It’s one of the most persistent anecdotes of film studies that the first audiences of motion pictures were awe-struck by what Dai Vaughan has called the “incidentals” of scenes: “smoke from a forge, steam from a locomotive, brick dust from a demolished wall.” Most famously, during exhibitions of the Lumieres’ Repas de bebe, audiences were reportedly more interested in the distant tree leaves blowing in the wind than the baby eating breakfast in the foreground.
Most interpretations of the phenomenon tend to explain the attraction as a symptom of a particularly modern epistemology based on chance, ephemerality, and spontaneity or as an effect of cinema’s novel ability to show the autonomy of the world unfold independently of authorial control. In each case, the spectatorial attraction to incidental motion is explained by invoking the contingency of the moving image. Dai Vaughan points out that because the first film audiences would have been familiar only with the painted backdrops of the theater, they were astonished not by the moving figures in the foreground (they’d seen people on stage before) but by the seemingly uncaused, unplanned movement of the previously inanimate background. The surroundings, subject to a thousand spontaneous variations, come to life in a way that threatens to dwarf the actors. And Mary Ann Doane, less interested in the why than in the so what, associates the attraction to cinematic contingency with a host of then-emerging epistemological discourses that similarly privilege singularity, particularity, and chance (e.g. literary realism, statistics, psychoanalysis, physiology).