Years ago Andre Gaudreault and I were trying to identify difficulties involved in researching issues in film history, given that one invariably confronts the problem of missing information, the what and how much uncertain. In the first instance, there is in a particular case six related documents; one has five and the speculation on the content of number six will almost always be way off the mark. In the second, one is in possession of five documents, but believes incorrectly that there is a lost sixth and draws a timid conclusion. In the third case, one has five documents and no idea there is a sixth, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, an unknown unknown! It was in February 2002 or March 2003 that the American Secretary of Defense offered his concept of the three epistemological categories: the known knowns, the things we know we know, the known unknowns, the things we know we don't know, and the unknown unknowns, the things we don't know we don't know. To which the cultural philosopher Slavoj Zizek added a correction. Said Zizek: "Rumsfeld forgot to add the crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns, things we don't know that we know - which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn't know itself," as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to say, the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to."
We have all had the experience of encountering details heard in a lecture or a conversation or overheard in a discussion or found in a journal article that went unrecorded, that we were then unable to recall accurately, i.e. details neither completely known nor unknown. Information may sit in a file one has misplaced or that one imagines to be in that file or that may be in the file but not as imagined.
In good times, the relation of knowns and unknowns in any research field is in a state of transition and revision, the continuing investigation revealing false knowns, the fifth category, along with unknowns that in time may yield up their secrets and unknowns that are, temporarily, unyeilding.
The knowns Rumsfeld and Zizek refer to are institutional not subjective entities. An organization holding the view that the earth is the centre of the universe can be violently intolerant of anyone who says he looked into a telescope and saw a different picture. It took over three centuries for the Roman Catholic Church to formally admit that Galileo was right. Of course, not all institutional truths are defended with such ferocity.
Looking to get a handle on the beginnings of film documentary, if not the medium itself, one may quite reasonably turn to the first films of the Lumieres, "closer in content and approach to subsequent documentaries" that is to say closer than the Fred Ott sneeze and the Edison employees dancing to a phonograph recording in the lab in West Orange, New Jersey. Among the original Lumiere works LA SORTIE DE L'USINE - WORKERS LEAVING THE FACTORY was the first.
It is a film a century of commentary had declared unplanned, fortuitous, cinema in its first and purest manifestation, the original and possibly the last moment of Edenic movie innocence. The first Lumiere films supposedly dealt with everyday occurrences and fascinated their audiences "precisely because they seemed to capture the flux and spontaneity of events as they were viewed in real life."
But this, it turns out, is a product of desire not fact, not what Sorties is or ever was but what writers wanted it to be; the film itself of less interest than the conclusion to be drawn from it about the character of the movie medium.
Most of the early Lumieres were not naive, unmediated representations of reality; there was structure, calculation, less flux and spontaneity than we have been led to believe.
This is a conclusion confirmed by more recent research. That research reveals that there were at least three versions of SORTIES, one produced in 1895 with the prototype Cinematographe, the other two done 1896/1897 with the standard Cinematographe. The shape of the frames makes it possible to distinguish between the two machines. Moreover, there were eleven screenings in France and Belgium in 1895 prior to the 28 December 1895 screening in the Salon Indien of the Grand Café, Paris. Not much is known about the version of sorties screened at the 22 March 1895 Societe d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale meeting of representatives of the nation's photo-clubs in Paris; it might have been a re-make of a version shot with a earlier camera prototype with a different sprocket pattern. Perhaps what seems the later version, the one with the horses we have all seen, was the one screened in March and December.
Are the people in the shot employees leaving the factory at the end of a workday? Most are women in what appear to be their Sunday best. Was sorties in fact the first fiction film? "This is obviously a fiction movie - maybe the first one - because the Lumieres had a limited supply of film stock and were trying to make a good film in a single shot; the Lyon factory workers were asked - directed? - to leave the factory in one continuous balanced movement the action rounded off with the manager's horse-drawn wagon, the driver wearing a top hat, and all of it to happen in less than fifty seconds. Considering that the film was to be screened at the conclusion of the photography conference in March, it was important to demonstrate the effectiveness of this new photographic invention while providing a positive impression of the Lumiere factory."
Sorties in whatever version is a dramatization, a re-enactment of the end of a Lyon factory day. It could be argued that much cinema is re-enactment, the time machine-like bringing of a hypothetical past forward instead of traveling back into its uncertainty.
Slavoj Zizek, "Iraq's False Promises", Foreign Policy, January/February 2004; and Slavoj Zizek, "Rumsfeld and the Bees", The Guardian, 28 June 2008.
Jack C. Ellis, The Documentary Idea: A CriticalHistory of English-Language Documentary Film and Video, Prentice-Hall, 1989.
Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies, Sixth edition, Prentice Hall, 1993, p.2.
Marshall Deutelbaum, "Process and Circularity in Primitive Film Narrative: Narrative Patterns from Optical Toys to D.W.Griffith's 'Intolerance' " doctoral dissertation, The Univ. of Rochester, 1978.
I will forever be indebted for this information to Jean-Marc Lamotte of the Institute Lumiere in Lyon, France. See http:// www.institut-lumiere.org/english/lumiere/cinematographe.html
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