Mazie

Source: Joseph Mitchell, extract from ‘Mazie’ in Up in the Old Hotel (London: Vintage, 1992), pp. 23-24 (original essay published in The New Yorker, 21 December 1940)

Text: … Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row, a few doors west of Chatham Square, where the Bowery begins.

The Venice is a small, seedy moving-picture theatre, which opens at 8 A.M. and closes at midnight. It is a dime house. For this sum a customer sees two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, and a serial episode. The Venice is not a ‘scratch house.’ In fact, it is highly esteemed by its customers, because its seats get a scrubbing at least once a week. Mazie brags that it is as sanitary as the Paramount. ‘Nobody ever got loused up in the Venice,’ she says. On the Bowery, cheap movies rank just below cheap alcohol as an escape, and most bums are movie fans. In the clientele of the Venice they are numerous. The Venice is also frequented by people from the tenement neighborhoods in the vicinity of Chatham Square, such as Chinatown, the Little Italy on lower Mulberry Street, and the Spanish section on Cherry Street. Two-thirds of its customers are males. Children and most women sit in a reserved section under the eyes of a matron. Once, in an elegant mood, Mazie boasted that she never admits intoxicated persons. ‘When do you consider a person intoxicated? she was asked. Mazie snickered. ‘When he has to get down on all fours and crawl.‘ she said. In any case, there are drunks in practically every Venice audience. When the liquor in them dies down they become fretful and mumble to themselves, and during romantic pictures they make loud, crazy, derogatory remarks to the actors on the screen. but by and large they are not as troublesome as a class of bums Mazie calls ‘the stiffs,’ These are the most listless of bums. They are blank-eyed and slow-moving, and they have no strong desire for anything but sleep. Some are able to doze while leaning against a wall, even in freezing weather. Many stiffs habitually go into the Venice early in the day and slumber in their seats until they are driven out at midnight. ‘Some days I don’t know which this is, a movie-pitcher theatre or a flophouse,’ Mazie once remarked. ‘Other day I told the manager pitchers with shooting in them are bad for business. They wake up the customers.’

Most Bowery movie houses employ bouncers. At the Venice, Mazie is the bouncer. She tells intimates that she feels fighting is unladylike but that she considers it her duty to throw at least one customer out of the theatre every day. ‘If I didn’t put my foot down, the customers would take the place,’ she says. ‘I don’t get any fun out of fighting. I always lose my temper. When I start swinging, I taste blood, and I can’t stop. Sometimes I get beside myself. Also, a lot of the bums are so weak they don’t fight back, and that makes me feel like a heel.’ Mazie is small, but she is wiry and fearless, and she has a frightening voice. Her ticket cage is in the shadow of the tracks of the City Hall spur of the Third Avenue elevated line, and two decades of talking above the screeching of the trains have left her with a rasping bass, with which she can dominate men twice her size. Now and then, in the Venice, a stiff throws his head back and begins to snore so blatantly that he can be heard all over the place, especially during tense moments in the picture. When this happens, or when one of the drunks gets into a bellowing mood, the women and children in the reserved section stamp on the floor and chant,‘Mazie! Mazie! We want Mazie!’ The instant this chant goes up, the matron hastens out to the lobby and raps on the side window of Mazie’s cage. Mazie locks the cash drawer, grabs a bludgeon she keeps around, made of a couple of copies of True Romances rolled up tightly and held together by rubber bands, and strides into the theatre. As she goes down the aisle, peering this way and that, women and children jump to their feet, point fingers in the direction of the offender, and cry, ‘There he is, Mazie! There he is!’ Mazie gives the man a resounding whack on the head with her bludgeon and keeps on whacking him until he seems willing to behave. Between blows, she threatens him with worse punishment. Her threats are fierce and not altogether coherent.‘Outa here on a stretcher!‘ she yells. ‘Knock your eyeballs out! Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!’ The women and children enjoy this, particularly if Mazie gets the wrong man. as she sometimes does. In action, Mazie is an alarming sight. Her face becomes flushed, her hair flies every which way, and her slip begins to show. If a man defends himself or is otherwise contrary, she harries him out of his seat and drives him from the theatre. As he scampers up the aisle, with Mazie right behind him, whacking away, the women and children applaud …

Comments: Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was an American journalist, best-known for his pieces in The New Yorker, of which Up in the Old Hotel is a collection. The Venice opened in 1914 and seated 650 people. The profile continues with its description of Mazie and the cinema operation, noting that she was quite uninterested in films themselves, saying ‘They make me sick’. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this piece to my attention.

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Television

Source: Roald Dahl, ‘Television’, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, orig. pub. 1964)

Text:
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set -
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink -
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and -
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole -
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks -
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start – oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Comments: Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a British writer of both adult and child fiction. ‘Television’ is a song sung by the Oompa Loompas in his children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and echoes the distaste expressed in the novel for television, as exemplified by the television-watching and violence-obsessed character Mike Teavee.

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The Wild Tribes of the Soudan

Source: F.L. James, The Wild Tribes of the Soudan: an account of travel and sport chiefly in the Basé country, Being personal experiences and adventures during three winters spent in the Soudan (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1893 [orig. pub. London, 1883), p. 70

Text: On one occasion we exhibited the magic-lantern, to the intense delight of a large crowd who came after dinner on purpose to see it, and had never seen any thing so wonderful before. We worked the lantern from the inside of a tent, with a sheet hung in front of the door. We always commenced the show by displaying portraits of the Queen and Prince of Wales: these were both very popular, and invariably re-demanded. We had been careful, before leaving England, to choose subjects for the slides that we thought would interest them; and their exhibition was always successful. The most popular consisted of a series of animals found in Africa, such as the lion, hippopotamus, elephant, etc.; and when we displayed a representation of a man escaping up a tree from a crocodile, with the beast opening and shutting its mouth, and trying to seize him, they fairly shrieked with laughter.

Some of the slides represented the Suez Canal, English scenes, caravans in the desert, African villages, etc.; and all these were explained to them in Arabic, to their intense delight, while the Arabic was translated into their own tongue for the benefit of those that did not understand that language. As a termination to the entertainment, we sent up one or two rockets, and lighted a Bengal light or two; by which time our reputation as wonderful magicians was fairly established among them. As a hint that the show was over, and that it was time for the crowd to retire, we hit upon the expedient of conducting the sheik, by the light of a Bengal light, to his horse, which was in waiting for him outside our zariba. The result was a most happy one; a veritable retraite aux flambeaux took place, and the camp was cleared in less than five minutes.

Comments: Frank Linsly James (1851-1890) was a British explorer, who explored the Soudan and Somalia in particular, and who was killed by a wounded elephant in Gabon.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Thoroughly Popular Film

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance IX: The Thoroughly Popular Film’, Close Up vol. II no. 4, April 1928, pp. 44-50

Text: The moment those crudish, incessantly sparking, never-to-be-forgotten photographs, setting the world in movement before our enchanted eyes, made way for the elaborate simplicities of the aesthetically unsound film play, there descended upon the cinema and all its works a blast of scorn so much more withering than any that has fallen to the lot of other kinds of popular entertainment that its sheer extremity calls to the disinterested observer — or, since it is claimed that such is not to be found under the sun, let us say to the relatively disinterested observer — for ampler justification than is supplied in the ravings of the ebullient critics: the desire to nip in the bud a virulently poisonous growth.

For this justification is acceptable only if we can bring ourselves to believe that the prophetic critics whole-heartedly credited their vision of the cinema as embarked upon an orgy of destruction that would demolish the theatre, leave literature bankrupt and the public taste hopelessly debauched. And, if we bring ourselves so to believe we land in the conclusion that these prophets are futility personified. A most uncomfortable conclusion. For surely even an alarmist, even the most wildly rocketting fanatical prophet of disaster must, so long as he is sincere, be something more than a waste product. He is usually a being of acute perceptions and abnormally long sight. A wise, superior person. And if they are right who define wisdom as the darker side of God he is presumably the Devil, and far from futile. But is he? For with perfect unanimity, from age to age, mankind ignores him and goes its way and none may know whether it is the certainty of neglect that endows the prophet with his fury or his fury that shocks humanity into the averted attitude. What is he therefore? Where, we are compelled to ask, does he come in?

Authentic fury is at best a regrettable spectacle. But perfect futility is an intolerable spectacle, a spectre at the feast to be exorcised at any cost, even at the cost of snatching from under the nose of the satirist a most succulent morsel. Can it be done? Can we perhaps transform the wrath of those who fell tooth and nail upon the cinema by interpreting it as a kind of paternal shock, a fury of desire for what was actually in being before their eyes, the thing of beauty promised by the hideous infant? So to do is not to claim superiority of vision. It is indeed to leave vision in their hands who sensitively shrieked the moment they were hurt — for we, the general public, were not looking for beauty. We were knocked silly by the new birth, were content to marvel at the miracle.

That babe is now a youth, a thing of beauty creating disturbances, precipitating recantations right and left. And though scorn still breathes its would-be withering blast, the blast is directed now to concentrate upon the youth’s ill favoued twin, the movie in excelsis. Here at least say the critics you will admit that we were right. And there is no sound nor any that answers. But there is an epithet, a single word, half awestruck and respectful, half hilariously mocking, coined in the largest nursery of the new civilisation, by some citizen of the lower world wandered by chance into alien territory: highbrow.

These contrasted territories are not of course neatly separated. They are linked by a wide dim region inhabited by half-castes whose brows are neither out-size nor yet low. And inhabiting both the upper and the nether aesthetic worlds are the lost and strayed who would be happier elsewhere and ever where are those who could be happy in either were tother fair charmers away. Roughly nevertheless there are the two main territories, the territory of the Films and the territory of the Movies. The films climb, austere and poverty-stricken while the Movies roll in wealth upon the lush floor of the valley. And there is small reason to anticipate any immediate relief for those so narrowly existing on the heights. It is however interesting to speculate as to what would happen if the economic security of the Movies were suddenlv withdrawn, what would happen if films were made only by those desiring to make them and ticketless audiences trooped in at ever open doors. Cinemas would be packed, but would the anaesthetic, a psychological immoral unwholesome popular film cease to exist ? Would anything cease to exist but that which is at present to be laid to the account of speculation as to what the public wants, what that is to say, it will pay for? Would there not still be the innocent enthusiastic artificer whole-heartedly producing the bad, beloved films? It may be urged that in such a world everyone would be educated away from infantile tastes. But there are limits, even to education. Much may be taken over by one person from another, but there will be no likeness between them unless they are one in spirit. And contemplation of these two worlds the aesthetically adult and the others, reveals a something that a never so generously contrived education is powerless to change : a fundamental difference of approach. There is a larky something behind the veil that offers, on behalf of everything under the sun, a choice of interpretations. It is this lark, this salt of the journey that drives the truly dogmatic dogmatist resent his dogma as something no intelligent person can deny. But there is always an alternative interpretation, everything is in pairs, though not everyone is ready to echo the commis voyageur’s hourrah pour la petite différence.

Let us by all means confess our faith. In this case faith in Art as a ultimate, a way of salvation opposed, though not necessarily contradictory, to other ways of salvation, Religion, Ethics, Science rather existing independently and though aware of them regarding them only as making for the same bourne by different routes. And if at once we have to remind ourselves that life is an art, and the evangelist, moralist and big man of science all imaginative artists, well that is a pleasant holiday for our minds that so easily grow a shade too departmental. Art by all means. Let us live and die in and for it. But when we condemn the inartistic let us beware of assuming aesthetic excellence as always and everywhere and for everyone standard measure. If we feel we must condemn popular art let us know where we are, know that we are refusing an alternative measure and interpretation of the intercommunications we reject.

As a rule the dogmatic, so rightly dogmatic, aesthete cannot bring himself to glance at the possibility of an alternative measure. – So great is his anger and dismay that he is fain to curse and to go on cursing. It is however to be remarked of the dogmatic aesthete that he is commonly rather a guardian of the temple than himself a creator. Is not one of the incidental delights of voyaging amongst the records left by the creators the discovery of their quaint tastes in art, their psalms in honour of contemporaries whose long-forgotten work, displaying a perfect inanity, doubtless performed miracles in its own day ?

Meanwhile the philistines go their way. They go on cherishing films whose characters, situations and sentiments are said to stand condemned by every known test. And we would like to claim on behalf of even the worst of them, even those that would make a cat laugh and draw tears of agonised protest from a stone, that the condemnation can never be more than relative. We would like to suggest, for example, that the judges live in a world where such characters and situations and sentiments do not exist, in a different dimension of the spirit, and that they have therefore no experience that can illuminate for them the deadly depths. The cause of their horror lies not in what they see but in their way of seeing. It is possible that they are immensely above and beyond the world they condemn. It is certain that they are too far removed from it to get behind its conventions.

Take any of the stock characters of whom it is said that they never existed on land or sea. The poor dear sheik, for example, the man who can kill, can magnificently adore the beloved carried upon his shield high above his head, can dominate, and kneel. Yet he exists. Even in Tooting under a bowler hat. The heroine, the emotional lovely damsel guarding the pearl of price that is but once bestowed. She perhaps is to be met only by those who can create her in her fulness. Then the good ending. In some respects the worst criminal of all and most certainly a thing-in-itself. It is demanded, absolutely. They won’t we are told, stand anything else. But there is good reason for their refusal, for their stern convention. Is it or is it not, this good ending, the truth, perhaps crudely and wrongly expressed, of life, and their refusal to have it outraged based deeply in the consciousness of mankind? They welcome even the most preposterously happy ending not because it is in contrast to the truth as known in their own lives, but because it is true to life. The wedding bells, the reconciled family, the reclaiming of the waster, all these things are their artistic conventions and the tribute of love paid to them by the many is a tribute to their unconscious certainty that life is ultimately good.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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East Side Moving Picture Theatre – Sunday

Source: Maxwell Bodenheim, ‘East Side Moving Picture Theatre – Sunday’ in Edward J. O’Brien (ed.), The Masque of Poets: A Collection of New Poems, by Contemporary American Poets (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1918), p. 17

Text:
An old woman rubs her eyes
As though she were stroking children back to life.
A slender Jewish boy whose forehead
Is tall, and like a wind-marked wall,
Restlessly waits while leaping prayers
Clash their light-cymbals within his eyes.
And a little hunchbacked girl
Straightens her back with a slow-pulling smile.
(I am afraid to look at her again.)

Then the blurred, tawdry pictures rush across the scene,
And I hear a swishing intake of breath,
As though some band of shy rigid spirits
Were standing before their last heaven.

Comments: Maxwell Bodenheim (1892-1954) was an American poet and novelist, who enjoyed some success in the 1920s and 30s. He was noted for his Bohemian lifestyle, followed by a descent into vagrancy and his eventual murder. The poem is set in Chicago, where he then lived.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Memoirs

Source: Sir Almeric FitzRoy, Memoirs (New York: G.H. Doran Company, 1925), p. 105

Text: September 14th. … Unlike the practice in the Queen’s time, the whole party in the house, King and Queen included, dine together. Jimmie Webb and Lady Cecily were also there from Mar Lodge. The King and Queen entered the drawing-room where we were all assembled, and shook hands with the newcomers, and then proceeded into the dining-room together. The Queen’s manner during dinner was much more vivacious than I had been led to expect, and she wore an expression of interest that belied her deafness, though Lord Cromer told me he did not think she heard a word he said.

After dinner we were called upon to witness a cinematograph entertainment; the scenes were mostly taken from the Coronation Procession, and the gilded coach was presented to us ad nauseam; very few of the figures were recognisable, and the oscillation of the medium affected the optic nerves most unpleasantly. The display opened with a vulgar presentment of the King on a very large scale, which elicited from His Majesty the characteristic remark: “Decorations on the wrong side!”

Comments: Almeric FitzRoy (1851-1935) was Chief Clerk to the Privy Council of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. This extract from his chatty memoirs comes from a diary entry for 14 September 1902, shortly after the coronation of Edward VII. The location was Balmoral in Scotland.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Cinematograph

Source: O. Winter, ‘The Cinematograph’, The New Review, May 1896, pp. 507-513

Text: Life is a game played according to a set of rules – physical, moral, artistic – for the moment ironbound in severity, yet ever shifting. The heresy of to-day is to-morrow‘s dogma, and many a martyr has won an unwilling crown for the defence of a belief, which his son’s boot-black accepts as indisputable. The tyranny of the arts, most masterful of all, seldom outlasts a generation; time brings round an instant revenge for a school’s contempt of its predecessor; and all the while Science is clamorously breaking the laws, which man, in his diffidence, believes to be irrefragable.

When the first rude photograph was taken, it was already a miracle; but stability was the condition of its being, and the frozen smirk of an impossible tranquillity hindered its perfection. Even the “snap-shot,” which revealed poses indiscoverable to the human eye, was, at best, a mere effect of curiosity, and became, in the hands of Mr. Muybridge and others, the instrument of a pitiless pedantry. But, meantime, the moving picture was perfected, and, at last, by a skilful adaptation of an ingenious toy, you may contemplate life itself thrown moving and alert upon a screen. Imagine a room or theatre brilliant with electric lights and decorated with an empty back-cloth. Suddenly the lights are extinguished, and to the whirring sound of countless revolutions the back-cloth quivers into being. A moment since it was white and inanimate; now it bustles with the movement and masquerade of tremulous life. Whirr! And a train, running (so to say) out of the cloth, floats upon your vision. It draws up at the platform; guards and porters hustle to their toil; weary passengers lean through the window to unfasten the cumbrous door; sentimentalists hasten to intercept their friends; and the whole common drama of luggage and fatigue is enacted before your eyes. The lights leap up, and at their sudden descent you see upon the cloth a factory at noon disgorging its inmates. Men and women jostle and laugh; a swift bicycle seizes the occasion of an empty space; a huge hound crosses the yard in placid content; you can catch the very changing expression of a mob happy in its release; you note the varying speed of the footsteps; not one of the smaller signs of human activity escapes you. And then, again, a sudden light, and recurring darkness. Then, once more, the sound and flicker of machinery; and you see on the bare cloth a tumbling sea, with a crowd of urchins leaping and scrambling in the waves. The picture varies, but the effect is always the same – the terrifying effect of life, but of life with a difference.

It is life stripped of colour and of sound. Though you are conscious of the sunshine, the picture is subdued to a uniform and baffling grey. Though the waves break upon an imagined shore. they break in a silence which doubles your shrinking from their reality. The boys laugh with eyes and mouth-that you can see at a glance. But they laugh in a stillness which no ripple disturbs. The figures move after their appointed habit; it is thus and not otherwise that they have behaved yesterday and will behave to-morrow. They are not marionettes, because they are individuals, while a marionette is always generalised into an aspect of pity or ridicule. The disproportion of foreground and background adds to your embarrassment, and although you know that the scene has a mechanical and intimate correspondence with truth, you recognise its essential and inherent falsity. The brain and the eye understand not the process of the sensitive plate. They are ever composing, eliminating, and selecting, as if by an instinct. They work far more rapidly than the most elaborate mechanism. They discard one impression and take on another before the first has passed the period of its legitimate endurance. They permit no image to touch them without alteration or adaptation. The dullest eye, the deafest ear, has a personality, generally unconscious, which transforms every scene, and modifies every sound. A railway station, for instance, is a picture with a thousand shifting focuses. The most delicate instrument is forced to render every incident at the same pace and with the same prominence, only reserving to itself the monstrous privilege of enlarging the foreground beyond recognition. If you or I meet an arriving train, we either compose the scattered elements into a simple picture, and with the directness, distinguishing the human vision from the photographic lens, reject the countless details which hamper and confuse our composition, or we stand upon the platform eager to recognise a familiar face. Then the rest of the throng, hastily scanned, falls into a shadowy background. Thus in the moving picture, thrown upon the screen, the crowd is severally and unconsciously choosing or rejecting the objects of sight. But we find the task impossible. The grey photograph unfolds at an equal pace and with a sad deliberation. We cannot follow the shadows in their enthusiasm of recognition; the scene is forced to trickle upon our nerves with an equal effect; it is neither so quick nor so changeful as life. From the point of view of display the spectacle fails, because its personages lack the one quality of entertainment: self-consciousness. The ignorant man falls back upon the ancient wonderment. “Ain’t it lifelike!” he exclaims in all sincerity, though he possesses the faculty of comparison but roughly developed, and is apt to give an interpretation of reality to the most absurd symbols.

Here, then, is life; life it must be because a machine knows not how to invent; but it is life which you may only contemplate through a mechanical medium, life which eludes you in your daily pilgrimage. It is wondrous, even terrific; the smallest whiff of smoke goes upward in the picture; and a house falls to the ground without an echo. It is all true, and it is all false. “Why hath not man a microscopic eye?” asked Pope; and the answer came prosaic as the question: “The reason it is plain, he’s not a fly.” So you may formulate the demand: Why does not man see with the vision of the Cinematograph? And the explanation is pat: Man cannot see with the mechanical unintelligence of a plate, exposed forty times in a second. Yet such has ever been the ambition of the British painter. He would go forth into the fields, and adjust his eyes to the scene as though they were a telescope. He would register the far-distant background with a monstrous conscientiousness, although he had to travel a mile to discover its qualities. He would exaggerate the foreground with the clumsy vulgarity of a photographic plate, which knows no better cunning, and would reveal to himself, with the unintelligent aid of a magnifying glass, a thousand details which would escape the notice of everything save an inhuman machine. And while he was a far less able register of facts than the Cinematograph, he was an even worse artist. He aimed at an unattainable and undesirable reality, and he failed. The newest toy attains this false reality without a struggle. Both the Cinematograph and the Pre-Raphaelite suffer from the same vice. The one and the other are incapable of selection; they grasp at every straw that comes in their way; they see the trivial and important, the near and the distant, with the same fecklessly impartial eye. And the Pre-Raphaelite is the worse, because he is not forced into a fatal course by scientific necessity. He is not racked upon a machine that makes two thousand revolutions in a minute, though he deserves to be. No; he pursues his niggled path in the full knowledge of his enormity, and with at least a chance, if ever he opened his eye, of discovering the straight road. The eye of the true impressionist, on the other hand, is the Cinematograph’s antithesis. It never permits itself to see everything or to be perplexed by a minute survey of the irrelevant. It picks and chooses from nature as it pleaseth; it is shortsighted, when myopia proves its advantage; it can catch the distant lines, when a reasoned composition demands so far a research. It is artistic, because it is never mechanical, because it expresses a personal bias both in its choice and in its rejection. It looks beyond the foreground and to the larger, more spacious lines of landscape. Nature is its material, whereas Fred Walker and his followers might have been inspired by a series of photographic plates.

Literature, too, has ever hankered unconsciously after the Cinematograph. Is not Zola the M. Lumière of his art? And might not a sight of the Cinematograph have saved the realists from a wilderness of lost endeavour? As the toy registers every movement without any expressed relation to its fellow, so the old and fearless realist believed in the equal value of all facts. He collected information in the spirit of the swiftly moving camera, or of the statistician. Nothing came amiss to him, because he considered nothing of supreme importance. He emptied his notebooks upon foolscap and believed himself an artist. His work was so faithful in detail that in the bulk it conveyed no meaning whatever. The characters and incidents were as grey and as silent as the active shadows of the Cinematograph. M. Zola and M. Huysmans (in his earlier incarnation) posed as the Columbuses of a new art, and all the while they were merely playing the despised part of the newspaper reporter. They fared forth, notebook in hand, and described the most casual accidents as though they were the essentials of a rapid life. They made an heroic effort to strip the brain of its power of argument and generalisation. They were as keenly convinced that all phenomena are of equal value as is the impersonal lens, which to-day is the Academician’s best friend. But they forget that the human brain cannot expose itself any more easily than the human eye to an endless series of impartial impressions. For the human brain is not mechanical: it cannot avoid the tasks of selection and revision, and when it measures itself: against a photographic apparatus it fails perforce. It is the favourite creed of the realists that truth is valuable for its own sake, that the description of a tiresome hat or an infamous pair of trousers has a merit of its own closely allied to accuracy. But life in itself is seldom interesting – so much has been revealed by photography; life, until it be crystallised into an arbitrary mould, is as flat and fatuous as the passing bus. The realist, however, has formulated his ambition: the master of the future, says he, will produce the very gait and accent of the back-parlour. This ambition may already be satisfied by the Cinematograph, with the Phonograph to aid, and while the sorriest pedant cannot call the result supremely amusing, so the most sanguine of photographers cannot pronounce it artistic. At last we have been permitted to see the wild hope of the realists accomplished. We may look upon life moving without purpose, without beauty, with no better impulse than a foolish curiosity; and though the spectacle frightens rather than attracts, we owe it a debt of gratitude, because it proves the complete despair of modern realism.

As the realistic painter, with his patient, unspeculative eye bent upon a restless foreground, produces an ugly, tangled version of nature, so the disciple of Zola perplexes his indomitable industry by the compilation of contradictory facts. Not even M. Zola himself, for all his acute intelligence, discovered that Lourdes, for instance, was a mere flat record. By the force of a painful habit, he differentiated his characters; he did not choose a single hero to be the mule (as it were), who should sustain all the pains and all the sins of the world. No, he bravely labelled his abstractions with names and qualities, but he played the trick with so little conviction, that a plain column and a half of bare fact would have conveyed as much information and more amusement. Now, M. Zola has at least relieved the gloom of ill-digested facts by adroitly-thrown pétards. When you find his greyness at its greyest, he will flick in a superfluous splash of scarlet, to arouse you from your excusable lethargy. But in America, where even the novel may be “machine-made,” they know far better than to throw pétards. Their whole theory of art is summed up in the Cinematograph, so long as that instrument does its work in such an unexciting atmosphere as the back-yard of a Boston villa. Life in the States, they murmur, is not romantic. Therefore the novel has no right to be romantic. Because Boston is hopelessly dull, therefore Balzac is an impostor. For them, the instantaneous photograph, and a shorthand clerk. And, maybe, when the historian of the future has exhausted the advertisement columns of the pompous journals, he may turn (for statistics) to the American novel, first cousin, by a hazard, to the Cinematograph.

The dominant lesson of M. Lumière’s invention is this: the one real thing in life, art, or literature, is unreality. It is only by the freest translation of facts into another medium that you catch that fleeting impression of reality, which a paltry assemblage of the facts themselves can never impart The master quality of the world is human invention, whose liberal exercise demonstrates the fatuity of a near approach to “life.” The man who invents, may invent harmoniously; he may choose his own key, and bend his own creations to his imperious will. And if he be an artist, he will complete his work without hesitancy or contradiction. But he who insists upon a minute and conscientious vision, is forthwith hampered by his own material, and is almost forced to see discordantly. Hence it is that M. Zola is interesting only in isolated pages. His imagination is so hopelessly crippled by sight, that he cannot sustain his eloquence beyond the limit of a single impression. Suppose he does astonish you by a flash of entertainment, he relapses instantly into dulness, since for him, as for the Cinematograph, things are interesting, not because they are beautiful or happily combined, but because they exist, or because they recall, after their clumsy fashion, a familiar experience.

Has, then, the Cinematograph a career? Artistically, no; statistically, a thousand times, yes. Its results will be beautiful only by accident, until the casual, unconscious life of the streets learns to compose itself into rhythmical pictures. And this lesson will never be learned outside the serene and perfect air of heaven. But if only the invention be widely and properly applied, then history may be written, as it is acted. With the aid of these modern miracles, we may bottle (so to say) the world’s acutest situations. They will be poured out to the students of the future without colour and without accent, and though their very impartiality may mislead, at least they will provide the facts for a liberal judgment. At least they will give what an ingenious critic of the drama once described as “slabs of life.” For the Cinematograph the phrase is well chosen; but for Ibsen, who prompted its invention, no phrase were more ridiculous. For whatever your opinion of Hedda Gabler, at least you must absolve its author from a too eager rivalry with M. Lumière’s hastily-revolving toy.

And now, that Science may ever keep abreast of literature, comes M. Röntgen’s invention to play the part of the pyschologist [sic]. As M. Bourget (shall we say?) uncovers the secret motives and inclinations of his characters, when all you ask of him is a single action, so M. Röntgen bids photography pierce the husk of flesh and blood and reveal to the world the skeletons of living men. In Science the penetration may be invaluable; in literature it destroys the impression, and substitutes pedantry for intelligence. M. Röntgen, however, would commit no worse an outrage than the cure of the sick and the advancement of knowledge. Wherefore he is absolved from the mere suspicion of an onslaught upon art. But it is not without its comedy, that photography’s last inventions are twin echoes of modern literature. The Cinematograph is but realism reduced to other terms, less fallible and more amusing ; while M. Röntgen’s rays suggest that, though a too intimate disclosure may be fatal to romance, the doctor and the curiosity-monger may find it profitable to pierce through our “too, too solid flesh” and count the rattling bones within.

Comments: O. Winter was an occasional writer for art and culture journals in the 1890s. I have not been able to trace his full name. The essay was written after seeing an exhibition of the Lumière Cinématographe, which debuted in the United Kingdom on 20 February 1896. A number of Lumière films are suggested by the text, including Arrivée d’un train and La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Factory). Those mentioned in the text are the novelists Emile Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Honoré Balzac and Paul Bourget, playwright Henrik Ibsen, Pre-Raphaelite painter Fred Walker, and photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered what would soon become known as X-rays in 1895; X-rays, or Röntgen rays, would frequently be exhibited alongside motion pictures in the late 1890s.

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The Diorama

diorama

Plan and exterior of the Diorama in Park Square, Regent’s Park, from Pugin and Britton, Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London vol. 1 (second edition, 1838)

Source: ‘The Diorama’, The Morning Post, 29 September 1823, p. 3

Text: The Exhibition under the above name, which we announced to the public a few days ago, was on Saturday submitted to private inspection, previous to it being thrown open to the public this day. The immense building which has been erected for the purpose, is situated in the Regent’s Park, directly opposite the eastern side of Portland Crescent, and close to the Riding School. its magnitude may be judged of from the fact that the mere walls were raised at an expense of 8000l. The interior is also fitted up in a most costly and tasteful style. The saloon, from which the exhibition is viewed, is circular, and splendidly hung with crimson cloth, while the ceiling is formed by a transparency of elegant device, representing medallion heads of the greatest masters in painting. the accommodations for the public are in a style befitting the superior arrangements and construction of the whole.

With regard to the exhibition itself, we think it better for two reasons, to abstain from any attempt at explaining the means by which its effect is produced. In the first place it might be prejudicial to the amazing interest with which every person must be struck who sees it; and secondly, the perfect novelty of the thing, and the extraordinary power by which it operates, almost makes us despair of giving an intelligible or a credible account of the little which a first visit has enabled us to ascertain. All we shall do, therefore, will be to describe the effect which a visitor beholds on entering the saloon. he sees before him a magnificent landscape, out into which nothing seems to prevent his walking but the benches occupied by lovely forms, whom his politeness will not permit him to disturb. this is the Valley of Sarnen, in Switzerland, perhaps the most enchanting specimen of all that is beautiful in natural scenery, that can be found even in that romantic country. In the foreground he will see a little rivulet rising and bubbling down its tiny precipice with all the animation of nature. Close behind it he sees a house, which wears the very air of invitation and hospitality. Then spreads out an expanse of country, decorated with every variety of rural charms. in its ample bosom rests a soft blue lake, and the distance is filled by mountains rearing their snow-crowned heads, and shining in all the diademic splendour which is conferred upon them by the sun’s rays. Suddenly, however, the beholder finds the brightness of the scene giving way to the approach of gloom. The hills lose their brightness, and the transparent blue of the tranquil lake is defaced by the reflection of the darkening clouds. A threatened storm passes off with all its fury to one of the mountaintops, and the beauty of nature is again vindicated by the restoration of her smiles and gladness. Having exhausted his admiration upon this magical delusion, he perceives that he, and all his fellow gazers, if they amount to three hundred, are receding from the view; and in a few seconds he finds himself looking up the nave of Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Here his wonder will be taxed to a still higher point; and he must hold fast of the impossibility with all his might, or he will conclude that some of the things which he sees before him are real and not imitative. We, of course, need not add, that the whole is pictorial illusion. It is altogether an exhibition unprecedented in its magnitude, and, in our opinion, far surpassing every thing of its kind in beauty. The Paintings rank high as works of art, independent of the astonishing interest they receive from this stupendous machine. We have been informed that above 12,000l. have been expended on the establishment previous to its opening. The price of admission appears at first sight to be high; but without considering the enormous expense to which we have alluded, we are sure that no one will think the money too much, after he has paid it. in short, the Diorama is an exhibition which every body must see.

Comments: The Diorama was the invention of Louis Daguerre, later one of the inventors of photography. The diorama was a visual spectacle presented in an elaborate theatre, able to accommodate around 350 people. The audience would viewed a large-scale landscape painting on a screen 70ftx45ft whose appearance would alter through the manipulation of lighting and scenic effects. A turnable would then rotate the audience around to view a second painting. The Diorama premiered in Paris in 1822, and opened in London at Regent’s Park on 29 September 1823 in a venue designed by Augustus Pugin (father of the architect of the same name). Daguerre himself was one of the artists who produced the paintings. The Diorama was a considerable popular success, and was followed by a number of imitator attractions. It was opened from 10am until dusk. The show lasted around 15 minutes. The prices of admission were 3 shillings (for seats in boxes), 2 shillings (standing in the ampitheatre), children aged under 12 half-price.

Links:
The Morning Post (British Newspaper Archive, subscription site)
R. Derek Wood, The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s (1993)

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British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 97-99

Text: AGE: 30 SEX: F
OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: COMMERCIAL TRAVELLER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I started film-going at the early age of eight and adored Bebe Daniels from then, until now; custard pies, Keystone Police, and most of all, the Western films of silent days! I went always with my Grandmother, and, although we could afford the better seats, always had on account of her sight, to sit well to the front among the whistling stamping orange-eating patrons a thing which has made me dislike and despise the smelly poor for all time. I adored the noisy out of tune piano, and always tried to emulate the noisy thumping that passed as musical accompaniment, never having patience to practice scales and my ‘show-piece’ Mignosiette(?) as I should have done so to this day I only play by ear. I fell in love with Ken Maynard a dark rather saturnine man who rode a beautiful white horse, and collected everything I could find printed about him, begged his show posters, and treasured every picture I found of him anywhere. At twelve I wondered what sort of films they were that I was never allowed to see, and played truant from school one afternoon with another small and curious-minded friend to see my first ‘sex’ film. It was of the trials and temptations of a rather blowsy continental actress, and puzzled us for weeks, setting us wondering about things we had never before bothered about. Did men kiss women like that, and did babies come unwanted, from such episodes and behaviour? So my curiosity aroused, from Ken Maynard at eight I sneaked off at twelve now unescorted to see all the extravagant and unreal epics of sex and high living I could find. Did it do me any harm? Yes – I’m afraid so. Children should never be allowed to see at such an early age, the ugly side of life and I have only myself to blame. When I am asked to ‘take me in lady, its an “A” film’ my refusal is always firm. Now boys seemed tame who couldn’t hug and kiss like the exaggerated figures on the screen, and being silent films, I always imagined the dialogue to be more fiery than any the censor would pass. The Hunchback of Notre Dame frightened me to death and to this day I hate the shudder that passes through me at the sight of an ugly or deformed person. Frankenstein kept me awake at night and gave me nerves. The fresh notes Al Jolson sang filled me with wonder, and with these musicals the morbid faded from my film-going entertainment, both horror and sex. There wasn’t time to think about exotic love-making or blood-drinking vampires when you could hear clever people singing see dancing more wonderful than you ever imagined, and above all listen to all these wonderful people talking! Yes, talkies and above all musicals, cleared the air for me! Films with a story were now clever and interesting, and what if I did try to look like Joan Crawford – I tried to look like Norma Shearer too – so it all balanced itself out. Anyway I was often better dressed than before (I am now in my teens), and my hair looked more cared for and more attractively arranged. Films definitely did make me more receptive to love-making and I expected it to be a more experienced job than I would have done had I not seen on the films how love should be made! Leslie Howard made love kindly, Clark Gable was tough and a go-getter, Gary Grant gay but rather dangerous, Ronald Colman ministerial, Errol Flynn impossibly venturesome and Bob Montgomery the ideal gentleman etc. etc. etc. I looked for all these qualities in my friends and measured them up by it. Once I fell in love desperately with a man who was the absolute double of Gary Grant. He wanted me to elope and although everyone warned me against him – I nearly did so – blinded with the glamour of his likeness to the screen star. Luckily my father found out a week before they arrested him as an embezzler so that was that! Films where the heroine is poor but beautiful, have come by wealth and adventure by choosing the primrose path in life have always in a submerged urge sort of way tempted and fascinated me. The situation has never risen in my life – but the outlook on it is there. I have always had great ambition – fed by films – to be a journalist. I don’t suppose that it is much like its prototype in N. York or the idea we get of it on the screen, but how I’d love to find out. I’ve wanted to travel, yes, but not so much the world as to cross America from N. York to the Pacific Coast, in one of those stream-lined buses, seeing the towns and villages en route and meeting the people who live in them. I’d like to see Honolulu too, even though they tell me most of the natives have tuberculosis. This all reads as if films have made me very pro-American, and I’m afraid that is so. I am not dissatisfied with home life or environment, one meets the same class of people in every station of life, in any country. Suburban life here is dull, but so would it be in New England, as in London or New York one would find a more mixed and bohemian crowd. By saying that I mean I have no urge to roam, through film-going, and to travel the world is, more or less, the ambition of everyone who uses the brains they were endowed with. British films have never in all my life, made the slightest impression on me. They are dull, ugly and uninspired – generally a stage success filmed because it was that or a poorly produced musical. There are very few real British film stars, and those stars of the stage who grace the screen at intervals are too old to photograph well, poor dears. The inanities of George Formby leave me cold, the American sense of humour I adore. I once studied Christian Science because Mary Pickford believed in it, I truly believe in the survival of souls, since I saw Topper takes a trip. Bing Crosby singing ‘Holy Night’ gives me more religious uplift than all the dull sermons of our snobbish Vicar, and I’d rather hear Jimmy Durante’s croak than Barbara Mullens silly little squeaking whisper. The greatest thing that has come out of my film-going was the ability it gave me to understand and see the viewpoint of the men from America who came here to fight with us. It also gave me an earlier understanding of the facts of life than I would have had, and made me dissatisfied and impatient with the inferior in entertainment. Not – at thirty – I choose my film going carefully, never just ‘go to the pictures’ and whether it is Carmen Miranda or Bette Davis, Micky Rooney or Humphrey Bogart, Walter Disney or Shakespeare. I am a discriminating picturegoer. From custard pies to Orson Welles is a long way, but it has been a happy and worthwhile journey.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. Topper Takes a Trip (USA 1938) is a comedy about a ghost.

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Childhood Years

Source: Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Paul McCarthy), Childhood Years: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1990), pp. 137-138

Text: There were some good places like the Yurakukan, falling somewhere between a legitimate theater and a vaudeville hall. The result was that a variety of interesting and unusual entertainments were presented: it was there that I saw my first motion picture and my first Western-style marionette show. According to One Hundred Stories of the World of Meiji by the late Yamamoto Shogetsu, the first presentation of a motion picture in Tokyo was around February 1897 at the Kabukiza; and the Yurakukan must have begun showing them soon after. They were either simple records of actual events taken on the spot on trick shots, and the ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same films could be projected over and over. I can still remember a scene, endlessly repeated, of high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking, and then receding, and of a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters. There was also a scene of a long line of horses in the distance at the edge of a broad plain, looking as small as grains of millet, They came rushing straight towards the camera, growing bigger moment by moment until finally they were upon us. Suddenly they veered away into the distance, to be succeeded by another thin line on the horizon.

Then there were scenes reminiscent of the upheavals that attended the French Revolution or the persecution of the Protestants after the Reformation: aristocratic-looking women are being dragged to the place of execution, placed on a great pile of bundled faggots, and burned to death; the smoke billows forth and the women are enveloped in flames; at last the fire and smoke die down to reveal only ashes – not even the outlines of the bodies remain.

There was yet another scene in which two beautiful, almost naked women, one on either side of a devil dressed like Mephistopheles. He summons one of them and orders her to lie on a table shaped like a chopping block. He then wraps her body in a huge sheet of glistening black material like carbon paper. A sign is given, and the body of the woman in its black wrappings rises into the air. Then from the area of her feet flames appear and begin to lick at her body, moving upward and finally consuming her, paper wrappings and all.

Comments: Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese novelist, who also worked for a time as a scriptwiter for the Taikatsu studio in the 1920s. The films he recalls at Yurakukan are a mixture of 1890s and 1900s works: waves breaking on a shore was a common subject in some the earliest film shows; the trick films and the burning of the women would have been a few years later (possibly French Pathé productions). Film reels could not be joined end-to-end to be projected on an endless loop. The first projected motion pictures were exhibited in Tokyo in March 1897 (preceded by showings in Osaka in February).

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