A Death in the Family

Source: James Agee, A Death in the Family (London: Peter Owen, 1965 – orig. pub. 1957), pp. 11-14

Text: At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.”

“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”

“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.

“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!”

His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust.

And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus’ father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn’t even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn’t there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn’t care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed very loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed .Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, “mad as a hornet!” as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus’s father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, ang he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick at his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken walk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest – it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well – and Rufus’ father said, “Well, … this is where we came in,” but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.

Comments: James Agee (1909-1955) was an American novelist, journalist and film critic. The passage above is the opening to chapter one of his posthumously-published novel A Death in the Family, which is set in 1915 in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee. Despite the great detail given, the Charlie Chaplin film described is imaginary. The family had attended a continuous show, which is why the William S. Hart western comes round again. Player-pianos were not infrequently used in early cinema shows.

Nights at the Alexandra

Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.

Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.

The Raven

Source: Harris Merton Lyon, extract from ‘The Raven’, in Graphics (St. Louis: William Marion Reedy, 1913), pp. 40-42

Text: “Where yuh going?” said the one brought up as a lady.

“To the movin’ pitcher show. It’s only five cents.

“I aint’ got it just now.”

“Well, go get a nickel from your ma and come along.”

So Alicia went back and got the nickel. Her mother never even asked her what it was for.

A cheap, tinsel edifice, formerly a shoe store. Inside, a pitch dark, low-ceilinged box of a room. Wooden benches. A disgusting smell of multiple-breathed human breath, ammoniac reek of perspiration on the unbathed. A dim red light to the left, indicating a doubtful and rusty exit. In front the dingy screen upon which the mottled and galvanized pictures rippled off the story of some classic sweetheart carried away at dawn by her passionate lover. The heroine threw a riding-cloak over her night dress and was borne down a ladder from the window of a castle. The hero wore doublets, hose, sword, a feather in his hat, spurs. A great iron-grey horse awaited them. They mounted, wheeled and started off. The chase began. Lure! Romance! Adventure! Dare and do! Love! Passion! Lure!

Others followed.

It was all action, feverish action, cut to the very quick and kept there. No explanations were offered, save those which each unskilled brain in the rapt audience could give itself. Men whipped out revolvers, shot each other; women suddenly kissed men; and so on. Act followed act rapidly without leaving time for digestion, even if those who watched had any powers of digesting such miraculous scenes. Thus for three-quarters of an hour the fantastic, dazzling display gave them sensation after sensation; and the gaping crowd, absorbed, forgot them; absorbed new ones, immediately forgot them—craving endlessly more. More bowing, smiling, kissing, shooting, trickery, disguises, thievery, pantomime passion, slapstick comedy, runaways. The grotesque. The ignoble. The dramatic.

Then, with a violent final click the machine stopped. Lights were turned on. The two front doors thrown open. Voices bawled: “Out this way, ladies and gents. This way out!” The show was over.

Comments: Harris Merton Lyon (1882-1916) was an American short story writer. His moralistic short story ‘The Raven’, originally published in a newspaper, centres around a visit to a New York moving picture show and the dangers that ensue for a naive young girl seeing films for the first time (she ends up a victim of White Slavery and commits suicide). Many ‘nickelodeons’ in the early years of cinemagoing were shop conversions, as here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait

Source: Gilbert Frankau, Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (London: Hutchinson, 1940), pp. 143-146

Text: In the fullness of time Chambers departed, leaving me and Wilson in dual glory at the Grand Hotel, Rome. My main mission was to convince the Italians that we had several men fighting in France and Flanders – the Hun propaganda machine denying this daily, through a secretly subsidised press. “No War Here”, said a Welsh miners’ leader addressing a home audience – and the headline appeared in a Naples paper next day.

The battle films with which I had been supplied might have proved convincing. But Chambers hadn’t been able to sell them; and I could hardly persuade invited audiences to sit through them in free seats.

After some four fruitless weeks of travel I again took counsel with our ambassador; and dashed back to London.

There, I looted every scrap of official film I could find, including several priceless feet of General Cadorna, then generalissimo of the Italian armies, Lord Kitchener, and a sausage balloon taking the air at Queen’s Club.

With these, Muirhead Bone’s etching of a tank in action and complete orchestra scores for “The British Grenadiers”, “Tipperary” and other martial music, I returned to Italy, and took up my headquarters at the Hotal Cavour, Milan.

What Luca Comerio, the Italian cinema man, and I did to the official British war films in the solitude of his studio is nobody’s business but our own.

The very first caption thrown on the screen over the facsimile signature of “Capitano Gilbert Frankau, Stato Maggiore Inglese” (English General Staff) guaranteed the story of “La Battaglia dei Tanks” completely authentic.

And what a story! We printed twelve copies. Within ten minutes of the private preview we sold them all – my instructions were to make the thing pay if I could – to five renters whose theatres covered the whole of Italy.

Tears blinded even those hardboiled renters when a shell burst obscured the entire screen, and the film seemed to break, and that most telling of all our captains [captions] read, “Alas – alas, for the too-intrepid cameraman”. With muted music the effect on large audiences had to be seen to be believed.

Among the believers in the death of that mythical cameraman – for I never had the heart to disillusion Her Excellency – was Lady Rodd …

…That night in 1917 I took Rudyard Kipling – and two charming American women whose names escape the memory – to the theatre where my film had been showing since noon. Gerald Tyrrwhit, unpaid attaché at the Embassy, now Lord Berners, had trained the orchestra for me. They struck up “Rule, Britannia” – by pure coincidence – as we seated ourselves in the box.

Kipling watched the screen. I watched Kipling.

The tunes and that first captional guarantee of authenticity surprised him a little. But he did not even blink when he saw Marconi inventing the tank, or General Cadorna arriving for a conference with Lord Kitchener at which it was decided that the English army should attack on the Somme.

“Good work”, whispered my master. “How did you come to think of that fiction?”

Modesty kept silence. Our troops, tinted blue and brown, massed by night. The London Scottish appeared complete with band to “Auld lang syne” and “A wee doch and doris”. Then “Came the dawn of battle”; and my Queen’s Club sausage balloon rose to survey the German trenches.

Promptly the enemy planes – ours from Salisbury Plain – swooped to the attack, their machine guns chattering. (Tyrrwhit managed that rather well with his drums.) Down fell the balloon (tinted red, and two out of every three pictures excised, to say nothing of the men on the ropes, giving the effect of speed) in real flames.

“Gorgeous”, whispered Kipling. “Cost you a truss of hay, I expect.”

Our plans counter-attacked. A German Fokker, which looked a little like one of our own B.E.2C’s to Kingscote’s pupil in anti-aircraft gunnery, also fell in flames.

The crashed plane, I think, was a real picture. Then, it had no British circles under its wings. If anyone faked the Iron Crosses there, it was not done in Milan.

“But where are the tanks?” whispered Kipling. “We must live up to our titles.”

Again his fan kept silence while superimposed shell-bursts – the damn things never looked quite real, they waggled about too much – rained on our advancing infantry.

“Meanwhile…” read the next caption; and suddenly Kipling chuckled.

“Tanks to the rescue. The Devastating Blinders, eh! Grand”.

They were my own words, my very own dictionary-dredged Italian words; and I could not refrain from displaying my erudition.

“Blindati Devastatori means armoured devastators”, I corrected, as the tank-noses reared high to crush walls I could have sworn built in England, and swept on to the apocryphal attack.

But Kipling preferred his own translation, repeating to himself “devastating blinders”, till that thrilling moment when the mine blew, and spotless Highlanders stormed forward, bayonets flashing, at no double ever seen in France or Flanders to victory or death. We faded out on coloured flags and “Long Live the Allies” to a complete symphony of national anthems.

“What do you think of it?” I asked, as we walked the undarkened streets. (Even the Huns of 1914-1918 never dared to bomb the Eternal City.)

“Superb”, chuckled Kipling, “But you will be slain for this, my friend. Most indubitably you will be slain.”

Comments: Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) was a British novelist and poet. His book Self-Portrait describes itself as a novel, but it is effectively an autobiography. Like many of the British literary intellgensia during World War I, he was recruited by the covert War Propaganda Bureau to promote British interests during the First World War. Frankau was sent to Italy to oversee the presentation of British official war films, starting in 1916 with the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915). Behind the comic detail lies some useful and occasionally convincing detail about the presentation of war films. He may be referring to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917), though that film in its original state had no fakery. Luca Comerio was a prominent Italian film producer. Rudyard Kipling, another War Propaganda Bureau recruit, was in Italy around May 1917 in preparation for writing an account of the Italian campaign, The War in the Mountains. Lady Rodd was the wife of the British ambassador to Italy.

The Years

Source: Virginia Woolf, The Years (London: Hogarth Press, 1937), p. 419

Text: Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream? But the misery of the world, she thought, forces me to think. Or was that a pose? Was she not seeing herself in the becoming attitude of one who points to his bleeding heart? to whom the miseries of the world are misery, when in fact, she thought, I do not love my kind. Again she saw the ruby-splashed pavement, and faces mobbed at the door of a picture palace; apathetic, passive faces; the faces of people drugged with cheap pleasures; who had not even the courage to be themselves, but must dress up, imitate, pretend. And here, in this room, she thought, fixing her eyes on a couple…. But I will not think, she repeated; she would force her mind to become a blank and lie back, and accept quietly, tolerantly, whatever came.

Comments: The British novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf (1881-1942) was a member of the Film Society, the London-based society which organised screenings of artistic films. Her novel The Years traces the progress of a well-heeled family from the 1880s to the 1930s. The view of the picture palace audience as apathetic is that of Peggy Pargiter, a misanthropic doctor, in her thirties at this stage of the novel (the present day).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Valley of the Moon

Source: Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (New York: The Review of Reviews Company, 1917 [orig. pub. 1913]), p. 279

Text: They bought reserved tickets at Bell’s Theater; but it was too early for the performance, and they went down Broadway and into the Electric Theater to while away the time on a moving picture show. A cowboy film was run off, and a French comic; then came a rural drama situated somewhere in the Middle West. It began with a farm yard scene. The sun blazed down on a corner of a barn and on a rail fence where the ground lay in the mottled shade of large trees overhead. There were chickens, ducks, and turkeys, scratching, waddling, moving about. A big sow, followed by a roly-poly litter of seven little ones, marched majestically through the chickens, rooting them out of the way. The hens, in turn, took it out on the little porkers, pecking them when they strayed too far from their mother. And over the top rail a horse looked drowsily on, ever and anon, at mathematically precise intervals, switching a lazy tail that flashed high lights in the sunshine.

“It’s a warm day and there are flies—can’t you just feel it?” Saxon whispered.

“Sure. An’ that horse’s tail! It’s the most natural ever. Gee! I bet he knows the trick of clampin’ it down over the reins. I wouldn’t wonder if his name was Iron Tail.”

A dog ran upon the scene. The mother pig turned tail and with short ludicrous jumps, followed by her progeny and pursued by the dog, fled out of the film. A young girl came on, a sunbonnet hanging down her back, her apron caught up in front and filled with grain which she threw to the fluttering fowls. Pigeons flew down from the top of the film and joined in the scrambling feast. The dog returned, wading scarcely noticed among the feathered creatures, to wag his tail and laugh up at the girl. And, behind, the horse nodded over the rail and switched on. A young man entered, his errand immediately known to an audience educated in moving pictures. But Saxon had no eyes for the love-making, the pleading forcefulness, the shy reluctance, of man and maid. Ever her gaze wandered back to the chickens, to the mottled shade under the trees, to the warm wall of the barn, to the sleepy horse with its ever recurrent whisk of tail.

She drew closer to Billy, and her hand, passed around his arm, sought his hand.

“Oh, Billy,” she sighed. “I’d just die of happiness in a place like that.” And, when the film was ended. “We got lots of time for Bell’s. Let’s stay and see that one over again.”

They sat through a repetition of the performance, and when the farm yard scene appeared, the longer Saxon looked at it the more it affected her. And this time she took in further details. She saw fields beyond, rolling hills in the background, and a cloud-flecked sky. She identified some of the chickens, especially an obstreperous old hen who resented the thrust of the sow’s muzzle, particularly pecked at the little pigs, and laid about her with a vengeance when the grain fell. Saxon looked back across the fields to the hills and sky, breathing the spaciousness of it, the freedom, the content. Tears welled into her eyes and she wept silently, happily.

Comments: Jack London (1876-1916) was an American novelist and political activist. His 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon, named after the wine-growing Sonoma Valley of California, is about a working-class couple, Billy and Saxon Roberts, who leave city life behind for work on the land. Their visit to a cinema takes places in Oakland, California, before they settle in the country. A continuous show would indeed have meant that the same film programme would be shown over again, without need for those already seated to purchase another ticket. The Valley of the Moon was filmed as a six-reel feature in 1914, directed by Hobart Bosworth.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Triumphant March into Port Arthur

Source: Hyakken Uchida (trans. Rachel DiNitto), ‘Triumphant March into Port Arthur’, in Realm of the Dead (Dalkey Archive Press, 2006 – orig. pub. in Ryojun Nyujōshiki, 1934)

Text: I went to a film festival of old moving pictures at Hosei University on Sunday, May 10, the day of the Imperial Silver Wedding Anniversary Celebration.

The windows in the lecture hall were covered with black cloth, throwing the room into darkness. Thin shafts of afternoon light snuck in with an eerie blue glow.

Random, confusing landscapes and faces flashed before me. The shootouts from the Ministry of War advanced with an exciting and relentless pace. Thick smoke enveloped the picture, obscuring clarity. I thought I could see the screen growing brighter through the dissipating smoke, but the images disappeared and the lecture hall suddenly lit up.

American comedies and newsreels alternately lit up the screen, and next up was the surrender of Port Arthur. An officer from the Ministry of War got up to introduce the feature. The film was originally shot by a German military observer and had only recently come into the hands of the Japanese Ministry. There were scenes not only of the famous meeting at the naval base of General Nogi and General Stessel, but also of the bombing of the fort at Niryuzan. A cinematic treasure, the officer explained, then he disappeared into blackness as the room went dark. But before his khaki-uniformed image faded from my eye, another was projected in its place – a soldier leading a parade of men headed for the front. Troops marched through Yokohama’s Isezakicho behind their bearded platoon leader. The dress braids of his uniform stretched like ribs across his chest, and he swaggered with his sword held high. The soldiers wore solemn expressions. That scene alone was enough to remind me of a twenty-year old military tune I’d long since forgotten.

I couldn’t understand why I was so moved by the bluish images of the mountains surrounding Port Arthur, but it was like seeing my own memories up on the screen. What a terribly somber mountain it was. A dim glow emanated from behind the hills, but the sky blanketing the peaks was devoid of light. I knew that the port lay under the darkest spot in the sky.

Soldiers hauled a cannon up the mountainside. The outline of the group blurred as they panted up the dark path. An older enlisted man, standing to the side, waved his hands back and forth, calling out orders. He howled like a beast.

I turned to the person next to me. “Poor bastards,” I said.

“Yeah,” someone responded.

Heads hanging, eyes fixed on the dark landscape, they advanced slowly against the weight of the heavy rope. The headless soldiers moved as an undifferentiated mass. Then one unexpectedly lifted his face. The sky was as black as the road. Cutting through the darkness like a dog with its head hung low. I saw a towering peak jut up before us as I too climbed the mountain.

“What mountain is that?” I asked.

“Beats me,” answered a nearby student.

Cannons shot into the mountainside. In a hollow under the cliff, a group of five or six soldiers furiously fired and reloaded artillery, the machinery rolling back and forth with the force of the recoil. White smoke rose and soon disappeared from the mouth of the cannon. The sound, too, was sucked into the belly of the dark mountain, the echo dying there as well. I felt uneasy not knowing where the shells were landing. Yet there was no choice but to fire. Not firing I would be more terrifying. Facing each other across the dark mountain, both sides let loose a deafening barrage of firepower day and night. The fighting changed the shape of the mountain itself. Those soldiers in the hollow acted out of fear. When smoke cleared from the cannon, I grew nervous. If only they’d fire again. Who cares where it landed!

An ominous cloud of smoke rose from a distant ridge. Tens, maybe hundreds of sparkling objects formed lines in the smoke. This was soon followed by another dark cloud. My eyes welled with tears when I learned this was the bombing of the mountain fort of Niruyzan. I cried for the men on both sides.

Next came the long-awaited encounter at the naval base. Amidst the bleak scenery I could make out the faint image of a cottage with stone walls. From off in the distance indistinguishable figures on horseback grew in size as they approached, but the blurry image never came into focus. It just faded away.

A formation of Russian soldiers on horseback rode unsteadily past a row of storehouses. The ceremony at the base was over. Nogi’s and Stessel’s expressionless faces passed quickly before my eyes like a bank of fog.

The title of the film, The Long-Fought 200-Day Battle, faded from the screen. Troops with neither packs nor guns marched by wearing long overcoats with sleeves hanging down over their hands. Houses lined the roadside, but it was hard to get any perspective on them – how far away they were, whether they had windows or roofs. There was something eerie about these lifeless men. Weren’t they in fact the war dead risen from their graves on the shadowy mountain for one final march? No one averted his gaze. They marched with their eyes on the men in front of them.

“The Triumphant March into Port Arthur!” boomed the voice of the officer on the stage.

The audience, crammed into that dark room, broke out in loud applause.

Tears streamed down my face. The row of soldiers marched on and on. My eyes clouded with tears, obscuring the people in front of me. I lost my bearings and was set adrift in an unfamiliar place.

“Quit crying,” said a man walking next to me.

Someone behind us was weeping.

The crowd kept clapping. My cheeks wet from crying, I fell into formation and was led out into the quiet of the city streets, out into nowhere.

Comments: Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971) was a Japanese novelist, short story writer and academic. He taught at Hosei University, which is in Tokyo. The films he describes seeing were of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which included the siege of Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in Manchuria, which ended in its capture by the Japanese forces. The Long-Fought 200-Day Battle, if such a film actually existed (the passage is meant to be a work of fiction), would have been a compilation of archive film of the war. The silver wedding anniversary of Emperor Taishō and Empress Teimei was in 1925. My thanks to Dawid Glownia from bringing this text to my attention.

Les Choses

Source: Georges Perec (trans. David Bellos), Things: A Story of the Sixties (London: Vintage, 2011) [orig. Les Choses, 1965], pp. 55-57

Text: Above all they had the cinema. And this was probably the only area where they had learned everything from their own sensibilities. They owed nothing to models. Their age and education made them members of that first generation for which the cinema was not so much an art as simply a given fact; they had always known the cinema not as a fledgling art form but, from their earliest acquaintance, as a domain having its own masterworks and its own mythology. Sometimes it seemed as if they had grown up with it, and that they understood it better than anyone before them had ever been able to understand it.

They were cinema buffs. Film was their primordial passion; they indulged it every evening. or nearly. They loved the pictures as long as they were beautiful, entrancing, charming, fascinating. They loved the mastery of space, time and movement, they loved the whirl of New York streets, the torpor of the Tropics, fights in saloon bars. They were not excessively sectarian, like those dull minds which swear only by a single Eisenstein, Buñuel or Antonioni, or even – as there’s no accounting for tastes – by Carné, Vidor, Aldrich or Hitchcock; nor were they too eclectic, like those infantile people who throw all critical sense to the winds and acclaim a director as a genius if he makes a blue sky look blue or if the pale red of Cyd Charisse’s dress is made to clash with the darker red of Robert Taylor’s sofa. They did not lack taste. They were highly suspicious of so-called art movies, with the result that when this term was not enough to spoil a film for them, they would find it even more beautiful (but they would say – quite rightly – that Marienbad was “all the same just a load of crap!”); they had an almost exaggerated feeling for Westerns, for thrillers, for American comedies and for those astonishing adventures full of lyrical flights, sumptuous images and dazzling, almost inexplicable beauties such as (the titles were imprinted on their minds for ever) Lola, Bhowani Junction, The Bad and the Beautiful, Written on the Wind.

They did not go to concerts at all often, and even less often to the theatre. But they would meet, by chance, at the Film Theatre, at the Passy Cinema, or the Napoleon, or in little local flea-pits – the Kursaal at Gobelins, the Texas at Montparnasse. the Bikini, the Mexico at Place Clichy, the Alcazar at Belleville, and others besides, around Bastille or in the XVth arrondissement, graceless, ill-equipped cinemas frequented by the unemployed, Algerians, ageing bachelors, and film buffs, where they would see, in atrociously dubbed French versions, those unknown masterpieces they remembered from when they were fifteen, or those reputed works of genius (they had memorised the entire list) which they had been trying in vain for years to see. They would always remember with wonderment the blessed evening when they had discovered, or rediscovered, almost by chance, The Crimson Pirate, The World in His Arms, Night and the City, My Sister Eileen, or The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T. Alas, quite often, to tell the truth, they were horribly let down. Films they had waited so long for, as they had thumbed almost feverishly through the new issues of the Entertainment Guide every Wednesday, films they had been told by almost everyone were magnificent, sometimes did finally turn out to be showing somewhere. They would turn up, every one of them, on the opening night. The screen would light up, they would feel a thrill of satisfaction. But the colours had faded with age, the picture wobbled on the screen, the women were of another age; they would come out; they would be sad. It was not the film they had dreamt of. It was not the total film each of them had inside himself, the perfect film they could have enjoyed for ever and ever. The film they would have liked to make. Or, more secretly, no doubt, the film they would have liked to live.

Comments: Georges Perec (1936-1982) was a French experimental novelist and essayist. Les Choses, his first novel, is a portrait of French life in the 1960s, seen more through things (choses) the characters own than the characters themselves.

The Promise of Air

Source: Algernon Blackwood, The Promise of Air (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1918), pp. 170-173

Text: The rush of the wonderful cinema then began, and he forgot himself.

They experienced the sense such a performance leaves behind of having been—as Mother put it—all over the place. Sitting in the dark the individual at first is conscious only of himself, neighbours ignored if not forgotten. The screen then flashes into light, and with the picture, consciousness flashes across the world. The lie of the stationary photograph is corrected, time is denied, partially at least, and space is unable to boast and swagger as it loves to do. The cinema frees and extends the consciousness, restores the past, and sets distance close beneath the eyes. Only the watching self remains—pregnant symbol!—in the darkness.

It was one of the best performances in London; within an hour or two the audience danced from the dingy streets of the metropolis into the sunlight of India, Africa, and of islands among far southern seas. The kaleidoscope of other lands and other ways of thinking, acting, living carried them away with understanding sympathy. From savage wild life drinking at water-holes in the sun-drenched Tropics, they darted across half-charted oceans and watched the penguin and the polar bear amid arctic ice. Over mountains, down craters, flying above cities and peering deep under water, the various experiences of strange distant life came into their ken. They flew about the planet. The leaders of the world gazed at them, so close and real that their emotions were legible on their magnified features. They smiled or frowned, then flashed away, and yet still were there, living, thinking, willing this and that. Widely separated portions of the vast human family presented themselves vigorously, registered a tie of kinship, and were gone again about their business, now become in some sense the business of the audience too. Fighting, toiling, loving, hating, meeting death and adventure by sea and land, creating and destroying, differing much in colour, custom, clothing, and the rest, yet human as Wimble and his family were human, possessed with the same griefs, hopes, and joys, the same passion to live, the same fear of death—one great family.

Joan slipped her arm into that of her father; they nestled closely, very much in sympathy as the world rushed past their eyes upon the screen. “We’re flying,” she whispered, with a squeeze, as the penguins on the polar ice gave place to a scene of negroes sweating in the sun and munching sugar-cane while they lazily picked the fluffy cotton. “We’re everywhere all-at-once, don’t you see?” A moment later, as though to point her words, they looked down upon a mapped-out country from an aeroplane. The unimportance of earth was visible in the distance.

“You can’t fly under water anyhow,” mumbled Wimble, as they left the air and flashed with a submarine upon sponges, coral, and inquisitive, perfectly poised fish. A black man was trying to knife a shark.

“I can see what they feel though,” was the whispered answer. “Inside their watery minds, I mean.”

“Wherever I am I go,” he thought, but didn’t say it, because by the time he had reflected how foolish it was to remain stuck only upon the minute point of his own tiny personal experience, they were climbing with a scientific Italian of eminence down a crater full of smoke and steam, and could almost hear the thunder of the explosions. But while they went down, everything else went up. Smoke, steam, masses of rock all trying to rise. “Gravity is the devil,” he remembered; “it keeps us from flying into the sun.”

The idea made him chuckle, and Joan pinched his arm, giggling too audibly in her excitement. “Hush!” said Mother. They watched in silence then; a bird’s-eye view of the planet was what they watched. With each picture they took part. Every corner of the globe, with its different activities, touched their hearts and minds with interest—busy, rushing life in various forms, and all going on simultaneously, at this very moment—now. Life obviously was one. The strange unity was convincing. Nothing they saw was alien to themselves, for they took part in it. In each picture they “wondered what it felt like.” They took for an instant, longer or shorter, the point of view of a new aspect of life, of something as yet they had not actually experienced. They longed—or dreaded—to stand within that huge cavern of blue lonely ice and hear the waves of the Polar Sea lick up the snow; to taste that sugary cane with animal-white teeth, and feel the fluffy cotton between thick, lumpy fingers; to swim under water and look up instead of down; to crawl fearfully a little nearer to the molten centre of the planet through smoke and fire and awful thundering explosions. They longed or dreaded. Mentally, that is, they experienced a new relationship in each separate case, a relationship that stretched a suburban consciousness beyond its normal ken.

Comments: Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a British writer of ghost stories and fantastical fiction. The Promise of Air is one of his novels on a mystical theme, and is concerned with freeing the spirit from the limitations of the human frame. Characters are either earthbound or airy. The above passage is part of a long sequence covering the central Wimble family’s visit to a cinema, in which their rhapsodic experience are occasionally touched by the practicalities of attending a cinema.

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Summer

Source: Edith Wharton, Summer: A Novel (New York: D. Appleton, 1917), pp. 138-139

Text: They had made no plans for the rest of the day, and when Harney asked her what she wanted to do next she was too bewildered by rich possibilities to find an answer. Finally she confessed that she longed to go to the Lake, where she had not been taken on her former visit, and when he answered, “Oh, there’s time for that — it will be pleasanter later,” she suggested seeing some pictures like the ones Mr. Miles had taken her to. She thought Harney looked a little disconcerted; but he passed his fine handkerchief over his warm brow, said gaily, “Come along, then,” and rose with a last pat for the pink-eyed dog.

Mr. Miles’s pictures had been shown in an austere Y.M.C.A. hall, with white walls and an organ; but Harney led Charity to a glittering place — everything she saw seemed to glitter — where they passed, between immense pictures of yellow-haired beauties stabbing villains in evening dress, into a velvet-curtained auditorium packed with spectators to the last limit of compression. After that, for a while, everything was merged in her brain in swimming circles of heat and blinding alternations of light and darkness. All the world has to show seemed to pass before her in a chaos of palms and minarets, charging cavalry regiments, roaring lions, comic policemen and scowling murderers; and the crowd around her, the hundreds of hot sallow candy-munching faces, young, old, middle-aged, but all kindled with the same contagious excitement, became part of the spectacle, and danced on the screen with the rest.

Comments: Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American novelist. Summer is a novel about small town librarian Charity Royall and her affair with architect Lucius Harney. The confusion she feels in the cinema reflects her confused state in the early stages of her relationship with Harney. Wharton was antagonistic towards the cinema, but makes numerous references to filmgoing and film culture in her work.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust