*. What is this? Well, it goes by many different names (since, obviously, it was never “released” into distribution it was never given a proper title), and exists in three different forms (shot at different times, they are usually designated “one horse,” “two horses,” and “no horse”).
*. It has long been awarded the distinction of being the first movie ever made, though here a lot depends on your definition of a movie.
*. The fact that it exists in three only slightly different forms shot at three different times gives you some idea of how pedestrian (literally) a subject it was. Every day leaving the factory at Lyons was much like any other. So why make a film of it?
*. In part because they could. When you first buy a camera you want to take a picture of everything (or at least you did, before cameras in phones made picture-taking universally available). Similarly, when you first get a motion picture camera you want to make a movie of everything. This film was shot on the Lumières’ Cinematograph (they hadn’t invented it, but owned the patent), a machine which was both camera and projector. Setting one up outside the factory must have seemed as good an idea as any. At least there was lots of movement to capture.
*. But it’s a subject that remained of interest, at least to early filmmakers. Maybe because it was just an experience that urban dwellers everywhere (the chief audience for early movies) were familiar with. One thinks of the crowd disembarking from the ferry in Manhatta, those uniform phalanxes in Metropolis, or the workers entering the factory at the beginning of Chaplin’s Modern Times.
*. Those other examples I mentioned, however, are of people on their way to work. Here it’s quittin’ time. In another couple of decades these people will be heading out to see a movie later.
*. The real star of the show isn’t a worker but the enormous dog that’s running around outside (in all three versions) when the people come out. Presumably it’s been waiting for someone in particular. But what breed of dog is it? I originally thought some kind of mastiff, but the long legs and tail make me think it’s a Great Dane. The head seems a bit off though.
*. There’s a second dog that appears in two of the versions that’s a bit smaller. Still a large dog though.
*. Of course there’s no editing or camera movement yet, but it is a dynamic location. The action is nicely framed, with the gates themselves almost being like curtains drawn aside to open a real-life proscenium arch. Motion is kept in balance by the flow of people splitting roughly equally to the left and right. These may seem simple matters of composition, and they are, but they’re also essential to give the film a sense of rhythm.
*. The dogs stick out all the more from what is a mostly anonymous crowd. There are few individuals distinguished by their movements, clothing, or behaviour. No one seems to be playing for the camera. That would come later, when the camera’s eye entered our consciousness and changed the way we saw ourselves, turning everything in our lives into a kind of performance.