Slow Motion

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance XI: Slow Motion’, Close Up vol. II no. 6, June 1928, pp. 54-58

Text: No one who heard the hysterical laughter that greeted the first slow-motion pictures can fail to be struck by the quiet bearing of the average audience of today when confronted by these strange transformations. And were it not for a haunting suspicion of the part played by mere familiarity with the spectacle, it would be possible to claim this change of attitude as the surest direct evidence of the educative power of the film. But if familiarity alone is responsible for the change, then that dreadful laughter, coming after years of experience of what the film can do, must stand, a mocking mark of interrogation over against the articles of our faith. Yet since there is other evidence, and particularly the mass of evidence accumulated in the minds of those who have experience of the evolution of single local audiences in regard to “the pictures”, to confirm that faith, we may take courage to assume that from the first, behind the laughter, recognition was there and has grown. If now it is present, it was there from the first, for without its work there would be no second seeing. Each seeing would have been a first and the laughter would have continued.

And yet, recalling that first revelation, doubt creeps in on behalf of just this one of the many offerings of the film. Can anyone forget the revelation, the two revelations, of beauty upon the screen and the beast confronting it? Has that particular beauty conquered the beast, become a joy forever, or just passed into nothingness? Indeed it is difficult to say. For there must have been incidents. Indignant people must have hushed the gigglers. Sensitive people must have cried out in ecstatic appreciation and produced wonder that upon the next opportunity turned to attention hopeful of discovering the hidden charm.

Experience gathered in one small local cinema would hopefully suggest that the first laughter for the first slow-motion picture is partly to be credited to the nature of the movement and the manner in which it was offered. For it was a picture of runners at close quarters to each other upon the last lap of a mile race. The three figures, first shown moving at normal pace were in desperate competition, agonised heads thrown back, open mouths agasp at the last effort for supremacy; not a pleasing exhibition. It flashed away and a caption spoke: “Now see what our slow-motion camera can do”, an invitation to watch a conjuring trick, preparation for something that was to impress by its cleverness. And it is possible that if we had been shown stills of these men caught in the various attitudes born of their movement, beauty might clearly have emerged. But though it was there in the balanced movement of the athletes advancing as if though resistant air, there was also a sharp touch of the grotesque as these figures with arms arched, and rigid, air-clutching fingers, slowly, goose-steppingly lifted leaden limbs in shorts. The anxious faces, the air of infinite caution, were legitimately funny and the avalanche of laughter may be interpreted as joyous welcome for yet another revelation of the comic possibilities of the film.

The next slow-motion exhibition was of horses clearing a hedge and ditch in a steeple-chase, and throughout the majestic spectacle, from the moment the great beasts slowly rearing left the earth until again they lightly, as if weightlessly, touched it in descent, there was nothing that could even remotely appeal to the eye on the look-out for pretexts for mirth. But the laughter came, for the slowness, the anomaly. There were those no doubt who held breath in wonder and delight. But the result, regarding the audience as one person, was, as before, registration of a freakish incidental of the new entertainment.

The first slow of these early days that failed to precipitate either the avalanche of derision or the chorus of sniggers was of a man taking a high jump. And here perhaps all lesser emotions were submerged in that of stupefaction at the sheer marvel of the levitation. It was offered simply for what it was, Mr. Jones winning the high jump, without preparative suggestion. We saw Mr. Jones run and lightly leap and clear, and reach the ground in an athletic sprawl. And then again there were the high posts and the bar and the relatively small man held to earth by a pointed tee, who rose as if dreaming, slowly through the air upon which as he cleared the bar he lay sideways in repose, on his face the look of blissful concentration given in religious art to saints whose battles are won, indolently stretching one limb to slant downwards beyond the bar and bring its fellow following and the whole elastic body to move poised in the air upon the outstretched toe that sought and lightly found the earth. Perfect silence greeted this revelation of the miraculous commonplace. It won. Was bound to win. Its beauty and its wonder were imperious demands, overwhelming.

And the revelation bestowed by the ecstatic face, of the spirit withdrawn, within the body it was operating, to the point of perfect concentration, showing this business of athletic achievement as one with every kind of human achievement, with that of the thinker, the artist and the saint, is one of the most priceless offerings to date of the film considered as a vehicle for revealing to mankind that in man which is unbounded. If tomorrow every vestige of this new art were swept away save just one slow of a human body hoisting itself over a high bar; the film would not have existed in vain.

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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