The Cinema in Arcady

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance XII: The Cinema in Arcady’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, July 1928, pp. 52-57

Text: Hedge-topped banks form a breezeless corridor upon whose floor, white with dust, the sun beats down. Dust films the edges and most of the flowering things that brought forgetfulness of the hidden distances have fled. We trudged averted from beauty defaced, hearing bird-song in the unspoiled hedges of fresh invisible fields and watching for the bend of the long lane and the reward: shelter or high trees that there begin their descending march and, for our shaded eyes, the view of the little grey harbour town at our feet screened by misty tree-tops of spring, the wide estuary beyond it, sapphire backed by golden sand-dunes, miniatures of the tors standing in distant amber light along the horizon. The bend came and the twin poplars that frame the prospect for which our waiting eyes were raised; to see, fastened from trunk to trunk an obliterating sign-board: Come to the Pictures.

Jealously the year before we had resented the walls of the small palace rising in unearthly whiteness at the angle of a grey ramshackle by-street. And even while we knew that what we were resenting was the invasion of our retreat by any kind of culture and even while we were moved by the thought of the marvels about to appear before the astonished eyes of villagers and fisherfolk, we still had our doubts. And this placard defacing the loveliest view in the neighbourhood seemed symbolically to confirm them. We doubted because we had found in these people a curious completeness; wisdom, and a strange sophisticated self-sufficiency. We told ourselves that they were an ancient aristocratic people and made romantic generalisations ffrom every scrap of favourable evidence. And though it may perhaps fairly be claimed that these lively, life-educated people of the coast villages and fishing stations do not need, as do the relatively isolated people of crowded towns, the socialising influence of the cinema, we were obliged in the end to admit that our objections were indefensible.

There, at any rate, the cinema presently was. We ignored and succeeded in forgetting it until the placard appeared and in imagination we saw an epidemic of placards, in ancient hamlets, in meadows, on cliffsides and we went forth to battle. We battled for months for the restoration of the hillside landscape. In vain. Urban district councillors were sympathetic and dubious. The villagers were for living and letting live and the harbour towns-folk would not come out against a fellow townsman. Generally our wrathful sorrow provoked a mild amusement. The placard was regarded as a homely harmless affair as inoffensive as a neighour’s out hung washing, except by those few who were voluble in execration of the cinema and all its works. From these we collected evidence recalling the recorded depredations of strong drink amongst primitive peoples. Crediting all we heard we should see the entire youthful population of the parish, and many of the middle-aged, centred upon the pictures, living for them. We heard of youths and maidens once frugal, homely and dutiful, who now squander their earnings not only twice weekly when the picture is changed, but nightly. Of debt. Of tradesmen’s bills that mount and mount unpaid as never before. The prize story is of a one-time solid matron now so demoralised that rather than miss a picture she will obtain groceries on credit and sell of them to her neighbours.

It is clear that down here amongst these full-living hard-working landspeople the enchantment has worked at least as potently as in the towns. And reflection suggests an explanation that would apply equally to almost any rural district where life is lived all the year round in the open or between transparent walls, lived from birth to death in the white light of a publicity for which towns can offer no parallel. Drama is continuous. No day passes without bringing to some group or member of the large scattered family a happening more or less shared by everyone else and fruitful of eloquence. Speech is relatively continuous. Solitude almost unknown. And these people have turned to the pictures as members of a family who know each other by heart will turn to the visitor who brings the breath of otherness. And whereas in the towns those who frequent the cinema may obtain together with its other gifts admission to a generalized social life, a thing unknown in slum and tenement, lodging-house and the smaller and poorer villadom, these people of village and hamlet, already socially educated and having always before their eyes the spectacle of life in the raw throughout its entire length, the assemblage of every kind of human felicity and tribulation, find in the cinema together with all else it has to offer them, their only escape from ceaseless association, their only solitude, the solitude that is said to be possible only in cities. They become for a while citizens of a world whose every face is that of a stranger. The mere sight of these unknown people is refreshment. And the central figures of romance are heaven-born, are the onlookers as they are to themselves, heroes and heroines unknown to their neighbours. To cease for a moment to be just John or Mary carrying about with you wherever you go your whole known record, to be oblivious of the scene upon which your life is lived and your future unalterably cast, is to enter into your own eternity.

It is not possible perfectly to disentangle from that of the wrireless, the popular newspaper and the gramophone, the influence of the cinema in rural districts. Certain things however, emerge more or less clearly. There is for example no evidence, at any rate down here in the west, of any increased desire for town life. Rather the contrary, for the prestige of that life has suffered more than a little as a result of realistic representation and the strongest communicable impression whether of London, New York or other large city — all much of a muchness and equally remote, though not more so than Plymouth — is that of insecurity. Neither in railway station, hotel, or crowded street is either money or life for a single moment free from risk. And the undenied charm of the Far West is similarly overshadowed: you must be prepared either to shoot or to be shot. And although condemnation goes hand in hand with envy of the apparently limitless possibilities of acquisition and independence, the vote on the whole goes steadily for the civilisation and safety of rural conditions.

Melodrama and farcical comedy are prime favourites and an intensity of interest centres about the gazette, the pictures of what is actually going on in various parts of the world. That there is always something worth seeing and that the music is “lovely” is almost universal testimony. It is probable that the desire for perpetual cinema will presently abate. A year of constant film-seeing is not overmuch for those without theatre, music-hall or any kind of large scale public entertainement. Meantime one clearly visible incidental result of this intensive cultivation is to be noted: these people, and particularly the younger generation, have no longer quite the local
quality they had even a year ago. They are amplified, aware of resources whose extent is unknown to them and have a joyful half-conscious preoccupation with this new world that has been brought into their midst, a preoccupation that on the whole, and if one excludes the weaklings who would in any case be the prey of desirable or undesirable external forces, serves to enhance the daily life. They no longer for one reason and another, amongst which the cinema is indisputably the foremost, [f]it to their local lives as closely as of yore. Evidence of this change is to be found even in their bearing. The “yokel” is less of a lout than he was wont to be and the dairymaid even on workdays is indistinguishable from her urban counterpart. And though doubtless something is lost and the lyric poet is shedding many an unavailing tear, much undeniably is gained. These youths and maidens in becoming world citizens, in getting into communication with the unknown, become also recruits available, as their earth and-cottage-bound forbears never could have been for the world-wide conversations now increasingly upon us in which the cinema may play, amongst its numerous other roles, so powerful a part.

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 the Internet Archive

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