For a historical materialist film studies, La Sortie Des Usines Lumiere a Lyon (1895) is cinema's primal scene. Film history consists in a series of compulsive repetitions of the shot. What is Cinema? Cinema is a praxis that attempts to make what happens after labor is done perceivable - attempts to make social reproduction (i.e., "life") visible and audible despite capital's constant erasure of it. Where do the workers go when they leave the frame in La sortie des usines Lumiere à Lyon and all of its remakes? Melodrama, cinema’s dominant genre seeks to answer that question, though sometimes disguising the working class as the petty bourgeoisie, sometimes offering false percepts and sometimes disclosing reproduction’s truth. One hopes they leave the factory, to attend to social reproduction and not to labor at another site of production. One hopes they find a way to continue existing other than by reproducing their labor power and the wage relation. Cinema’s compulsively restaged primal scene brings an aesthetic promise of happiness, or at least respite, in the same frame that inaugurates the powers that will undermine that promise in favor of action, production and circulation.
The 1895 film introduces cinema’s specific capacity to think reproduction, the capacity of its chronotopes to refer percepts to ideologically obscured social forces: the forces involved in conversation, in parenting, in the division of domestic labor, in sex, in being separated by markets and together on the streets. Over the course of its history, cinema’s ethnographic power empties out La sortie’s promise of happiness and leads audiences to ask what we must do in order to be able to imagine that the workers aren’t headed to a camp, that man could stop being kapo to woman and that Capital’s genocidal dispossession could stop abjecting racialized surplus populations. Cinema begins with this film that inscribes the question of our revolutionary horizon in its off screen space.