How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900): The Cinema of Experience

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There’s a popular anecdote about the Lumière brothers’ 1896 film “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.”  According to the story, theatre-goers were initially distraught upon seeing the moving image, and feared that the approaching train in the movie was coming to run them down. Audience members were said to have fled from the theatre in a panic, only to return moments later in embarrassment. Whether this event actually happened is a matter of debate, but there is no denying the impact that moving images could have on the unsuspecting patrons. Much in the same way that virtual reality tantalizes the senses today, one can imagine the exciting prospects of motion pictures to people at the turn of the century.

How it Feels To Be Run Over could be considered the first exploitation film. Rather than capitalizing on some political/cultural movement, Cecil Hepworth’s 1900 film exploits the human mind. Like Edison in America and the Lumières in France, Britain’s Hepworth was engaged in designing a cinema of experience, rather than a cinema of drama. How it Feels to Be Run Over is unique to the motion picture medium, and tantalizes the viewer with a physiological reaction, rather than a response built on emotion. The plot-free picture presents the passive observer with the image of a car approaching from a distance. As can be imagined, the car commences straight toward the screen, eventually eclipsing the screen in a wash of black. And thus, the shocked viewer has experienced what it feels like to be run over.

How it Feels to Be Run Over was Cecil Hepworth’s third film in a career spanning 30 years. The 26 year old enjoyed an early beginning in the film industry, and built a studio to rival his contemporaries in 1899. The studio was producing about 3 films a week by 1900, and the enterprising Hepworth was looking to find his directorial voice. Early efforts relied on cinematography tricks and other gimmicks to entice the audience, such as his debut about a magician performing illusions. How it Feels to Be Run Over blossomed out of this period as a novelty short, and it seemed to have caught the attention of audiences. Driven by audience intrigue, Hepworth followed this up with the more sensational Explosion of a Motor Car, which he claimed as his most successful movie at the time (Hepworth 51). It appears that today’s explosion-heavy blockbusters owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Hepworth.

Melissa and I watched Hepworth’s early classic a few days ago, almost 117 years after it was released. We had 2 other movies on the agenda, so we were eager to get this one out of the way and move into the 20th century proper. As we anticipated the grainy car coming straight for us, something unexpected happened: Melissa jolted back in surprise.

“That scared me. I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.

I was in disbelief. Given that I knew the title and the general effect of the movie, the “collision” wasn’t much of a shock for me. But Melissa didn’t have had preconceptions, just a grainy image and a slow-moving jalopy. Despite years of movie experience, as well as a solid technical background under her belt, Melissa was taken aback by a cheap effect from 1900.

I think we are too eager to dismiss the films of yesteryear as simplistic or unengaging. We laugh in derision when we hear about the panicked theatre-goers running from a train, yet we find it perfectly acceptable to cry at the latest Oscar-bait. Movies are about reaching us on an emotional level, despite their frame-rate or audio quality. I think Hepworth would be delighted to know that all these years later, his movies are still making audiences jump.

Hepworth, Cecil M. Came the dawn; memories of a film pioneer. London: Phoenix House, 1951. Web.

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