My Favourite Film of 1896.



Film You’ll already know the story about L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (watchable here), that on its first public projection the audience was so amazed by the realism of the vehicle heading from the background to foreground that they thought it might continue into the auditorium and vacated the building in a panic. Martin Scorsese parodies the moment in Hugo with an actual train crash through a railway station (albeit in a dream sequence). The Wikipedia page has a short discussion about the veracity of the story or at least the cause of the audience’s reaction, but the point is that if it did happen, that audience had a reaction, a visceral, physical reaction to a film, however short it is.

Over the past couple years and before I’ve talked about my own emotional reaction to films. Crying tears of awe on seeing the olyphants in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Puking my guts out one Christmas whilst watching Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Shouting during a screening of Like Water For Chocolate at an inopportune moment. Running myself out of a screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre unable to cope as soon as the meat hooks appeared, leaving an empty screen at the Showcase Cinema on the East Lancs Road. Sobbing through Titanic at that same cinema, indeed sobbing through numerous movies. Most recently shouting Blinovich’s name right through the end of The Lake House (luckily at home where no one but me could hear).

Looking back, for the most part, none of these seems to have anything to do with the real purpose of the given film. Does a comedy make you laugh? Does a drama take you on an emotionally satisfying journey? Does a thriller literally thrill? Is an action film actually exciting? Aren’t the best films capable of many or all of these? To that we might include those films designed to provoke an intellectual response which is still a reaction of a sort although I’d argue that the best of that type of work is capable of making us laugh or cry on the way to making us think. But ultimately this is still predicated on who we are, or experience. Pauper’s Jack Black and humour vacuum Josh Gadd has enough admirers to sustain his career.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker has one of the funniest scenes in cinema and a really mind bending conclusion despite for the most part allowing us to meditate on voids and losses and the search for a purpose. When the three men, who we’ve watched walk for over an hour through a deserted, apocalyptic wilderness reach their destination at the centre of the zone and hear a phone ring it’s impossible not to laugh due how unexpected it is. Did the filmmaker expect that? The laconic performances suggest so as the characters seem as surprised as us, but in what’s otherwise a relatively serious film, we’re as surprised to be laughing as much as they are to hear the phone ringing. Did Tarkovsky build to this emotional release?

There’s strong evidence the brothers Lumiere wanted to scare their audience or at least find realism in the image. The position of the camera looks like an early experiment in 3D and the film was later reshot with a stereoscopic camera and rescreened for screening in 1935 along with numerous similar experiments. It’s speculated that perhaps the audience ran out of that screening when indeed they did in fact have the train unexpectedly coming towards them and that reaction has become attributed to the earlier event. You would think that the audience might have become more cine-literate by the 1930s but considering how some couldn’t see the artifice during early screenings of The Blair Witch Project decades later, a spellbound audience can be convinced of anything.

Perhaps we should simply agree that for any piece of art, especially cinema, to provoke any reaction is a good thing, even if it’s unintended. Laughing at the ineptitude of a film might not be what a filmmaker expects but they should take some solace in the fact that enough people care enough about it to actively dislike it. How many mediocre comedies, dramas, thrillers and art house pieces pass by without notice. The makers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre would surely have preferred me to stick around for the final hour of their film (otherwise it would have been a short) but they’d probably get a kick out of the fact it scared and sickened me to the point of wanting to run for the exit. I’m certain that nothing could replace the relief I felt at the auditorium doors clattered behind me.

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