Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
One day in the summer of 1896, Maxim Gorky’s mind was blown. Gorky was attending a Russian fair and had gone to visit an exhibit by a couple of Frenchmen known as the Lumiére Brothers. Sitting in a darkened room, Gorky saw what seemed to him a photograph of the streets of Paris projected onto a large screen. It was a nice photograph, but Gorky was not particularly impressed. He’d seen plenty of photographs before. Then the damn thing began to flicker and come to life. This was something new.
Gorky watched what was happening on the screen in deepening amazement. He wrote about the experience a couple of days later:
Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit; somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer to you; in the foreground children are playing with a dog, bicyclists tear along, and pedestrians cross the street picking their way among the carriages.
Gorky was watching reality unfolding in front of his very eyes, in real time. Yet, this reality was also not reality. These were images, moving images projected onto a screen. As Gorky watched, he was struck more and more by the dichotomy between the striking realism of the scenes and his distance from that reality. This effect was heightened by the fact that the Lumiére Brothers shot their films in black and white and without sound (sound and color being technological developments that would only come decades later).
“Noiselessly,” Gorky wrote, “the ashen-grey foliage of the trees sways in the wind, and the grey silhouettes of the people, as though condemned to eternal silence and cruelly punished by being deprived of all the colors of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.” For Gorky, there was something inherently unnerving and melancholy in the act of watching other people’s lives pass by on a screen.