this can be considered the first great film. Whereas 'Sortie d'Usine' and 'Repas de Bebe' are interesting theoretically, for the ideas they provoke, and nostalgically, as the first films, for unwittingly embodying a period, a century, a sensibility long vanished, 'Demolition d'un mur' stands up on its own, offering genuine excitement.
A group of workers, instructed by a foreman, hack away at a wall until it falls down. This film is brilliant for a number of reasons. First of all, it is possibly the first act of self-reflexivity in the cinema, the foreman barking orders to his workers mirroring the director(s) organising his crew.
But this dream of order is thrillingly destroyed, and hierarchies abolished by a supreme act of violence. As the wall finally collapses, lumbering as Boris Karloff, a whirling storm of dust and chips swallows the scene, and the screen. The foreman, once the centre of power and order, is marginalised, pushed to the edge of the screen or off it entirely. The workers, at first mere servants, hands of the capitalist machine, become demented, and start hacking away at the wall's stump. This, a single, conservative, static set-up, overspills with energy, destruction, violence.
That the Lumieres were a little afraid of what they had done can be seen in the trick they used at screenings of projecting the finished film backwards, so that the wall would be restored, and the old order reasserted. This is a good trick - it is a visual, special-effect; it shows cinema's triumph over mortality and the fixed; it shows that cinema, for all its claims to realism and documentary objectivity, is essentially a fantastic medium.
But it also reassures the audience, negating the impact and implications of the scene, showing that destruction is not final, can be reversed. The revolution can be quelled. Cinema, once again, is used for conservative ends, but this time we can sense the hysteria, the sense of a medium going beyond the intentions of its makers. That irrepressible scene of whirling, all-consuming smoke was unexpected by the directors; it is a brief glimpse of the power of a cinema that is not controlled, a power rarely utilised; indeed rarely desired.
The film also works as a compelling ghost story, the image of that single bare wall, the ruins of a former construction, a building, a room; what happened to it? What is being destroyed to feed our taste for sensation?
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