First Action Heroes

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of cinema

On cue, a moustached man carefully opens the double doors of a factory in Lyon, France. The factory's employees - mostly women in wide skirts and elaborate hats, but also men in dark full-length aprons and several bicycle riders - pour into the sunlight and disperse to the right and left, their shadows trailing under them in what appears to be the midday sun. A rambunctious dog topples the first cyclist, and several of the men gaze furtively in our direction as they come out, before lowering their heads and moving on. The next bicycles are better choreographed: half-way into the action a front tyre noses out of a smaller door on the left and hangs there for several seconds, until two more bicycles appear in the double doorway. Then, like jets in formation, the first cyclist veers left, the second comes straight out and the third follows, before turning right. As the last few people file out, one more bicycle appears, wobbles for a second in the bright sun, and pedals off. The man who opened the doors begins to close them again but he flickers, falters, can't... Auguste and Louis Lumière, entrepreneurs and the sons of a wealthy photo-materials manufacturer, are out of film.

So goes La sortie des ouvriers de l'usine Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), the first film by the brothers Lumière, made 100 years ago last March. Shot with a 'cinématographe,' the 16-pound, hand-cranked wooden box from which all of cinema derives its name, La sortie... and the machine that made it are fundamentally no different from the cameras and projectors used for Batman Forever or Waterworld. What is cinema but a string of transparent photographs spooled across an illuminated bicycle? This is the kind of simplicity that the Lumières loved (and Hollywood would like to forget), a charm that increased considerably when they took their apparatus home.

There, with the help of family and friends, the limitations of the cinématographe were more than offset by what John Grierson has described as a 'fine careless rapture.' How fascinated we can be with a new machine! Everything seems different through it, and the Lumières - like us - filmed everything: the cat eating lunch, the baby walking, snowball fights, garden hose pranks, sack races, baby parades, the destruction of a wall. From the beginning, the most mundane activity was made to shimmer in the luminosity of their clear, silent material. For example, in La bataille de neige, friends and family members have been set up on opposing sides of a road to begin a furious snowball fight. In their haste to perform they sometimes end up hurling what look like gossamers and disintegrating comets at each other. When they do hit their dark targets the snowballs explode like white stars. At one point the obligatory cyclist enters the fray and is pelted to the ground by both sides, before gathering his equipment and getting away.

Bolstered by the success of their invention at home in Lyon and foreseeing its great, albeit short-lived market potential (the brothers thought the cinématographe would be a fad, and against the protestation of their many later admirers, insisted that they were always businessmen and never artists), the Lumières went abroad. Filming people who were neither friends nor employees, however, proved a much more beguiling task. Apparently, in operation the cinématographe was as curious to look at as it was immobile, and most of the Lumières' attempts at documenting everyday street life ended up recording their machine's extraordinary public reception. In response, Auguste and Louis developed a film director's two most useful skills: martial discipline and flattery. The Lumières spent a lot of energy getting their subjects to co-operate, to do what they would 'normally do' rather than what they usually did, which was either to stare at the giant coffee mill being aimed at them or politely get out of the way. Neither reaction was satisfactory, so the Lumières steered people into Londres, l'entrée du cinématographe, steered them out of Dublin, l'incendie, or simply filmed the void caused by the camera itself, as in Moscow, le promenade.

Still, the invention of the 20th century's dominant art form aside, the most ingenious aspect of the first cinématographe was that it functioned as camera, developer and projector all in one, allowing the Lumières to make films as far away as Tokyo or Chicago and screen them in the same city days later. The device was so well-received at its debut in New York City that Felix Mesguich, the projectionist at the screening who had come on the Lumières' behalf, was brought onstage afterwards amidst a standing ovation while the orchestra played La Marseillaise!

Originally intended to depict employees leaving work, La sortie... also documents the workers at the Lumière factory entering their leisure time, a relatively new spatial concept in the Spring of 1895. Inadvertently, then, the film captures them entering the arena of their lives in which film will become the most powerful influence. Thus, La sortie... foreshadows the availability of cinema's future consumers whilst acknowledging the midwives of its birth. 100 years later, the film functions as a kind of work/leisure conundrum for the 20th century, a tight emblem for the production/consumption spiral that threatens both to kill its parents and eat its young. A century on, bored by our machines and fed-up with the social contract, with Newt Gingrich the most powerful man in America and Quentin Tarantino topping the charts, it appears the killing and eating will soon begin.

Issue 24

First published in Issue 24

Sept - Oct 1995

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018