The Age of the Eyes

Source: Karel Čapek (trans. Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová), ‘The Age of the Eyes’, The People’s Paper [Lidové noviny], 22 February 1925, reproduced in Believe in People: The Essential Karel Čapek (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pp. 18-20

Text: You may have noticed that conspicuously few old people go to the cinema. Even if you take into account that older people are as a rule more frugal and more comfortable, and all in all, less profligate than the rest of us, it’s not a sufficient explanation for why so few of them indulge in the depraved invention of luminous pictures. The older generation expresses open disgust for this modern spectacle. They mutter something like, ‘Don’t bother us with such tosh,’ and open yesterday’s paper or a fifty-year-old novel instead. Meanwhile, the said fifty-year-old novel is being enacted on the screen of a picture palace round the corner, and the rest of us, who are breathlessly watching its flying action, can’t understand that an old man has the patience to read such ancient trash. The average film is, in the vast majority of cases, much closer to Walter Scott than to, say, Vít Nezval, and resembles George Sand more closely than George Bernard Shaw. The average film doesn’t pick up on modern literature, but on old literature. As a matter of fact, it’s the direct successor of old novelistic fiction. The younger generation doesn’t realise that in the cinema they give themselves up to the lush imaginative world of their distant fathers. The older generation doesn’t have an inkling that the shadowy pictures they are so contemptuous of are bone of their bones, or rather I should say the shadow of their bones. Which is of course a typical, unbridgeable rift between the generations.

It seems to me, then, that the older generation doesn’t reject film because it’s too modern, or too silly, but for more profound reasons: because it’s too fast and isn’t rendered in words. I am of the opinion that older people would take pleasure in going to the cinema if texts instead of pictures were projected on the screen. In the beginning of their world is the word, not an optical event. A picture in itself, a picture without language, doesn’t mean anything; it must get words to acquire reality. An old man sees just shadows, shadows, shadows on the screen, bolting, and unreal. If they waited for a moment, he could find a term for them and describe them in words. But alas, they’ve gone, and new shadows are fluttering there in a mute hurry of events. The word lasts, the word can be remembered, the word is solid and firm. But movement doesn’t last long enough to be interpolated into what exists and what is valid; it’s just a change, a transition, and not a decent, reliable, enduring being. An old man watches the running film as if dreams were being shot before him; if he read in a book about a lissom damsel walking like a doe, he’d believe it, but when he sees a lissom damsel on the screen, walking like a doe, he doesn’t recognise this poetic moment because it’s not written there with binding words. It doesn’t say anything, it’s just phoney and monkey business. And the old man leaves the cinema as if he hadn’t seen anything. Don’t bother me with such tosh, he says.

A kind of re-education of people has really taken place here. A person sitting in the cinema must have found a shorter connection between the eye and the brain without the medium of words; in a technical sense, he may even have found a direct connection between the eye and the brain. The older generation probably lacks this direct connection, this leaping of a spark from the retina straight to the cerebral centres. They are more of a reading, conceptual type, while today’s man is becoming a visual type. My late Granny had to read out loud to properly understand what she was reading, for her the word was still an auditory, not a visual, image. In bygone times most readers must have perceived reading through the ear. Later on a more trained reader dropped this aural digression and understood directly by means of verbal signs. In film even the word has turned out to be a digression; we are learning to understand without words. I don’t want to decide if it is progress for the time being it’s a fact.

But surely film threatens literature to a considerable extent, not because it wants to replace it, but because it develops another kind of people – a visual instead of a reading type. The reading sort is patient; it takes its time to penetrate the circumstances, to bask in the descriptive passages and follow the conversation from start to finish. The visual type will not be so patient; it wants to seize the situation in a single glance, to comprehend the story without letting it last, and immediately see something new. But perhaps one day people will run from that stampede of pictures back to the book, to take a breather, or rather, they’ll have the radio narrate fairy tales and novels nice and slowly for them; they’ll listen with closed eyes, letting themselves be lulled by the word, which will re-assume its original destiny – to be spoken language. Maybe who knows? – maybe the book will die out, maybe it will become a curious cultural heritage like inscribed Babylonian bricks. But art will not die out.

Comments: Karel Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech novelist, essayist and playwright, best known for his science fiction works including the play R.U.R. which introduced the concept of the robot. He was no enthusiast for the cinema, but liked the audiences. Vít Nezval was Vítězslav Nezval, a Czech avant garde poet.

Posted in 1920s, Czechoslovakia, Newspapers | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Kinoplastikon

Filming Kinoplastikon, from Scientific American, 18 April 1914
Filming Kinoplastikon, from Scientific American, 18 April 1914

Source: Anon., ‘Kinoplastikon: As Seen From the Stalls’, The Bioscope, 8 May 1913, p. 391

Text: The cinematograph industry, from its very inception, has been so prolific of novelties and sensations, that we have now grown almost accustomed to living in a condition of perpetual astonishment. The biggest surprise of all, of course, was the cinematograph itself, but since then we have had colour films. speaking films, singing films – in fact, films of almost every character it is possible to imagine or desire. Celluloid has become the embryo of a new universe, which seems to contain everything that was in the old world, and a great deal besides that the old world never dreamed of.

One of the latest wonders to come forth from the inexhaustible womb of the moving picture camera is kinoplastikon, the remarkable “living, singing, talking camera pictures,” of which, as our readers will remember, an enthusiastic description was given in our issue of March 20th. by our special correspondent, Mr. John Cher, who saw them in Vienna, before they had been brought to this country. As most people know, they have now come to England, and are to be seen each night in the west-end of London, at the beautiful Scala Theatre, where we had the pleasure of making their acquaintance the other evening.

Kinoplastikon pictures are certainly very surprising when you first set eyes on them, especially when they come, as they do at the Scala, in the middle of a programme of ordinary cinematograph films. The curtain goes up, and the stage is revealed, bare, to all appearance, of everything but a conventional set. Then, suddenly, you hear the grating of a gramophone beginning to work. The orchestra strikes up in accompaniment. And, without warning, two white pierrots dance on from the wings – as naturally and as easily as though they were beings of real flesh and blood. They give a xylophone duet – their instrument apparently resting on a table which has been placed there beforehand, in full view of the audience, by a solid human attendant – and then, their performance finished, they skip off the stage to make their bows in answer to the riotous storm of applause which marks the conclusion of their “turn.” Five other pictures follow, one of them a flute solo and the other vocal performances.

The appearance of these amazing spirit creatures is curious. They resemble the figures of an ordinary cinematograph film, cut away from their original background with a pair of scissors, and set to caper and gesticulate, their vitality unimpaired, upon a wooden stage. Some of them are in black and white only; others are coloured artificially.

To offer any explanation of how Kinoplastikonis “worked” would be imprudent without investigating it more closely – and we have not yet had an opportunity of examining these “picture people,” except at a respectful distance from the auditorium. Speaking without prejudice, one would imagine that they are related, more or less nearly, to the famous ghosts of the late lamented Professor Pepper, the maker of mirror miracles. They are advertised as being presented “without a screen”; one rather fancies, however, that the screen is invisible, as, on the left-hand side of the stage, the creatures disappeared a trifle before they reached the wings. In, mid-air, also, are occasionally noticed white spots, which seemed to suggest scratches upon a black film.

Kinoplastikon produces a stereoscopic effect, because the figures in its films stand in the middle of an ordinary stage, and thus really have space before and behind them, In themselves, however, they are not stereoscopic, a fact which was observable in the last film shown, where a woman stood in front of several other people, the latter appearing unnaturally small and out of perspective, as is the case in an ordinary photograph.

It is difficult to make speculations about the future of Kinoplastikon without knowing more of its modus operandi. Even if it accomplishes nothing more than the sort of thing which may be seen at the Scala, however, it may always be safely relied upon to make a novel and effective item in a variety programme. And it certainly constitutes a remarkably fine example of the “talking picture.”

Comments: Kinoplastikon was a means of showing coloured motion pictures, with sound, in stereoscopic relief. The original system was the invention of the German film pioneer Oskar Messter, who named it ‘Alabastra’. Based on the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ stage illusion, whereby seemingly life-like images could appear on stage via reflected projection from a mirror, Messter extended the idea to employ motion picture film, hand tinted and with musical accompaniment. An adaptation of Alabastra was exhibited in Vienna under the name Kinoplastikon, subsequently appearing in Britain in 1913 at the Scala Theatre, London. The films were produced in a studio lined with black velvet (the actors had to be dressed entirely in white) on the roof of the Scala theatre, with synchonrised sound-on-disc accompaniment using Cecil Hepworth’s Vivaphone system. The director was Walter Booth. As the reviewer suspected, a screen was used, though hidden from view.

Kinoplastikon excited much comment, with suggestions that it was the future of entertainment, but as Hepworth observes in his autobiography, Came the Dawn, “It suffered, I suspect, from the usual fate which almost always dogs the steps of any ghost-illusion. Very few people are interested in an illusion of that kind as an illusion. They may think it is clever but do not bother to wonder how it is done; they don’t even care. Unless it tells some story, or belongs to some story which cannot well be told without it. it very soon ceases to intrigue them”. Kinoplastikon was exhibited in Austria, Britain, France, Russia and the USA, but it swiftly disappeared.

Diagram of Kinoplastikon stage setting, where O = proscenium, P = projector, A = translucent screen, B = transparent sheet of glass, C = back cloth and D = sloping floor. From F.A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1923)
Diagram of Kinoplastikon stage setting, where O = proscenium, P = projector, A = translucent screen, B = transparent sheet of glass, C = back cloth and D = sloping floor. From F.A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1923)
Posted in 1910s, Film journals, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen Victoria’s Journals

Source: Queen Victoria’s journal entry for 28 June 1854

Text: We went after breakfast with the 4 Children & Ladies & Gentlemen to see Albert Smith’s “Ascent of Mont Blanc”, a panorama, which he describes, interspersed with anecdotes & wit of the most amusing kind, delivered with the most surprising volubility. The last song was inimitable. The views were extremely pretty & the room fitted up charmingly as a Châlet. The Performance took place at the Egyptian Hall.

Comments: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) records seeing panoramas several times in her journals. Albert Richard Smith (1816-1860) was a British entertainer, novelist and mountaineer. In 1851 he successfully ascended Mont Blanc, and a show devised and presented by Smith the following year about the expedition, at London’s Egyptian Hall, became one of the most renowned and popular entertainments of its time. The show, entitled Mr Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc, opened on 15 March 1852. Smith’s talk of his adventures was illustrated by moving panoramas, painted by William Beverley, which moved horizontally for the section covering Smith journey to the Alps, and vertically for the ascent. The show ran for seven seasons six years, with each new season changing elements of of the presentation. The Swiss chalet was added to the staging for the second season.

Links: Queen Victoria’s Journals

Posted in 1850s, Diaries, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Gerald Cock Presents” – Review of Television Programmes

Source: Kenneth Baily, ‘”Gerald Cock Presents” – Review of Television Programmes’, The Era, 14 October 1936, p. 1

Text: Experimental programmes from the Television Station made by the B.B.C. during the past week have cast some illuminating light on things to come when the television service starts properly on November 2.

As watched on a Baird televisor in my own home, the programmes have, more than anything else, proved that real entertainment value is derived from television only when television technique is scrupulously adhered to and when subjects exclusively suited to the new medium are chosen.

This may sound obvious, but, in its planning and in these experiments, the B.B.C. is already drawing on other spheres of entertainment for television material. I believe that a few more weeks’ experience will show that television is an indifferent foster-mother for the conventional arts, and that it must conceive its own dream-children.

The unsuccessful programmes have been those where stage pieces and films, it seemed, just placed before the television cameras and transmitted. The first of “The Two Bouquets,” for instance, was not a success, and when “The Picture Page,” a pure television production, was shown later, that stage excerpt, in comparison, assumed the unmistakable guise of failure.

And films are made on too grand a scale to fit in to a screen 2 inches by 9 in the corner of the parlour. The sound track heard in proportion in a cinema, is too pronounced and obvious in comparison with the little picture by the fireside.

Half an hour of Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra proved without much doubt that Henry’s gentle and smiling personality is going to be a television attraction. Dan Donovan made an outstanding television début too. Dance band vocalists, hugging the mike in permanent close-up, will tend to bore viewers; but Dan’s mannerisms, and just the way he sings his numbers, are full of that which is going to be at a premium for television soloists – personality.

On the other hand, a fervent lady admirer of George Elrick – as he is heard – was disappointed by his television appearance.

Because of its personalities, Henry Hall’s band should avert the difficulties facing most televising bands – the viewer’s easy assumption that all bands look the same, and lack movement and “picture points”.

In a different way Younkman’s band, which I also saw, succeeded by filling the picture with agility and plenty of “gipsy” abandon.

Leonard Henry knew what he was about when he took his dummy gas mask to the television studio. Even his patter will need visual additions in television, and the mask gave them to it.

The real achievement to date, however, was “The Picture Page.” Its success came of its having been devised and produced exclusively for television. It would be impossible anywhere else – even in film – and that is as it should be with all material for televising.

Its very beginning was a hit, scored by specialised ingenuity. A boy bugler from off the Warspite was seen blowing a fanfare as he stood before a Union Jack, filling the whole screen; then he dissolved into the title of the programme in the form of a magazine page. Credit titles followed as the pages were turned.

Then came the only mistake. As link between the items in the programme, Joan Miller sits as a telephone operator before a switch board, plugging-in viewers to the items they are supposed to be calling for.

Instead of leaving the “pages” for a direct shot of Miss Miller, another “page” was turned, bringing into view a full-page photograph of her at the switchboard.

The direct shot followed this, and Miss Miller was supposed to be in the identical pose of her photograph. The effect was disjointed, and betrayed quite obviously which was photograph and which Miss Miller in the flesh.

Among the personalities seen were Fight-Lieutenant Swain, altitude record breaker of the RAF; Prince Ras Monolulu (I Gotta Horse); Mrs. Flora Drummond, suffragette leader; a Siamese cat; and Diana Sheridan, the photographer’s model.

“The Picture Page” is really “In Town To-Night” gone visible: but, though it inherits from its sound sister the successful basic idea, as it was devised for televising it was literally an eye-opener for this viewer, who, expecting but experimental programmes, was amazed when such a polished production bewitched his screen.

Comments: Kenneth Baily was a radio journalist, editor in the 1950s of the Television Annual and author of an early history of the medium, Here’s Television (1950). His brother Leslie was a well-known radio producer. The BBC Television Service launched officially on 2 November 1936, but was preceded by test broadcasts, with the first broadcast of the magazine programme Picture Page taking place on 8 October 1936. The Two Bouquets was an operetta by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon. Gerald Cock was the BBC’s first Director of Television. Picturegoing normally does not reproduce reviews, but because of the domestic details, the description of what may have been an afternoon’s (?) programming, and the very early use of the word ‘viewer’ in a television context, an exception has been made.

Posted in 1930s, Newspapers, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tsuioko

Source: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Tsuioko [Memoirs] (1926), quoted in Dennis Washburn and Carole Cavanaugh (eds.), Word and Image in Japanese Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. xix

Text: I was probably five or six when I saw a moving picture for the first time. I went with my father, if I remember rightly, to see this marvellous novelty at the Nishuro in Okawabata. The motion pictures were not projected on a large screen as they are nowadays. The size of the image was a rather small four-by-six or so. Also, they had no real story, nor were they as complex as films are these days. I remember, among the pictures that evening, one of a man fishing. He hooked a big one then fell head over heels into the water. He wore some kind of straw hat, and behind the long fishing pole he held in his hand were reeds and willows waving in the wind. Oddly enough, though my memory may be wrong, I fancy the man looked something like Admiral Nelson.

Comments: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) was a Japanese short story writer, whose stories helped inspire Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashōmon. He was raised in Tokyo. My thanks to Dawid Glownia from bringing this passage to my attention.

Posted in 1890s, Japan, Memoirs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Working North from Patagonia

Source: Harry A. Franck, Working North from Patagonia; being the narrative of a journey, earned on the way, through southern and eastern South America (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 357-358

Text: Long before the first session ended we had closed the inner doors and the lobby was threatening to overflow. For the first time in Brazil I had permitted other “special attractions” to be offered with our own; that is, in addition to the ordinary films Ruben had engaged two stray Italian females who howled through several spasms of what they and most of the audience seemed to think was music. As they had been hired before our contract was made, and their wages were nothing out of our pockets, I could only reasonably demand that the Kinetophone remain the head-liner …

Our first Sunday, in particular, was a busy day. It is the custom all over Brazil for the “excellentissimas familias” to go to the “movies” on Sunday afternoon or evening, and the habit is so fixed that they prefer to pack in to the point of drowning in their own perspiration, even at double prices, rather than see a better show on a week day. For managers naturally take advantage of this fad and offer their poorest attractions—just as Ruben withdrew his “imported artists” on this day—knowing they will fill their houses anyway. If only we could have taken Sunday with us, movable, transportable, and played on that day in every town, we would have made as great a fortune as if the World War had never cast the pall of a “brutal crisis” over Brazil.

By one in the afternoon I was at the theater door in impresario full-dress and managerial smile, greeting the considerable crowd that came to the matinee, and disrupting the plans of those who had hoped to drag five or six children by in the shadow of their skirts or trousers. Then, with scarcely time for a meat-laden Brazilian supper in our disreputable hotel across the street, I came back to the most crowded theater I had seen in months. By 7:30 we had already closed the inner doors and the elite of Bahia continued to stack up in the lobby until that, too, had overflowed long before the first session ended. We were compelled to send policemen in to eject the first audience, and when the house had been emptied and the gates opened again, it flooded full from floor to “paradise” five stories up as quickly as a lock at Panama does with water. Even then all could not crowd in, and we herded them up once more in preparation for a third session, which, though not beginning until after ten, was also packed. Nothing so warms the cockles of a manager’s heart as to watch an unbroken sea of flushed and eager faces following his entertainment. By this time I had met most of the high society of Bahia, all her white and near-white “best families,” with now and then some physically very attractive girls among them, having marched at least once past my eagle eye. That night I carried off more money than had fallen to our lot since our first days in Rio and São Paulo.

Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. For the journey through South America described in this book Franck served as an agent for the Edison Kinetophone, a film projection system synchronised with musical discs, and there are many descriptions of the operation of the Kinetophone and its mixed reception across the continent in Franck’s characteristically sardonic style. The show described took place at São Salvador, in Bahia state. Although the publication date of the book is 1921, the trip occurred around 1913-14.

Links:

Posted in 1910s, Brazil, Travel writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Diary of Frances Stevenson

stevenson

Source: Frances Stevenson, diary entry for 4 August 1916, Parliamentary Archives, FLS/4

Text: Friday, 4 August 1916

We went on Wednesday night to a private view of the “Somme Films” i.e. the pictures taken during the recent fighting. To say that one enjoyed them would be untrue; but I am glad I went. I am glad I have seen the sort of thing our men have to go through, even to the sortie from the trench, and the falling in the barbed wire. There were picture too of the battlefield after the fight, & of our gallant men lying all crumpled up & helpless. There were pictures of men mortally wounded being carried out of the communication trenches, with the look of agony o their faces. It reminded me of what Paul’s last hours were: I have often tried to imagine to myself what he went through, but now I know: and I shall never forget. It was like going through a tragedy. I felt something of what the Greeks must have felt when they went in their crowds to witness those grand old plays – to be purged in their minds through pity and terror.

Comments: Frances Stevenson (1888-1972), later Frances Lloyd George, Countess Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, was at this time private secretary to the Secretary of State for War David Lloyd George, and his mistress. They married in 1943. Lloyd George, who is “D” in the full diary entry, became prime minister in December 1916. The film they saw The Battle of the Somme, a documentary feature made by the British Topical Committee for War Films, which had a huge impact on audiences when it was released commercially in August 1916. My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for having alerted me to the diary’s entry publication online.

Links: Copy at the Parliamentary Archives

Posted in 1910s, Diaries, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

McGinty at the Living Pictures

Source: Joseph Flynn, ‘McGinty at the Living Pictures’ (1894), sung by Edward M. Favor, Victor 740, 1902

Text:
Dan McGinty went to the opera show
With his old wife Mary Ann,
And took a front seat, near the middle aisle,
Amongst the bald-headed clan.
But he wasn’t prepared for the sights he saw,
And he laughed with might and main
When the living pictures came to view,
Why he nearly went insane.

When he saw the Sleeping Beauty, why he got such a shock
You could hear his heart a-ticking like an eight-day clock.
Then he danced and he pranced, and says he, “I’ve been to France,
But that’s the finest sight I ever saw.”
Then his eyes bulged out, he began to shout.
The gallery boys they hollered, “Put that Zulu out.”
Then his wife grabbed his feet, pulled him under the seat.
So he couldn’t gaze upon the living pictures.

When the girl who posed as Venus, with her form so grand,
You could hear McGinty holler way above the band.
Then says he, “Mary Ann, you will lose your old man
If you don’t be quick and take me out entirely.”
When he saw the lady bathers, he jumped like a hare.
It took nine ushers for to hold him in his chair.
Then he whispered, with a grin, “Mary Ann, go take a swim
With the lady bathers in the living pictures.”

When he saw the other picture we thought sure he would die.
It was Adam and Eve gazing up to the sky.
Then he hollered, “Mary, dear, oh, why did you bring me here,
I can never love you now the way I used to.”
Then he looked at Mother Eve, and loudly he bawled,
Be golly, you’ll be chilly when the snow does fall.”
Then the ushers grabbed him nice, stuck his head in a pail of ice,
Just to keep him cool while at the living pictures.

Then he leaped and he creeped and he took another peep.
And the way he carried on made the audience weep,
Then his wife says. “Dan, do come home like a man.
If you must have living pictures, I will do them.”
But he didn’t hear her speak, he was off in a trance,
Standing on a chair, doing a “Hoochy-Coochy” dance.
When the last girl posed, why they had to turn the hose
On McGinty, when he saw the living pictures.

Comments: Joseph Flynn was an American composer of comic songs, some of which featured a stock Irish comic character, McGinty. The ‘living pictures’ McGinty sees in this song are not moving pictures but tableaux vivants i.e. posed scenes with live actors who did not move. The penultimate verse is given in the original sheet music but was omitted for this recording.

Posted in 1890s, Songs, USA | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Letters of James Joyce

Source: James Joyce, extract from letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 28 December 1904, reproduced in Richard Ellmann (ed.), Letters of James Joyce, vol. II (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 75

Text: One night I had a severe cramp in my stomach and Nora prayed ‘O my God, take away Jim’s pain.’ The other evening we went to a bioscope. There were a series of pictures about betrayed Gretchen. In the third last Lothario throws her into the river and rushes off, followed by rabble. Nora said ‘O, policeman, catch him’.

Comments: James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist and briefly (December 1909-January 1910) a cinema manager. In 1904, while he and Nora Barnacle were living in Pola (now Pula) in what is now Croatia but was then part of Austria-Hungary, they went to a travelling film show, possibly the ‘Bioscopio elettrico’ managed by Carlo Lifka, which was located close to the Berlitz language school where Joyce taught. The reference to Gretchen and Lothario is probably generic rather than a specific film with those characters. Stanislaus Joyce was his brother.

Posted in 1900s, Austria-Hungary, Letters | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Are Movies Going to Pieces?

Source: Pauline Kael, extract from ‘Are Movies Going to Pieces?’, The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 214, no. 6 (December 1964), pp. 61-81, reproduced in I Lost It at the Movies (New York: Marion Boyars, 1993)

Text: One evening not long ago, some academic friends came to my house, and as we talked and drank we looked at a television showing of Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Dwight Frye’s appearance on the screen had us suddenly squealing and shrieking, and it was obvious that old vampire movies were part of our common experience. We talked about the famous ones, Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr, and we began to get fairly involved in the lore of the genre – the strategy of the bite, the special earth for the coffins, the stake through the heart versus the rays of the sun as disposal methods, the cross as vampire repellent, et al. We had begun to surprise each other by the affectionate, nostalgic tone of our mock erudition when the youngest person present, an instructor in English, said, in clear, firm tone, “The Beast with Five Fingers is the greatest horror picture I’ve ever seen.” Stunned that so bright a young man could display such shocking taste, preferring a Warner Brothers forties mediocrity to the classics, I gasped, “But why?” And he answered, “Because it’s completely irrational. It doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the true terror.”

Upset by his neat little declaration – existentialism in a nutshell – by the calm matter-of-factness of it, and by the way the others seemed to take it for granted, I wanted to pursue the subject. But O. Henry’s remark “Conversation in Texas is seldom continuous” applies to California, too. Dracula had ended, and the conversation shifted to other, more “serious” subjects.

But his attitude, which had never occurred to me, helped explain some of my recent moviegoing experiences. I don’t mean that I agree that The Beast with Five Fingers is a great horror film, but that his enthusiasm for the horror that cannot be rationalized by the mythology and rules of the horror game related to audience reactions that had been puzzling me.

Last year I had gone to see a famous French film, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which had arrived in San Francisco in a dubbed version called The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and was playing on a double-horror bill in a huge Market Street theater. It was Saturday night and the theater, which holds 2646, was so crowded I had trouble finding a seat.

Even dubbed, Eyes Without a Face, which Franju called a “poetic fantasy,” is austere and elegant: the exquisite photography is by the great Shuftan, the music by Maurice Jarre, the superb gowns by Givenchy. It’s a symbolist attack on science and the ethics of medicine, and though I thought this attack as simpleminded in its way as the usual young poet’s denunciation of war or commerce, it is in some peculiar way a classic of horror.

Pierre Brasseur, as a doctor, experiments systematically, removing the faces of beautiful young kidnaped women, trying to graft them onto the ruined head of his daughter. He keeps failing, the girls are destroyed and yet he persists – in some terrible parody of the scientific method. In the end, the daughter – still only eyes without a face – liberates the dogs on which he also experiments and they tear off his head.

It’s both bizarrely sophisticated (with Alida Valli as his mistress doing the kidnaping in a black leather coat, recalling the death images from Cocteau’s Orpheus) and absurdly naive. Franju’s style is almost as purified as Robert Bresson’s, and although I dislike the mixture of austerity and mysticism with blood and gore, it produced its effect – a vague, floating, almost lyric sense of horror, an almost abstract atmosphere, impersonal and humorless. It has nothing like the fun of a good old horror satire like The Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lanchester’s hair curling electrically instead of just frizzing as usual, and Ernest Thesiger toying with mandrake roots and tiny ladies and gentlemen in glass jars. It’s a horror film that takes itself very seriously, and even though I thought its intellectual pretensions silly, I couldn’t shake off the exquisite, dread images.

But the audience seemed to be reacting to a different movie. They were so noisy the dialogue was inaudible; they talked until the screen gave promise of bloody ghastliness. Then the chatter subsided to rise again in noisy approval of the gory scenes. When a girl in the film seemed about to be mutilated, a young man behind me jumped up and down and shouted encouragement. “Somebody’s going to get it,” he sang out gleefully. The audience, which was, I’d judge, predominantly between fifteen and twenty-five, and at least a third feminine, was as pleased and excited by the most revolting, obsessive images as that older, mostly male audience is when the nudes appear in The Immoral Mr. Teas or Not Tonight, Henry. They’d gotten what they came for: they hadn’t been cheated. But nobody seemed to care what the movie was about or be interested in the logic of the plot – the reasons for the gore.

And audiences have seemed indifferent to incomprehensible sections in big expensive pictures. For example, how is it that the immense audience for The Bridge on the River Kwai, after all those hours of watching a story unfold, didn’t express discomfort or outrage or even plain curiosity about what exactly happened at the end – which through bad direction or perhaps sloppy editing went by too fast to be sorted out and understood. Was it possible that audiences no longer cared if a film was so untidily put together that information crucial to the plot or characterizations was obscure or omitted altogether? What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was such a mess that Time, after calling it “the year’s scariest, funniest and most sophisticated thriller,” got the plot garbled.

In recent years, largely because of the uncertainty of producers about what will draw, films in production may shift from one script to another, or may be finally cut so that key sequences are omitted. And the oddity is that it doesn’t seem to matter to the audience. I couldn’t tell what was going on in parts of 55 Days at Peking. I was flabbergasted when Cleopatra, with no hint or preparation, suddenly demonstrated clairvoyant powers, only to dispense with them as quickly as she had acquired them. The audience for The Cardinal can have little way of knowing whose baby the priest’s sister is having, or of understanding how she can be in labor for days, screaming in a rooming house, without anybody hearing her. They might also be puzzled about how the priest’s argument against her marriage, which they have been told is the only Catholic position, can, after it leads to her downfall and death, be casually dismissed as an error.

It would be easy to conclude that people go to see a “show” and just don’t worry if it all hangs together so long as they’ve got something to look at. But I think it’s more complicated than that: audiences used to have an almost rational passion for getting the story straight. They might prefer bad movies to good ones, and the Variety list of “all-time top grossers” (such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Going My Way) indicates that they did, but although the movies might be banal or vulgar, they were rarely incoherent. A movie had to tell some kind of story that held together: a plot had to parse. Some of the appreciation for the cleverness of, say, Hitchcock’s early thrillers was that they distracted you from the loopholes, so that, afterwards, you could enjoy thinking over how you’d been tricked and teased. Perhaps now “stories” have become too sane, too explicable, too commonplace for the large audiences who want sensations and regard the explanatory connections as mere “filler” – the kind of stuff you sit through or talk through between jolts.

It’s possible that television viewing, with all its breaks and cuts, and the inattention, except for action, and spinning the dial to find some action, is partly responsible for destruction of the narrative sense – that delight in following a story through its complications to its conclusion, which is perhaps a child’s first conscious artistic pleasure. The old staples of entertainment – inoffensive genres like the adventure story or the musical or the ghost story or the detective story – are no longer commercially safe for moviemakers, and it may be that audiences don’t have much more than a TV span of attention left: they want to be turned on and they spend most of their time turning off. Something similar and related may be happening in reading tastes and habits: teen-agers that I meet have often read Salinger and some Orwell and Lord of the Flies and some Joyce Cary and sometimes even Dostoyevsky, but they are not interested in the “classic” English novels of Scott or Dickens, and what is more to the point, they don’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories or even the modern detective fiction that in the thirties and forties was an accepted part of the shared experience of adolescents. Whatever the reasons – and they must be more than TV, they must have to do with modern life and the sense of urgency it produces – audiences can no longer be depended on to respond to conventional forms.

Perhaps they want much more from entertainment than the civilized, but limited rational pleasures of genre pieces. More likely, and the box-office returns support this, they want something different. Audiences that enjoy the shocks and falsifications, the brutal series of titillations of a Mondo Cane, one thrill after another, don’t care any longer about the conventions of the past, and are too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect. They want less effort, more sensations, more knobs to turn …

Comments: Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was an American film critic, noted for her strong opinions and sharp style. This is the first half of her essay. She continues with an argument against technique in ‘art house’ films for technique’s sake. She concludes, “People go to the movies for the various ways they express the experiences of our lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures we feel. This latter function of art – generally referred to disparagingly as escapism – may also be considered as refreshment, and in terms of modern big city life and small town boredom, it may be a major factor in keeping us sane.” My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing the essay to my attention.

Links: Complete essay at www.atlantic.com

Posted in 1960s, Essays, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment