postage-stamps, and, thrown life-size on to the screen, they inevitably lose certain details. When practice has brought about perfection, where will the invention stop? Imagine it worked in connection with the phonograph. The past will become annihilated; our great Parliamentary debates, our monster meetings, our operatic and theatrical performances, will remain for ever, or even longer. I do not dare to think of the scientific and medical possibilities, but am content to dwell on the more popular ones. While the phonograph preserves the sounds, the Cin., &c., will do the rest. A trifle of about forty-five thousand exposures will preserve an Empire ballet intact for ever. Why did not M. Lumière arrange his invention before the exquisite Katrina became a thing of the past? Soon nothing that is beautiful will be mortal, and as the song has become immortal through the phonograph, the exquisite graces of the dance will be preserved by the new invention. Would not Horace have modified his famous ode to Postumus had he dreamt of such things as will soon be regarded as ordinary? I have for the last week been imagining some of the many things that will be represented or later. How splendidly a Spanish bull fight could be shown!

The present exhibition at the Empire Theatre, where, by the way, breathing-space is almost at a premium, is directed by M. Trewey, and I felt that I must call on him, in the interests of humanity at large, or rather, that large part of humanity given to Sketch reading.

I found M. Trewey on the stage of the Empire, smiling for all he is worth which is probably a large amount. No wonder he looked pleased. A few hours before he had been visited at the Polytechnic by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, who had expressed their delight with his entertainment.

“M. Lumiere, of Lyons,” he said, is my oldest friend, and he gave me the choice of the country in which I would show his invention. Of course, I chose England. I had intended to retire from work altogether, for” – and his eyes twinkled – “I have been a careful man But I thought this work would be very light, so I took it. Now, I never know a moment’s rest, and I have promised the directors here to give at least one new picture every week. As soon as the fine weather sets in again,” he went on, we shall do fresh work on the racecourse, river, and similar places. We are not going to be idle.”

And, as though to prove his words, M. Trewey, with a hurried apology, bustled off to the centre of the stage with all the energy and enthusiasm of a very young man. I noticed that the machine was being rapidly prepared, and that one or two of the charming corps de ballet had evidently obtained permission to see the performance from the stage. Unfortunately for me, I was very much overdue at another house of entertainment. I could but sigh for the delight of the few occasions when my visits to Empire stageland have been longer. Then I departed.

Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe film show opened at the Empire variety theatre in London on 9 March 1896, having made its UK debut on 20 February. The entertainer Félicien Trewey, a friend of the camera-projector’s inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière, was the host of the show. Ten or so of the one-minute films were shown (sometimes with repeats, as indicated here). Such was its popularity that it was shown several times a day. This unsigned report is of particular interest for its first-hand account of the unease felt by some attendees of the first screenings at films featuring an oncoming train.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Keith's Union Square

Source: Anon., ‘”Keith’s Union Square,” The New York Dramatic Mirror, 11 July 1896, p. 17

Text: Lumière’s Cinématographe created a decided sensation here last week. It was fully described in last week’s Mirror, and it is only necessary to add that the audiences were very enthusiastic over the new discovery. The depot picture with its stirring arrival of an express train, and the charge of the French hussars were wildly applauded and each of the pictures came in for its share of approval. A new picture was shown which represented the noonhour at the factory of the Messrs. Lumière in Lyons, France. As the whistle blew, the factory doors were thrown open and men, women and children came trooping out. Several of the employees had bicycles, which they mounted outside the gate, and rode off. A carryall, which the Lumières keep to transport those who live at a distance from the factory, came dashing out in the most natural manner imaginable. A lecturer was employed to explain the pictures as they were shown, but he was hardly necessary, as the views speak for themselves, eloquently.

Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe made its American debut at Keith’s Union Square Theater, New York City, on 29 June 1896. The films shown include La sortie des usines Lumière and L’arrivé d’un train. The charge of the French hussars could be one of several films of the Seventh Cuirassiers filmed by the Lumières.

The Cinematograph

Source: O. Winter, ‘The Cinematograph’, The New Review, May 1896, pp. 507-513

Text: Life is a game played according to a set of rules – physical, moral, artistic – for the moment ironbound in severity, yet ever shifting. The heresy of to-day is to-morrow‘s dogma, and many a martyr has won an unwilling crown for the defence of a belief, which his son’s boot-black accepts as indisputable. The tyranny of the arts, most masterful of all, seldom outlasts a generation; time brings round an instant revenge for a school’s contempt of its predecessor; and all the while Science is clamorously breaking the laws, which man, in his diffidence, believes to be irrefragable.

When the first rude photograph was taken, it was already a miracle; but stability was the condition of its being, and the frozen smirk of an impossible tranquillity hindered its perfection. Even the “snap-shot,” which revealed poses indiscoverable to the human eye, was, at best, a mere effect of curiosity, and became, in the hands of Mr. Muybridge and others, the instrument of a pitiless pedantry. But, meantime, the moving picture was perfected, and, at last, by a skilful adaptation of an ingenious toy, you may contemplate life itself thrown moving and alert upon a screen. Imagine a room or theatre brilliant with electric lights and decorated with an empty back-cloth. Suddenly the lights are extinguished, and to the whirring sound of countless revolutions the back-cloth quivers into being. A moment since it was white and inanimate; now it bustles with the movement and masquerade of tremulous life. Whirr! And a train, running (so to say) out of the cloth, floats upon your vision. It draws up at the platform; guards and porters hustle to their toil; weary passengers lean through the window to unfasten the cumbrous door; sentimentalists hasten to intercept their friends; and the whole common drama of luggage and fatigue is enacted before your eyes. The lights leap up, and at their sudden descent you see upon the cloth a factory at noon disgorging its inmates. Men and women jostle and laugh; a swift bicycle seizes the occasion of an empty space; a huge hound crosses the yard in placid content; you can catch the very changing expression of a mob happy in its release; you note the varying speed of the footsteps; not one of the smaller signs of human activity escapes you. And then, again, a sudden light, and recurring darkness. Then, once more, the sound and flicker of machinery; and you see on the bare cloth a tumbling sea, with a crowd of urchins leaping and scrambling in the waves. The picture varies, but the effect is always the same – the terrifying effect of life, but of life with a difference.

It is life stripped of colour and of sound. Though you are conscious of the sunshine, the picture is subdued to a uniform and baffling grey. Though the waves break upon an imagined shore. they break in a silence which doubles your shrinking from their reality. The boys laugh with eyes and mouth-that you can see at a glance. But they laugh in a stillness which no ripple disturbs. The figures move after their appointed habit; it is thus and not otherwise that they have behaved yesterday and will behave to-morrow. They are not marionettes, because they are individuals, while a marionette is always generalised into an aspect of pity or ridicule. The disproportion of foreground and background adds to your embarrassment, and although you know that the scene has a mechanical and intimate correspondence with truth, you recognise its essential and inherent falsity. The brain and the eye understand not the process of the sensitive plate. They are ever composing, eliminating, and selecting, as if by an instinct. They work far more rapidly than the most elaborate mechanism. They discard one impression and take on another before the first has passed the period of its legitimate endurance. They permit no image to touch them without alteration or adaptation. The dullest eye, the deafest ear, has a personality, generally unconscious, which transforms every scene, and modifies every sound. A railway station, for instance, is a picture with a thousand shifting focuses. The most delicate instrument is forced to render every incident at the same pace and with the same prominence, only reserving to itself the monstrous privilege of enlarging the foreground beyond recognition. If you or I meet an arriving train, we either compose the scattered elements into a simple picture, and with the directness, distinguishing the human vision from the photographic lens, reject the countless details which hamper and confuse our composition, or we stand upon the platform eager to recognise a familiar face. Then the rest of the throng, hastily scanned, falls into a shadowy background. Thus in the moving picture, thrown upon the screen, the crowd is severally and unconsciously choosing or rejecting the objects of sight. But we find the task impossible. The grey photograph unfolds at an equal pace and with a sad deliberation. We cannot follow the shadows in their enthusiasm of recognition; the scene is forced to trickle upon our nerves with an equal effect; it is neither so quick nor so changeful as life. From the point of view of display the spectacle fails, because its personages lack the one quality of entertainment: self-consciousness. The ignorant man falls back upon the ancient wonderment. “Ain’t it lifelike!” he exclaims in all sincerity, though he possesses the faculty of comparison but roughly developed, and is apt to give an interpretation of reality to the most absurd symbols.

Here, then, is life; life it must be because a machine knows not how to invent; but it is life which you may only contemplate through a mechanical medium, life which eludes you in your daily pilgrimage. It is wondrous, even terrific; the smallest whiff of smoke goes upward in the picture; and a house falls to the ground without an echo. It is all true, and it is all false. “Why hath not man a microscopic eye?” asked Pope; and the answer came prosaic as the question: “The reason it is plain, he’s not a fly.” So you may formulate the demand: Why does not man see with the vision of the Cinematograph? And the explanation is pat: Man cannot see with the mechanical unintelligence of a plate, exposed forty times in a second. Yet such has ever been the ambition of the British painter. He would go forth into the fields, and adjust his eyes to the scene as though they were a telescope. He would register the far-distant background with a monstrous conscientiousness, although he had to travel a mile to discover its qualities. He would exaggerate the foreground with the clumsy vulgarity of a photographic plate, which knows no better cunning, and would reveal to himself, with the unintelligent aid of a magnifying glass, a thousand details which would escape the notice of everything save an inhuman machine. And while he was a far less able register of facts than the Cinematograph, he was an even worse artist. He aimed at an unattainable and undesirable reality, and he failed. The newest toy attains this false reality without a struggle. Both the Cinematograph and the Pre-Raphaelite suffer from the same vice. The one and the other are incapable of selection; they grasp at every straw that comes in their way; they see the trivial and important, the near and the distant, with the same fecklessly impartial eye. And the Pre-Raphaelite is the worse, because he is not forced into a fatal course by scientific necessity. He is not racked upon a machine that makes two thousand revolutions in a minute, though he deserves to be. No; he pursues his niggled path in the full knowledge of his enormity, and with at least a chance, if ever he opened his eye, of discovering the straight road. The eye of the true impressionist, on the other hand, is the Cinematograph’s antithesis. It never permits itself to see everything or to be perplexed by a minute survey of the irrelevant. It picks and chooses from nature as it pleaseth; it is shortsighted, when myopia proves its advantage; it can catch the distant lines, when a reasoned composition demands so far a research. It is artistic, because it is never mechanical, because it expresses a personal bias both in its choice and in its rejection. It looks beyond the foreground and to the larger, more spacious lines of landscape. Nature is its material, whereas Fred Walker and his followers might have been inspired by a series of photographic plates.

Literature, too, has ever hankered unconsciously after the Cinematograph. Is not Zola the M. Lumière of his art? And might not a sight of the Cinematograph have saved the realists from a wilderness of lost endeavour? As the toy registers every movement without any expressed relation to its fellow, so the old and fearless realist believed in the equal value of all facts. He collected information in the spirit of the swiftly moving camera, or of the statistician. Nothing came amiss to him, because he considered nothing of supreme importance. He emptied his notebooks upon foolscap and believed himself an artist. His work was so faithful in detail that in the bulk it conveyed no meaning whatever. The characters and incidents were as grey and as silent as the active shadows of the Cinematograph. M. Zola and M. Huysmans (in his earlier incarnation) posed as the Columbuses of a new art, and all the while they were merely playing the despised part of the newspaper reporter. They fared forth, notebook in hand, and described the most casual accidents as though they were the essentials of a rapid life. They made an heroic effort to strip the brain of its power of argument and generalisation. They were as keenly convinced that all phenomena are of equal value as is the impersonal lens, which to-day is the Academician’s best friend. But they forget that the human brain cannot expose itself any more easily than the human eye to an endless series of impartial impressions. For the human brain is not mechanical: it cannot avoid the tasks of selection and revision, and when it measures itself: against a photographic apparatus it fails perforce. It is the favourite creed of the realists that truth is valuable for its own sake, that the description of a tiresome hat or an infamous pair of trousers has a merit of its own closely allied to accuracy. But life in itself is seldom interesting – so much has been revealed by photography; life, until it be crystallised into an arbitrary mould, is as flat and fatuous as the passing bus. The realist, however, has formulated his ambition: the master of the future, says he, will produce the very gait and accent of the back-parlour. This ambition may already be satisfied by the Cinematograph, with the Phonograph to aid, and while the sorriest pedant cannot call the result supremely amusing, so the most sanguine of photographers cannot pronounce it artistic. At last we have been permitted to see the wild hope of the realists accomplished. We may look upon life moving without purpose, without beauty, with no better impulse than a foolish curiosity; and though the spectacle frightens rather than attracts, we owe it a debt of gratitude, because it proves the complete despair of modern realism.

As the realistic painter, with his patient, unspeculative eye bent upon a restless foreground, produces an ugly, tangled version of nature, so the disciple of Zola perplexes his indomitable industry by the compilation of contradictory facts. Not even M. Zola himself, for all his acute intelligence, discovered that Lourdes, for instance, was a mere flat record. By the force of a painful habit, he differentiated his characters; he did not choose a single hero to be the mule (as it were), who should sustain all the pains and all the sins of the world. No, he bravely labelled his abstractions with names and qualities, but he played the trick with so little conviction, that a plain column and a half of bare fact would have conveyed as much information and more amusement. Now, M. Zola has at least relieved the gloom of ill-digested facts by adroitly-thrown pétards. When you find his greyness at its greyest, he will flick in a superfluous splash of scarlet, to arouse you from your excusable lethargy. But in America, where even the novel may be “machine-made,” they know far better than to throw pétards. Their whole theory of art is summed up in the Cinematograph, so long as that instrument does its work in such an unexciting atmosphere as the back-yard of a Boston villa. Life in the States, they murmur, is not romantic. Therefore the novel has no right to be romantic. Because Boston is hopelessly dull, therefore Balzac is an impostor. For them, the instantaneous photograph, and a shorthand clerk. And, maybe, when the historian of the future has exhausted the advertisement columns of the pompous journals, he may turn (for statistics) to the American novel, first cousin, by a hazard, to the Cinematograph.

The dominant lesson of M. Lumière’s invention is this: the one real thing in life, art, or literature, is unreality. It is only by the freest translation of facts into another medium that you catch that fleeting impression of reality, which a paltry assemblage of the facts themselves can never impart The master quality of the world is human invention, whose liberal exercise demonstrates the fatuity of a near approach to “life.” The man who invents, may invent harmoniously; he may choose his own key, and bend his own creations to his imperious will. And if he be an artist, he will complete his work without hesitancy or contradiction. But he who insists upon a minute and conscientious vision, is forthwith hampered by his own material, and is almost forced to see discordantly. Hence it is that M. Zola is interesting only in isolated pages. His imagination is so hopelessly crippled by sight, that he cannot sustain his eloquence beyond the limit of a single impression. Suppose he does astonish you by a flash of entertainment, he relapses instantly into dulness, since for him, as for the Cinematograph, things are interesting, not because they are beautiful or happily combined, but because they exist, or because they recall, after their clumsy fashion, a familiar experience.

Has, then, the Cinematograph a career? Artistically, no; statistically, a thousand times, yes. Its results will be beautiful only by accident, until the casual, unconscious life of the streets learns to compose itself into rhythmical pictures. And this lesson will never be learned outside the serene and perfect air of heaven. But if only the invention be widely and properly applied, then history may be written, as it is acted. With the aid of these modern miracles, we may bottle (so to say) the world’s acutest situations. They will be poured out to the students of the future without colour and without accent, and though their very impartiality may mislead, at least they will provide the facts for a liberal judgment. At least they will give what an ingenious critic of the drama once described as “slabs of life.” For the Cinematograph the phrase is well chosen; but for Ibsen, who prompted its invention, no phrase were more ridiculous. For whatever your opinion of Hedda Gabler, at least you must absolve its author from a too eager rivalry with M. Lumière’s hastily-revolving toy.

And now, that Science may ever keep abreast of literature, comes M. Röntgen’s invention to play the part of the pyschologist [sic]. As M. Bourget (shall we say?) uncovers the secret motives and inclinations of his characters, when all you ask of him is a single action, so M. Röntgen bids photography pierce the husk of flesh and blood and reveal to the world the skeletons of living men. In Science the penetration may be invaluable; in literature it destroys the impression, and substitutes pedantry for intelligence. M. Röntgen, however, would commit no worse an outrage than the cure of the sick and the advancement of knowledge. Wherefore he is absolved from the mere suspicion of an onslaught upon art. But it is not without its comedy, that photography’s last inventions are twin echoes of modern literature. The Cinematograph is but realism reduced to other terms, less fallible and more amusing ; while M. Röntgen’s rays suggest that, though a too intimate disclosure may be fatal to romance, the doctor and the curiosity-monger may find it profitable to pierce through our “too, too solid flesh” and count the rattling bones within.

Comments: O. Winter was an occasional writer for art and culture journals in the 1890s. I have not been able to trace his full name. The essay was written after seeing an exhibition of the Lumière Cinématographe, which debuted in the United Kingdom on 20 February 1896. A number of Lumière films are suggested by the text, including Arrivée d’un train and La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Factory). Those mentioned in the text are the novelists Emile Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Honoré Balzac and Paul Bourget, playwright Henrik Ibsen, Pre-Raphaelite painter Fred Walker, and photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered what would soon become known as X-rays in 1895; X-rays, or Röntgen rays, would frequently be exhibited alongside motion pictures in the late 1890s.

The Cinematograph

Source: ‘The Cinematograph’, The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 27 February 1896, p. 2

Text: Our readers may probably remember the old “Wheel of Life,” and they are more likely still to be familiar with Edison’s kinetoscope. An instrument which is a further development of the principle of both these inventions is now on show in London, which is as far ahead of the kinetoscope as the kinetoscope was of the wheel of life. This is the cinematograph, which may be seen any day from 2 p.m. onwards at the Marlborough Rooms, in Regent Street. It is the invention of Messrs. August and Louis Lumiere, and is now shown for the first time in England, although it has been attracting crowds in Paris for a month past. It is impossible to describe the extraordinary effects produced. You enter a hall which is darkened, and where you can sit in comfort, without screwing up your eyes and peering (in a very uncomfortable position as was the case with the kinetoscope) into two tiny holes. At the end of the hall is a large white screen upon which the pictures are thrown, and the illusion is so complete that you appear to be looking through a window at something actually occurring in the next street. First of all you are shown a factory. The gates are open. Then the girls pour out, laughing and (apparently) talking. Then a boy comes out, jumps on a bicycle, and rides off. Suddenly a pair of doors are thrown back, the crowd opens, and a brougham is driven out, and so on. Then you are shown a railway station; a train is seen in the distance. It comes nearer and nearer. You see the steam from the funnel and valves, and you can almost imagine you hear the puffing of the engine. The train comes to a stand, the passengers jump out, and the whole platform is full of life and activity. Porters rush up and down, and the arrivals are greeted by their friends. Then the scene changes to a garden. The gardener has a hose in his hands. He turns a cock and you see the spray as it leaves the hose, flying all over the trees and shrubs. Then there comes a little comic relief. Somebody comes behind the gardener, and tilts up the hose, and sends the water into his face, blowing his hat off. After this comes a picture of three men playing at écarté. They are smoking, a whiffs of smoke from their cigarettes are seen in the still air curling round their heads. They shuffle and deal the cards, the stakes are paid over, the loser looks glum, and the winner slaps him on the back. But the most extraordinary and remarkable scene is the last. You are apparently looking at the sea. The long rollers come tumbling in. A party of bathers run along the springboard and take headers. The waves dash against the rocks, the foam flies up into the air, and you expect every moment to see the water pouring into the hall. There are other pictures shown, all of which are interesting, and the exhibition is of so entirely novel and pleasing a character that it will well repay a visit, affording as it does remarkable evidence of what science can do to deceive the senses.

Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe projector premiered in the UK at the Marlborough Hall within the Polytechnic Institute in Regent Street, London on 20 February. The ‘large’ screen was 6 feet by 4 foot 6 inches. The films described are Sortie de l’usine (1895), L’arrivée d’un train (1896), L’arroseur arrosé (1895), Partie d’écarté (1896) and Baignade en mer (1895). The ‘Wheel of Life’ is another name for the Zoetrope. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this account to my attention.

Our London Letter

Source: ‘Our London Letter’, The Star, St. Peter Port, Guernsey, 19 March 1896, p. 2

Text: The season has begun in good earnest, and promises to be a most interesting one, with its kaleidoscopic developments in dress, new discoveries, and dissipation generally. As we grow older, does life become more interesting? or less interesting? I am one of those who would have nothing in the past undone, and nothing repeated — on the whole. People say, one never wants to return to a house that one has once left: a wise old lady (of women the crossest, ugliest, and least life-enjoying, I thought as a fool, but now I know better, and I agree with her) told me that she wished nothing back, not her youth, not her belles années, not the brightest moments of her life. I hope, and think, that we shall feel the same when we are “on the other side”. That means that the interest of existence grows, and this year, certainly in science, new excitements are constantly unfolding.

What has chiefly electrified me — hardly delighted — it is too gravely suggestive — this month is the little Cinematograph at the old Polytechnic rooms, it is also going on at the Empire. Under this unpronounceable and unrememberable name M. Lumière transfers an elaborate form of the well-known Edison’s Kinetoscope by lantern slides to a sheet on which the picture suddenly springs into life, the men and women start walking, hustling each other, crossing each other, interrupting each other just as it happens — as did happen that moment — in life. The photographs I hear were taken at the rate of eighty to the minute, and, whilst the principle is not new, the representation of life-sized figures close to you, acting as human nature does act, the trivial and the significant all mixed up together, is totally new, and it is startling to see these congealed moments, as I may call them, suddenly become irrified at the turning of some Pygmalionic handle, the trees and bushes moving in the wind, the workpeople rushing out for dinner, mixed up with bicycles, carriages, dogs, and horses, you only miss the prattle and the argot. When the railway train flies at you, you feel quite nervous. One scene came up, “Papa, maman, et bébé.” As this is not everyone’s ideal of life, we expected little from a pair of proud parents at tea. But when with a sort of start the French mother began to pour out tea, and the French father to feed the French baby, and the baby to sputter over his food after the time-honoured fashion of babies not only in France, it was really too funny for anything. Every parent present knew the process, the bits of bread and milk that would not be rammed down by the spoon, the baby’s supreme indifference to the disgraceful mess on his nose, as he laughed up at his laughing parents — one got a glimpse of a scene as old as the hills, ever new, ever interesting to the principals — and the unconsciousness was the charm. Science now and then is quite terrifying with its hints: we have had ere this, theological, not to speak of other intimations, that something of the same sort on a larger scale is always going on, that not an action is forgotten, not an emotion lost, but once generated continues for ever along lines of etheric vibrations! If the dread Recording Angel with his Cinematograph is for ever and ever beside us, about our paths and about our beds, and spying out all our ways. If the secret blow, the small revenge, the shabby return, is to come out before our eyes some day with a horrible faithfulness, and the instant’s betrayal of “Mr. Hyde” is to condemn “Mr. Jekyll” as long as ever the Divine handle is turned, what is to become of us? Where in the world is turning over a new leaf, decent privacy, etiquette, and the rest of it? It is not at all a nice thought. And yet I was glad that the past never dies, and if it condemns us will justify us also, when I looked at the fascinating scenes of human nature that M. Lumière meant simply for our frolic! So the porter shouldered the bag, the youth waved his hat to his beloved, the lady shook out her dress, the irate gardener kicked the saucy boy who put his foot on the hose and stopped the flow, and we saw France as clearly as if we had gone there with a Cook’s ticket.

Comments: The piece comes from a Guernsey newspaper but reports on happenings in London. The Lumière Cinématographe projector premiered at the Polytechnic Institute in Regent Street on 20 February, and began its main engagement at the Empire, Leicester Square on 9 March 1896. Along the films described are Repas de bébé (1895), L’Arroseur arrosé (1895) and one of the L’arrivée d’un train films (1896). Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this remarkable account to my attention.

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows

Source: ‘I.M. Pacatus’ (Maxim Gorky), Nizhegorodski listok, 4 July 1896, translated (by Leda Swan) and reproduced in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), pp. 407-409.

Text: Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.

Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at Aumont’s and saw Lumière’s cinematograph—moving photography. The extraordinary impression it creates is so unique and complex that I doubt my ability to describe it with all its nuances. However, I shall try to convey its fundamentals. When the lights go out in the room in which Lumière’s invention is shown, there suddenly appears on the screen a large grey picture, “A Street in Paris” — shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into immobility.

All this is in grey, and the sky above is also grey — you anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life. Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit; somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer to you; in the foreground children are playing with a dog, bicyclists tear along, and pedestrians cross the street picking their way among the carriages. All this moves, teems with life and, upon approaching the edge of the screen, vanishes somewhere beyond it.

And all this in strange silence where no rumble of the wheels is heard, no sound of footsteps or of speech. Nothing. Not a single note of the intricate symphony that always accompanies the movements of people. Noiselessly, the ashen-grey foliage of the trees sways in the wind, and the grey silhouettes of the people, as though condemned to eternal silence and cruelly punished by being deprived of all the colours of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.

Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces. Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours — the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.

It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows … Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you — watch out!

It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice.

But this, too, is but a train of shadows.

Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen. The train comes to a stop, and grey figures silently emerge from the cars, soundlessly greet their friends, laugh, walk, run, bustle, and … are gone. And here is another picture. Three men seated at the table, playing cards. Their faces are tense, their hands move swiftly, The cupidity of the players is betrayed by the trembling fingers and by the twitching of their facial muscles, They play … Suddenly, they break into laughter, and the waiter who has stopped at their table with beer, laughs too. They laugh until their sides split but not a sound is heard. It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned to play cards in silence unto eternity. Another picture. A gardener watering flowers. The light grey stream of water, issuing from a hose, breaks into a fine spray …

This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim …

Besides those pictures I have already mentioned, is featured “The Family Breakfast,” an idyll of three. A young couple with its chubby first-born is seated at the breakfast table. The two are so much in love, and are so charming, gay and happy, and the baby is so amusing …

I am convinced that these pictures will soon be replaced by others of a genre more suited to the general tone of the “Concert Parisien.” For example, they will show a picture titled: “As She Undresses,” or “Madam at Her Bath,” or “A Woman in Stockings.” They could also depict a sordid squabble between a husband and wife and serve it to the public under the heading of “The Blessings of Family Life.”

Yes, no doubt, this is how it will be done. The bucolic and the idyll could not possibly find their place in Russia’s markets thirsting for the piquant and the extravagant. I also could suggest a few themes for development by means of a cinematograph and for the amusement of the market place. For instance: to impale a fashionable parasite upon a picket fence, as is the way of the Turks, photograph him, then show it.

It is not exactly piquant but quite edifying.

Comment: This famous first impression of witnessing motion pictures was written by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) after attending a Lumière film show organised by Charles Aumont at the Nizhny-Novgorod All-Russian Exhibition on 30 June or 1 July 1896. Aumont’s Théâtre Concerto Parisienne also served as a brothel.