Bicycles, cinema and the spectacle of mechanical movement

Jacques Tati, Jour de Fête

Jacques Tati, Jour de Fête

Bruce Bennett, Senior Lecturer at LICA, is doing research on a very convivial tandem: bicycles and cinema. He tells our readers why the bicycle was the perfect subject for the first film, in 1895.

I am currently studying the history of cycling on screen, and in the course of this research have come across many films featuring cycling and cyclists from around the world. These range from slapstick silent comedies through dramatic feature films, performance art and sports documentaries to public information films promoting tourism and road safety. Many of these films are interesting in their own right, but they also allow us to track the historical development of cycling cultures. Moreover, in placing the cyclist within the film frame, they invite us to understand cycling as a form of public performance, an act of signification that has a variety of complex meanings. In other words, analysing cycling on film allows us to reflect upon and understand the significance of cycling in contemporary society with regard to social class, for example, gender and sexuality, conceptions of childhood, national and racialized identities, leisure or consumer culture. The bicycle is a vehicle for a wide range of meanings.

One of the striking aspects of this research is that cycling and cinema emerge at almost exactly the same time since the cycling boom of 1895, which followed the development of the modern ‘safety’ bicycle, coincides with the first commercial film screenings. This is no accident; the safety bike and the film camera were products of developments in manufacturing technology, sharing a mechanism of chain-driven wheels, but they were also expressions of a modernist desire for greater mobility. Both technologies allowed people the new experience of travelling at speed, seeing the world from different perspectives, and of transcending their limited social horizons. In this sense, studying the history of the cinema in tandem with the history of the bicycle gives us a rich understanding of the history of mobility from the late 19th century onwards, and the pleasures and fantasies that structure it.

The safety bike and the film camera were products of developments in manufacturing technology, sharing a mechanism of chain-driven wheels, but they were also expressions of a modernist desire for greater mobility.

For many cinema historians the screening held by Auguste and Louis Lumière in the Salon Indien of the Grand Café in Paris on December 28th, 1895, marks the emergence of cinema as a new medium. Although this was not the first public film demonstration, it was these screenings, and the practicality of the ‘Cinématographe’, the lightweight camera/projector/film developer they developed that ‘helped make the cinema a commercially viable enterprise internationally’ (Bordwell and Thompson: 9). The admission charge was a franc for a programme of ten single-shot films, each lasting less than 50 seconds, and ‘within weeks the Lumières were offering twenty shows a day, with long lines of spectators waiting to get in’ (Ibid.: 10). The cycling boom of 1895 thus coincides with the entry of this new medium into global culture, and this coincidence is marked emphatically by the first film in the programme.

Part of the scenography used for the exhibition 'Lumière! Le cinéma inventé', Paris, Grand Palais, 2015. Photo: Pascal Amoyel.

Part of the scenography used for the exhibition ‘Lumière! Le cinéma inventé’, Paris, Grand Palais, 2015. Photo: Pascal Amoyel.

The first screenings opened with the film, ‘La Sortie de L’Usine Lumière à Lyon’, which shows employees leaving the Lumières’ photographic factory, passing through the factory gates and heading off in different directions along the road outside the factory. There are three existing versions of the film, the first of which – the first film they shot – was filmed on 19th March 1895, and it is significant in a number of respects. Broadly, the subject of this film is bodies in motion, but more specifically we see scores of industrial labourers, the vast majority of them women, spilling out of the factory, presumably at the end of a shift. The film, which is itself an artefact of new industrial technology, presents us with a symbolic image of industrial modernity as a crowd of workers stream through the gates towards the camera. Tom Gunning has observed,

The twentieth century might be considered the century of the masses, introducing mass production, mass communication, mass culture. We could redescribe this transformation as the entrance of the working class (putatively the driving force of any age, but often eclipsed in the realm of official representation) onto a new stage of visibility (Gunning 2004: 50).

The cinema is a crucial component of this ‘stage’, such that, by 1936, Walter Benjamin could write, ‘any man today can lay claim to being filmed’ (Benjamin 1968: 233). In this regard it is significant that the film shows us a photographic factory, a crucial part of the communications infrastructure of the emergent mass culture. The other nine films include shots of a baby being fed, trick horse-riding, a practical joke, a street scene, and a couple of blacksmiths at work, but the factory-gate film that opened the original screening condenses the accelerating social changes brilliantly into a single moving image. It is a revolutionary film in several respects, but one detail that is rarely noted is that all three versions of the film feature cyclists. As well as pedestrians on foot, dogs, and two horse-drawn carts, there are several bicycles pushing through the crowd.

The first film, in other words, is a cycling film, and bicycles are not an incidental element here. In an essay on the depiction of space in early cinema, Richard deCordova suggests that the bikes play a crucial role in making cinematic space visible. Although the space depicted in the Lumières’ film is perfectly legible, nevertheless, for deCordova the film represents ‘a violent decomposition of the perspectival system that had been dominant since the 16th century in painting (the system upon which photography had been modelled)’ (deCordova 1990: 78). The reason for this is that figures in the film move from the background to the foreground: ‘The workers do not just move: they move in perspective’ (Ibid.).

‘The workers do not just move: they move in perspective’… For deCordova this is the revolutionary dimension of the film and it is demonstrated most clearly by the way that the cyclists are initially hidden but then emerge from behind members of the crowd: ‘Such an appearance had been impossible in both painting and photography’.

For deCordova this is the revolutionary dimension of the film and it is demonstrated most clearly by the way that the cyclists are initially hidden but then emerge from behind members of the crowd: ‘Such an appearance had been impossible in both painting and photography’ (Ibid.). The disconcerting effect of this movement is compounded by the effect of distortion as the cyclists become unfocused, reaching a point of ‘abstraction’ as they move towards the camera. Furthermore, the disappearance of cyclists and other figures as they move off-screen draws the spectator’s attention to the frame of the image, ‘an active problem of representation in these films’ (Ibid.).

The play of appearance and disappearance was an important attraction of early cinema, and the pleasures of film viewing may have been closely related to the ‘now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t’ spectacle of stage magic (See Gunning 1990), but the result of this movement is a ‘structural contradiction. While on the one hand, the shot of the factory workers corresponds to well-established, stable pictorial conventions – a still of the film resembles a still photograph – at the same time, the ‘filmic representation of movement’ has the effect of ‘discomposing the fixed composition of objects within the fixity of the frame’ (Ibid. 79). The extent to which viewers were aware they were witnessing a new order of pictorial space is questionable, although there are plenty of anecdotal accounts of audience confusion and anxiety at the uncanny spectacle of moving images that suggest the ‘violent decomposition of space’ was intensely felt by viewers (See, for example, Stephen Bottomore’s work on apocryphal stories of panicking early film viewers). By contrast with a painting or still photograph, in a film, ‘the elements are in constant flux – in a mechanical movement’ (78). The shock of the new medium rests not so much with its greater illusionism, as with the spectacle of mechanical movement. The bicycle is therefore the perfect subject for the first film since, in Western Europe in 1895, it was an increasingly ubiquitous, exciting and very visible example of mechanical movement.

Bonus track: French bicycliste, shot by the same Lumière Brothers:

References

Walter Benjamin (1968). Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books

David Bordwell, Krsitin Thompson (1994). Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc.

Stephen Bottomore (1999). ‘The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the “train effect”’. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 177-216

Richard deCordova (1990). ‘From Lumière to Pathé: The Break-Up of Perspectival Space’, in Thomas Elsaesser, ed., Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: BFI. pp. 76-85

Tom Gunning (2004). ‘Pictures of Crowd Splendor: The Mitchell and Kenyon Factory gate Films’, in Vanessa Toulmin, Simon Popple, Patrick Russell, eds., The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film. London: BFI. pp. 49-58

Tom Gunning (1990), ‘“Primitive” cinema: A Frame-Up? Or, The Trick’s On Us’ in Thomas Elsaesser, ed., Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: BFI, pp. 95-103

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2 responses to “Bicycles, cinema and the spectacle of mechanical movement

  1. Pingback: Bicycles, cinema and the spectacle of mechanical movement | Revolutionary Films: The cinematic history of cycling·

  2. Really interesting article – never thought about the history of bicycles and film – my knowledge only went as far back as “Breaking Away.”

    Thanks for sharing.

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