“Fear not! It’s only a picture of a train!” Learning the language of cinema in 1895.
SPOILER ALERT! If you are like me and prefer to know as little as possible about a movie before seeing it (I don’t even like to watch trailers for this reason), then be forewarned that the following post discusses key plot elements of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen Inception, I recommend that you read no further and see the movie at your earliest convenience, before someone tells you all about it. Just think about how much more fun Psycho would have been if you hadn’t already known what was coming. You’ll enjoy Inception more going into it blind.
A cartoon I remember from years ago depicted a couple leaving the cinema. The man opines, “I didn’t care much for the plot, but I did enjoy the illusion of motion created by the projection of still frames in rapid succession.” I still smile whenever I think of that cartoon, because not only is it funny, but it also it also says something about the way our minds are accustomed to films and television. That anyone should go to a movie and simply appreciate the technological trickery that makes our brains perceive moving images is laughable to us now. What we often do not recognize, however, is the sophistication of our collective perception, that we understand what we watch because we have learned the conventions of cinema.
There is the famous apocryphal story of the audience reaction at the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s 1895 short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Running only 50 seconds, the pioneering film’s documentary content is aptly summarized by its title. According to legend, viewers were so alarmed by the moving image of an approaching train and so unaccustomed to cinematic illusion that they reflexively took evasive action so as not to get run over. You can judge for yourself by viewing the original footage, which wouldn’t hold a modern audience’s attention for half its length. At the end of the 19th Century, though, content hardly mattered. Just watching projections of apparently moving images was captivating. Read More