Almost Persuaded

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: Almost Persuaded’, Close Up vol. IV no. 6, June 1929, pp. 31-37

Text: Never having experienced a Talkie, having sustained — in merely imagining a film breaking into speech, wrecking its medium, its perfection of direct communication — a shock comparable to that we should receive if our favourite Botticelli began throwing stones, we spent, far from films, a winter whose severity was the bitterer for our woeful apprehensions.

Every reading of a daily brought bad moments: cowardly avoidance of suspicious columns, alternating with shuddering sallies in search of facts.

March arrived heralding spring and with it the news that Mr. Wells had at last come forward not only to hail the film as the art-form of the future, but also to name this child with his happy aptitude for epithet.

In remarking that it is only at long last that Mr. Wells comes forward we do not attempt to suggest the impossible: Wellsian dilatoriness. Wells was amongst the first film-fans, Chaplin-fans. One of the first to see some of the possibilities and it would hardly be fair to label his predictions, though coming at a time when so many possibilities are already realised, prophecies after the event.

Our delight of course was born of the name chosen by Mr. Wells for the art of cinematography: Music-drama. And so great is our faith in Wells’ perceptiveness, in regard to anything he may scrutinise leisurely and at first hand, that we immediately cried, “Ah-ha. What price Talkies now?” and hugged more closely than ever our prejudice in favour of musical accompaniment, whether “Home, Sweet Home” on a cottage piano or cunningly adapted orchestral effects. For, if music be there, the screen must be more or less silent. Unless indeed the stars break into song … Wagnerian films … Film imitating opera side by side with film imitating theatre. These for the vulgar, pot-luck-taking continuous performance public of which we are a member, and beyond them FILMS, developing and developing and developing?

In the March issue of Close Up, we again met Mr. Wells, this time quoted as telling us with what extraordinary reluctance, if at all, we had been brought to admit the film’s power of excelling the written word. Here it would seem that in deciding formally to sponsor the film — and good, for the prospects of the English film proper, was the day upon which he decided so to do — he deems it best to tell the world more than it can actually believe in the interest of making it believe that it believes something. For it is hardly possible to suppose that Wells sees in the arrival of the film the departure of literature.

Certain kinds of writing, the directly tendencious, the propagandist and much of the educational it may in the end supplant to the extent of compelling the theorist, the reformer and the teacher to produce their wares in a form suitable for translation into film. Meanwhile the film to date has created more readers than it has destroyed, if indeed it has destroyed any, and is more likely, as it progresses, to achieve for all the arts renaissance rather than death. In literature alone it is creating a new form. For just as the stage play created a public for the written play and many are the unplayable plays that are eminently readable and quite numerous those who in any case would rather read a play than see it acted — so will the practice of film-seeing create a public for the film literature of which, if we except the miniature scenarios from time to time appearing in periodicals, Mr. Wells’ own book is characteristically enough, the first example.

But our delight in the hailing of the film as the art-form of the future, not this time by the bold editors of Close Up who so hailed it two years ago when they were voices crying in the wilderness of a filmless England, but by a prophet whose least word is broadcast over the planet — in so far as it was founded upon the development of the generous pronunciamento into specification of a form for that art that appeared to exclude Talkies — was short-lived. A moment’s reflection told us that even Mr. Wells cannot stampede humanity by suggestion. The multitudes agog for novelty at any price will demand Talkies because they are new.

So we returned to the scanning of Close Up, and in a moment we were devoutly attentive. Here was Mr. Herring breathlessly falling over himself in exposition of Pudovkin’s idea of the use of sound on the film. And when Mr. Herring grows breathless it is time to hold one’s breath and listen hard to what he has to say. We listen for several pages to his eager voice vividly interpreting, and return to a world that will never be quite the same again. (It never is, of course, from one moment to another.) For we have heard the crashing of a barrier against which modern art has flung itself in vain. The barrier Antheil drilled holes in when he “composed” mechanisms, (Did not one of his works require sixteen pianos and a screen?) and Dos Passos splintered when he described a group of straight-faced elderly relatives arrived in mourning garb at a house of death for funeral and reading of Will, gravely jazzing through the hall, and other American writers have severely shaken by their unashamed metaphoricality, and all those novelists have fist-punched who in pursuit of their particular aims produced texts retrospectively labelled cinematographic.

Is not Wells’ dirge then justified? (Did not he too, time and again, cry out within his text upon the limitations of the printed page?) Has not literature, for so long prophesying unawares the fully developed film, had its day?

No. The film is a social art, a show, something for collective seeing, and even in the day that finds us all owning projectors and rolls of film from the local circulating filmery it still will be so, a small ceremonial prepared for a group, all of whom must adjust their sensibilities at a given moment and at the film’s pace. Reading, all but reading aloud, is a solitary art — is this why it has been called the unpunished vice, and ought we to scrap these pages and swear only that we hope Wells may be right about the alleged competitor? — and the film can no more replace it than the Mass can replace private devotions. What film, to take a simple, current example, could supplant Im Westen Nichts Neues (recently translated, All Quiet on the Western Front) whose poetry both forces and enables the years of day-to-day unforgettable experience lived through in six or seven hours of reading. A stereoscopic film, complete with sound imagery might enormously enhance and deepen typical episodes and, by generalising the application of the whole, shock whatever onlooker — for a moment — into horrified recognition. But for that onlooker there would not be the intimate sense of having shared an irrevocable personal experience that is the gift of Remarque’s quiet book.

The film is skyey apparition, white searchlight, The book remains the intimate, domestic friend, the golden lamp at the elbow.

“Think,” pursues Mr. Herring, “of sound-imagery in Pudovkin’s terms, and thank yourself you are alive.” We do, thank you, Mr. Herring. We think, wishing the while that the whole of your expose could be broadcast daily for weeks, printed and circulated with every Talkie programme, of angry man and lion’s roar preceding, of fire-engine bells announcing devastating lady and all the subtleties made possible by the composing of sound, the direction of sound-imagery, director using sound like a musical score. Unifying sound and spectacle.

So we could mark time more than happily through Herr Meisel’s certainties as to the marriage he is arranging between film and music and give full rein to our glee over his inclusion of the tinkling cottage piano which once we heard do some excellent sound-imagery in single notes for a Chaplin grotesque.

The sound-film then, and music drama, and, moreover, the stereoscopically three-dimensional ….

For these we are almost persuaded we would abandon our silent screen. In spite of the risks. For the risks, like the difficulties and the triumphs, will be enormous. Between success unprecedented and failure more disastrous than the failure of the worst soundless film there will be less than a hairsbreadth.

Yet we hesitate. Even while hailing expression not only free from certain of the cramping difficulties of dramatic and literary art, but able to convert these difficulties into so many glorious opportunities. Hallelujah. Amen.

Why do we hestitate [sic]? Is it that the interference between seer and seen is to be too complete? The expressionism, the information, the informatory hint altogether too much of it? The onlooker too overwhelmingly conducted? It is said that the audiences of Russian films have to be held down in their seats. Excitement, collective. This is of the theatre. Would a single soul seeing his film in silence and alone have so to be held down? Here, in living sample is all the answer we need to any question as to the future of literature and, some would say, denying that wild eye and torn hair are ever the signs of the presence of great art, a question set to the film. But such perhaps forget that so far in the world’s history the birth of an art has not been a public affair, though the inhabitants of Cimabue’s native town beholding the first painted picture, did carry him in triumph through the streets.

If, beside the film grown solid and sounding the silent magic lantern show persists as we are told it will … But will it, for example pay? Is it not already old-fashioned?

We are reminded of a lady who remarked on hearing that Paderewski had played “The Bee’s Wedding”, “That old thing? Why Winnie could play that when she was eight!”

Alas, alas, alas.

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 H.G. Wells book to which she refers is The King Who Was a King (1929), a novel set in the form of a film script. Robert Herring was one of the contributors to Close Up. George Antheil composed music for avant garde films, including Ballet Mécanique (which did originally call for sixteen player pianos, and more). The American John Dos Passos included cinematographic references and techniques in his novels. Edmund Meisel was an Austrian composer who supplied score for a number of classic silent films, including Battleship Potemkin. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front would be successfully filmed as a sound feature in America the following year, without any need for stereoscopy.

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