L'Arroseur arrose

See the moving picture

It’s widely regarded as “the world’s first film comedy,”[1] but over the years, L’Arroseur arrosé has been asked to bear up under some substantial semantic baggage. Reasoning, for instance, that “Lumière films . . . were shot by men and reflected male preoccupations,” Charles Musser proceeds to argue that

this comic situation, in which the gardener and the bad boy humiliate each other, reveals a rich latent content from a psychoanalytic perspective. The long nozzle attached to the hose, which practically runs through the gardener’s legs, is an allusion to the phallus. The boy’s actions in blocking and unblocking the hose suggest masturbatory play with homosexual references. While the boy’s punishment at the end resonates with societal prohibitions against masturbation, it does not fully negate the pleasure involved in the boy’s play with the hose. Moreover, an (implicitly assumed) adult male spectator could find nostalgic pleasure in both the transgression and the punishment.[2]

L’Arroseur as “Comedy”

More often (and rather more successfully), commentators have tried to explain why, in displaying the recognizable structure of a comic episode (see Figure R2.1 [3]), L’Arroseur is so much different from the typical Lumière actualité. Though granting that “it is not worth trying to turn this little film into a miniature chef d’œuvre of the comic intellect,” American critic Gerald Mast finds it fairly easy to analyze its comic “chemistry”: “The elements of the film,” he proposes,

are four: (1) a comic protagonist wants to perform a task; (2) a comic antagonist interferes with that performance; (3) a comic object begins as a tool and ends as a weapon; (4) the protagonist makes a comic discovery of the problem and takes action on the basis of that discovery. . . . As simple as this initial film jest was, it contained elements that could be combined and expanded into much more complex films.[4]

L’Arroseur as “Fiction”

A little more problematic—but perhaps more provocative—is the occasional effort to define L’Arroseur as a “proto-fiction” film. It's been called “the first Lumière drama”[5] and characterized as the quintessential “found story”—a “cinematic story form” whose existence is borne out by the fact that the irrepressible “demand for the story . . . re-emerges within the womb of the non-story film. In fact,” argues German-born theorist Siegfried Kracauer, “the body of existing documentaries testifies to a persistent tendency toward dramatization”; L’Arroseur qualifies because its “action, a chance constellation of comic happenings, seems to be drawn from staged everyday life.”[6]


                    Dai Vaughan

British documentarist and critic Dai Vaughan has approached the question from what is perhaps a more useful historical perspective—one that tries to situate the Lumière audience in the forefront of the effort to determine whether L’Arroseur is in fact a “fiction.”[7] It’s easier and more logical, Vaughan suggests, to imagine a series of pertinent questions being posed by an audience in 1896 than it is to reformulate the same questions in contemporary theoretical terms. At first, the audience confronts two alternative understandings of what it’s just seen: either it was (1) an unstaged event captured by a passing camera, or it was (2) an event staged with the participation of both the gardener and the boy. On the most obvious level, the unsophisticated performances make the latter interpretation more plausible. But, Vaughan cautions,

it is not so easy. Suppose, for example, that the camera had been set up only to record the garden watering, and that the bad boy had played his trick unprompted; or that the boy and the cameraman had been in collusion to trick the gardener; or the boy and the gardener in collusion to surprise the cameraman.[8]

Accepting “Dream or Fantasy”: The Bargain That Makes Fiction Possible

  Granted, the questions start to become truly complicated only when the role of the “cameraman” in motivating false (and even transparent) spontaneity enters into the inquiry. Unfortunately, the spirit of the “cameraman” seems to haunt every pathway in the maze, and the audience must ultimately admit that the film provokes theoretical curiosity primarily because it consists of possibilities in which, according to Vaughan, “the role of the mountebank behind the camera cannot long be excluded from question.” Strictly speaking, Vaughan argues, modern audiences no longer question the fictionality of fiction films. Why so? It’s not, answers Vaughan, simply because the role of the “cameraman” has been more precisely delineated (that’s hardly the case), but rather because the cinema and its audience have struck a bargain about the status of its images: “Fiction film,” says Vaughan,

arises at precisely the point where people tire of these riddles [i.e., those questions posed by and for the first audiences of L’Arroseur]. As audiences settle for appearances, according a film’s images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex.[9]

Fiction becomes fiction, in other words, only when the audience accepts the film as something other than a performance by a mountebank behind a camera—as something other than images manipulated by an individual who arranges the scenes and manages the machine that makes images move. The modern audience has learned to accept the film as something other than stagecraft and technological legerdemain; we have long agreed to regard the cinematic story as a “dream or fantasy,” and not merely a demonstration of the magic that contrives images and makes them move. Not so for the original spectators of L’Arroseur arrosé: as long as they remained fascinated by the riddles with which we have grown tired, there could be no “fiction” film. Thus it’s fruitless to call L’Arroseur a fiction film, for no filmmaker could set out to make fiction until his audience was ready to strike the bargain by which they agreed to regard the cinematic narrative as a “dream or fantasy.”

[1] David Robinson, “Comedy,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 78.

[2] The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 143.

[3] For Figure R2.1: See Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 87, 90-91, 389.

[4] The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (London: New English Library, 1974), p. 32.

[5] Ivor Montagu, Film World: A Guide to Cinema (1964; rpt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), p. 97.

[6] Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960; rpt. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 213, 245-46.

[7] “Let There Be Lumière,” Sight and Sound 50 (Spring 1981), pp. 126-27.

[8] “Let There Be Lumière,” p. 127.

[9] “Let There Be Lumière,” p. 127.

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