The 50-second silent film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) from 1896, made by Auguste and Louis Lumière.
The apocryphal story continues to do its rounds – people fleed from the cinema because they thought a (black and white) train was fast approaching the screen and in danger of smashing the audience into smithereens, they soon-to-be cinemagoing versions of William Huskisson MP at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
The events of the public screening sound bonkers, but then we often think that our precursors – Luddites and all that – were idiots.
Viewing Apocalypto (2006), a frenzied masterwork in the vanguard of breathless chase cinema, the appearance of the conquistadors at its end (circa 1511) and the utterly perplexed reactions of the Mayans to these alien entities/shapes/unexplained phenomena had me immediately drawing parallels with the Lumières’ screening.
Though the audience of the Lumière picture had of course seen trains before, they had never been subjected to their projections – if not screaming from the cinema I would expect they would be at least baffled, astonished, by the incident. As for the Mayans, I’d like to think the Spanish ships of their time will be the alien spacecraft (or accompanying ‘alien’ object) of ours.
1896 and 2006, documentary and fiction, are fleetingly both linked by this phenomenological dynamic and unsure relationships between subject (Mayans/cinemagoers) and object (ship/train), the questioning of whether what they are feeling is ‘real’ or not.
By all accounts, no one scurried away from a black and white train, but it’s a convenient precedent. These days, for example, we run from the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), not because we question the very being of what we see, but for we seek more arresting phenomena – watching paint dry being one of them.