The Thoroughly Popular Film

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance IX: The Thoroughly Popular Film’, Close Up vol. II no. 4, April 1928, pp. 44-50

Text: The moment those crudish, incessantly sparking, never-to-be-forgotten photographs, setting the world in movement before our enchanted eyes, made way for the elaborate simplicities of the aesthetically unsound film play, there descended upon the cinema and all its works a blast of scorn so much more withering than any that has fallen to the lot of other kinds of popular entertainment that its sheer extremity calls to the disinterested observer — or, since it is claimed that such is not to be found under the sun, let us say to the relatively disinterested observer — for ampler justification than is supplied in the ravings of the ebullient critics: the desire to nip in the bud a virulently poisonous growth.

For this justification is acceptable only if we can bring ourselves to believe that the prophetic critics whole-heartedly credited their vision of the cinema as embarked upon an orgy of destruction that would demolish the theatre, leave literature bankrupt and the public taste hopelessly debauched. And, if we bring ourselves so to believe we land in the conclusion that these prophets are futility personified. A most uncomfortable conclusion. For surely even an alarmist, even the most wildly rocketting fanatical prophet of disaster must, so long as he is sincere, be something more than a waste product. He is usually a being of acute perceptions and abnormally long sight. A wise, superior person. And if they are right who define wisdom as the darker side of God he is presumably the Devil, and far from futile. But is he? For with perfect unanimity, from age to age, mankind ignores him and goes its way and none may know whether it is the certainty of neglect that endows the prophet with his fury or his fury that shocks humanity into the averted attitude. What is he therefore? Where, we are compelled to ask, does he come in?

Authentic fury is at best a regrettable spectacle. But perfect futility is an intolerable spectacle, a spectre at the feast to be exorcised at any cost, even at the cost of snatching from under the nose of the satirist a most succulent morsel. Can it be done? Can we perhaps transform the wrath of those who fell tooth and nail upon the cinema by interpreting it as a kind of paternal shock, a fury of desire for what was actually in being before their eyes, the thing of beauty promised by the hideous infant? So to do is not to claim superiority of vision. It is indeed to leave vision in their hands who sensitively shrieked the moment they were hurt — for we, the general public, were not looking for beauty. We were knocked silly by the new birth, were content to marvel at the miracle.

That babe is now a youth, a thing of beauty creating disturbances, precipitating recantations right and left. And though scorn still breathes its would-be withering blast, the blast is directed now to concentrate upon the youth’s ill favoued twin, the movie in excelsis. Here at least say the critics you will admit that we were right. And there is no sound nor any that answers. But there is an epithet, a single word, half awestruck and respectful, half hilariously mocking, coined in the largest nursery of the new civilisation, by some citizen of the lower world wandered by chance into alien territory: highbrow.

These contrasted territories are not of course neatly separated. They are linked by a wide dim region inhabited by half-castes whose brows are neither out-size nor yet low. And inhabiting both the upper and the nether aesthetic worlds are the lost and strayed who would be happier elsewhere and ever where are those who could be happy in either were tother fair charmers away. Roughly nevertheless there are the two main territories, the territory of the Films and the territory of the Movies. The films climb, austere and poverty-stricken while the Movies roll in wealth upon the lush floor of the valley. And there is small reason to anticipate any immediate relief for those so narrowly existing on the heights. It is however interesting to speculate as to what would happen if the economic security of the Movies were suddenlv withdrawn, what would happen if films were made only by those desiring to make them and ticketless audiences trooped in at ever open doors. Cinemas would be packed, but would the anaesthetic, a psychological immoral unwholesome popular film cease to exist ? Would anything cease to exist but that which is at present to be laid to the account of speculation as to what the public wants, what that is to say, it will pay for? Would there not still be the innocent enthusiastic artificer whole-heartedly producing the bad, beloved films? It may be urged that in such a world everyone would be educated away from infantile tastes. But there are limits, even to education. Much may be taken over by one person from another, but there will be no likeness between them unless they are one in spirit. And contemplation of these two worlds the aesthetically adult and the others, reveals a something that a never so generously contrived education is powerless to change : a fundamental difference of approach. There is a larky something behind the veil that offers, on behalf of everything under the sun, a choice of interpretations. It is this lark, this salt of the journey that drives the truly dogmatic dogmatist resent his dogma as something no intelligent person can deny. But there is always an alternative interpretation, everything is in pairs, though not everyone is ready to echo the commis voyageur’s hourrah pour la petite différence.

Let us by all means confess our faith. In this case faith in Art as a ultimate, a way of salvation opposed, though not necessarily contradictory, to other ways of salvation, Religion, Ethics, Science rather existing independently and though aware of them regarding them only as making for the same bourne by different routes. And if at once we have to remind ourselves that life is an art, and the evangelist, moralist and big man of science all imaginative artists, well that is a pleasant holiday for our minds that so easily grow a shade too departmental. Art by all means. Let us live and die in and for it. But when we condemn the inartistic let us beware of assuming aesthetic excellence as always and everywhere and for everyone standard measure. If we feel we must condemn popular art let us know where we are, know that we are refusing an alternative measure and interpretation of the intercommunications we reject.

As a rule the dogmatic, so rightly dogmatic, aesthete cannot bring himself to glance at the possibility of an alternative measure. – So great is his anger and dismay that he is fain to curse and to go on cursing. It is however to be remarked of the dogmatic aesthete that he is commonly rather a guardian of the temple than himself a creator. Is not one of the incidental delights of voyaging amongst the records left by the creators the discovery of their quaint tastes in art, their psalms in honour of contemporaries whose long-forgotten work, displaying a perfect inanity, doubtless performed miracles in its own day ?

Meanwhile the philistines go their way. They go on cherishing films whose characters, situations and sentiments are said to stand condemned by every known test. And we would like to claim on behalf of even the worst of them, even those that would make a cat laugh and draw tears of agonised protest from a stone, that the condemnation can never be more than relative. We would like to suggest, for example, that the judges live in a world where such characters and situations and sentiments do not exist, in a different dimension of the spirit, and that they have therefore no experience that can illuminate for them the deadly depths. The cause of their horror lies not in what they see but in their way of seeing. It is possible that they are immensely above and beyond the world they condemn. It is certain that they are too far removed from it to get behind its conventions.

Take any of the stock characters of whom it is said that they never existed on land or sea. The poor dear sheik, for example, the man who can kill, can magnificently adore the beloved carried upon his shield high above his head, can dominate, and kneel. Yet he exists. Even in Tooting under a bowler hat. The heroine, the emotional lovely damsel guarding the pearl of price that is but once bestowed. She perhaps is to be met only by those who can create her in her fulness. Then the good ending. In some respects the worst criminal of all and most certainly a thing-in-itself. It is demanded, absolutely. They won’t we are told, stand anything else. But there is good reason for their refusal, for their stern convention. Is it or is it not, this good ending, the truth, perhaps crudely and wrongly expressed, of life, and their refusal to have it outraged based deeply in the consciousness of mankind? They welcome even the most preposterously happy ending not because it is in contrast to the truth as known in their own lives, but because it is true to life. The wedding bells, the reconciled family, the reclaiming of the waster, all these things are their artistic conventions and the tribute of love paid to them by the many is a tribute to their unconscious certainty that life is ultimately good.

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 Internet Archive

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