January 25, 1896 [L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat]


Rumor has it that, at the French premiere, the audience panicked as the train approached the camera. I'll admit the scene is striking in its forward (actually, diagonal) movement. But I was no more frightened of being struck by the train than I was of being sprayed by Fred Ott's sneeze.

What I noticed most was the painterly construction of the scene. As the train arrives along its diagonal, it stretches the frame—as well as the train. We are left with an interlocked set of three elongated triangles composed of the sky above, the train itself, then the platform. The eye is drawn to all three, but as the passengers disembark, the platform triangle fills with less definable movement, less "geometric"—because, like the Lumiere workers leaving their factory, it is casual, human, not straitened by the train's narrow passage cutting through the middle of the frame, nor aloof and impassive like the sky above. The platform filling with people is the organic element of the scene, and it dominates.

This is the importance of L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat: precise composition in the service of natural movement. This combination of the mechanical and the organic lies at the heart of cinema's process, acknowledged near the end by the man who walks into the frame and looks directly at us, almost pausing—to my eye, commanding the moment more than any silently roaring train could hope to do.

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