- A Note on “Cinema’s Founding Myth”
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Martin Loiperdinger's provocative essay, "Lumière's Arrival of the Train: Cinema's Founding Myth" in the spring 2004 issue of The Moving Image contests the idea that the very first audiences for cinema were unable to distinguish between filmed images and reality. The founding myth of L'Arrivée d'un Train, he argues, reinforces cinema's "inherent suggestive force" and elevates it to a fundamental principle.
The panic legend certainly became prevalent through subsequent film histories. Even Erik Barnouw, an exceedingly objective film historian, wrote in Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974): "The arrival of the train—virtually 'on camera'—made spectators scream and dodge. As we see passengers leave the train, some pass close to the camera, seemingly unaware of it. The use of movement from a distance toward the viewer, and the surprising depth of field in the sequence, offered audiences an experience quite foreign to the theater" (8).
Disregarded by Loiperdinger and the film historians is the fact that on October 23, 1895, [End Page 146] two months before the Café Grand screenings of L'Arrivée d'un Train, a runaway locomotive at the Montmartre Station in Paris broke through a second story wall and plummeted down into the street.
A photo of this train disaster, reproduced on postcards that were on sale in Paris a few years ago, was e-mailed by filmmaker Al Razutis to me in January 2000. The photograph depicts the considerable damage caused by the locomotive at the Montmartre Station. It seems highly likely that this train disaster may have been on the minds of Parisian patrons viewing L'Arrivée d'un Train at the Grand Café and affected their response to the motion picture image of an approaching locomotive.
It is curious that this real-life disaster, which undoubtedly caused great public panic, is not mentioned in any of the standard histories dealing with the Lumière film, much less Loiperdinger's essay.
Ray Zone is a widely published film historian who has written for the Los Angeles Times, International Documentary, Film History, The Hollywood Reporter, and American Cinematographer. He is author of 3-D Filmmakers: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures (2005).