The Cinema in the Slums

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance X: The Cinema in the Slums’, Close Up vol. II no. 5, May 1928, pp. 58-62

Text: At the moment of reaching perfection as territory sacred to horror, slumdom produced a novelist who featured with all his mind and all his heart and all his soul the lives of its inhabitants, awakening official expediency and unofficial solicitude and driving the oblivion of the general public into a timely grave, And the day that saw compulsory education snatching the children for a while from the worst, saw also philanthropy grown fashionable, slumming adding meaning to the lives of the charitable unemployed and bands of devoted people weaving a network of settlements, missions, and institutions of all kinds over those areas of the larger cities that hitherto had been left undisturbed, save for an occasional forced raid, even by the police, and unproductive save for their disproportionate contribution of disease and crime and the endless procession of half-starved labourers of all ages and both sexes available for exploitation in the basements supporting the British empire.

But slumdom, though not quite what it was, continues to flourish and will continue, however rehoused and state-aided and generally disciplined, if they are right who see its problem as a biological problem, its habitants as a recruited army, an army ceaselessly recruited from above and to disappear only when we make up our minds to weed out undesirable types. And though wonders have been worked, as all may see who can remember the children haunting the by-ways even twenty years ago, there is still a vast army living, except for the all-too-short school years, in a state of mental and moral constriction, pressed upon and paralysed by circumstance and there is its off-shoot, the battalion of half-crazed intelligentsia dreaming of salvation to be reached one by a banding together for destruction.

All these people like all the rest of us are preached at by doctrinaires of all kinds and mostly by heavily interested doctrinaires who from the midst of ease — though many of them are hard workers, at jobs chosen and beloved — rate these state-pampered idlers for their thriftlessness, quote the perilous budgets of exceptionally heroic family chancellors — oh those budgets detailed from margarine to skimmed milk — upon which appears no single one of the necessary superfluities whose rôle in creating the cheerfulness of the complacent judges is ignored by them because it is permanent.

And almost everything that comes to this segregated army from without, teaching, preaching, state-aid, welfare-work, art-galleries and suchlike cultural largesse is tainted more or less, not always hopelessly but always tainted, by the motive of interest. Is not, cannot be, entirely above suspicion. Even the most devoted resident missioners are there with an aim, the confessed aim of betterment, of bringing light into darkness and comfort where no comfort was. It would be monstrous to attempt to decry the motives and the labours of these noble people and absurd to deny their great fruitfulness. And though there may be amongst them numbers of pitying souls who would be left at a loss if there were no one to rescue, there are also those whose labours are carried on in the spirit of an invitation to the dance of life. These bring charm. But their power is akin to that of the kindly host. Contact with them may be for the lost a tour of paradise; but it is a conducted tour.

And now, as it were over-night, there has materialised a presence subsuming all these others and, by reason of its freedom from any ulterior motive beyond that of its own need to survive, immeasurably more powerful as a civilising agent than any one of them. It says of course aloud for all to hear as it opens its doors conveniently in the manner of the gin-palace at every corner: it’s your money we want. It does not say we want to help you. Yet it offers as many kinds of salvation as all previous enterprises combined and offers them impersonally, more impersonally than even the printed page. It illustrates. And its illustrations are encountered innocently, unguardedly, in silence and alone.

It is said that the cinema offers nothing to nobody save spiritual degradation. There are clamourings too, and secret whisperings of the enormous power of the film rightly used, used that is to say according to the speaker’s idea of what is right. But both these claims ignore what is inherent in pictures, ignore that which exerts its influence apart from the intention of what is portrayed. Mankind’s demand for pictures, like the child’s demand, is much more than a childlike love for representation. There is in the picture that which emerges and captures him before details are registered and remains long after they are forgotten. And this influence, particularly in the case of the contemplators we are considering, is exercised as potently by a photograph as by a “work of art” and by a moving photograph, if it be the work of an artist, much more potently. Imagination fails in attempting to realise all that is implied for cramped lives in the mere coming into communication with the general life, all that results from the extension of cramped consciousness. But it is not merely that those who are condemned with no prospect of change to a living death, are lifted for a while into a sort of life as are said to be on the great festivals the souls in hell. It is that insensibly they are living new lives. Growing. Gathered spontaneously and unsuspecting before even the poorest pictures, even those that play deliberately upon the passions of the jungle, the onlookers are unawares in an effectual environment. While they follow events they are being played upon in a thousand ways. And all pictures are not bad or base or foolish. But even the irreducible minimum of whatever kind of goodness there is in any kind of picture not deliberately vicious, is civilisation working unawares.

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. The novelist referred to is presumably Charles Dickens.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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