Kinema

Source: [Filson Young], ‘Kinema’, The Living Age, vol. 272 (1912), pp. 565-567 (originally published in The Saturday Review, 27 January 1912, pp. 108-109)

Text: This is one of the words there is no escaping from. Distorted, misspelled, mispronounced, debased by unholy conjunctions and alliances, it has nevertheless, in the sacred phrase of banality, “come to stay”; and, with the gramophone and the piano-player, to share the doubtful distinction of being one of the wonders of this age. The kinematograph has worked itself into the life of the people in a way that I, for my part, never suspected until I took up an important-looking book the other day and found that it was entirely devoted to the study of the rise, progress, philosophy and anatomy of the kinematograph. Thus the thing even has its literature. And I feel bound in honesty to say that this book is an extremely honest and competent piece of work, in which is modestly and clearly set forth a complete history of this very remarkable business, with abundant photographs and diagrams for the mechanically-minded, and containing certain statistics which I venture to think would stagger most readers. The work appears in Mr. Heinemann’s “Conquests of Science Series”; and the title itself suggests some curious reflections. Are we really conquering science or is science conquering us? That marvellous monster of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in its infancy we led as one might lead a lion cub by a ribbon, which we played with and made into a parlor toy: what has it become, and what is it becoming? There is something a little grim about this title “Conquests of Science” appearing on a large book devoted to the kinematograph.

Being always behind the times in such matters, it was only the other day that I went for the first time into a Kinema Palace, as I believe those very white and very gold buildings that diversify the squalor of the humbler thoroughfares are called. I had often been allured by their façades, but from some confusion of mind by which I associated them with those dismal halls where the entertainment consists of peering into an endless number of little metal machines, I had never ventured inside. And when at last I did succumb I was not a little surprised. I did not know that London habitually amused itself between the afternoon hours of twelve and six; but here was a crowd of people pouring into what looked like an ordinary theatre. They were not the idle rich nor yet the wealthy poor; they were people of the lower middle classes, who looked as if they ought to have been at work, but were here disbursing sums varying from a shilling to five shillings with great readiness. The prices themselves were a surprise; I had thought of threepence or sixpence as a reasonable price to pay for an hour’s vision of flickering pictures with motes dancing over them, and a headache; but I think my stall cost five shillings. And there, at the high noon of the London day, in the midst of perhaps the busiest human activity in the world, some hundreds of us sat waiting in a darkened, plush-upholstered hall, like mourners at a funeral waiting for the corpse.

Presently a harmonium, violin, and a piano began some whining and twittering attempt at an overture, and the pictures appeared. We all know them; even I, who am no patron of Kinema palaces, am familiar with them in the larger world of the music-hall. There was the Durbar, a dancing succession of troops marching at about fifteen miles an hour, of well-known figures walking up to you, looming nearer and nearer, and then apparently cut off in the prime of life and blotted out as though they had never been; the industrial pictures of money being coined at the Mint — tons of bullion poured out before one’s eyes while someone behind the screen jingled sixpenny worth of halfpence in a tin tray; some wonderful things and some stupid things; and then, finally, the plunge into real, thick, treacley sentiment, the middle-aged man brooding by the fireside (such a fireside!) and looking at the face of his sweetheart in an old album (such an album!), and seeing visions of himself and his sweetheart as children, as young man and maiden, as bride and bridegroom (such a bride and bridegroom!); and, finally, the disturbance of the gentleman’s meditation by the arrival in the room of his wife, who, when she turns her face to the audience, is seen to be identical with the heroine of the old fool’s meditations. This the audience liked; and I saw a stout woman, who might have been a publican’s wife, wiping away an undoubted tear.

They did not give me for my five shillings what I really longed for — one of those breathlessly rapid dramas in which babies are thrown at people in the street, motor-cars fly asunder before your eyes, and long trains of people, headed by a policeman and a nursemaid, and receiving constant accretions in the shape of chimney-sweeps, clergymen, bricklayers, and school children, pursue one another apparently in the full light of day across thoroughfares which are unmistakably recognizable as the Champs Elysées and the Avenue du Trocadéro. It is an unending pleasure to see men running at thirty-five miles an hour and clashing into each other at a corner and exploding in a cloud of smoke. One feels at such moments that life is really a busier and braver thing than the dull crawl of one’s own experience.

But there is another side to the picture. Men have toiled and used splendid brains in order that these things should be; one cannot help asking oneself how far they are worth while. All over the world there are great theatres with stages far larger and more modern than Covent Garden or the Paris Opera, equipped with every kind of scenic effect, on which dramas are dally performed to no other spectator than the little crystal lens in front of an unrolling film; sometimes as many as two thousand people at a time are employed in a drama on one of these great stages. Is this to be the theatre of the future? We have almost abolished thinking from our theatres; are we also to abolish hearing, and seeing in any except one dimension? There is another, perhaps the greatest, evil of the kinematograph craze, the evil which it shares with the pianola-player and the gramophone. It is that these things really narrow the life and experience of men. They bring life to one’s door; and it will soon be possible for people to have all the adventurous experience they want within a radius of half a mile of their own house. No journeys need be taken; you pay sixpence and sit in a chair that is mechanically rocked like a railway carriage, and look out upon the moving scenery of the Andes, the Alps, or the Rockies. You need not go through the toil and discipline of learning the technique of music; turn a handle, and all that Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin groaned in travail with, wept tears of blood for, or laughed and sang out to the world, is at your command. You need not go and hear a great oration; the very voice will issue for you from your brass-throated gramophone on the morrow. All of which is bad, and means loss of life in the fullest and most serious sense. It is not the conquest of science, but the abuse of science.

But there is no question about there being a real use for the kinematograph. To such perfection has it been brought that it can record the movement of an insect or a bird’s wing, or the flight and penetration of a projectile. Films have been made so delicate that they will take a picture in an exposure of 1-42,000th of a second; the mechanism has been so perfected that streams of consecutive pictures can be taken at the rate of 5000 per second, the measurement and control of this being entrusted to a tuning-fork — so far beyond our mere mechanical abilities do such figures take us.

And as an historical record also the kinematograph has its legitimate use. Sometimes — very rarely — looking upon that illuminated square, one has for the moment a sense of real illusion, of looking through a glass and seeing the sea breaking on some tropical shore, or the figures of men moving and smiling in a distant land. Think if we could once see in the same way King John crossing to the little Thames island to give Englishmen their freedom, or Anne Boleyn driving through the streets of Westminster to her wedding, or Cromwell speaking in the House of Commons, or King Charles I, making his farewell on the scaffold! It would not be so much on the central figures that we should pore as upon the crowds and the people in the street, seeing actually before our eyes what men and women looked like, how they moved about, what clothes they wore, what manners they had in those dim, far-off days. Five hundred years hence the English people will in this way be able to see scenes of our life in England; we shall not be so isolated from them; they will know us really as we are, and along with the figures and faces of the great will be preserved and made familiar to our descendants of the twenty-fifth century some otherwise utterly unimportant people, who pushed to the front of crowds and took the trouble to see public shows. And perhaps the most familiar figures of our day to the people of coming days will be the figures of policemen. Thus you see even the kinematograph will not really tell the truth; for there is no such thing as mechanical truth or mechanical record of truth. And that is the crowning fault of mechanism when it takes the place of human effort and labor.

Comments: Filson Young (1876–1938) was a British journalist and essayist. The Living Age was an American magazine which reproduced selections from English and American magazines and newspapers. The article was originally published in British magazine The Saturday Review. The book on film the writer refers to is Frederick A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (London: Heinemann, 1912). Typical cinema prices of the time were between threepence and sixpence, and the suggestion of a five shilling seat sounds like an exaggeration. The ‘Durbar’ refers to newsfilms of the Delhi Durbar celebrations of 1911. Many trick and chase films of the period were indeed filmed in Paris, by the Pathé and Gaumont firms.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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