Continuous Performance

Source: Extracts from Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance VIII’, Close Up vol. II no. 3, March 1928, pp. 51-55

Text: (Animal impudens …)

(Early Father, conditioned reflex of,)

Amongst the gifts showered upon humanity by the screen and already too numerous to be counted, none has been more eagerly welcomed than the one bestowed upon the young woman who is allowed to shine from its surface just as she is. In silent, stellar radiance, for the speech that betrayeth is not demanded of her and is this she is more fortunate than her fellows upon the stage Yet even they — even those who are mere stage effects, a good deal less than actors and, since they are ambulatory, rather more than properties — are, for some of us, magical and songworthy. And to those film-stars who are just ambulatory screen effects many of us have paid homage to the point of willingness to die for their sweet sakes, and all of us, partly on account of their silence but largely for the Film’s sake, have suffered them more or less gladly.

But it is not only upon the screen that this young woman has been released in full power. She is to be found also facing it, and by no means silent, in her tends of thousands. A human phenomenon, herself in excelsis; affording rich pasture for the spiritual descendants of Messrs Juvenal and Co. And thus far the lady is beneficient. But there are others together with her in the audience. There are for example those illogical creatures, who, while they respectfully regard woman as life’s supreme achievement, capping even the starfish and the stars, are still found impotently raging when in the presence of the wonders of art she remains self-centred and serenely self-expressive. Such, meeting her at her uttermost, here where so far there is not even a convention of silence to keep her within bounds, must sometimes need more than all their chivalry to stop short of moral homicide.

I must confess to having at least one foot in their camp. I evade the lady whenever it is possible and, in the cinema, as far as it gloom allows, choose a seat to the accompaniment of an apprehensive consideration of its surrounding, lest any of her legion should be near at hand. Nevertheless I have learned to cherish her. For it’s she at her most flagrant that has placed the frail edifice of my faith in woman at last upon a secure foundation. For this boon I thank her, and am glad there has been time for her fullest demonstrations before the day when the cinema audience shall have established a code of manners.

That day is surely not far off. One of the things, perhaps so far, the only thing, to be said for the film that can be heard as well as seen is that it puts the audience in its place, reduces it to the condition of being neither seen nor heard. But it may be that before the standard film becomes and audible entertainment it will occur to some enterprising producer, possibly to one of those transatlantic producers who possess so perfectly the genial art of taking the onlookers into their confidence and not only securing but conducting their collaboration, to prelude his performance by a homily on the elements of the technique of film-seeing: a manual of etiquette for the cinema in a single caption, an inclusive courteous elegant paraphrase of the repressed curses of the minority:

Don’t stand arguing in the gangway, we are not deaf.
Crouch on your way to your seat, you are not transparent.
Sit down the second you reach it.
Don’t deliver public lectures on the film as it unfolds.
Or on anything else.
Don’t be audible in any way unless the films brings you laughter.
Ceases, in fact, to exist except as a contributing part of the film, critical or otherwise, and if critical, silently so.
If this minimum of decent consideration for your neighbours is beyond you, go home.

An excellent alternative would be a film that might be called A Mirror of Audiences, with many close-ups.

Meanwhile here we are, and there she is. In she comes and the screen obediently ceases to exist. If when she finally attends to it – for there is first her toilet to think of, and then her companion, perhaps not seen since yesterday – she is disappointed, we all hear of it. If she is pleased we learn how and why. If her casual glance discovers stock characters engrossed in a typical incident of an average film, well known to her for she has served her enthralled apprenticeship and is a little blasé, her conversation proceeds uninterrupted. And to this we do not entirely object. The conversation may be more interesting than the film. But, so long as she is there, gone is the possibility of which any film is so delightfully prodigal: the possibility of escape via incidentals into the world of meditation or of thought. And, whatever be the film so long as she is close at hand there is no security. Odd fantasy, a moving drama well acted, a hint of any kind of beauty, may still her for a while. But there is nothing that can stem for long the lively current of her personality. Her partner follows her lead after his manner, but quietly, unless his taste is for commentary displaying his wisdom or his pretty wit.

Let us attend to her, for she can lead her victim through anger to cynicism and on at last to a discovery that makes it passing strange that no male voice has been raised save in condemnation, than no man, film-lover and therefore for years past helplessly at her mercy, has risen up and cried Eureka. For she is right. For all her bad manners that will doubtless be pruned when the film becomes high art and its temple a temple of stillness save for the music that at present inspires her to do her worst, she is innocently, directly, albeit unconsciously, upon the path that men have reached through long centuries of effort and of thought. She does not need, this type of woman clearly does not need, the illusions of art to come to the assistance of her own sense of existing. Instinctively she maintains a balance, the thing perceived and herself perceiving. She must therefore insist that she is not unduly moved, or if she be moved must assert herself as part of that which moves her. She takes all things currently. Free from man’s pitiful illusion of history, she sees everything in terms of life that uncannily she knows to be at all times fundamentally the same. She is the amateur realist. Not all the wiles of the most perfect art can shift her from the centre where she dwells. Xor has she aught but scorn for those who demand that she shall be so shifted. And between her scorn and the scorn we have felt for her who shall judge?

Down through the centuries men and some women have pathetically contemplated art as a wonder outside themselves. It is only in recent years that man has known beauty to emanate from himself, to be his gift to what he sees. And the dreadful woman asserting herself in the presence of no matter what grandeurs unconsciously testifies that life goes on, art or no art and that the onlooker is a part of the spectacle.

Comment: 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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  1. Pingback: The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of September 6 | Parallax View

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