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The first thing they teach you in film school is that cinema was born in 1895 at a café in Paris, and when the audience was shown footage of a train speeding towards them, they frantically screamed and fled.
Except that didn't actually happen. The Lumière brothers' film “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” [The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station] was not even part of the program that night.
So, why is this demonstrably false idea so attractive and persistent?
As with most myths of origin, the source for these accounts remains elusive.[…] Thus conceived, the myth of initial terror defines film’s power as its unprecedented realism, its ability to convince spectators that the moving image was, in fact, palpable and dangerous, bearing towards them with physical impact. The image had taken life, swallowing, in its relentless force, any consideration of representation – -the imaginary perceived as real.

– Media Theorist Tom Gunning

As with most myths of origin, the source for these accounts remains elusive.[…] Thus conceived, the myth of initial terror defines film’s power as its unprecedented realism, its ability to convince spectators that the moving image was, in fact, palpable and dangerous, bearing towards them with physical impact. The image had taken life, swallowing, in its relentless force, any consideration of representation – -the imaginary perceived as real.

– Media Theorist Tom Gunning

As with most myths of origin, the source for these accounts remains elusive.[…] Thus conceived, the myth of initial terror defines film’s power as its unprecedented realism, its ability to convince spectators that the moving image was, in fact, palpable and dangerous, bearing towards them with physical impact. The image had taken life, swallowing, in its relentless force, any consideration of representation – -the imaginary perceived as real.

– Media Theorist Tom Gunning

The series of black-and-white, silent, 50-second vignettes that were actually shown that night mostly featured human-scale observation and light comedy, including scenes of workers leaving a factory, a family at breakfast, and a gardener getting tricked into spraying himself with a hose.

One of the few preserved firsthand accounts of the early Lumière projections was written by Russian author Maxim Gorky following a screening (which did include “L’Arrivée…”) about six months later. The tone of his response differs sharply from the shock and awe of the origin myth.
It is not life but its shadow, It is not motion but its soundless spectre.[…] 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 colors of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.

Of the locomotive in “L’Arrivée”, he wrote:

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.
It is not life but its shadow, It is not motion but its soundless spectre.[…] 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 colors of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.

Of the locomotive in “L’Arrivée”, he wrote:

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.
It is not life but its shadow, It is not motion but its soundless spectre.[…] 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 colors of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.

Of the locomotive in “L’Arrivée”, he wrote:

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.
From the New York Times in 1895:

Photography has ceased to record immobility. It perpetuates the image of movement. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their immobile form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final.
From the New York Times in 1895:

Photography has ceased to record immobility. It perpetuates the image of movement. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their immobile form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final.
From the New York Times in 1895:

Photography has ceased to record immobility. It perpetuates the image of movement. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their immobile form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final.
The moving image has been sold, with each technological advance, as triumph over death – the advent of Vitaphone Sound and Cinemascope and Technicolor, High Definition and “RealD” 3D and now 4K “Ultra-HD” and Oculus Rift Virtual Reality.

In the cavalcade of commercial sales pitches for these highly profitable innovations, the darker, more pessimistic voice of Gorky (who for his pen name chose a Russian word meaning “bitter”) was quickly drowned out.

The public appetite for these amusements was immense, responding to:
“The need for thrills in an industrialized and consumer-oriented society… [of] a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality. This loss of experience creates a consumer hungry for thrills.”

– Tom Gunning

”The majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. [...] Our bars and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris.

–Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility
“The need for thrills in an industrialized and consumer-oriented society… [of] a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality. This loss of experience creates a consumer hungry for thrills.”

– Tom Gunning

”The majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. [...] Our bars and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris.

–Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility
“The need for thrills in an industrialized and consumer-oriented society… [of] a spectator whose daily experience has lost the coherence and immediacy traditionally attributed to reality. This loss of experience creates a consumer hungry for thrills.”

– Tom Gunning

”The majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. [...] Our bars and city streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories seemed to close relentlessly around us. Then came film and exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second, so that now we can set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris.

–Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility
“Our society’s true necropolises are the computer banks or the foyers, blank spaces from which all human noise has been expunged, glass coffins where the world’s sterilized memories are frozen. Only the dead remember everything in something like an immediate eternity of knowledge, a quintessence of the world that today we dream of burying in the form of microfilm and archives, making the entire world into an archive in order that it be discovered by some future civilization. […] we bury ourselves alive in the fossilized hope of one day being rediscovered.”


–Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976
“Our society’s true necropolises are the computer banks or the foyers, blank spaces from which all human noise has been expunged, glass coffins where the world’s sterilized memories are frozen. Only the dead remember everything in something like an immediate eternity of knowledge, a quintessence of the world that today we dream of burying in the form of microfilm and archives, making the entire world into an archive in order that it be discovered by some future civilization. […] we bury ourselves alive in the fossilized hope of one day being rediscovered.”


–Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976
“Our society’s true necropolises are the computer banks or the foyers, blank spaces from which all human noise has been expunged, glass coffins where the world’s sterilized memories are frozen. Only the dead remember everything in something like an immediate eternity of knowledge, a quintessence of the world that today we dream of burying in the form of microfilm and archives, making the entire world into an archive in order that it be discovered by some future civilization. […] we bury ourselves alive in the fossilized hope of one day being rediscovered.”


–Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976
In 2015, the train of shadows is bearing down on us from every direction, from screens large and small which fill our homes and public places, which we carry in our bags and pockets and even wear on our wrists as status symbols.

Gorky’s incisive bitterness is not a voice we hear often today, amid the cheerleading and boosterism for the next great advance in the realism of the digital realms we can inhabit.

But whether this ghost train will ultimately rapture us into a vivid hyperreal immortality, or crush our lacerated flesh and bone into dust fit only for the digital tomb… remains to be seen.
Kevin Obsatz is a Minneapolis-based filmmaker and media artist. He teaches at the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota, curates a monthly experimental film screening series called Cellular Cinema, and has written essays for OtherZine, Minnesota Playlist, and for his own website, Video Haiku.
* Lazy Load - jQuery plugin for lazy loading images * * Copyright (c) 2007-2015 Mika Tuupola * * Licensed under the MIT license: * http://www.opensource.org/licenses/mit-license.php * * Project home: * http://www.appelsiini.net/projects/lazyload * * Version: 1.9.7 * */ (function($, window, document, undefined) { var $window = $(window); $.fn.lazyload = function(options) { var elements = this; var $container; var settings = { threshold : 0, failure_limit : 0, event : "scroll", effect : "show", container : window, data_attribute : "original", skip_invisible : false, appear : null, load : null, placeholder : "data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAAAEAAAABCAYAAAAfFcSJAAAAAXNSR0IArs4c6QAAAARnQU1BAACxjwv8YQUAAAAJcEhZcwAADsQAAA7EAZUrDhsAAAANSURBVBhXYzh8+PB/AAffA0nNPuCLAAAAAElFTkSuQmCC" }; function update() { var counter = 0; elements.each(function() { var $this = $(this); if (settings.skip_invisible && !$this.is(":visible")) { return; } if ($.abovethetop(this, settings) || $.leftofbegin(this, settings)) { /* Nothing. */ } else if (!$.belowthefold(this, settings) && !$.rightoffold(this, settings)) { $this.trigger("appear"); /* if we found an image we'll load, reset the counter */ counter = 0; } else { if (++counter > settings.failure_limit) { return false; } } }); } if(options) { /* Maintain BC for a couple of versions. */ if (undefined !== options.failurelimit) { options.failure_limit = options.failurelimit; delete options.failurelimit; } if (undefined !== options.effectspeed) { options.effect_speed = options.effectspeed; delete options.effectspeed; } $.extend(settings, options); } /* Cache container as jQuery as object. */ $container = (settings.container === undefined || settings.container === window) ? $window : $(settings.container); /* Fire one scroll event per scroll. 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