Televiewing

Source: J.B. Priestley, ‘Televiewing’, in Thoughts in the Wilderness (London: Heinemann, 1957), pp. 194-201

Text: Down here on the island, where I have rented a fine large set and where we have a powerful transmitting mast not far away, I am a Viewer. We keep the set in a room originally intended for music, and I can sit in the dark there, viewing and viewing, without disturbing the rest of the household. I lie back in an armchair, put my feet upon a stool, and smoke and view away. Except when there are Test Matches, I do all my viewing after dinner. Wheezing a bit, heavy with food and drink, I waddle along the hall, switch on the set, drop into my chair and put my feet up, then peer into my magic mirror like a fourteen-stone cigar-smoking Lady of Shalott. At first I told myself that I watched the set and its antics for strictly professional and technical reasons, but lately I have not had even a shadow of that excuse. I am simply one of the Viewers. I have already passed uncounted hours half-hypnotised by the jiggling and noisy images. Sometimes I wonder if I am going out of my mind. We have been told that the worst is over after about four years, but long before that my outlook will have been so completely changed that I shall be a different person. I shall probably be removed to an old man’s home. Let us hope these places are equipped with good TV sets.

In my capacity as a Viewer, I have no intention of criticising adversely and in detail the way things are done. Given this strange medium and their own particular responsibilities, the people directing and handling the medium do almost all that can be reasonably expected of them. Most of them, I know, are enthusiasts; if removed from TV they would feel they were in exile. I don’t imagine I could do it better myself. I think I would be far worse than they are. Most of the familiar jeers and sneer sat their efforts seem to me quite unfair. The difficulties they have to face are too lightly disregarded. The critics who attack them make little or no allowance for the black magic of the medium itself, always discussing the entertainment provided as if they had not been staring at a set but sitting in a theatre, a cinema, a concert hall, a cabaret. So not a word that follows must be taken as unfriendly criticism of TV personnel. Good luck to you, boys and girls! Thanks a lot, Mary, Peter, Sylvia, Derek! But I am a Viewer too, one of the regular customers, even though I never ring up to complain that one of my precious prejudices has been ignored, and now I feel I must explain, as honestly as I know how, what the thing is doing to me. The general line about TV—I took it myself before I became a Viewer—is that it is terrifically exciting, immensely powerful, potentially very dangerous. Here is this miraculous medium that pours into the home, hour after hour, night after night, images so dazzling and enticing that it immediately outbids all other media for its tenancy of the mind and imagination. It can transform any licence-holder into a well-informed and thoughtful student of all public affairs. It can turn children into future scholars of Trinity and Girton or into gunmen and molls. So we are playing with fire and dynamite—but what fire, what dynamite! This is the kind of stuff I wrote and talked myself before I became a real Viewer. Now that I know what happens, I can no longer write and talk in this strain. Certainly the medium produces its own particular effects, undoubtedly has an influence all its own; but these effects and this influence are very different from what they are generally imagined to be. Unless I am a very peculiar Viewer, the alarmists have all been looking in the wrong direction. They are like a man who expects a wolf at the door when he ought to be attending to the death watch beetle in the woodwork.

Instal a set, turn a switch—and hey presto!—here in a corner of the living-room is an ever-changing image of the whole wide, glittering, roaring world. Or so they say. But that is not quite how my viewing works. To begin with, it does not seem to bring the outside world closer to me but pushes it further away. There are times, after I have played the Lady of Shalott longer than usual, when this world is not here at all; I feel I am taking a series of peeps, perhaps from the darkened smoke room of a giant space-ship, at another planet, with whose noisy affairs I am not involved at all. Let me stare and idly listen long enough and I seem to have arrived at some theosophical astral-body-life-after-death. I am as little involved in or perturbed by all these conferences, departures and arrivals of shadowy Ministers, crashes and floods, strikes and lock-outs, aircraft and racing cars, atomic plants or fishing villages, scientists and film stars, as some Great White Master, a thousand years old, gazing into a crystal ball in Tibet. At most, these are—as one of Yeats’s characters observed in another connection—the dreams the drowsy gods breathe on the burnished mirror of the world. I remember an old retired nannie, rather weak in the head, who when she visited the silent films thought everything she saw was part of one vast confused programme, an astonishing but acceptable mixture of the Prince of Wales and cowboys and Indians and Stanley Baldwin and sinking ships and It-girls and the Lord Mayor of London. She was an early Viewer. I know now exactly what she felt. Perhaps I am rather weak in the head too.

No sooner is any subject under review and discussion on the screen than it is drained of all reality. The instrument itself, probably guided by some satanic intelligence hostile to our species, adds a fatal dream effect. Even what I thought were urgent burning problems stop being problems at all. They are not settled, but their hash is. Somehow I no longer care what happens about Oil or Married Women At Work or Youth And The Churches Today or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain. I just view them. They might be bits from untidy and badly acted plays. Sometimes I don’t know—and don’t care—if the gesticulating image of a Foreign Minister belongs to a real Foreign Minister or to an actor in one of those political plays we are always having. Here on the screen the difference between Yugoslavia and Ruritania is hardly worth bothering about. After half-an-hour of The Future Of Our Fisheries or Africa At The Crossroads, the programme personalities, bursting with fisheries or Africa, stare accusingly at me and ask me what I propose to do about it. They might as well know now that, as a Viewer, I don’t propose to do anything about it. After they have given me a final earnest look and asked their last question, I stare at the credit titles, listen dreamily to the end music, wonder idly why Malcolm Muggeridge looks handsomer on the screen than off, where Woodrow Wyatt has acquired his new haughty accent, light another pipe, and float into the next programme.

Perhaps it is Picture Parade or something of the sort, in which all the imbecilities of the film studio hand-outs and the fan magazines are given a kind of idiot dream life, especially—ah what golden moments!—in the foyer at a gala premiére where celebrities of screen and stage consent to smile at us and tell us how exciting it all is, as if we didn’t know, and are wished lots of luck. As a Viewer I try not to miss one of these occasions. To view one, smoking in the darkened room with your feet up, is much better than actually being there, what with all the dressing up, the heat and fuss, the pushing and shoving to get nearer the mike or the Press photographers. It is a dream glimpse, carefully focused and timed, of a dream world. But it is all so exciting, as everybody keeps telling us Viewers. Perhaps that is why I so often find myself laughing—all alone, there in the dark—probably only a nervous excitement.

Some nights there seem to be dozens and dozens and dozens of people being interviewed, not just about films but about everything. We go all over the place—inside and outside Ministries, home and abroad, to airports and railway stations, to sports grounds and factories. The organisation of it all, the sheer technical achievements, area credit to our civilisation. The courtesy and friendliness are admirable: all the persons interviewed are for ever being thanked and wished good luck. People under Cabinet rank and sixty years of age are on Christian name terms at once. It is a wonderful and happy world, this of TV interviews. And perhaps that is why it is not a world in which anybody ever says anything. That might spoil it. Between the cordial Hellos and the charming Good-byes nothing much seems to happen. We are either going to the interview or coming away from it. “Let us,”’ they say proudly, “go to Coketown and talk to the Mayor himself—so now It’s Over To Coketown—This is Coketown and herein the studio is the Mayor of Coketown, who has kindly consented to talk to us—Very good of you, Mr. Mayor—er what about this er campaign of yours, Mr. Mayor ?—Well, Reg, I think er I can say er we here in Coketown er hope to get it started fairly soon—Thank you, Mr. Mayor, and the best of luck—Thank you, Reg—And now we return you to London—This is London and that was the Mayor of Coketown being interviewed by our representative, Reg Rowbottom—and now———”

At first, when I was a new Viewer, a stranger in this magic world, I wanted the Mayor to say something, if only to justify all the trouble that had been taken to flash his image across the country. Now I know that this does not matter at all, that what is important is that we should keep jumping around, stare at a fresh face for a moment or two, then be off again. The instrument likes to do this, and it is the instrument that has us in its power. In this world of the magic tube, all the values are different. Here we are more interested in what the interviewer sounds and looks like than we are in what the interviewed person says. Viewing, I accept these topsy-turvy values. It is only afterwards, coming to my senses and thinking things over, I begin to question them. Staring at the set, my mind almost a blank, I am quite ready to believe in TV personalities, the élite and aristocracy of this dream world. I do not ask what they have done, what massive talents they possess. They still have personalities where I, as a Viewer, a captive of the screen, have little or none. Not this Christmas but possibly the next, when I may have said good-bye to reality, I shall have no party of my own, perhaps will no longer understand what arrangements could be made for one; I will attend, as a Viewer, a party of TV personalities, to enjoy the sparkle of the wine in their glasses, to listen with joy to the crunching of their mince pies; and one or two of them may look straight in my direction, to wish me a Merry Christmas Programme, a Happy New Year’s Viewing.

Meanwhile, sitting in the dark with my feet up, I feel I have had Fisheries or Africa or Youth And ‘The Churches Today. I couldn’t agree more about Married Women At Work or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain, and could hardly care less. We Viewers know now that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, that all is Maya, that For in and out, above, below, ‘Tis nothing but a magic shadow-show. So it is easy to imagine oneself viewing the next war, dreamily watching whole cities crumble to radioactive dust, catching a last glimpse of Manchester or Leeds in between a thirty-minute detective play and some light music and a gipsy dancer. Never did a medium of information and entertainment arrive more opportunely, to soothe the tormented mind, to ease the bewilderment of the soul. We may emerge from our four or five years’ bondage to it, having at last achieved detachment, for ever untroubled and smiling, finally victorious over the technique and the instrument. Already we Viewers, when not viewing, have begun to whisper to one another that the more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate. Some words on a page can be un-forgettable. The memory of an actor, moving and speaking on a platform, may haunt us all our lives. Then the inventors and technicians arrive, the costs rise prodigiously, the complication sets in, and we get film and radio, far less potent and memorable. The inventors and technicians, in a frenzy, with millions of money behind them, invade the home with TV, adding more and more images to sound, performing miracles with time and space, bringing in colour, stereoscopic sight, everything. And out of this mountain of invention and technique, finance and organisation, comes a little dream mouse. “Not bad,” we Viewers cry. ‘“What next?”

Comments: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. Thoughts in the Wilderness is a collection of essays.

Posted in 1950s, Essays, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama

Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.

Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”

The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.

Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.

Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:

Wage of manager $25
Wage of Operator 20
Wage of doorman 15
Wage of porter or musician 12
Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50
Rent of projecting machine 10
Rent of building 40
Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18
Total $190

Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.

The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.

The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.

But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.

To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.

Who the Patrons Are

The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.

In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.

As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.

Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.

The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.

The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.

The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.

The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.

Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.

By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.

The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.

How the Drama Is Made

Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.

The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.

The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.

Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.

Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.

Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.

The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.

The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.

To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”

………

Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.

The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?

The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.

The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.

Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.

The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.

If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:

Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet
Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ”
Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ”
Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ”
Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ”
A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ”
Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ”
Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ”
Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ”
The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ”
Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “

Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:

LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST
Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78
Extra for coloring $125.10

The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.

Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”

Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.

Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).

Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.

Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.

Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.

It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.

Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.

In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.

The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.

Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust
Transcribed copy at The Silent Bookshelf (archived site)

Posted in 1900s, Journals, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Teleview

Fanciful illustration of a Teleview show, from Motion Picture Magazine, August 1923

Source: Henry Albert Phillips, ‘The New Motion Picture: No. 1 – The Teleview’, Motion Picture Magazine, August 1923, pp. 35-36, 86

Text:
The New Motion Picture

A Series of Searching Articles Showing the Constant Efforts of the Moving Picture to Re-Create Nature and Life as We Actually Experience It

I. THE TELEVIEW

By HENRY ALBERT PHILLIPS

Of the many thrills that enlivened my boyhood days, one stands out with vivid distinctness. As I recall it now, not a little of the original “kick” comes back with the recollection. I cannot help recalling with a certain amount of wistfullness the ravishing odor of candle grease and drying Christmas tree greens. For it was very early Christmas morning. And I had come down to see what Santa had brought me and stood there shivering from the cold and mingled emotions, when my eye fell on a pasteboard box about a foot long. It looked mysterious. I removed the red ribbon with trembling fingers and a rapidly beating heart. Within was excelsior — only wonderful things were wrapped in excelsior! I was further ecstatically tantalized to find the object inclosed in tissue paper. Each of these barriers heightened my imagination to a quite alarming state, and enhanced the value of the gift out of its true proportions.

The wonderful present proved to be a stereopticon. It consisted of a wooden canopy shaped to fit the brow and shade the eyes. You held it to your face and looked thru two windows of slightly magnifying glass at pictures which were set in a sliding cross-piece and regulated according to your astigmatism, or lack of it. The peculiar part of it was, that there were two pictures side by side on the picture card, one being identical with the [other]. I remember feeling that some mistake must have been made in the pictures they had sent me, likewise a sense of dreadful waste! If they had only put two different pictures on each card, I would have had twice as many! The pictures were photographs of noteworthy scenes the world over. There was the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember, with the low skyline of buildings in the background of New York of the eighties: there was a chamois standing on a mountain crag, with a breath-taking abyss beside him and other mountains in the background; and some hunters standing with their clogs in an open field, with a wood in the background. In other words, I remember, that there was always a foreground and a background in every picture, with distinct “air spaces” intervening between the two.

If for one moment, I had had any doubts of a possible commonplaceness in my stereopticon and its “views,” they immediately vanished when I looked thru the little windows and saw every object standing out both as big and as thick as life! I could actually see behind each object! By this, I mean objects did not appear as objects usually do when drawn on a flat surface, like so many facsimile shadows, but they actually had body, length, breadth and thickness and were actually separate from other objects around them. Why, you could actually feel the nearness of the near objects and calculate the distance of those far away. It was as tho each object in the picture had been cut out and stood up separately and accurately in relative distance one from the other.

This magical toy has never yet ceased to thrill and delight me. It brought ordinary scenes to life, or at least it lacked one essential which seemed too audacious for me to conjecture even — motion! Add motion to our three-dimension picture and the magic would be complete — for, bear in mind, that objects were magnified to the normal dimensions in which they would be perceived by the naked eye, known as “life-size.”

Well, this magic picture — which seemed too blasphemous for my boyish mind to consider possible — has come into being, like so many other undreamed-of wonders, in this Age of Invention in which we are living open-mouthed. The Moving Picture Stereopticon is here! They call it — possibly for the same reason that a living apartment in a more or less high building is called a “Flat” — the Teleview. That name has numbed thousands of potential patrons into a state of innocuous disinterestedness.

However, altho a name may give a thing a black eye, it cant hurt it if its character is good and sound. Call it even Teleview and the virtue of the device will survive.

It is human nature and cupidity in the crowd that makes it shrink from novelties of progress — especially if they have to dip their hands into their pockets and contribute a few cents to support the idea at a critical moment; while this same crowd, propelled by the same human nature, will flock en masse to witness some act of decadence — such as fire, murder or suicide — admission free! At the recent showing of the Teleview in one of New York’s big theaters, the public showed considerable interest over it — only when they had read the publicity stuff about it they yawned and went to bed, instead of going to see it and catering to their better faculties. Several of the passholders in the seat behind me showed that rare good taste so often exhibited by pass-holders — and all other people who get good things for nothing – by sneering audibly during the performance and, on leaving, announcing in scornful tones that the whole show was rotten.

There is probably something to be said on both sides. Restricting ourselves to the Teleview process of projection, I must acknowledge having witnessed a really marvelous exhibition. When we step aside from the invention proper and touch upon the judgment and skill of those responsible for the selection and production of “the first moving picture to be produced in three dimensions,” then I too must join those who remarked that there was surely something rotten in Teleview’s Denmark.

The picture-play was called “M-A-R-S.” From scenario to directing, and directing to acting, it was among the worst ten pictures I ever saw, and that is saying a great deal. To mention names in this instance is to call names. They have suffered enough. But the point remains, that Teleview suffered a great deal unjustifiedly. The critics went and their odoriferous opinion of the picture made them dub the whole performance as being one and the same piece of cheese. Honest, interested spectators came and had their sincere enthusiasm numbed by an hour and a half’s boredom. Outside, were thousands upon thousands of credulous people who would have been willing to go to see Teleview — and kill two movie birds with one stone as it were, by seeing this wonderful new process and a good picture at the same time — if the picture had been only as bad as the average. So their scientific end was excellent, but their artistic end was not. Because of this error — oh, so common! — in artistic judgment and execution, thousands of people may not see this wonderful new process so soon as they might otherwise have done so.

The reason for all this is simple. Teleview picture making is costly from beginning to end. A special camera is necessary, a special method in the processes between exposure and projection, and, finally, in seeing the pictures on the screen it is necessary for each individual spectator to look thru what corresponds to our former stereopticon, which consists of two little windows within which passes a revolving shutter operated by a tiny motor. Here’s the rub — both in the matter of enormous expense to the producer, and also in [that] of training the spectator to his comfort and savoir faire [to] adjust his individual apparatus and maintain the rigid poise necessary to keep his eyes on a level with the small apertures.

The Teleview method of motion picture photography, production and projection is the invention of Lawrence Hammond, assisted by William F. Cassidy, both of the class of 1919 at Cornell.

“To see the Teleview pictures on the screen it is necessary for each individual spectator to look thru what corresponds to our former stereopticon, which consists of two little win- dows within which passes a revolving shutter operated by a tiny motor”

Looking with the naked eye upon Teleview pictures projected on the screen, we find a blurred double image with a fuzzy suggestion of chromatic colors permeating it. And it is true that there really are two images on the screen; one superimposed — slightly off-center — over the other. In the projection-room you will find two projection machines operating in co-ordination and each throwing its contributive image on the screen simultaneously. Going further back, we learn that the subject-matter was originally photographed with a stereoscopic, or double-lensed, camera these lenses have been adjusted to a distance apart corresponding to the space — optically speaking — between the two human eyes.

An observation by the writer at this point might be helpful to the reader in understanding and visualizing the Teleview method at this stage of its development. Several years ago I had a serious infection of the eyes. An operation and heroic treatment effected a cure, but I suffered a collapse of the optical muscles. They refused to binoculate. I saw two images. Each eye saw separately. You can do the same thing, by deliberately forcing the eyeballs to draw themselves so as to look in two straight parallel lines. You will then see two slightly blurred images.

The ingenious feature of the method is introduced at this point. Just before the projection on the screen begins, spectators become aware that the stereoscope device, thru which they must look at the screen, has suddenly come to life! We can hear a slight whirring and feel a tiny smooth vibration within. It is the motor within each instrument. Perhaps we had noted on first examining the instrument that it contained a small, two-vaned “shutter,” which persisted in sticking in one of the windows and thus threatening to spoil our clear view of the screen. But now we note with satisfaction that the shutter has mysteriously disappeared! The fact is that it is revolving so fast that we cannot see it.

Now, this shutter co-ordinates perfectly with the projection machine and cuts off the vision of each eye alternately so that one eye sees one “frame” — as each separate picture that forms the strip of pictures is called — and the other eye sees only the following or alternate one. Because of the infinitesimal elapse of time — l/196th of a second — of the duration of each impression, they seem to be simultaneous but separate images. When they are blended in the brain they give the sensation of depth, observable in the old- fashioned stereoscope. The ordinary rate of 16 pictures to the foot is used.

The cost of equipping a theater with mechanical shutters is given by the inventors as five dollars a seat, separate shutters being necessary for each observer. The cost of producing a picture by this method is said to be about double.

The result of witnessing a Teleview moving picture is startling. In stereoscope “still” pictures we were impressed with the realism induced by the appearance of solid images with perceptible air-spaces between them. With these “real” images set in motion, the effect is astonishing. But one gets a real thrill when moving objects are set in motion coming directly toward the spectator. They actually leap from the screen! The result is uncanny. One shrinks back for an instant to avoid what must prove a disastrous impact. The illusion is perfect.

The background of the photographic picture appears to be no farther distant than the surface of the actual screen from the spectator. Any person or object in the picture that moves in any degree from the picture background toward the observer seems actually to step out of the picture and approach. Thus moving figures appear to be carrying on the action on a real stage projected toward the audience in front of a realistic back-drop.

What presumably happens is that objects approach just as close to each individual spectator as they did to the camera. The audience is really looking thru the lens of the camera, which has been made to synchronize with the universal focus and vision of all who see it thereafter. The eye of the cameraman has attended to that. Thus, if an object is moved to within six feet of the camera, it seems to have emerged from the background and approached to within the same distance of each spectator. I sat at a distance of let us say one hundred feet from the screen and yet the illusion in one or two instances was so perfect that I felt convinced that if I had put out my hand I could almost have touched the foremost objects in the picture!

And Teleview is only one of the many indications showing the marvelously rapid advance of the motion picture to spheres of perfection and efficiency at which we can only hazard a guess from day to day!

Comments: Henry Albert Phillips (1880–1951) was an American film scenarist and editor of Motion Picture Magazine. The science-fiction feature film M.A.R.S. (aka The Man from M.A.R.S.) was first exhibited in December 1922 as part of a programme of films demonstrating the ‘teleview’ invention of Laurens Hammond (also inventor of the Hammond organ). The ‘teleview’ was a glass viewer with a revolving shutter attached to the side of the cinema seat that was operated by a small motor. The special ‘teleview’ camera had two lenses, giving a blurred picture to the naked etye, but through the projection device a stereoscopic effect was produced, though the effect was restricted to a small projection space. The film was re-issued in August 1923 as Radio-Mania in non-stereoscopic form, being either entirely re-shot or possibly filmed simultaneously with a normal camera. No further ‘teleview’ films were made. Stereopticon was an American term for the magic lantern.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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Video Night in Kathmandu

Source: Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East (London: Bloomsbury: 1988), pp. 241-243

Text: The moment was tense; a group of well-dressed dignitaries had assembled in the imperial palace. The country was in the midst of crisis; turbulence was all around. Then, suddenly, out into the center of the hall came an enormous birthday cake, and out of that popped our strapping hero, dressed as a Jesuit father and playing an antic tune on his fiddle. As soon as she saw him, our sultry heroine fell pouting to her knees. At that, the redeemer ripped off his disguise to reveal a white tuxedo, and the two began blurting out a duet while shaking their hips together in a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Instantly, there was joy all round. Scores of onlookers turned into blazered men and bangled and bejeweled houris, writhing and wriggling in unison. The lead couple shimmied and slithered through a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine, arching their hips and flashing their eyes as they went. And everyone was happy, everything seemed good. There was plenty of singing and dancing.

Hero and heroine had met only shortly before. He had chanced to see her dragging an old woman through the dust of her palace grounds from the back of her snow-white Chevrolet. Hating such injustice, he had leaped into a horse cart and given chase. In the blink of an eye, he had overtaken the convertible and stood in its path and rescued the old lady. Little did he guess that this was the mother he had never known! And the girl was a princess, pale-skinned, pantsuited and voluptuous, while the man was nothing but a low-caste “tonga wallah.” Yet when her eyes flashed with rage, he stared back unterrified. And so it was that their eyes locked and their hearts beat as one and they knew they could never live apart. The rest, in its way, was history.

Meanwhile, the entire country was ablaze with the flames of strife! For its people were under the thumb of a race of wicked despots from across the sea, white of skin yet black of heart. Already, the cruel tyrants had killed a thousand brave fighters at Amritsar; now, merciless fiends, they wished to drain the blood of every Indian in order to sustain their own soldiers. Outside their opulent club hung a sign — “Dogs and Indians Are Not Allowed.” Inside, the shameless imperialists sat around a swimming pool, sipping wine as they ogled slinky girls in bikinis.

And then, without a warning and out of nowhere, who should come to the rescue but Our Hero? Sending his tonga crashing through the club’s french windows, he rode into the pool to deliver an impromptu sermon in his heroic baritone; then, striding out, he seized a shaven-headed villain by the throat, forced him to drink Indian beer, kicked him into the water and began playing the drums on his head. And by the hero’s side came Moti, the Wonder Dog, and behind them both the Wonder Horse, a silver stallion willing to risk anything in the cause of freedom. The Wonder Dog lifted his leg on the Empire. The Wonder Horse galloped this way and that. And the Wonder Man rubbed a foreigner’s bloody nose into the detested sign until it blotted out one of the hateful words. Now the sign read: “Dogs and Indians Are Allowed.” Jubilation! Ecstasy! Liberation! Joyfully, the crowd jumped up and followed its hero through a great deal of singing and dancing!

And so the humble tonga wallah led the downtrodden masses to freedom. He rescued poor babies, he lectured the oppressed, he brought speech to the dumb and made the lame to walk. He even, in the manner of a holy man, broke a coconut on his head. The dastardly British tried everything they could to stop him. They locked him up. They tied him up. They beat him up. They made him enter a gladiatorial arena and fight to the death the father he had never known. But nothing could stop him, neither Man nor Nature. Fearless in the fight for freedom, he burned effigies of Dyer and smashed a statue of Curzon. Like a good son, he embraced his father when he learned that he had been exchanged at birth for another. Like a good hero, he was ready at a pinch to wink and wiggle with his beloved. And like a good Hindu, he was as pious as he was playful: at his foster mother’s grave, he sorrowfully performed all the appropriate devotional rites before scattering her ashes on the Ganges.

And so, like a god from the heavens, he brought justice and democracy and happiness back to the afflicted land. Right beat Might. Love conquered all. The people were redeemed. And always there was plenty of singing and dancing.

The masses called him “Mard” (He-Man).

Mard was the cultural event of the season when I was in India. “Mard,” shouted the monstrous, many-colored hoardings that towered above the streets of Bombay. “Mard,” proclaimed the huge trailers splashed across the newspapers. Mard was the subject of passionate debates and diatribes. A single name was on a million minds and lips across the country: Mard.

Comments: Pico Iyer, full name Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer (1957- ), is a British essayist, travel writer and novelist. Mard (1985) was a hugely popular Hindi action drama directed by Manmohan Desai and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Amrita Singh.

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Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers

Source: Eileen Elias, Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers (London: W.H. Allen, 1979), p. 126

Text: I always claimed that I didn’t care for Westerns; they were or children, and I considered myself too old for such childish things. Nevertheless, when on occasion I did see them, I found myself riveted to my seat as the flying spectacle galloped by. It was as thrilling and alarming as Harold Lloyd and his window-sill hanging, only in a different way; I didn’t want to jump out of my seat, but cringe within it as the racing hoofs swept past, it seemed, only a few feet from my nose. Things came to a climax when Ben Hur arrived on the screen, better far than any Western with its famous chariot-race scene. This was a stupendous film which we all must see, Father pronounced; so off we trooped to the local cinema and sat in a trance watching the close-ups — and how close they seemed! — of whirling wheels and galloping hoofs while the organ surpassed itself in a frenzy. We came out with our heads spinning, and all that night I lay in bed, my dreams full of the thunder of chariots and the tug of leather harness just about to give way as the rival competitors passed and re-passed each other on the course. Ben Hur broke all records in the West End, and toured all the local cinemas while whole
families went to watch it again and again. The art of the cinema, it seemed, could reach no further: Ben Hur had said it all.

Comments: Eileen Elias was an author of books on child management and memoirs of her Lewisham upbringing. This passage part of a detailed and atmospheric chapter on cinemagoing in London in the 1920s in her books Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (USA 1925), directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro, was based on the novel by Lew Wallace. It was one of the most expensive but also one of highest-grossing films of its era.

Posted in 1920s, Memoirs, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Impressions of America

Source: T.C. Porter, Impressions of America (London: C. Arthur Pearson, Limited, 1899), pp. 193-194

Text: At dinner, some printed notices laid by our plates reminded us that the kinematoscope was at work in the town, showing in several separate scenes the fight between Fitz-Simmons and Corbett. Wishing to see how such exhibitions in America compared with those at home, I took a seat, perhaps rather too near the screen, and witnessed the struggle between the two athletes. The flicker was unpleasant throughout, which means that somehow or other more pictures should be thrown on the screen per second; and what is more trying to the eyes is the want of correct register in successive views, which causes the whole view on the screen to wobble up and down through a small distance, perhaps two or three inches. This often made it impossible to follow any rapid action, and I should think might be partly due to the nature of the film on which the pictures are taken. On the whole, I do not think this particular show was nearly so good as the “Biograph” entertainment in London.

One thing interested me a good deal. I noticed that a man sitting next to me viewed the pictures through two small holes, cut out in a sheet of dark-coloured paper. He told me it notably lessened the flicker. I tried the plan, and found it work, as my informant said: but it cut off too much light to my mind, so I did not use it long. Several of the scenes which happened just after the wrestling were shown. A man passing in the foreground looked up for an instant towards the audience with a tragically woe-begone expression, whilst the conductor or expositor, whichever he should be called — simply remarked, “That is Mr. So-and-so; he has just lost 70,000 dollars!” Perhaps that is not the exact sum mentioned; in any case it was large enough to provoke most unfeeling mirth on the part of the spectators.

Comments: Thomas Cunningham Porter (1860-1933) was a British physicist and Eton schoolmaster, member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Physical Society of London. The world heavyweight boxing championship between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was held at Carson City, Nevada on 17 March 1897. The full fight was filmed by the Veriscope company using a 63mm-wide film format and was widely exhibited, the full film being 11,000 feet in length and lasting around an hour-and-a-half. There was no projector called a ‘Kinematoscope’. The screening took place in Colorado.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Shadow City

Source: Taran N. Khan, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (London: Chatto & Windus, 2019), pp. 133-134

Text: We watched a film shot in 1974 that recorded the celebrations for Daoud Khan’s newly established republic. It showed parades in Kabul, massive crowds on the street, people marching through Pashtunistan Square. They shouted slogans I couldn’t hear, as their voices were buried behind the narrator talking about the joy of the people at this new government. The car carrying Daoud Khan raced down broad boulevards. We saw Khan standing on a podium, waving to the crowds. Then he was among the people, shaking hands, being patted on the back.

A striking montage of men on the street reading newspapers followed. The headline, bold black print on the page, was enlarged to cover the screen. ‘Jamhooriyat‘, it said. Republic. The calligraphy of the text seemed to snake through the streets of Kabul.

The next newsreel was shot in 1979. Only five years later, but a different era. It marked the first anniversary of the Saur Revolution, which had replaced Daoud Khan’s republic with a Communist government. Daoud Khan himself was dead, killed in the coup. The central figure in the celebrations was Nur Mohammad Taraki, who headed the government. By October that year, he would be dead too, assassinated on the orders of his former associate, Hafizullah Amin. And in just over three months, Amin would also be killed, and the Soviet army would enter Afghanistan.

This bloody chronology was on my mind as I watched Taraki cheer and wave from his raised podium, as the parade filed past him. The film was in colour, and the screen was filled with red — the podium draped in red cloth, red sheets folded over the military floats that trundled past. Red armbands and uniforms and headscarves and flags. I watched the tanks roll out, the soldiers saluting the smiling man at the podium. Groups of women marched by, wearing uniforms and carrying guns. People crossed the camera, arms raised in salute, shouting slogans energetically. They all looked at the camera, addressing it — addressing me — with their eyes and bodies. They continued marching until, overwhelmed by the weight of history, I looked away. It was like watching a train wreck, a collision that I was powerless to stop. The weight of knowledge rested heavily around those images.

Who were they made for, these films that celebrated the turn of events occurring so rapidly one after the other? For the public, to convince the Afghan people of the virtue of the revolutions? Or for history, for a viewer like me, who sifted through their slogans and triumph in a dark hall long after they had ceased to matter? What did it mean to watch them now, to read their messages years after they lost relevance, or could _ only offer a different truth to a different era? Like the thick lines in the brochures I had seen at Rais’s bookstore, they mapped a terrain of erasures, the particular ways of forgetting that defines remembering in Kabul.

Soon after the film was shot, the USSR rolled its tanks across the border. The war that began then is, in many ways, still unfolding.

On the screen, floats with missiles and aircraft continued to move past the camera, like a ghostly rehearsal. Military officers from different nations were seen in the audience. On the podium, Taraki waved a red flag. An emaciated dove sat next to him, a red ribbon gleaming around its throat.

Comments: Taran N. Khan is an Indian journalist and non-fiction writer, who has spent several years living and working in Kabul. This passage from her travel book Shadow City escribes a 2013 visit to the archive at the state film body Afghan Film in Kabul. She was shown a selection of newsreels and documentaries, from the 1960s onwards, in a viewing room. Mohammed Dauoud Khan was President of Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978, when he was assassinated. The Communist coup that followed led to Nur Muhammad Taraki becoming president. He was murdered on October 1979. The man who order his death, Hafizullah Amin, became his successor but was in turn killed by the Soviet Union at the end of 1979, which led to the Soviet intervention and the Soviet-Aghan War. Some of the film archive was destroyed by order of the Taliban in 2001, but much survived thanks to the actions of the archivists who hid many native films (with some Taliban collusion).

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Miracles of Life

Source: J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton – An Autobiography (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), pp. 37-38

Text: In September 1939 the European war began, and quickly reached across the world to Shanghai. Outwardly, our lives continued as before, but soon there were empty places in my class at school, as families sold up and left for Hong Kong and Singapore. My father spent a great deal of time listening to the short-wave radio broadcasts from England, which brought news of the sinking of HMS Hood and the hunt for the Bismarck, then later of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. School was often interrupted so that we could visit one of the cinemas for screenings of British newsreels, thrilling spectacles that showed battleships in line ahead, and Spitfires downing Heinkels over London. Fund-raising drives were held at the Country Club, and I remember the proud announcement that the British residents in Shanghai had financed their first Spitfire. There was constant patriotic activity on all sides. The German and Italian communities mounted their own propaganda campaigns, and the swastika flew from the flagpoles of the German school and the German radio station, which put out a steady stream of Nazi programmes.

Newsreels soon became the dominant weapon in this information war, many of them screened at night against the sides of buildings, watched by huge crowds of passing pedestrians. I think I saw the European war as a newsreel war, only taking place on the silver square above my head, its visual conventions decided by the resources and limits of the war cameraman, as I would now pull, though even my 10-year-old eyes could sense the difference between an authentic newsreel and one filmed on manoeuvres. The real, whether war or peace, was something you saw filmed in newsreels, and I wanted the whole of Shanghai to be filmed.

Comments: James Graham Ballard (1930-2009) was a British writer known for his dystopian novels and experimental fiction. He was born in Shanghai, China, where his family lived in the International Settlement. The family was interned by the Japanese over 1943-45.

Posted in 1940s, China, Memoirs | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Delight

Source: J.B. Priestley, Delight (London: William Heinneman, 1949), pp. 36-38

Text: One afternoon, nearly twenty years ago, some long-forgotten business took me to Golders Green, and when I had finished and was walking towards the Tube station there came a sudden drenching downpour. I had no raincoat, so I hurried into a cinema, more for shelter than amusement. It was a large solemn cinema, almost empty, and I felt as quiet and remote in there as if I were sitting at the bottom of the sea. The news reel came and went. There were the usual fancy tricks with the lights. The feature film noisily arrived I stared idly at the reception desk of an hotel in Florida. A fantastic character entered, and, without speaking a word, took the letters from the rack and casually tore them up, drank the ink, and began to eat the telephone. I sat up, lost in winder and joy. The film was The Cocoanuts, and with it the Marx Brothers had entered my life. And this was the perfect way to discover these glorious clowns, unexpectedly in the middle of a wet afternoon in Golders Green. Since then – besides making their acquaintance and actually watching them on the job – I have followed the from cinema to cinema. I like them best when they are given the largest carte blanche – as in the sublime Duck Soup – but even when they are clamped to some miserable plot, have to give place to some preposterous tenor and his simpering girl, I do not desert them but sit there, waiting for such delight as they can offer me. My family – thank heaven – share this rapture, and we often exchange memories, mere shadows and echoes, of our favourite antics at the dinner table. Friends who refuse to enjoy these inspired zanies are regarded with suspicion. I have never understood why some London cinema does not show the Marx Brothers year in and year out. We appear to be living, as so many well-informed persons have observed, in a gigantic madhouse, but there are a few compensations even here, and one of them is that we have the Marx Brothers with us. Their clowning is a comment on our situation. Chico is the eternal, sulky but wistful peasant, sceptical but not without hope. Groucho is urban America, the office executive, the speculator, the publicity agent, the salesman, raised to a height at which the folly of such men blazes like a beacon. Harpo is modern man with the lid off, a symbolic figure of the masculine unconscious. Together they have worked out comic routines that may be regarded one day as a saga of satire, Rabelais caught on celluloid. But even if they should be soon forgotten, some of us will remember how they dissolved with laughter, during those evenings in the ‘thirties when the fuses were already spluttering round our feet. Karl Marx showed how the dispossessed would finally take possession. But I think the Brothers Marx do it better.

Comments: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. His 1949 book Delight is a collection of short essays on some of the pleasures of life. The Cocoanuts (USA 1929) was an early sound feature film, based on the Broadway stage production written by George S. Kaufman. The film also featured the fourth, non-comedic, Marx brother, Zeppo.

Posted in 1920s, Essays, United Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Gone to the Pictures

Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27

Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …

We walked in.

It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.

I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.

“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.

“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”

In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.

I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.

We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.

“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”

“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.

“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.

“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.

“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”

The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.

He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.

I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!

And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.

Living Pictures. Alive.

I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.

The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.

It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.

But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.

It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?

Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!

She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.

It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.

At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.

I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.

I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.

Dead.

His eyes are staring, staring in his head.

Do dead people’s eyes stare?

I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.

This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.

The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.

But do dead people’s eyes …?

The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.

They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.

They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.

Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?

The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.

It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .

Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.

Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?

There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.

There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.

The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.

The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …

The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.

It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!

And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.

Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?

Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).

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