There is a popular myth about the birth of modern film, which goes something like this. It is late in December of 1895, and it is Paris, and the brothers Lumière are showing their films at LeSalon Indien du Grand Café. Tonight is the first public film screening in h.istory. The audience is cosmopolitan, well-to-do, and well-educated. It is not a large Salon, after all. The movies are all actualités of about forty seconds, but for each little clip the brothers feed in seventeen meters of film. This does not detract from the spectacle, not at all

These films show scenes from daily life. They are demonstrative in nature and their appeal lies in the simple joy of being able to look at things. One Lumière film is called “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”; it shows a train pulling up to a country town platform using one continuous shot. The camera was positioned right next to the tracks, so as the train comes in it runs diagonally across the screen. It is distant at first but then larger and larger until it is huge in the center and heading right for us. And then the train stops, of course, and lets the people out onto the platform—but by now it is too late, as the legend would have it, because everyone in the Salon is jumping up or shouting or running away to the back of the room where they think they will be safe. The little wooden chairs have all been knocked down to the ground, and the Lumières are standing there cross or perplexed or maybe even gleeful.

In this chaotic moment, the film audience was born. It was a dotted line before the modern, a call to play the skeptic in the face of illusion. In A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast described it with appropriate smugness: “Audiences,” he said, “would have to learn to watch movies.”

Today, we are almost entirely certain that this never really happened. Martin Loiperdinger, Tom Gunning, and other film historians have made a variety of convincing cases against it. (For example: The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station was not part of the original ten-film program; it was first screened in 1896. For example: the film was flickering, grainy, all black and white, and projected onto a fairly small screen at the front of the room.) But the myth has stuck regardless, and the Grand Café anecdote is now part of the lore of modern film culture. Plus, the fact of its ubiquity may show us more about ourselves than its truth or falsehood.

Here is a thing that definitely did happen. In 1902, Edison Studios released a short film called “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show.” It was quite clearly a knock-off of a movie made in England just a year before, “The Countryman and the Cinematographe,” and it featured an excerpt from an Edison film called “New Diamond Express” (1900)—itself quite clearly a knock-off of the Lumière Brothers’ wildly successful “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” (1896). 

“Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show” is a fairly simple movie. It stars an unsophisticated rube from the country called “Uncle Josh,” a character who showed up in many films and audio monologs at the time. Here, Uncle Josh has booked himself a box at the cinema. He is off to one side of the frame, sitting in his box and watching the screen that takes up the other half of the shot. “The Edison Projecting Kinetoscope” comes up on the screen, and then a “Parisian Dancer” begins to do the can-can in a sultry,  fin-de-siècle sort of way. Uncle Josh is so moved that he jumps out of his box and starts trying to dance with her. But then the film changes to “New Diamond Express”, and poor Josh is still there in front of the screen as the train starts to come, so he leaps with a fright and throws himself right back into his booth. When the third film comes on, it is a country couple fighting, and when Uncle Josh goes to intervene he knocks over the screen. The understandably cranky projectionist wrestles Josh to the ground, and the film ends there.

This Uncle Josh is hairy, and proud, and melodramatic. It is the dancer who first lures him out from his box—lures him from the left side, the safe side, of the film’s single shot—but the second time he ventures out, it is to intervene in what looks like domestic abuse. He does not seem like a bad sort of man at all: his bantam posturing makes him ridiculous because he does not understand that it is all an illusion. The lust, fear, and moral insistence that would otherwise make him normal are discredited in the moment that he gets out of his box and walks out past the curtain. When he steps in front of the screen, he disappears in the projection, and when he tries to enter into the world of the film, everything comes crashing down around him—and Uncle Josh is the one to blame.

“Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show” is a funny little film, but in moments, it can start to feel surprisingly sad.

At the start of the twentieth century, Uncle Josh and other rube stories gave the early film audience a reflection of their own viewing experience and, moreover, trained them against the wrong way to respond to illusions. By the 1920s, these films were no longer popular. They were replaced, in a way, by the urban legend of the Lumière Brothers and “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station.” Anthropologists around this time also wrote about the terror of “primitive” tribes when they encountered film technology. The naïve country bumpkin had been replaced by whole audiences of the past, and by a colonial Other, in the popular imagination. 

The modern spectator, when confronted with illusion, undergoes the uncanny excitement of being both skeptical and vulnerable, of succumbing to an illusion at the same time as realizing that the illusion is false. As Cécile Whiting has noted, an audience can watch a documentary about the special effects used in Jurassic Park and then still jump in fear when the virtual dinosaurs lurch from the screen. Yet it seems as if modern viewers need something else as well, some familiar way to deflect their insecurity onto the credulous, the uninitiated, or the weak.

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“Reality television,” Germaine Greer said once, “is not the end of civilization as we know it: it is civilization as we know it. It is popular culture at its most popular, soap opera come to life.” The heady world of reality TV is no place for the skeptic. Just this year, there were numerous accusations that Kourtney & Kim Take New York had been “backfilled” with scenes that were faked later on. The finale of The Hills in 2010 was essentially a confession that the show had been scripted from the start: after a last sentimental scene, the camera zoomed out to show Brody Jenner standing in an outdoor set in a Hollywood studio. Said Kristen Cavallari, one of the protagonists: “Fans need to understand it’s all entertainment. It’s all in fun. I would never actually put my close friends or a real relationship on a show.” 

It is hard to get a grip on the status of fact and fiction in contemporary visual culture, and it is hard to understand how skeptical or susceptible we are all supposed to be. Since the Blair Witch Projectin 1999, found-footage style has become a horror movie staple. Comedies like The Office take on the appearance of documentaries, while factual documentaries, mix in dramatic re-enactments and performative interventions. As basic ontological categories blur, and as nothing comes without self-conscious mediation, reality begins to assume all the values and demands of the spectacle. 

We are fascinated, and we are vulnerable. In this sort of landscape, there is not even a screen for Uncle Josh to rip down. You are not supposed to watch The Hills and then think it is true. But if you do not watch The Hills because you think it is false, then it seems that you too are missing the point somehow.

When the UK’s Channel 4 aired the reality show Space Cadets in December of 2005, the Sunday Mirror said it lay “somewhere between completely hilarious and incredibly cruel.” According to the promotional blurb: “Channel 4 is blasting a group of adventurers, ordinary members of the public, off into space to spend five days orbiting the earth. It’s thrilling, it’s exciting, and it’s totally bogus.” These would-be reality stars were hand-picked for their boldness and credulity. They were taken to a disused military base in Suffolk and then told that it was Russia, told that two of them would be chosen to go up into space (along with three professional actors who had been planted there to help guide the illusion).

The cadets were trained by a former KGB agent and their base was decked out in exclusively Russian products. (The production team at Suffolk smoked Russian cigarettes in case one of the contestants found a butt somewhere.)  When they finally went up in the shuttle, which was a hand-medown from Space Cowboys and Armageddon, they saw a distant earth out the window thanks to Hollywood-standard visual effects. All told, the show cost Channel 4 more than four million pounds. 

The cadets were put through their paces. They saluted a Russian “poem,” which was actually a translated recipe for English sausage pudding. They memorized planet names, made balloon animals, acted out Alice in Wonderland. They wrote poems about their youth and they hugged it all out. Just before the show ended, they held a space funeral for a celebrity dog called “Mr. Bimby.”

At the grand finale, the host opened up the shuttle and showed the contestants that they were not in space but in a studio surrounded by their family and friends. Keri said she was “heartbroken,” said she had been planning a speech about her childhood dreams of going into space. Paul from Bristol said, “Aw, man. We’re not astronauts. We’re just asses.” And Billy Jackson said, “This is the biggest wind-up ever. This is wicked.” Each of them was given £25,000 and a trip to the real Space City near Moscow. The host’s relief was visible: the number of viewers had dwindled rather quickly, but the hoax had been pulled off without a major hitch.

The reality-twist genre was nothing new when Space Cadets came around. Shows like Average Joe and Joe Millionaire had already applied a twist to the dating show format, as did the spectacular There’s Something About Miriam in 2003. The latter program, which was subtitled  Find Me A Man, showed a group of English lads as they fought for the heart of a beautiful Mexican model named Miriam. It is an awfully tiresome show, but the finale is interesting enough. Here, Miriam stands on a balcony next to a cactus: she coyly announces her winner, who jumps forward and hugs her with a smug little smile. But the host intervenes and says that, before they can get on the boat full of money, there is something that Miriam has to say to Tom (23, lifeguard and ex-ski instructor). “I really love spending time with you, and kissing you. You see, I love men, and I love being a woman.” Tom is completely blank; the other contestants start to giggle arm-in-arm in the background. And then, of course, we find out that Miriam has a penis, and the joke is all on Tom—get it? Now the losers start to laugh, start to dance up in front of him—“I knew it, I told you, I knew it”—and Tom is looking faint then the host calls them all to order. Tom agrees to go on the boat anyway, because he and Miriam are “good friends” after all, and the host declares that a round of applause is in order.

And then Tom sues the show for defamation and sexual assault and personal injury through emotional and psychological damage. Some of the production team backs him up, and the show does not get released until the next season. It still goes to air, however, and—horrible treatment of transgendered life aside—There’s Something About Miriam proved to be a high (or low) point in the life of “reality-twist.” 

Reality TV demands a certain degree of credulity from its stars and its audience. Yet to appeal to a media-savvy and generally skeptical audience, it becomes necessary to turn the viewers into producers: to draw a line in power between the two different sides of the screen. 

It is hard to ignore the moralistic edge that comes with this form of spectatorship, especially when reality shows put participants through some ostensible test of character. Adam Mesh, who was adorable when he lost Average Joe to a pretty boy, went from hero to villain when he starred in his own dating show and chose a socialite over a schoolteacher. Viewers are always encouraged to pick out who is being sincere, who is being fake. (Often this choice determines who can stay on the show, as in the proudly panoptical Big Brother.) And when programs hold up the wrong kind of behavior—think I Love Money 3, for example—they can always hide behind the defense: look, this is just real life we are showing.

The “reality twist” pulls the rug out from under its stars, like “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show” does to its fictional protagonist. And yet: if credulity is what these shows demand from their participants, then the space cadets and Tom (23, life guard and ex-ski instructor) are not really like Uncle Josh, because they are responding in precisely the right way to the illusion on the screen. Reality television does not make its contestants into fools because they are doing it wrong—it makes them into fools for obeying, fools for living out the spectacle, as the audience must, in whatever way will sustain the illusion. The skeptical position is no defense, because the very concept of “reality shows” presupposes the deepest kind of skepticism. Those who are more vulnerable are simply those who are on air, those who are desperate to be seen: those who are lured to step out of their box. The only safe space is right here on the coach: here on on this side of the screen. 

Unless. As the Space Cadets hoax wore on, the audience got bored and began to speculate on the internet. One of the show’s non-actor participants was seen in an ad for the National Blood Service; this, and the unbelievable credulity of the contestants, led to a “double hoax” theory—a suggestion that the joke might instead be on the gullible public, because in fact everyone on the show was an actor. The theory was dispelled by the end of the show, but it commanded a considerable following and seemed, for a time, rather convincing.

There were other theories posited as well. “Maybe it’s a triple hoax,” one commenter wrote. “They’re all actors, but they’re ACTUALLY going to get sent into space. The fame hungry twats.”Another one wrote: “Producers, you really need to get everybody dressed up in monkey suits for when the ‘Cadets’ ‘Return to Earth’ for a comedy ending.”

A stranger thing that happened was the confessional that Charlie Skelton, one of the show’s professional actors, submitted to The Guardian after the big reveal. Skelton said he found it hard not to believe that he was actually in space, even while he knew he was running an experiment in groupthink. He described the poems that he wrote, based on a past full of lies, and the hugs that the group exchanged at moments when he shared them. “I enjoyed the poems,” he wrote. “I also—it has to be said—enjoyed the lies. I lied about my father being a violent wannabe jockey. I lied about my fear of Christmas trees. I lied about not believing that Albert Einstein existed. But always the truth outweighed the lies.” In the end, the joke was not on Charlie Skelton or the British viewing public. But it just as well could have been. 

The founding myths of early film paved the way for a visual culture that meets illusions with a mix of the skeptical and the credulous. The country rube figure and the Grand Café myth have long nourished the vanity of the modern watching audience: an audience that is increasingly sophisticated, but astonished nevertheless. Now, however, in the unstable world of reality programming, it is hard to be sure that the fool of the hoax can provide such catharsis. And as for Uncle Josh, well, he was nothing but an actor all along.