The Front Rows

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Peformance VII: The Front Rows’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, January 1928, pp. 59-64

Text: As the heavy drops fell and the first cannonade rumbled through the upper layers of the heatwave I saw close at hand garish placards and wide open doors. Entering, following the torch on and on through the darkness until we could go no further was for retreating and spending the hour elsewhere. But as the torch-bearer stood aside for me to pass to a seat, the light of the screen fell full upon the occupants of the front row: three small boys, one collapsed in the attitude of sleep, and indeed, I saw as I sat down, soundly sleeping, propped against the shoulder of my neighbour whose thin face, sheened by nervous excitement, lifted a foolish gaze towards the glare. Here was the worst. Here indeed was “the pictures” as black villainy. I remembered all I had heard and tried to forget on the subject of the evils of the cinema, as it is, for small children and especially for the children in the front rows. All the week these boys were penned in stuffy class-rooms. And this was their Saturday afternoon, their time to reverse engines and go full steam backwards into savagery, make their street a jungle and learn from each other the lessons of the jungle. Or perhaps their time for becoming boy scouts. And here they were, “ruining nerves and eyesight and breathing stifling air” and learning either less than nothing or more than was good.

But the air was not stifling. In spite of the weather the place had a certain coolness and when I raised my eyes to the screen I had no sense of blinding glare or effort to focus. There was indeed no possibility of focussing a scene so immense that one could only move about in it from point to point and realise that the business of the expert front-rower is to find the centre of action and follow it as best he can. Of the whole: as something to hold in the eye he can have no more idea than has the proverbial fly of the statue over which he crawls. But at least as far as I could tell there was no feeling of glare or of eyestrain. Though it may be that the interest of making discoveries put the censor off guard. It seemed at any rate that unless it be bad for young eyes to gaze for three hours at a large mild brilliance close at hand, the eye-strain alarmists were disposed of. And if indeed it is bad, it is for the public health people to legislate for an increase of the distance between the screen and the front rows. But supposing the worst to exist only in the imaginations of the officiously fussy, what I wanted if possible to discover was just what it was these three boys got from the discreet immensity so closely confronting us. The one nearest to me certainly nothing more than unhealthy excitement, but he poor soul whether pent in school or ramping in alley, called for special help before he could get anything anywhere and was therefore disqualified to act as a test. Left to himself the poor moth was fated merely to gravitate.

The enormous bears moved in foolish gravity upon their cliffs in a scene too dispersed to be impressive. But they were of course bears, real bears. Bears in movement. They passed and soon we were looking at the deck of a ship in mid-ocean. Crew, deeds, drama, a centre of action moving from point to point. Suddenly, before the weight of a funny man in difficulties and at bay, a portion of the gunwale swung round in the manner of a gate upon its hinges and held him dangling in mid-air above the seething main. From the endmost boy, the one beyond the sleeper, came a shriek I can never forget. It filled the silent hall, one pure full high note that curved swiftly up to the next and ceased staccato; blissful terror in a single abrupt sound. People behind craned forward hoping for a happy glimpse of the face of a child in transport. The man on the ship swung back to safety and out again and again the cry pealed forth. This time I caught sight of the blood-thirsty little villain. A perfect gamin, rotund. Clear-eyed, clean-skinned, bolt upright with pudgy fists on knees to watch the event. We had that yell four times, the outflung utterly unselfconscious being of a child attained, the kind of sound Chaplin listens for when he is testing a film.

It changed the direction of my meditation on the front rows.

Since that far-off incident I have seen and heard a good deal of the front rows and much as I should like to see widened the gap between them and the screen I no longer desire to send the juvenile front rowers to amuse or bore themselves elsewhere. Thinking them back into a filmless world and particularly into filmless winters, I am glad of their presence on the easy terms that are compensation for their inconveniences. Presently no doubt there will be children’s cinemas with films provided by the good folks who like to believe they know both what children need and what they like. Before this prospect I hesitate thinking of the children’s hour upon the wireless. But such films, any films put together for children regarded as dear little darlings, inviting their own fate will have their little day and cease to be. Most children unless forcibly excluded from all other films, will refuse to sit them out. There are plenty of people about whose love for children is tinctured with a decent respect. Let us hope that some of them are even now meditating possible films.

Meanwhile the front rowers of all ages, the All-out responsive pit and gallery of the cinema are getting their education and preparing, are indeed already a little more than prepared for the films that are to come. Anyone visiting from time to time a local cinema whose audience is almost as unvarying as its films, cannot fail to have remarked the development of the front rowers, their growth in critical grace. Their audible running commentary is one of the many incidental interests of a poor film. It is not only that today the lingering close-up of the sweet girl with tragically staring tear-filled eyes is apt to be greeted with jeers, and the endless love-making of the endless lovers with groans. It is not only that today’s front rowers recognise all the stock characters at a glance and can predict developments. It is that the quality of the attention and collaboration that almost any stock drama can still command is changed. For although attention never wavers and collaboration is still hearty and still the sleek and sleekly-tailored malefactor is greeted at his first and innocent seeming entry as a wrong’un and the hero, racing life in hand through a hundred hairbreadth escapes to the rescue is still loudly applauded and applause breaks forth anew when the villain is flung over the cliff, the front rows are no longer thrilled quite as they were in their earlier silent days by all the hocus-pocus. They come level-headed and serenely talking through drama that a year ago would have held them dizzy and breathless. Even a novel situation does not too much disturb them. They attend, refuse to be puzzled, watch for the working out. And films “above their heads”, if the characters are fairly convincing, the acting fairly good and the whole fairly well-knit, do not bore them. They see, possibly not all that is intended, but if quality is there, they see and assist. It is never the goodish to good film that produces fidgets, giggles, audible yawns, waitings and gnashings of teeth. Only to the film that is halt maimed and blind, no matter what magnificence it may present, will these tributes be paid. In the film as in life, the what matters less than the how. All this of course within reasonable limits. There are certain films the front rows prefer above all others. And of some kinds they can apparently never have too much. Comics for instance. And family drama of all kinds. Family drama must be very feeble indeed to fail to capture. This is hardly surprising. There is very little about family life the front rows do not know. Animals too, tame or wild, are greatly beloved though there is no longer a thrill to be got from the seedy old lion trotting half-heartedly from room to room after prey known to be in no danger. And the American language. Once it was part of the puzzles and bewilderments of “the pictures”, but is there now a child in London who cannot at the right moment say: “Oh, boy” and read and delightedly understand each idiom, and grin through the Hollywood caption that is metaphor running amuk and crammed with facetiousness?

They are there in their millions, the front rowers, a vast audience born and made in the last few years, initiated, disciplined, and waiting.

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. This entry has been posted to mark the very welcome addition of Close Up to the Internet Archive by the Media History Digital Library.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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