Source: Simone de Beauvoir (trans. Patrick Dudley), America Day by Day (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1952), pp. 62-63
Text: And how easy it was to take part in New York life! From early morning people on Broadway queued up for the movies. At any time of the day, with an hour to kill, you can go to see animated cartoons or newsreels. But above all it is at night, in crowded Forty-second Street, that the movies have the dual attraction of fairs in foreign countries and national rejoicings. On Times Square you can see the latest Hollywood films; on Forty-second Street they show old Westerns, comedies and pictures that give one goose-flesh: I mean the thrillers. In a small cinema on one of the grands boulevards of Paris they used to show one of these horror films weekly twenty years ago. Now that they have become talkies they have scarcely altered. Once more I watched the murdered mummies finally stabbed through the heart with hunting knives; vampires greedily drinking up fresh blood; robots charged with uncontrollable forces, sowing death and terror …. Every time the mummy appears the audience shouts, not with terror, of course, but with delight, for they no longer believe it.
But the animated cartoons disappointed me; they have become set and mechanical. And the films I saw did not reveal New York to me as I had hoped they would one evening. But they helped to bind me to America. I no longer looked at the screen in the same way that I did at home; the exotic drugstores, the streets, the elevators and the press-bells had disappeared; they were now just realistic details. But this realism had poetry all the same. The screen transfigured everyday objects and reimposed that distance between me and the drugstore which was abolished every time I drank an orange juice, although continuing to exist nevertheless. It was by means of these black and white pictures that I had come to know America, and still they seemed to me to be its real substance; the screen is a platonic heaven where I find my concept in all its purity. The houses built of stone are but doubtful embodiments of it.
Comments: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French intellectual. She visited America over a four-month period in 1947. Her account of her journey was first published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour.
Source: ‘Sporting Notions’, The Referee, 12 January 1896, p. 1
Text: This week I saw in Paris a most wonderful presentation of moving, if not living, pictures worked by an electric apparatus bearing the formidable title, the cinématographe. It is a forty-horse-power similitude of the kinetoscope, with which, no doubt, most readers are familiar. Highly delighted as I was with the tableaux, they half frightened me, because, while sitting enjoying the exhibition, I could not but wonder whether Edison and his successors were not a long way on the road towards wiping out a good proportion of the reason our reporting craft may plead for existence. The American magician is already able to show you all the actions of a crowd as you sit at ease in a room. What if he and followers advance so as to bring out newspapers whose moving illustrations furnish their own descriptions? Would self and brethren be wanted to provide accounts of races – boat, horse, foot, and swimming – or details of fights, of cricket, of football, and of all the rest of what used to be, when readers might see the game played for themselves in every detail and action. I am quite aware that we still are a longish way off the time when anything of this sort could be effected at the price, or put in ship-shape so quickly as to furnish a daily supply. But those who can manage o much must hold power to carry out an awful lot more. Only a day or two ago, so it seems, the kinetoscope was an imperfect foreshadowing of what has come. Now the idea has been carried a tremendous way further. If the enterprise were worth the expense, we could have a race of any sort lifted bodily and put on view wholesale, retail, and for exportation.
Here are some of the sketches provided. On a sheet facing the spectators is cast the photograph of a factory’s entrance. Time is up for dinner hour, or to strike work for the day – I may here remark that our friends employed in such establishments set rare example of punctuality by the promptitude with which they turn out to time. On the signal being given out popped a boy or two, the quickest off the mark, and scudded off home. Then three or four girls and lads, finishing putting on their coats as they went. Quickly the workpeople hurried through the portals in batches. A man rode off on a bicycle and a pair-horse van drove from the gate at a brisk trot. The exodus was not illustrated, but made really to happen. The road was quite crowded with the hands trooping forth; a few, not in much hurry, lingered a little before separating and giving the operator with the magic lantern the cue to finish Part One. Later we were treated to the disembarkation over a river steamer’s freight, exchanging greetings with friends on shore as the boat was made fast alongside the stage, bustling up the gangway, knocking each other’s “corners” with their handbags, smoking – you sawt he clouds as they blew them – laughing, shaking hands as they were met on the quay – all to the very life. Best of all was I pleased with a sketch – no, I do not mean a sketch – with some real bathing in real sea, with real combing miniature breakers, real splashes as the men and youngsters dropped in, tumbled in, plunged in on the spring-board, playing tricks on each other, doing fancy plunges, somersaults, clever dives, clumsy half-hearted drops into the sea, and playing follow-my-leader in swimming to shore and racing to make a fresh start along the plank. Doubtless friends who know the kinetoscope will fancy the latest improved edition is not exactly a novelty. They may fancy, but let them wait till they have tried the latter before passing an opinion.
What a field this opens for speculative sporting showmen. In a way Edison is going a lot better than the inventor who proposed to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and bottle them up for use on gloomy days. The showman of the future will be able to travel with a Derby or a Leger, a Cesarewitch or a Jubilee Stakes; with the Gentlemen v. Players match, the Amateur Championships, the ‘Varsity Boatrace, or a big turn with the gloves at the National Sporting Club; to show you the spectators, principals, umpires, referees, judges, horses, jockeys, boats, water, playing fields, and all, and treat you to a day’s sport whenever you want it and wherever you please to have it. This will be a boon indeed for sportsmen unable to be present, and will, I am afraid, lower gates dreadfully, because so many who could assist at the actual competitions, if they so chose, will prefer to save expense and stay at home till the cinématographe comes to hand. When all this comes to pass what is to become of poor SPORTING NOTIONS and Co.? That is what worries your humble servant, who, of course, would grieve for the Co., but most for himself.
Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe had its commercial debut at the Salon Indien, Grande Café, 14 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris on 28 December 1895. It was, of course, an invention of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, not of Thomas Edison (inventor of the Kinetoscope peepshow). This report from the British week sporting newspaper The Referee, in its column ‘Sporting Notions’, is a very early account in English of the screenings which had continued at the Grande Café. The films described are La sortie des usines Lumière (1895), Le Débarquement du Congrès de photographie à Lyon (1895) and Baignade en mer (1895). The Cinématographe was first shown in Britain at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, on 20 February 1896.
Source: Mary Mayo Crenshaw (ed.), An American Lady in Paris, 1828-1829: The Diary of Mrs. John Mayo (Boston, Houghton Mifflin company, 1927), pp. 50-51
Text: One fine morning we went to see the Diorama. This novel exhibition is intended to show correct delineations of nature and art, and differs from a panorama in that, instead of a circular view of the objects represented, you have the whole picture at once in perspective. The interior of the building resembles a small theatre and such is the effect of the various modifications of light and shade that the optical deception is complete. Four different pieces are at present exhibited: The passage of the Alps by Mount Saint Gothard. Nothing can be more picturesque and romantic, it is the most perfect representation of nature that can be conceived. You behold in the distance a part of Saint Gothard, covered with eternal snows, the blue summit of Val Briditto on the left and on the right a part of Monte Piottino. The length seems immeasurable, and now and then an eagle is seen wheeling round and round until it is lost in the clouds, which is done by some sort of machinery which we cannot discover. There is water really falling down the cataract, and you hear the noise of it and see the mist rising from it. I am convinced the reality can be no more stupendous than this representation. The next piece is a view of the interior of a cathedral at Rome, the third is a part of the ruins of the Coliseum, which Mr. Mahan (one of the gentlemen who went with us) said was perfect. He had recently returned from Italy, where he had seen it, and he was struck with the truth of the execution. The fourth and last was a beautiful exhibition of the Place of Saint Mark in the city of Venice. They were all extremely fine, but nothing in my opinion could be compared to the scene in the Alps.
Comments: Mrs. John Mayo, born Abigail De Hart (1761-1843) was the daughter of promiment US lawyer John De Hart and was married to Virginia planter John Mayo. Although her publication is given to be a ‘diary’ there are no dates and really a travel book. The diorama was a visual spectacle presented in an elaborate theatre, able to accommodate around 350 people. The audience would viewed a large-scale landscape painting on a screen 70ftx45ft whose appearance would alter through the manipulation of lighting and scenic effects. A turntable would then rotate the audience around to view a second painting. The Diorama premiered in Paris in 1822 and remained on show to 1828.
Source: Negley Farson, The Way of a Transgressor (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936), pp. 328, 569
Text: We saw Marie’s, the most famous brothel in the world, with its staggeringly obscene movie. In those days the star film was a French comedian, à la Charlie Chaplin, seducing a dairymaid in the barnyard. When I saw it again in 1930, on my way back from India, the style had changed. It was now strictly Lesbian and homosexual.
Jack and I both admitted that anything more calculated to take all of the enthusiasm out of a man, than watching that movie in cold blood, could hardly have been devised.
… Eisenstein dined with us several times in our rooms in the Grand Hotel, telling us about his new picture, The General Line. The night we went to its uncensored version for a private showing, I took the daughter of one of the ambassadors with me. She was a girl with a rare sense of humour; but when we saw ourselves watching Eisenstein’s unblushing reproduction of the love story of a bull – from where he first saw an attractive cow, all the way to baby bull – we did not know where to look. It was as hot as some of the movies I had seen down in Marie’s brothel in Marseilles.
But, my God, what a film!
Comments: James Negley Farson (1890-1960) was an American writer and traveller, known in particular for his on-the-spot reporting of the Russian Revolution. In these two passages from his memoirs he describes a Marseilles brothel around 1918, and seeing Eisentein’s Staroye i novoye (The General Line) (USSR 1929) in Moscow. Pornographic films were a common feature of brothels from the earliest years of cinema, but eyewitness accounts of such films are rare.
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.
Source: Extracts from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘Twenty Minutes from Before the War’, in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939 (London: Granta, 2004), pp. 175, 177-178. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 11 June 1926
Text: In a Parisian cinema they are showing old newsreel footage – infinitely past, because sundered by us from the war – of such dusty novelties as the fashions, dances, the five o’clock teas, of an era that waltzed straight out of its pathetic whimsicality into a bloody horror; an epoch so deceitful that it didn’t even experience the truth of its own demise. It was already dead by the time it died. Its children were living ghosts, having been molded from papier-mâché in, oh, let’s say, pergolas.
These old films, changed every time there’s a change of program, appear under the heading “Twenty Minutes from Before the War.” It’s because of them that the cinema is sold out every day, and sometimes full to bursting. The sons all want to go, to laugh at their fathers. The great family album of the past is opened up before their eyes. It is made up of graves that elicit not shudders of horror but irresistible mirth. The effect of the pictures is like that of twenty top hats at a funeral: The hats are so ridiculous that they rather take the edge of the coffin. The result is a rather peculiar sort of dread that touches not the soul but the funny bone.
These are the sort of shocking displays we now put ourselves through, we, the children of the present day, we, who have gotten over Darwin and Ibsen, give ourselves over to the exotic woman with the “pleureuse” veil, the suffragette, the parade uniform, the umbrella, the large man with the goatee, , the train, and the towering hairdo made of pigtails and spikes; we, who go to Negro revues and watch naked girls, we toughened and bred in drum fire, scornful of beautiful lies, we devotees, as we would have it, of the ugly truth.
We sit in front of the whole deceitful misery of our fathers, who appear to have invented the cinema purely to show us themselves in their full absurdity, and we laugh, we laugh. We have prizefights and sports fans, America and endurance runners, girls drilled by preachers, a whole internationale of Sunday windbreakers. But we don’t have bodies instead of breasts, feather boas instead of necks, curtains instead of legs, and top hats in place of mourning! Where the goose-step is still practised, we know it’s dead; really, at the worst, the parades of our times are to celebrate living memorials (not dead ones). We know that once we had the “pleureuse,” the steel helmet was only a matter of time, that there’s a straight path from the modest veil to the gas mask, and from the pergola to the trench. And those unarmed reservists who plowed the fields of honor and sowed us there with their pathetic blessings – that deceitful eve of the war is something that makes us laugh our heads off every evening, for twenty minutes, and no longer.
Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The full article describes the various newsreel scenes shown: military parades, Parisian crowds, an instructor illustrating the latest dance craze, the latest creations from a fashion house, and pre-war fiction films.
Cinema programme used as an illustration in At a French Château
Source: Miriam Irene Kimball, At a French Château (New York: The Lion Press, c.1915, printed for private distribution), pp.
Text: We were thrown into great excitement one night at dinner when the blowing of a horn and at the same time the ringing of the gate bell heralded the information that something of importance was about to take place. Ernest went on the run and soon returned with a flyer, announcing that the great success, “Barnum’s Cinema,” had arrived in town and that a performance would be given that evening, one representation only. That being the case, we could not afford to miss it, and we decided then and there to go en masse. We went early so as to get good seats, our Paris friends joining us on the way. We entered the hall, which was a very small one, its only furniture consisting of two rows of long benches, perhaps six or seven in a row. Having purchased our tickets, we appropriated to our use the three benches farthest back on the left. These seats were upholstered in black oilcloth, while others had either no covering at all or one of a very dirty and ragged coarse red-and-white cotton. The bare benches certainly did not have an inviting appearance, and the red and white were impossible; so for the time and place we felt that we had made a good choice. As yet we were the only spectators, and we now took time to examine the flimsy little slips of paper that served as tickets. To our surprise we found that some of our party had paid one-half franc, some three-fourths of a franc, some a franc, and Billie and I one franc and a half each, the ticket-seller having added in lead pencil the necessary figures to make our little yellow slips of paper of sufficient value.
However, we were allowed to sit together on the oil-cloth-covered seats, whatever the price of our tickets; and others, who came later, apparently had the like privilege of choosing of what was left, the latest comers sitting on the floor and leaning up against the bare, blank walls. I did not exactly understand their system; but it was evident that those traveling show-people were not at all particular what you paid or what seats you occupied. There was one advan[t]age, however, Billie and I had the satisfaction of knowing that we held reserved-seat tickets (there were none better), though we sat one on each side of Madame R. who had purchased a third class billet. The tickets were not demanded and I still have mine among my valued souvenirs.
Our early arrival at the show gave us an excellent opportunity to watch the country people come trooping in. They came by families, and having finally deposited themselves, awaited with expectant faces, the beginning of the great moving-picture show. There were blowzed peasants, young and old, in their coarse blue frocks and trousers, and clattering wooden sabots; fat, almost toothless and altogether corsetless old women, in their loose blouses, tied down by their coarse blue aprons; young women of generous figures, some of them rather good-looking, with babes in arms; frowzy-headed little girls, with front locks tightly braided, with perhaps a tiny, tiny bit of narrow ribbon by way of ornament; boys of all shapes and sizes, in their short socks, black cotton aprons, and wide-brimmed straw hats; and, last but not least, coquettish rusticity, revelling in the companionship of her bel amoureux, though in the eyes of the world he must appear but an “unlettered hind.” All the men, except those of our party, sat with their hats on, most of them vociferously puffing their tobacco throughout the entire performance. That they do otherwise seemed not to have been expected of them; and, as the women wore no hats, no polite invitation that they remove them was necessary. I have said that all the men except those of our party wore their hats during the performance, but that statement is not strictly true. I was pleased to see that our Ernest had not only dofifed his apron but sat with head uncovered, thus showing himself a little higher in the social scale than the gens de la campagne.
While the people were gathering, the operator, a dark, fat, greasy-looking individual, proudly marched up and down the aisles, smiling blandly upon his audience, with the air of one who is about to give them a great treat, which he is confident, must meet with their unqualified approval. His very attitude proclaimed in unmistakable words, “I would do anything for you.” Perhaps it was this attitude that gave Billie the assurance necessary to slip to the casement and swing it open, thinking that a breath of pure air would be quite agreeable and perhaps blow out a little of the smoke. But, behold! a change now comes o’er the man. With the intensest of excitement he leaps to the spot, with a “No, no. Monsieur! No, no. Monsieur!” and on the instant everything is made fast again. The windows must not be open, for there are rogues and rascals outside who might look in and get the show for nothing.
As for the show, well, it was quite like those given in America, no better, not much worse. There were the ascension of aviators, cosmopolitan dances. Biblical representations, elopements of fond lovers, with tyrannical parents, and the mischievous city kids, who go to grandfather’s farm to give their parents a rest, spill the ink on the parlor carpet, steal the jam, overturn milk pans, make bonfires of the haystacks, and let out all the live stock.
The operator seemed to think that the pictures needed a great deal of explication and kept up a flow of talk very amusing, both to those who understood and to those who partly understood. More than that he gave his opinion of what was being enacted before the eyes, and made jocular remarks concerning the deeds done on the screen, especially when they chanced to be all about love and the bel amoureux, all of which were highly appreciated by the audience. In fact, it was as responsive an audience as one often sees. Like Sir Roger de Coverly, they took the situations seriously and applauded where they approved, and talked over the scenes presented as though they were a part of real life. In fact all through the performance they discoursed with each other audibly.
One novel feature was an intermission of ten or fifteen minutes when the performance was about half accomplished. At this time a man smoking a cigarette passed through the hall selling little favors done up in twisted papers and loudly bawling out an urgent invitation for people to buy. It was then that I noticed for the first time our blanchisseuse in clean blouse and apron, looking radiantly happy. Then, too, that there might be no cessation of entertainment, a ruddy-faced old rustic, in clumsy wooden shoes, took it upon himself to get merry and jump over one of the benches. A roar of laughter rewarded the old chap for his pains. The Château party ate French lemon drops and peppermints from paper bags, and breathed deeply of the fresh air that was then entering, for during the recess there was no objection to open doors and windows.
The show lasted something over two hours. Even the franc-and-a-half people had had their money’s worth. Disregarding the Cinema, the real enjoyment had come from seeing the peasant class at a show. That was a novel experience and worth the price. As I went out the door, the ticket-seller said to me, “C’est bon, n’est-ce pas, Madame?” And I answered, “Oui, Madame, très amusant” using the same phrase that Mademoiselle L. had used in speaking of Billie. This seemed to give such entire satisfaction that I couldn’t help feeling quite a bit of pride in my proficiency in the French tongue.
Comments: Miriam Irene Kimball was an American teacher who spent the summer of 1913 at a chateau at Soisy-sur-Seine in France and produced a privately-printed account of her experiences, from which the above extract is taken. ‘Barnum’s Cinema’ would have had nothing to do with the deceased American impresario P.T. Barnum, except through appropriating his name to denote glamour. The programme reproduced in the book is curious, as the films it announces are from widely different dates, and it has some English text. It may not be genuine.
Source: S[amuel] Begg, ‘A Hospital-Ceiling as a Screen for Moving Pictures: a Cinema for Bedridden Wounded Soldiers at a Base in France’, The Illustrated London News, 10 August 1918, p. 1, reproduced at http://www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com/item/a-hospital-ceiling-as-a-scren-for-movig-pictures-a-cinema-for-bedridde-iln0-1918-0810-0001-002/
Comments: Samuel Begg (1854-1936) was a British artist, who was raised in New Zealand, and who became well-known as an illustrator for the British magazine The Illustrated London News. The text that accompanied it says:
A novel use of the cinematograph has been introduced into certain American base hospitals in France. For the amusement of wounded men who are unable to sit up or leave their beds, pictures are thrown on the ceiling above their beds by means of portable projectors. Thus they are enabled to enjoy the antics of Charlie Chaplin and other heroes and heroines of the “movies,” like their more fortunate comrades, who can move about and attend the ordinary type of cinema entertainment. How great a boon this ingenious device has proved to bedridden patients may be easily realised by anyone who has ever spent long and tedious hours in bed watching the vagaries of flies crawling on a ceiling.
The image and text were based on this original published in the American magazine Popular Mechanics, July 1918 p. 163 (unnamed artist):
Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘The Cinema in the Arena’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 38-40. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 12 September 1925
Text: The arena of Nîmes holds celebrated bullfights some afternoons, but in the evenings it houses a cinema, which is a rather more cultured thing than a bullfight. Currently. it is playing The Ten Commandments, that great American film that has already been shown in Germany. In the evening I take myself to the arena.
You have to hope it will stay dry, and in Nîmes the chances of that are good. It rains very rarely here, and never for long. The stones cool off in the evening. A couple of arc lamps light up half the arena. The other half is left in shade. The ghostly white forms of the huge crumbling blocks of stone loom up out of it. They have already been through so much, these stones. In the Middle Ages, two hundred families lived in the walls of the arena and built a church (in one of the spacious arches). In wartime the arena became a fortress. It survived the changing epochs, and time and again was emblematic of its era. Now, in 1925, it is no longer a church but a cinema, admittedly a cinema showing The Ten Commandments. At a time when these commandments are not much obeyed, that’s already saying something.
In the middle of the arena there’s the screen, like a white board in a classroom. In the archway opposite, the projector is purring away. The orchestra sits in front of the screen. The members of the audience (for fifty centimes) are free to wander about on the upper and lower stone seats. Some, who prefer to be cool and lofty, stand on the top edge of the wall, black against the blue sky. It’s a most marvelous cinema, cool, clean, without any danger of fire, and much more magnificent than a cinema has any need to be. If any Americans happen by, then surely by next year they’ll have put up a big concrete bowl, the largest in the world, with velvet trim, water closets, and glass roof.
Before the show the children play catch behind the screen, and hide-and-seek, and grandmother’s footsteps. All the children of Nîmes – and the people here have many children – go to the cinema. The mothers don’t forget to bring their infants. The youngest visitors are admitted free, though admittedly they don’t see anything but lie on their backs under the night sky, with open mouths as though to swallow the stars.
It seems almost feasible. Hereabouts the night sky is very open-handed with shooting stars. They fall not in an are, as they do in the North, but sideways, as if the heavens were rotating. There are several kinds of shooting stars. While the sentimental, ocean-diluted Bible is being shown on screen, the best thing to do is watch the shooting stars. Some are large, red, and lumpy. They slowly wipe across the sky, as though they were strolling, and leave a thin, bloody trail. Others again are small, swift, and silver. They fly like bullets. Others glow like little running suns and brighten the horizon considerably for quite some time.
Sometimes it’s as though the heavens opened and showed us a glimpse of red-gold lining. Then the split quickly closes, and the majesty is once more hidden for good.
From time to time a large, shooting star falls quite close. Then it’s like a silver rain. Each one vanishes in the same direction. Then the apparent quiet is restored to the deep blue, that everlasting fixity of the stars, of which we still manage to feel that they move, even if we didn’t know it.
There they are again, the old familiar constellations that remind everyone of childhood, because it was only as a child that one gazed at them so raptly. They are everywhere. There you are, so remote from your childhood, and yet you meet it again. That’s how small the world is.
And if you think some of it is foreign, you’re mistaken. Everywhere is home. The Great Bear is a little nearer, that’s all.
It was a good idea to put on a film in the old Roman arena. In such a cinema you come to comforting conclusions, as long as you look at the sky, rather than the screen.
Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The Arena of Nîmes is a Roman amphitheatre built around AD 70 and is used today for public events, including concerts. The film mentioned is The Ten Commandments (USA 1923), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Source: Extract from Louis Delluc, ‘The Crowd’ (originally ‘La Foule’, Paris-Midi, 24 August 1918, p. 2), reproduced and translated in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism: a History/Anthology, 1907-1939 – Volume I: 1907-1929 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 161
Text: Another audience. At the Saturday evening screening of the only cinema palace of the town, the Tout-Aurillac, a first-run and second-run house. Convalescents, billeted soldiers, respectable families, respectable young girls, the smoke from pipes, the ritornellos of an untuned piano, all in a deep, dark, cold cinema with Le Courrier de Washington on the marquee.
They also screened La Lumière qui s’éteint, an English film previewed in Paris last winter. Despite its almost unanimous lack of culture, the audience was deeply moved by the inner adventures of Maisie, Dick, and Torp. And you know what became of the great Kipling’s work on film. An ordinary anecdote, badly decorated and photographed, with a sad, heavy actor playing Dick – when will we see Douglas Fairbanks in the part? – a fop as Torp, a fool as Maisie, and unbelievable Arab battles, let’s be blunt, a cardboard Sudanese Khartoum. There is a film to do over again.
Why was this rough peasant audience affected in front of this artless and unauthorized gaucherie? Will it understand even more when the same drama becomes a quite beautiful film?
Comments: Louis Delluc (1890-1924) was a French film director and pioneering film critic, writing on diverse aspects of film culture for French newspapers from 1917 onwards. Le Courrier de Washington was the French title for the American serial The Perils of Pauline (1914). La Lumière qui s’éteint is presumably The Light That Failed (1916), an American rather than an English film, directed by Edward José and starring Robert Edeson as Dick, Claude Fleming as Torp and Lillian Tucker as Maisie. Aurillac is in the Auvergne region of south-central France.