From their beginning, movies have been fascinated with motion and its termination — the play between stasis and animation that is inherent to how we perceive the rapid transit of still images across a screen. Nearly a century before David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973), a novel in which characters yearn for “the ecstasies of head-on collisions”, Cecil Hepworth’s How It Feels to Be Run Over found pleasure in blunt force trauma. In this minute-long film, a stationary camera, placed on the edge of a dirt road, records the approach of a horse-drawn cart, which passes safely out of the frame. Through the dust kicked up by hooves and wheels comes a motor car, driven by Hepworth, veering wildly toward us. As this automobile collides with the camera, the screen cuts to black and hand-written text flashes almost imperceptibly before our eyes: “?!!!? ! Oh! Mother will be pleased”.
One of the earliest uses of intertitles, Hepworth’s film belongs to a genre of fin-de-siècle accident pictures, which includes his own Explosion of a Motor Car (1900), Walter R. Booth’s An Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903), and the Lumière brothers’ infamous L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), the screening of which has been apocryphally associated with audience members fleeing the theater to avoid being crushed by the train coming toward them. This is heavy subject matter, leavened only in Looney Tunesish universes where victims recover with comic elasticity. As such, it is tempting to read these “crashes” as weighted with allegorical gravity: the shocking arrival of cinema as a new media form. “When we watch this film”, writes Richard Howells in reference to How It Feels to Be Run Over, “we are at the same time watching the cinema discover its potential to communicate in new ways.” And yet, the invocation of the personal in this film, both through its affective title (how it feels) and by the attempt to represent something like interiority with the closing intertitles, trains our gaze not on history, but on something closer to narrative: the way endings can ripple backward through plots — whether cinematic or biographical — to lend them consistency.
Witnessing a narrowly avoided transport accident in the same decade as Hepworth’s film, James Joyce asked his brother: “Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of the tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become.” Watching How It Feels to Be Run Over is to spend a minute in suspension as we await the title’s significance. We learn less about how it feels to be crushed by heavy machinery, more about the conventions of cinematic sensation itself. Like the catharsis promised by tragedy, we can explore the perverse thrill of a virtual car crash from the safe remove of our sofa. We barely have time to feel anything, only a flurry of question and exclamation marks before consciousness cuts to black. Of greater accessibility here is the way that “death” provides a sense of formal closure, lending significance, as Joyce describes, to “inciting incidents”. Mother told us to stay out of the road. If she is pleased, it is because she knew how this story would end.