the arrival of the train

contemplating cinephilia

I first encountered the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train in an introductory film theory class at Brown. Shot on the Lumière brothers’ revolutionary cinématographe, it was one of the earliest movies to be screened in public. Though groundbreaking when it was released in 1895, the film seemed unremarkable when I saw it: It consists of a static shot of a steam locomotive pulling into a station. But what captivated me was the fable-like tale of its reception. Legend has it that when it was shown at the Grand Café in Paris, members of the audience leapt out of their seats and ran out of the theatre in panic, terrified by the moving image of the train barrelling towards them.

This is now widely regarded as an apocryphal tale, an urban legend of sorts. Reinforced by the misconception that L’Arrivée d’un train was the first motion picture ever made, the story of its reception is often considered the “foundational myth” of cinema. To me, however, whether the story is true has always been rather unimportant. What fascinates me more is that this is the story we have chosen to embrace as the Genesis myth, the Big Bang theory of cinema. What is it about this particular parable of film blurring the lines of reality in an unprecedented way—inducing utter awe and surrender in its spectators—that appeals to us as definitive of the birth of cinema? I have come to believe that the legend of L’Arrivée d’un train holds the alchemical secrets behind the allure of cinema in our cultural imagination.

A canonical conundrum in film theory has been the question of “photogenie au cinema”: a question of what constitutes the quintessence of cinephilia, or the love for cinema. For decades, theorists have tried to explain the unique, quasi-magical power of film. What is it that cinema can do that other art forms cannot? For me, this has also been a personal, introspective question. My cinephilia is integral to my identity—it is my own foundational myth of sorts—but I have always been curious about where it stems from.

I grew up loving, producing, and consuming stories voraciously. I spent my childhood reading and writing fiction, and I was raised in the rich cinematic tradition of Bollywood, a tradition in which cinema suffuses everyday life, from weddings and festivals to religion and politics. But it was only when I got to college that it clicked that studying cinema is my calling: It is at the movies that I am, quite simply, rapt. I am truly, transcendently, happy. But the question remained: Why film? Why not literature, or art, or music?

To unlock this mystery, both theoretical and personal, of “why cinema”, I keep returning to the fable of L’arrivee d’un train. I imagine myself in the Grand Café in 1895, having never seen a motion picture before. I imagine watching the train come towards me. The black-and-white image flickers noticeably and there is no sound; it seems, beyond doubt, that the train is not real. And yet, as it charges towards me, I am terrified. I am overcome with a sudden, irrational questioning of reality. I react before I can intellectualize what is happening; I leap out of my seat and back away from the train. I have just watched a movie, and it has moved me—in every sense of the word.

As a student of film theory and criticism, I am constantly gaining new tools to critically evaluate film. But ultimately what I look for in a film is the L’Arrivée d’un train moment of rapture in which the technological and artistic capabilities of cinema conspire to overwhelm me. The films that matter the most to me brought me those moments: The match cut from the bone to the space-station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The dolly zoom in Vertigo. The frantic Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The singular moment of motion—of a woman opening her eyes—in Chris Marker’s incredible La Jetée, a film otherwise composed entirely of stills. In these moments, I experience the essence of cinephilia. I relive the wondrous fantasy of L’Arrivée d’un train.