Thoughts On: Chamonix: Arrival Of A Horse Carriage And Descent Of The Travellers (Chamonix: Arrivée en Voitures des Breaks D’excursion, 1901)
Today we will be exploring the birth of documentary film.
As we established with the previous post of the series, now that we are in the 1900s, cinema has entered a new era. No longer do Edison’s Kinetoscope shorts, nor anything resembling their aesthetic, really represent the form of 1900-1910 filmmaking. We are now in the realm of simple narratives and tricks, and so it is Méliès that particularly defines the first half of the 1900s along with narrative and comedy filmmakers from companies such as Pathé. There, of course, are a plethora of copy-cat filmmakers and pioneers of lesser stature, but it is the narrative and the trick film that evolved over the 1900s, until the 1910s when Griffith, World War, Hollywood and the feature narrative began to dictate the shape of cinema. This shift of paradigm, as we explored recently, saw the trick film fall out of favour and industries begin to thrive, and all because audiences were paramount in the shaping and building of this art form alongside the filmmakers and studios. But, before we can again delve into this line of evolution, we should give a genre of significant importance its fair due, and that genre is the street scene, the actuality, documentary or ethnographic film.
When most people think of cinema’s birth, they think of the ubiquitous street scene, one such as our subject for today, Chamonix: Arrivée en Voitures des Breaks D’excursion (Chamonix: Arrival Of A Horse Carriage And Descent Of The Travellers). With blunt titles that seemingly say all you need to know about these pictures, there doesn’t seem to be much that needs to be discussed about Lumiére street scenes. This, for instance, was shot somewhere between the 25th May, 1899 and the 15th April, 1900, made by an unknown filmmaker, and would have been first screened at the Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris in 1900 alongside other films that documented and explored France. This short will be catalogued on many sites, like Letterboxd, but probably dated incorrectly and attributed to the wrong directors. So, just as Letterboxd says this film was made in 1901 (as I have as to make this point) and by both of the Lumiére brothers whilst the Catalogue Lumiére (a useful site constructed using the book, La Production Cinématographique des Frères Lumière) contradicts this, most people look past the context of these films and straight to their content: the titles.
Seeing the Lumiére films in such a way would likely parallel how many people would have seen these films at a fair, in a music hall, a vaudeville theatre, a converted shop front or at a travelling, pop up theatre when they were first released. At these events, you may have been given some information about the scenes – and, as we have explored, this was certainly the case in regions such as Japan – but the purposes of these films to the general public can be assumed to be of basic interest and amusement. This is why the term that Thomas Gunning coined to describe this era, “The Cinema Of Attractions”, has stuck so well. Knowing that Chamonix is a city in France that someone photographed areas of for the Lumiére company is then the basic attraction and the fundamental reason for people seeing these films.
To focus on this archetypal kind of film with such a notion, it becomes clear that cinema was born and popularised as a mirror and as a spectacle of human capability – one that often marvelled at itself. However, there was a tension between spectacle and science in the earliest days of cinema’s existence. Take for instance the first ever series of pictures that could be manipulated into motion:
Muybridge made this film for the sake of curiosity and for a bet on behalf of Leland Stanford. So, whilst Muybridge made scientific leaps with his process of photography, this was born out of curiosity – maybe of the scientific kind – but motivated by a bet seemingly of a more puerile nature. When we look to the rest of Muybridge’s work, there remains this tension between what he would claim is science…
… and what seems to be puerile interest and basic spectacle…
We can say a very similar thing about other pioneers of the pre-cinematic era such as Marey and Le Prince. With Marey, there is a heavy implication of science in his work…
… but also clear beauty and, what we would call, and despite his intentions, art..
With Le Prince, too, we have the same tension…
Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge is the first known actuality or documentary film depicting people. Previous films by Marey and Muybridge would have been constructed, and so contrived, but, you could argue that their depictions of animals and insects were natural enough to be considered earlier actualities. However, did Le Prince make Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge to preserve this space in time for future anthropologists? Was it is a scientific experiment? Or, was it a test for a new piece of technology that he could exploit commercially? We cannot know this for sure, but these questions hung about filmmakers and their products for decades upon decades – arguably until the present day.
The lines between science, spectacle, actuality and fantasy are made ever more grey with the first commercial, staged films to be shot outdoors. The first of these would come from Edison’s Company in 1894.
Bucking Bronco was shot outside of the Black Maria studio, presumably through its open doors by the immovable Kinetograph, on a set that was specially constructed for this short. Despite this, audiences could have been fooled into thinking that this was a piece of documentary shot on a ranch in Texas if exhibitors wished (if I wrote this, would you have believed it?). What this says about the actuality film is that verisimilitude, not necessarily reality and truth, is what made this kind of film – cinema itself even – popular. We can understand this by looking back to the Lumiére street scenes again; we know of them and are interested in them for what their titles explain; we are attracted to the spectacle and the fact that they hold a mirror up to culture and human innovation. This is seemingly why we look at these shorts with awe and curiosity; it hasn’t got much to do with the building of characters, the exposition of history and cultural facts, instead, it is the mere implication of all of this through verisimilitude, a.k.a believability, a.k.a cinematic magic, or trickery, or lies.
It is difficult to assess the early actuality films without some tonal implication of cynicism. But, if we move forward to find another one of the earliest actuality films, we come to Birt Acres’ The Derby…
This, to me, is so far one of the most exciting actuality films we have covered because of the movement captured by the swelling of the crowd. What we then have here is one of the two types of street scenes; there is the impersonal and the personal, and each have their spectacle. With this impersonal look at a crowd swelling, there is a sense of magnitude captured by the implied social importance of this event. This is then like looking at pilgrims on Hajj circling the Kaaba in Mecca…
Whilst the scales are vastly different, seeing a crowd surge, alive and moving, captures and preserves a rare perspective – one that our million-year-old brain probably wasn’t built specifically for. Humans, as social creatures, would then understandably be hooked to views like that captured by The Derby just as a chimp would be hooked to sugar after stepping out of a forest for the first time. And the other side of this coin would be the personal actuality film represented by a Lumiére scene such as Querelle Enfantine (Babies Quarrel):
There, too, is a rarity in these little snapshots of genuine life. Whilst most would have seen their own infant family members quarrel, there is a precious sentiment captured by the preservation of this small moment that would naturally be lost in time and from memory. This is where we then see awe seep into the process of the personal actuality film; it is not just centred on the content itself, but the fact that photography itself makes this moment significant and gives it a greater life than it ever should have had. What cinema and actualities, better than painting or photography, allow people to then do is live outside of ‘the moment’. Whilst this has its downfalls, and we all know this to be the sea of people looking at the world through their phones instead of with their eyes…
… living outside of the moment can be a positive thing. Take the Lumiére scene for example. The two babies within are the Lumiéres’ children (I many be mistaken, but one of each). Seeing their children quarrel is probably nothing particularly new or exciting. However, given a few months or years when this moment in time should be long lost, with this film, they’d be able to step back into that moment and live it again through new eyes. And this is certainly an idea that we are all more than familiar with in the modern age – which may be why we’re more cynical about seeing other people’s children. But, there is nonetheless this effect in play.
When we look at the actuality films, what we are seeing is technology redefining nature; they preserve authentic pieces of space and time, giving them significance or capturing their significance through a technological ingenuity that is, itself, a form of spectacle. When we then look at Workers Leaving The Lumiére Factory we have the first publicly exhibited actuality film and a perfect example of this spectacle selling itself…
Whilst this is not the first actuality film ever shot (we have seen previous examples of this already) it was the first one screened; Acres’ The Derby was shot before this, but screened in 1896; Le Prince’s films were never publicly exhibited to a paying crowd; and the Skladanowskys, who were first to publicly exhibit moving pictures with a projector, did not shoot actualities. So, with the Lumiéres as representatives for a commercialised cinema shown to dozens, hundreds or thousands of people at one time, what this short encapsulates is the novelty of the first moving pictures. (Again, these were the first movies publicly screened to large audiences; whilst Edison’s Kinetoscope had been public for 2 years already, these moving images could only be viewed by one person at a time).
However, having explored the virtues of this spectacle and its complications concerning verisimilitude over reality, we now have found ourselves at the start of the Lumiéres’ career and, in turn, at the birth of the actuality film. So, whilst it is more than true that they were born as mere novelty and remained this way throughout the 10 years in which the Lumiéres’ company functioned, the actuality films did evolve over this brief period. Around 1905, you will then very rarely find simple street scenes like the early Lumiéres’ as actualities began to fit into newsreels or would be shot in more elaborate ways (from the front of trains, on busses and so on). But, before simple street scenes began to morph into the documentary – which wouldn’t really happen until the early 20s with the first successful full-length documentary film – actualities became ethnographies, which brings in a whole other set of complications and issues.
Whilst the Lumiéres didn’t demonstrate much care for narrative film, and famously didn’t believe that cinema had a future – at least, their kind of cinema didn’t have a future – they did have a commitment to what we are calling actualities, what they coined and called Actualités. It was then the Lumiéres that played the greatest part in the spreading of film technology across the world as they sent out for and collected more 30-50 second exposures of film than any other company. Furthermore, the Lumiéres were committed to preserving and storing their films. So, from the 1423 films that they accepted and catalogued, only 18 have been loss – which, as we have found out many times over already, is an unheard of statistic for silent film preservation. By contracting and training filmmakers to shoot specific subject matter and with a particular mise en scéne, the Lumiéres (their company) captured the world, everywhere from the Americas to Europe to Asia to Africa. They did this consciously and with Louise personally accepting and rejecting films that did or did not meet his standards of production.
So, here we find again the conflict between science and commercial spectacle. Unlike with other filmmakers, we can confirm that the Lumiéres meant to preserve their short films for the sake of social science. However, they still played a significant role in the commercialisation of cinema and didn’t truly ‘document’ life. After all, documentary as it evolved has much more to it than distant observation. If we take a brief look at the work of Alaxadre Promio, one of the most prolific Lumiére cameramen who shot over 300 films all over the world, we can then explore why this form of filmmaking had to evolve beyond the Lumiéres.
Shot in Regent Park’s zoological garden in London, this short portrays a lion in his cage being fed scraps of meat by a guard. If we question the specific function of this short, it would be to simply preserve this space, time and the action within. This is what makes it an actuality; it is mostly transcendent of an idea of truth and contrivance. In such, it doesn’t claim to portray the lion in its natural habitat, nor does it claim to capture normal behaviour (the guard is clearly making the lion seem more aggressive by the way he throws the scraps). However, whilst this defines Lion as an actuality, this is its biggest downfall: there are no facts nor a commitment to depicting the true actuality of a lion – after all, this is the subject of the short. Instead of being called “Lion” this should have at least been called “Lion in a Cage”. Nonetheless, the absence of facts and a lion in its true form is what this actuality lacks – as did most like this.
Shot in Jerusalem, this depicts pilgrims around The Holy Sepulchre, a Christian church. Whilst this would be programmed to be screened to audiences who possibly knew of the religious context around this short, we again have no facts. So, just as nothing is told of the lion in the previous short, no personality or character is given to the subjects of this scene. Of course, this is due to the limitations of the technology, but the approach that those working under the Lumiéres utilised was very distant and cold. So, if we compare their style, which they trained their cameramen to conform to, to that of the Mitchell & Kenyon company in Britain, we find examples of how it was possible to capture personality and character through actuality.
This short is very clearly constructed – we can even see it being set up and organised – but, there is a sense of life and energy present here, and in many of the Mitchell & Kenyon street scenes, that you never see in the Lumiére shorts. This is because, working mostly in the North of England, which was predominantly working class, Mitchell & Kenyon would photograph people going to work or walking the streets whilst encouraging them to interact with the camera. The difference between these two approaches is then clear; the Lumiére cameramen would silently film scenes from a distance whilst Mitchell & Kenyon would invite their subjects to be apart of the process. In fact, this was their business model. Working under the slogans of “local films for local people” and “see yourself as others see you”, they would take pictures of people and show it to them in local fairs or theatres as part of a bigger show that involved music, a showman’s commentary and even sound effects. People will then refer to the Mitchell & Kenyon films as non-actualities, but, in my view, what they were doing was far more documentary-like than what the Lumiéres attempted with their actualities.
As the documentary form was born and developed, “truth” was always a question. The first significant documentarists, for example Flaherty and Vertov, would always be toying with this notion – and this remains true in the modern day; we only need to watch a Herzog or Moore documentary to understand this. The Lumiéres assumed that their distance captured reality, but, in certain senses, it failed to bring truth out of their characters. This is what we can see the Mitchell & Kenyon films to do; they engage their audience and let them represent themselves (which is a huge and convoluted subject in documentary). So, when we move onto more Lumiére enthographies, we see this detrimental distance manifest itself in different contexts.
Now in Egypt, Promio shoots the Sphinx and Pyramids with a nice depth of field and layers in his image that have the background and foreground interact – and such is the Lumiére aesthetic. But, we must again ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this? Considering a filmmaker’s perspective, this may one day serve as some B-roll that could be spliced into another narrative picture. But beyond this, what does this short do? Promio captures the spectacle of this scene, but no detail, no close-ups, no alternate angles; nothing that could qualify this to be documenting a scene. What this mise en scéne implies about the Lumiére approach is that it was not forethinking; why document the world without detail or personality?
One of the last major downfalls of the Lumiére approach concerns the concept of experience. With films such as the above Football or even Children Digging For Clams…
… there is no personality, detail, nor a projection of what it means to be in these scenes. It would take decades–until the impressionist movement of the 20s–until cinema consciously attempted to capture the human experience and perception. As we have explored, this was all born with camera movement – which Promio is thought to have pioneered – however, Promio never used camera movement to bring people to life. As we have previously explored, an example of this early impressionism can be seen with Panorama Pendant L’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel:
In this short, the experience of being on the Eiffel Tower is captured by a camera. But, in films such as Football and Children Digging For Clams, we’re only made to know what its like to be a bystander – which certainly doesn’t make for an exciting or an engaging scene, nor one that documents what it is like to play football or be a child digging for clams. That said, cinematic language in the documentary is a difficult subject as it can be seen to create an alternative and false reality. In fact, the use of cinematic language and impressionism is often reserved for recreation – which began as antithetical to the actuality, and was often called recreated news reels, but would later be integrated into the documentary as a valid form of projecting truth through experience. And so it was this that the early actuality film never came close to achieving when it concerned people.
To bring things towards a conclusion, let us look at our subject for today one more time:
What we have done today is critically look at the actuality films. We have done this because we have already, indirectly, explored much to do with the street scene in the Every Year series. In taking a look at some of the earliest and most intriguing actualities, but now focusing on a later, ubiquitous example, we come to a point at which the street scene began its decline. By understanding what the actuality film lacks – especially the most popular and wide spread which came from the Lumiéres – we can understand what documentarists would have to develop from across the silent era. In such, they had to confront questions of reality, experience, facts and representation with a strong sense of self-awareness. Without the ethnographies and the street scenes, these questions could never have been raised and the documentary could have never evolved. So, whilst we have critiqued them today, their importance and significance will always remain self-evident.
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