Product and Climax

Source: Simon Nelson Patten, Product and Climax (The Art of Life series) (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1909), pp. 45-48

Text: The next higher form of climax lies in the melodrama and its allied cheap shows of which the newest kind, the nickel theatre, has a novel importance. It is the first amusement to occupy the economic plane that the saloon has so long exclusively controlled. Its enormous popularity is proof that it appeals to the foundation qualities of men. It is moreover upbuilding, for the pictures of exciting adventures rouse the imagination and concentration which have lapsed in humdrum toil. It is accused of immoral suggestion: the suggestion however is chiefly in the wording of the titles, and the real test of immorality, which is destruction or construction of power, altogether fails. Such a test, naturally, lies in the later effects. If the man goes to the saloon he is “let down” and debilitated afterward; he becomes irritable or confused. There is no such reaction after the cheap show; the glow lasts, subsiding slowly as the memory of the thrilling rescue or the bad man’s capture is overlaid by new sensations. The watcher thinks with purpose, following a story which either has a plot or else holds his attention by showing novel scenes of travel among alien people. He can rest, be warmed, find the companionship of the like minded, and spend half an hour in either the nickel theatre or the saloon for the same price. A conservative estimate puts the number of people in New York City who daily visit the Nickelodeon at 200,000. On one New York street there are five Nickelodeons each having a capacity of 1,000 persons per hour and open from morning until midnight. In the crowded quarters they are almost as numerous as the saloons, and if their popularity continues they will soon out number them. Saloon keepers, says an investigator, are already complaining that their trade is injured by them.

Miss Jane Addams would give to physical sport the place which I have as signed to cheap shows. And this would be the natural place for it, I agree. Primitive men thought through their bodies before they thought through their imaginations; that is, they acted events before they sat down to watch others perform. Physical sport out of doors to-day would also be the natural corrective of the sedentary life of indoor workers. But we are confronted by then fact that there is not now, and is not likely to be for many years, any system of sport that will compare with the theatre in its present organization and accessibility. Great numbers of people easily obtain and are continually influenced by the cheap theatre; comparatively few are stimulated by its natural forerunner, physical play, because there is so scanty equipment for it. To make it a persuasive influence we must first secure an improved general organization of the city — in fact, a geographical reorganization of it, fundamental enough to replace whole areas of dwellings with parks, narrow streets by boulevards, shipping ways with boating courses and construct gymnasiums and baths extensive enough for many thou sand people. In the meantime the actual lift is made by the existing well organized and numerous centers of mimic deeds of virtue and prowess. To close them would be to leave the five-cent pleasure seekers with no alternative but the saloon or street.

Comments: Simon Nelson Patten (1852-1922) was an American economist. Jane Addams was an American social worker and reformer.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Devil Finds Work

Source: James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976), included in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 479

Text: Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

I don’t remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him – to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what we would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and, also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent to the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.

Comments: James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American essayist, novelist and social commentator. His memories of the film Dance, Fools, Dance (USA 1931) come at the start of his long essay on film and race, The Devil Finds Work (1976). His childhood was spent in Harlem, New York City.

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.

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.

Flicks and This Fleeting Life

Source: Tony Harrison, ‘Flicks and This Fleeting Life’, in Edith Hall (ed.), Tony Harrison: The Inky Digit of Defiance – Selected Prose 1966-2016 (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), pp. 430-431, orig. pub. as introduction to Tony Harrison, Collected Film Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 2007)

Text: A tram ride into town took me to the big cinemas: the Odeon and the Majestic, where the blockbuster Hollywood films were shown. There was also a small cinema, the News Theatre, now the Bondi Beach Bar, next to the city station and the Queen’s Hotel in City Square. It was there, just after the Second World War ended, that I saw the newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps. I don’t remember who took me – I think maybe my grandfather, the retired Hunslet signalman who lived with us – but there was something overwhelming in seeing such terrible images on a large screen, much bigger than life-size. I think my reaction was almost on the sale of those early viewers of the Lumière brothers’ film of the train arriving in a station in 1895. It wasn’t that I tried to escape from the heaped corpses moving towards me, but I felt that jumbling cascade of bulldozed, emaciated Belsen bodies were being dumped onto the art deco carpet of the cinema and into my consciousness for ever. It almost blighted my life, it had such a powerful effect on me, and made me draw a line between what I knew in my heart was ‘pretend’, the films that entertained me and made me laugh, and what was news: real dead bodies bulldozed into pits at Bergen-Belsen. I have never forgotten that introduction to the filming of real life, or in this case, real and terrifying death. Nor how jarring the voice-over narrations were! What narrator could find the right tone for such terror? This newsreel changed my attitude to life and film for ever.

Comments: Tony Harrison (1937 – ) is a British poet and playwright, known for his film and television verse collaborations. His childhood was spent in Leeds. Newsreels of the liberation of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945. There was much controversy at the time as to whether children should be prevented from seeing the Belsen newsreels.

The Legion of Decency

Source: Extracts from Mary J. Breen, ‘The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s’, http://the-toast.net/2015/11/10/the-legion-of-decency-running-a-movie-theater-in-the-1950s/, originally published as ‘The Legion of Decency’, The Windsor Review, 48:1, Spring 2015

Text: In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

[…]

Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Comments: Mary J. Breen is a Canadian author who has written two books on women’s health and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and online. Her father was a member of the Christian Brothers order but married before taking his final vows. Her parents ran a cinema despite the Catholic Church’s strong objections to aspects of the film industry, exemplified by the National Legion of Decency and its blacklisting of films to which it objected on moral grounds. After giving up the cinema her father never saw another film. My thanks to Mary J. Breen for permission to reproduce these extracts from her essay on her parents and their cinema venture.

Links: Full article at The Toast

Are Movies Going to Pieces?

Source: Pauline Kael, extract from ‘Are Movies Going to Pieces?’, The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 214, no. 6 (December 1964), pp. 61-81, reproduced in I Lost It at the Movies (New York: Marion Boyars, 1993)

Text: One evening not long ago, some academic friends came to my house, and as we talked and drank we looked at a television showing of Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Dwight Frye’s appearance on the screen had us suddenly squealing and shrieking, and it was obvious that old vampire movies were part of our common experience. We talked about the famous ones, Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr, and we began to get fairly involved in the lore of the genre – the strategy of the bite, the special earth for the coffins, the stake through the heart versus the rays of the sun as disposal methods, the cross as vampire repellent, et al. We had begun to surprise each other by the affectionate, nostalgic tone of our mock erudition when the youngest person present, an instructor in English, said, in clear, firm tone, “The Beast with Five Fingers is the greatest horror picture I’ve ever seen.” Stunned that so bright a young man could display such shocking taste, preferring a Warner Brothers forties mediocrity to the classics, I gasped, “But why?” And he answered, “Because it’s completely irrational. It doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the true terror.”

Upset by his neat little declaration – existentialism in a nutshell – by the calm matter-of-factness of it, and by the way the others seemed to take it for granted, I wanted to pursue the subject. But O. Henry’s remark “Conversation in Texas is seldom continuous” applies to California, too. Dracula had ended, and the conversation shifted to other, more “serious” subjects.

But his attitude, which had never occurred to me, helped explain some of my recent moviegoing experiences. I don’t mean that I agree that The Beast with Five Fingers is a great horror film, but that his enthusiasm for the horror that cannot be rationalized by the mythology and rules of the horror game related to audience reactions that had been puzzling me.

Last year I had gone to see a famous French film, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which had arrived in San Francisco in a dubbed version called The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and was playing on a double-horror bill in a huge Market Street theater. It was Saturday night and the theater, which holds 2646, was so crowded I had trouble finding a seat.

Even dubbed, Eyes Without a Face, which Franju called a “poetic fantasy,” is austere and elegant: the exquisite photography is by the great Shuftan, the music by Maurice Jarre, the superb gowns by Givenchy. It’s a symbolist attack on science and the ethics of medicine, and though I thought this attack as simpleminded in its way as the usual young poet’s denunciation of war or commerce, it is in some peculiar way a classic of horror.

Pierre Brasseur, as a doctor, experiments systematically, removing the faces of beautiful young kidnaped women, trying to graft them onto the ruined head of his daughter. He keeps failing, the girls are destroyed and yet he persists – in some terrible parody of the scientific method. In the end, the daughter – still only eyes without a face – liberates the dogs on which he also experiments and they tear off his head.

It’s both bizarrely sophisticated (with Alida Valli as his mistress doing the kidnaping in a black leather coat, recalling the death images from Cocteau’s Orpheus) and absurdly naive. Franju’s style is almost as purified as Robert Bresson’s, and although I dislike the mixture of austerity and mysticism with blood and gore, it produced its effect – a vague, floating, almost lyric sense of horror, an almost abstract atmosphere, impersonal and humorless. It has nothing like the fun of a good old horror satire like The Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lanchester’s hair curling electrically instead of just frizzing as usual, and Ernest Thesiger toying with mandrake roots and tiny ladies and gentlemen in glass jars. It’s a horror film that takes itself very seriously, and even though I thought its intellectual pretensions silly, I couldn’t shake off the exquisite, dread images.

But the audience seemed to be reacting to a different movie. They were so noisy the dialogue was inaudible; they talked until the screen gave promise of bloody ghastliness. Then the chatter subsided to rise again in noisy approval of the gory scenes. When a girl in the film seemed about to be mutilated, a young man behind me jumped up and down and shouted encouragement. “Somebody’s going to get it,” he sang out gleefully. The audience, which was, I’d judge, predominantly between fifteen and twenty-five, and at least a third feminine, was as pleased and excited by the most revolting, obsessive images as that older, mostly male audience is when the nudes appear in The Immoral Mr. Teas or Not Tonight, Henry. They’d gotten what they came for: they hadn’t been cheated. But nobody seemed to care what the movie was about or be interested in the logic of the plot – the reasons for the gore.

And audiences have seemed indifferent to incomprehensible sections in big expensive pictures. For example, how is it that the immense audience for The Bridge on the River Kwai, after all those hours of watching a story unfold, didn’t express discomfort or outrage or even plain curiosity about what exactly happened at the end – which through bad direction or perhaps sloppy editing went by too fast to be sorted out and understood. Was it possible that audiences no longer cared if a film was so untidily put together that information crucial to the plot or characterizations was obscure or omitted altogether? What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was such a mess that Time, after calling it “the year’s scariest, funniest and most sophisticated thriller,” got the plot garbled.

In recent years, largely because of the uncertainty of producers about what will draw, films in production may shift from one script to another, or may be finally cut so that key sequences are omitted. And the oddity is that it doesn’t seem to matter to the audience. I couldn’t tell what was going on in parts of 55 Days at Peking. I was flabbergasted when Cleopatra, with no hint or preparation, suddenly demonstrated clairvoyant powers, only to dispense with them as quickly as she had acquired them. The audience for The Cardinal can have little way of knowing whose baby the priest’s sister is having, or of understanding how she can be in labor for days, screaming in a rooming house, without anybody hearing her. They might also be puzzled about how the priest’s argument against her marriage, which they have been told is the only Catholic position, can, after it leads to her downfall and death, be casually dismissed as an error.

It would be easy to conclude that people go to see a “show” and just don’t worry if it all hangs together so long as they’ve got something to look at. But I think it’s more complicated than that: audiences used to have an almost rational passion for getting the story straight. They might prefer bad movies to good ones, and the Variety list of “all-time top grossers” (such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Going My Way) indicates that they did, but although the movies might be banal or vulgar, they were rarely incoherent. A movie had to tell some kind of story that held together: a plot had to parse. Some of the appreciation for the cleverness of, say, Hitchcock’s early thrillers was that they distracted you from the loopholes, so that, afterwards, you could enjoy thinking over how you’d been tricked and teased. Perhaps now “stories” have become too sane, too explicable, too commonplace for the large audiences who want sensations and regard the explanatory connections as mere “filler” – the kind of stuff you sit through or talk through between jolts.

It’s possible that television viewing, with all its breaks and cuts, and the inattention, except for action, and spinning the dial to find some action, is partly responsible for destruction of the narrative sense – that delight in following a story through its complications to its conclusion, which is perhaps a child’s first conscious artistic pleasure. The old staples of entertainment – inoffensive genres like the adventure story or the musical or the ghost story or the detective story – are no longer commercially safe for moviemakers, and it may be that audiences don’t have much more than a TV span of attention left: they want to be turned on and they spend most of their time turning off. Something similar and related may be happening in reading tastes and habits: teen-agers that I meet have often read Salinger and some Orwell and Lord of the Flies and some Joyce Cary and sometimes even Dostoyevsky, but they are not interested in the “classic” English novels of Scott or Dickens, and what is more to the point, they don’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories or even the modern detective fiction that in the thirties and forties was an accepted part of the shared experience of adolescents. Whatever the reasons – and they must be more than TV, they must have to do with modern life and the sense of urgency it produces – audiences can no longer be depended on to respond to conventional forms.

Perhaps they want much more from entertainment than the civilized, but limited rational pleasures of genre pieces. More likely, and the box-office returns support this, they want something different. Audiences that enjoy the shocks and falsifications, the brutal series of titillations of a Mondo Cane, one thrill after another, don’t care any longer about the conventions of the past, and are too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect. They want less effort, more sensations, more knobs to turn …

Comments: Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was an American film critic, noted for her strong opinions and sharp style. This is the first half of her essay. She continues with an argument against technique in ‘art house’ films for technique’s sake. She concludes, “People go to the movies for the various ways they express the experiences of our lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures we feel. This latter function of art – generally referred to disparagingly as escapism – may also be considered as refreshment, and in terms of modern big city life and small town boredom, it may be a major factor in keeping us sane.” My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing the essay to my attention.

Links: Complete essay at www.atlantic.com

When the Viewing had to Stop

Source: Peter Ackroyd, ‘When the Viewing had to Stop’, in Peter Ackroyd (ed. Thomas Wright), The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), pp. 140-142 [orig. pub. The Spectator, 7 March 1987]

Text: There comes a time when Mr Pickwick, bewildered by the horrors of the Fleet Prison, announces that ‘I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room.’ These are very much the sentiments of your film critic on abandonning his generally undistinguished and no doubt ineffective career; enough is enough. No more films set in what journalists call ‘Thatcher’s England’; no more tearful tributes to the elderly starring Katharine Hepburn; no more masterpieces with the subtitles in Americanese. And no more questions from the only mildly curious, on the lines of ‘What film is worth seeing?’ I never really knew. Yesterday I turned back to the pages of the Spectator in 1979 when I began to write film criticism, and I could recall nothing of the films I then either praised or damned. They had gone, vanished, disappeared. I usually find it difficult to recall even the film I saw in the previous week, so effortlessly to the images slip or slide away.

[…]

Perhaps more memorable than the films have been the cinemas themselves. There were ghastly places in north London, where health food was sold over the counter; there were dank crypts off the Tottenham Court Road which people used as refuges rather than as places of entertainment. But there were also some agreeable little spots, somehow removed from this world: the Minema is generally billed as the smallest cinema in London but it is also one of the most comfortable, and those who have a taste for macabre interiors should visit one of the auditoria of the Cannon Haymarket. And I regret the passing of the Academy, Oxford Street, which curiously resembled a toy theatre blown up out of all proportion.

And of course the cinema itself was always as important as any of the films being shown in it. The queuing, the buying of undrinkable coffee, the harridans bearing trays of ice-cream, the advertisements for Levi’s jeans and the Electricity Board, the warnings about one’s handbag, all furnished the slow and cosy passage into the filmic world. And yet even as I enjoyed these simple pleasures I was aware of the fact that they were essentially of an old-fashioned and even anachronistic sort – not ones, perhaps, which will survive the end of the century in their present form. I seemed to be participating in a social activity that was already past; I was still part of the audience that first went to the silent cinema in the twenties and I was certainly not part of that unimaginable future populace to whom the cinema will mean no more than the penny gaff or the diorama do to us.

Comments: Peter Ackroyd (1949 – ) is a British novelist, biographer and critic. He was film critic for the Spectator magazine from 1979 to 1987. The essay from which the above extracts are taken was written upon his giving up being a film critic.

The Last Ballad

Source: George Mackay Brown, ‘The Last Ballad’, The Listener, 20 June 1968, p. 800

Text: In a primitive community what happens circulates as story or ballad. During the Napoleonic Wars an Orkney sailor called Andrew Ross died under the lash. The news came to the islands, carried by other seamen, in many versions. The ballad-maker is not interested in the details, only in the central situation, the skeleton of the story: he allows the corruptible flesh of time and chance to rot. He fits out the story with a mask and dress of his own making, till it has a new life in the word.

Andrew Ross, an Orkney sailor,
Whose sufferings now I will explain,
While on a voyage from Barbados,
On board the vessel Martha Jane.

The mates and captain daily flogged him
With whips and rope, I tell you true,
Then on his mangled bleeding body
Water mixed with salt they threw.

This, though it is a very crude piece of balladry, becomes the story of Andrew Ross for all time. […] It is part of a seamless fabric that has been there from the beginning, where all stories are gathered, a part of a great story. […]

‘Andrew Ross’ was the last ballad. Everything changed when the first newspapers arrived. […] Language was no longer a mystery: it was machine to be exploited for social and utilitarian purposes. […] Wireless, in the 1930s, was another step along the road. […]

The island people, always hungry for new gadgets, bought television sets in the Fifties when they were still out at range of the transmitters. Endless blizzards slanted across the screen. Still they watched.

Several frightening things have happened in the course of a few years. TV personalities like Cliff Michelmore, Inspector Barlow and Fanny Craddock are spoken about more familiarly by islanders now than are the people who live in the outlying farms. The shadows on a screen have become more real than their flesh-and~blood neighbours. The gradual loosening of the sense of community goes on. Families stay at home in front of then TV sets on winter nights; the old social gatherings with fiddle and ale and story are rapidly fading into the past. A third frightening thing is the new tyranny of facts actively fostered by TV programmes (though it began in the islands a century ago with the newspapers). Facts, figures, graphs, statistics, are the important things. What has happened in the past generation, in consequence, is that the story-teller is being pushed out by the frightful bore who will give you his opinions about Vietnam and the colour problem and heart transplants: not really his own opinions at all but some prejudiced odds and ends that have stuck in his mind from a discussion witnessed on Panorama the night before. In the old days, one imagines, such a bore would have been courteously ignored, or otherwise put in his place. Today he is listened to with all reverence.

The crude ballad of ‘Andrew Ross’ was an attempt by a pastoral community to explain a terrible thing that had happened to one of their own press-ganged boys. They experienced it themselves, ritually, in a ballad, and so it became a part of the total experience of the community. There is no attempt to subsume horror into man‘s total experience, in this particular way, in the modern modes of entertainment. Aberfan and Belsen and Agadir remain black, unabsorbed horrors, underlined but in no way illuminated by all the ‘realistic’ treatment they have been given – the intricate columm of statistics, the photographs, the eye-witness accounts. No meaning emerges from all the swathings of fact. It is significant that when a TV dramatist recently attempted to enter imaginatively into the Aberfan situation, in Softly Softly – and I thought he did it very well – there were howls of protest the following week in Talkback. I listen to the wireless and watch television quite a lot, and the BBC pays me an acceptable guinea here and there for work l do. Many of the programmes are of high quality. But what seems to be happening is that small fruitful units of culture are being merged into larger, noisier, cruder units, so that, as T.S. Eliot said,

There is not enough silence
Not on the sea nor on the islands.

There is little we can do about it.

Comments: George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was a Scottish poet and author, who was born and lived most of his life on the Orkney islands. The above extracts come from an essay written for the BBC’s journal The Listener. The full article goes into greater details about the ballad tradition, the arrival and newspapers (in the 1820s) and radio listening. Cliff Michelmore was a current affairs presenter; Inspector Barlow was a character was a character played by Stratford Johns in the police dramas Z Cars and Softly Softly; Franny Craddock was a TV cook. Panorama is a current affairs series, launched in 1957 and continuing to this day. Talkback was a BBC right-of-reply programme. The T.S. Eliot lines come from his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’.

Moving (Dioramic) Experiences

Source: Charles Dickens, ‘Moving (Dioramic) Experiences’, All the Year Round, vol. XVII, 23 March 1867, pp. 304-307

Text: The diorama is a demesne that seems to be strictly preserved for the virtuous and good. Those for whom the gaudy sensualities of the theatre are interdicted may here be entertained with the mild and harmless joys of an instructive diorama. At the doors going in, we may see the quality of the guests — benevolent-looking elderly men, dry virgins, a clergyman or two, and portly mammas with a good deal on their minds, who have brought the governess and all their young family. There is a crowd, and extraordinary eagerness to get in, though there, alas! often proves to be too much room. For these moral shows address themselves only to a limited area; though the limited area does not come forward so handsomely as it should do. Among such audiences there is a more resentful and jealous feeling about points of disagreement between them to the entertainment, such as not commencing — returning money and the like; the umbrellas and sticks, it may be remarked, are made more use of — I mean in the way of creating noise and the word “Shame!” is uttered from the back benches with more burning indignation. How often on the first night, say, of the Grand Moving Diorama of the Tonga Islands, when there has been a long delay, and something fatally wrong in the gasworks of the little town has prevented the despairing exhibitor from doing much more than show dim pictures, and transformations that miscarried dreadfully, how often have we not seen a bald head and glassy spectacles rise out of the Cimmerian gloom to which the character of the show inevitably consigns its audiences, and in what seems sepulchral accents address us on our wrongs. “We learn by our excellent weekly organ — not the one we hear in our place of worship — that this is Mr. Laycock, our “worthy” fellow-citizen, who has been for years a resident. He thinks we have been treated badly— outrageously; in fact, in the whole course of his long residence at Dunmacleary — then umbrellas and sticks give a round — he never recollected an audience — a highly intelligent and respectable audience (sticks and umbrellas again) — treated with such disrespect. What they had seen that night was a miserable and inefficient thing — a wretched imposture and take-in” (sticks again). The poor showman is always helpless, and from his “stand,” where he had been in such luxuriant language describing the beauties of foreign lands, excitedly defends himself, to cries of “No, no,” and umbrella interruptions. It was not his fault. He had arrived late “in their town.” He had been up all night (“Return the money”). It was the fault of their gasworks (groans), and he would mention names. Yes, of Mr. John Cokeleigh, the secretary (“Shame”), who assured him (great interruption at this unworthy attempt to defame the absent).

A really good diorama is a really high treat, and for the young an entertainment second only to the pantomime. Parents should encourage this feeling, instead of serving out those little sugar-plums, which are so precious to a child, as if they were dangerous and forbidden fruit, which might corrupt the morals and corrupt the soul. These joys are always made to hang awfully in the balance on the turn of a feather-weight, as it were — by well-meaning but injudicious parents.

Alas! do I not recal Mr. Blackstone, our daily tutor, a steady, conscientious, poor, intellectual “navvy,” who was reading nominally “for orders,” but, as it proved, for a miserable curacy, which he still holds, and I believe will hold, till he reaches sixty. This excellent man kept a mother and sisters “on me and a few more boys,” that is to say, by coining for two hours each day on tutorship. Mr. Blackstone kept a little judgment-book with surprising neatness, in which are entries which scored down, with awful rigidness, Latin, bene; Greek, satis; French, medi. This volume was submitted every evening at dinner to the proper authority, and by its testimony we were used according to our deserts, and, it may be added, with the result which the rare instinct of the Lord Hamlet anticipated on using people after their deserts. During this course of instruction, it came to pass that the famous Diorama of the North Pole arrived in our city. It had indeed been looked for very wistfully and for a long time, and its name and description displayed on walls in blue and white stalactite letters, apparently hanging from the eaves of houses, stimulated curiosity. Indeed, I had the happiness of seeing the North Pole actually arrive, not as it might be present to romantic eyes, all illuminated from behind, and in a state of transparent gorgeousness, but in a studied privacy and all packed close in great rolls. Later, I found my way up the deserted stair of the “rooms” where the North Pole had taken up its residence, and, awe-struck, peeped into the great darkened chamber where it reposed with mysterious stillness. There was a delightful perfume of gas, and the rows of seats stretched away far back, all deserted. The North Pole, shrouded in green baize, rose up gauntly, as if it were wrapping itself close in a cloak, and did not wish to be seen. A hammer began to knock behind, and I withdrew hurriedly. Somehow, that grand déshabille by day left almost as mysterious, though not so gay, an impression as the night view. But to return to Mr. Blackstone. Latterly, rather an awkward run of “satis” and “medis” had set in, and the pupil at that evening’s inspection of the books had been warned and remonstrated. With that rather gloomy view which is always taken of a child’s failings, he had been warned that he was entering on a course that would bring him early “to a bad end,” if not “to the gallows.” This awful warning, though the connexion of this dreadful exit with the “satis,” &c., was but imperfectly seen, always sank deep, and the terrors of the “drop” and a public execution sometimes disturbed youthful dreams. But, however, just on the arrival of the North Pole it was unfortunate that this tendency towards a disgraceful end should have set in. For the very presence of this pleasing distraction unnerved the student. It was determined that an early day should be fixed when the family should go, as it were, en masse, and have their minds improved by the spectacle of what the Arctic navigators had done. To the idle apprentice who was under Mr. Blackstone’s care, it was sternly intimated that unless he promptly mended, and took the other path which did not lead to the gallows, he should be made an example of. This awful penalty was enough from sheer nervousness to bring about failure, and when the day fixed for the North Pole came round, Mr. Blackstone said “it was with much pain that he was compelled to give the worst mark in his power for Greek, namely, ‘malè!'”

At this terrible blow all fortitude gave way, and, with a piteous appeal to tutorial mercy, it was “blubbered” out what a stake was depending on his decision, and that not only was the North Pole hopelessly lost for ever, but that worse might follow. Blackstone was a good soul at heart, and I recal his walking up and down the room in sincere distress as he listened to the sad story. He was a conscientious man, and when he began, “You see what you are coming to, by the course of systematic idleness you have entered on,” and when, too, he began to give warnings of the danger of such a course, with an indistinct allusion to the gallows, it was plain there was hope. After a good deal of sarcasm and anger, and even abuse, I recal his sitting down with his penknife and neatly — he did everything neatly — scratching out the dreadful “malè.” But his conscience would only suffer him to substitute a “vix medi,” a description which, in truth, did not differ much, but which had not the naked horror of the other. I could have embraced his knees. And yet suspicion was excited by this erasure, most unjustly, and but little faith was put in the protestations of the accused; for his eagerness to be present at the show was known, and he was only cleared by the friendly testimony of an expert as to handwriting.

That North Pole was very delightful. It seems to me now to be mostly ships in various positions, and very “spiky” icebergs. The daring navigators, Captain Back and others, always appeared in full uniform. They had all our sympathy. The most exciting scene was the capture of the whale, as it was called, though it scarcely amounted to a capture. When the finny monster had struck out with his tail and sent the boat and crew all into the air, a dreadful spectacle of terror and confusion, which caused a sensation among the audience, exhibited by rustling and motion in the dark, an unpleasantness, however, quickly removed by the humour of our lecturer, who, in his comic way, says, “As this is a process which happens on an average about once in the week, the sailors get quite accustomed to this ducking, and consider it rather fun than otherwise, as it saves them the trouble of taking a bath.” This drollery convulses us, and the youthful mind thinks what it would give to have such wit. Not less delightful was the scene where the seals were playing together on the vast and snowy-white shore, with the great “hicebergs” (so our lecturer had a tendency to phrase it) in the distance, and the two ships all frozen up. We had music all through, as the canvas moved on. And when our lecturer dwelt on the maternal affection of the wounded seal which was struggling to save its offspring, and declined to escape into the water, Mr. George Harker, the admired tenor (but invisible behind the green baize), gave us, with great feeling and effect — was it the ballad of “Let me kiss him for his Mother”?

Only a few years ago, when the intrepid navigators, M’Clintock and others, were exciting public attention, a new panorama of their perils and wanderings was brought out. Faithful to the old loves of childhood, I repaired to the show; but presently begun to rub my eyes. It seemed like an old dream coming back. The boat in the air, the wounded seal, and the navigators themselves, in full uniform, treating with the Esquimaux — all this was familiar. But I rather resented the pointing out of the chief navigator “in the foreground” as the intrepid Sir Leopold, for he was the very one who had been pointed to as the intrepid Captain Back.

Not less welcome in these old days was the ingenious representation of Mr. Green the intrepid aeronaut’s voyage in his great balloon “Nas sau.” There was a dramatic air about all that. The view of gardens, crowded with spectators in very bright dresses (illuminated from behind), and with faces all expressive of delight and wonder, and the balloon in the middle — a practicable balloon, not attached to the canvas. We could see it swaying as the men strove to hold it. I remember the describer’s words to this hour: “At last, all being now ready, Mr. Green, the intrepid aeronaut, and his companion entered the car, and having taken farewell of his friends, gave the signal to cast off, and in a moment the balloon rapidly ascended.” At the same time cheerful music behind the baize, “The Roast Beef of Old England,” I think, struck up, and the garden, wondering spectators, trees, all went down rapidly, the balloon remaining stationary. The effect was most ingeniously produced. I never shall forget the interest with which that voyage was followed. We had the clouds, the stars, the darkened welkin, all moving slowly by (to music). The crossing of the Channel by night, and the rising of the sun — wonderful effect! Plenty of rich fiery streaking well laid on. Then the Continent, and terra firma again; and how ingeniously was a difficulty got rid of. Necessarily, the countries we were to see from Mr. Green’s car could only be under faint bird’s- eye condition, and “so many thousand feet above the level of the sea,” which would make everything rather indistinct and unsatisfactory. We therefore took advantage of the interval between the first and second parts to get rid of our large balloon which blocked up the centre of the canvas, and changed it for a tiny one, which was put away high in the air, in its proper place, where it took up no room, and did quite as well as the other. However, at the close of the performance, when we had travelled over every- thing, and wished to see Mr. Green coining down, we took back our large balloon, and were very glad to see it again, and the wondering faces of the Germans.

There is one scene which the dioramic world seems inclined not willingly to let die. At least it somehow thrusts itself without any regard to decent dioramic fitness upon every kind of diorama indiscriminately. Any student will know at once that I allude to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. This seems to have a sort of fascination for the painters. I never knew a single show that had not this church “lugged in” head and shoulders, or rather porch and pillars, either at the beginning or at the end. I am afraid this is from no spirit of piety or veneration, but simply from the favourable opening the church presents for changing from a daylight view to a gorgeous “night effect.” They know, too, that the good are among the audience in strong force, and that is touching the true chord. We know by heart the clumpy Byzantine pillars and the Moorish arches, and the stairs down to the right, and the round globes of white light lamps burning, and the men in turbans kneeling.

Suddenly we hear the harmonium behind, and the voices of Mr. George Harker, the admired tenor, and Miss Edith Williams, the (also) admired soprano, attuning their admired voices together in a very slow hymn; and gradually the whole changes to midnight, with a crypt lit up with countless lamps and countless worshippers. A dazing and dazzling spectacle, the umbrellas of the good and pious becoming deafening in their approbation. Taken as an old friend, that I have seen in every town in the kingdom, I have an affection for this crypt and its transformation; but still I know every stone in it by heart. Where was it that I saw the DIORAMA OF IRELAND, with “national harps and altars,” “national songs and watchwords,” “national dances and measures,” all in great green letters, made out of staggering round towers and ruined abbeys? — appropriate songs and dances by Miss Biddy Magrath. Where but is an Irish town rather towards the north. I recal the lecturer, a very solemn man, who preached a good deal as the canvas moved on to music — it is a law that canvas can only move to music; and a city with bridges, &c., and a river would slowly pass on, and stop short when it was finally developed. Our lecturer would say, sadly, as if he were breaking a death, “LIM-ER-ICK! the city of the vier-lated te-reaty!” The result of this announcement in the northern town was a burst of hisses, with a counter-demonstration from the back benches. The grand scene, however, was when a bright and gay town came on, and was introduced as “DERRY, THE MAIDEN CITY!” Then there was terrific applause, and even cheers, with a counter-demonstration from the back. It will be conceived that this state of things did not conduce at all to the success of the diorama, and it was very shortly withdrawn from its native land, and exhibited to more indifferent spectators. And yet Miss Magrath’s exertions, both in singing and dancing, were exceedingly arch, and deserved a better fate.

The lecturers are always delightful. What were they — I always think while waiting for the green baize to be drawn — before they took to this profession? Is it a lucrative profession? — by the way, it certainly must be a limited one. How he must get at last absolutely to loathe the thing he described, and yet he always looks at it as he speaks with an air of affection; but in his heart of hearts he must loathe it, or be dead to all human feelings and repugnances. For only consider the “day performance” at two — the night one at eight. Yet he always seems to deliver it with an air of novelty, and an air of wisdom, too, and morality, which is not of the pulpit, or forum, but simply dioramic. It is only when he descends to jests and joking that he loses our respect. A little story of his goes an immense way, especially anything touching on love or courtship. “There,” he says, speaking of the prairies, “the vast rolling plains are covered with a rank lugsurious and rich verjoor. There we can see the solitary wigwam, with the squaw preparing the family kettle, unencumbered by their babies. They have an excellent way in the prairies of dealing with troublesome appendages. Every child is made up into a sort of case or bandage, as depicted in the foreground of the scene. When they are busy, they simply hang them on a tree to be out of the way.” Every father and mother laughs heartily, and with delight, at this humorous stroke. Perhaps the pleasantest of the whole round was a certain diorama that called itself “The Grand Tour,” and which carried out the little fiction of its visitors being “excursionists,” and taken over every leading city on the Continent. We were supposed to take our tickets, “first-class,” at London- bridge, embarked in a practicable steamer at St. Katharine’s Wharf, with its rigging all neatly cut out, so that, as we began to move—or rather, as the many thousand square feet of canvas began to move — we saw the Tower of London, and various objects of interest along the river passing us by. The steamer was uncommonly good indeed, and actually gave delicate people present quite an uncomfortable feeling. Presently all the objects of interest had gone by, and we were out at sea, with fine effects by moonlight, fine effects by blood-red sunrise, and then we were landed, and saw every city that was worth visiting. Against one little “effect” some of our “excursionists” — among the more elderly — made indignant protest. When we were passing through Switzerland and came to Chamounix, where there had been a prodigal expenditure of white paint and a great saving in other colours, and found ourselves at the foot of the great mountain — I forget how many thousand feet above the level of the sea, but we were told to a fraction our lecturer warmed into enthusiasm, and burst out into the lines:

Mont Blanc, the monarch of mountains,
In his robe of snow, &c.

But the greatest danger that menaces us is what our lecturer calls the “have-a-launch,” which must be a very serious thing indeed. “Often ‘ole villages may be reposing in peaceful tranquilhity, the in’abitants fast locked in slumber, when suddenly, without a note of preparation” —- Exactly, that is what such of us as have nerves object to — a startling crash produced behind the baize — a scream among the audience — and the smiling village before us is buried in a mass of snow—white paint. It is the “have-a-launch.” This is the grand coup of the whole. Why does the music take the shape of the mournful Dead March in Saul?

Yet even dioramas have the elements of decay. Sometimes they light on a dull and indifferent town, and get involved in debt and difficulty. The excursions can’t pay their own expenses. I once saw a diorama of the Susquehanna, covering many thousand square feet of canvas, and showing the whole progress of that noble river, sold actually for no more than five pounds. I was strongly tempted, as the biddings rested at that figure. It would be something to say you had bought a panorama once in your life.

Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. All the Year Round was a literary periodical that Dickens founded and initially edited, as well as contributing material. Although the piece was written in 1867, Dickens is mostly recalling shows from the 1830s. Moving panoramas (or moving dioramas) of the kind described by Dickens combined panoramic paintings that scrolled pass the viewer with lighting effects and music. Among the panoramas to which he refers are David Roberts’ Moving Diorama of the Polar Expedition (1829) and Aeronautikon! or, Journey of the Great Balloon, originally created in 1836 by panorama specialist the Grieve family and inspired by a balloon flight from Britain to Germany undertaken by Charles Green. These particular panoramas, and Dickens’s commentary, are discussed in Erkki Huhtamo’s book Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (2013).

Links: Copy at Dickens Journals Online