Legend has it that when the Lumière brothers’ film Coming of Train, La Ciotat was screened in 1896, its image of a train approaching a station made viewers flee their seats for fear of being crushed. In fact, reactions were less dramatic but perhaps more profound. One audience member wrote, “[T]he train rushes in so quickly that, in common with most of the people in the front rows of the stalls, I shift uneasily in my seat and think of railway accidents.” The same year, a Lumière film of carriages coming toward the camera made Maxim Gorky squirm: The carriages “move straight at you,” he wrote, “into the darkness in which you sit.”
Something about the peril of oncoming vehicles seems to capture how startling motion pictures were when they first appeared. By the early 1890s, of course, people were familiar with still photographs and even with images moving across a flat screen: Huge painted panoramas, unscrolling from one side of a stage to another, gave theater audiences the impression they were seeing a landscape move past a train window. But when films came along, they looked entirely new; they had an immediacy combined with an immateriality that seemed uncanny and perhaps a little disorienting. The novelty of these earliest films, most of which simply offered glimpses of the real world in motion, lasted for about a decade. By 1907, more fictional narratives than documentary scenes were being shot; and by 1915, Charlie Chaplin was using movies to generate a new kind of star power. A show this spring at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., recalledthe astonishment that turn-of-the-century films provoked: The show brought together 60 of these early films—vast natural landscapes, views of city streets, cozy domestic scenes, vaudeville turns and dance numbers—and offered a portrait of the medium in its infancy.
Click here to read a slide-show essay on early films.