Moving Pictures

Source: Stephen Paget, ‘Moving Pictures’, in I Sometimes Think: Essays for the Young People (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 68-85

Text: We are so accustomed to moving pictures, that we do not trouble ourselves to study their nature, or their place in the general order of things. We take them for granted. Youth, especially, takes them for granted, having no memory of a time when they were not. But some of us were born into a world in which all the pictures stood still: and I challenge youth to defend the cause of moving pictures. Let the lists be set, and the signal given for the assault. On the shield of youth, the motto is Moving Pictures are All Right. On my antiquated shield, the motto is Pictures Ought Not to Move.

Pictures, of one sort or another, are of immemorial age. Portraits of the mammoth were scratched on gnawed bones, by cave-dwellers, centuries of centuries ago: and we look now at their dug-up work, and feel ourselves in touch with them. The nature of pictures was decided at the very beginning of things, as the natures of trees and of metals were decided. It is not the nature of trees to walk, nor of metals to run uphill: it is not the nature of pictures to move. Pictures and statues, by the law of their being, are forbidden to move. That commandment is laid on them which Joshua, in the Bible-story, lays on the sun and the moon–Stand thou still. They must be motionless: ’tis their nature to: they exist on that understanding, as you and I exist on the understanding that we are mortal. If I were not to die, I should not be a man. If pictures were to move, they would not be pictures.

So we come to this difficulty, that moving pictures are not pictures. We cannot evade it by giving another name to them; for it is a difficulty not of names but of natures. Let us examine it with decent care.

Moving pictures have got mankind in their enchanted net. They have unfailing power over us. Old and young, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, we are all under their spell. So magical are they, that every owner of a picture-palace would have been burned alive, not very long ago, for diabolical practices. The world is their scenery, life is their repertory, and all things in earth and air and sea are their company. They will give you, like the strolling players in Hamlet, what you desire:–

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene
individable, or poem unlimited.

Every little country-town is familiar with this vivid and precipitate entertainment. No other invention of our time–neither the electric light, nor telephones, nor aeroplanes, nor all three of them together–can show such a record of change wrought on us. Well then, what is wrong with moving pictures? Is anything wrong with them? Why should not pictures move, now that they can?

No, they must mind their own business, and do their duty in that state of life unto which it has pleased God to call them. It is not their business to move. If they were to move, the effect would be horrible: it would kill our enjoyment of them. Imagine how we should feel, if sculpture could be made to move: statues of Royalty bowing this way and that, statues of orators waving scrolls, and statues of generals waving swords: the lions in Trafalgar Square shaking their manes, and Miss Nightingale in Pall Mall raising and lowering her lamp. We should be pleased for a day or two, then bored, then disgusted. Imagine our pictures moving: the photographs on the mantelpiece, the advertisements, the big Raphael in the National Gallery.

The advertisements would matter least, because nobody cares how advertisements behave or misbehave. I have one in front of me, at this moment, from a religious journal, or a patent medicine which “creates cheerfulness by cleansing the system of its poisonous bye-products.” There is a picture of two men, one moping, the other alert. I should not like to see it move. I prefer it as it is. My imagination is free, so long as the picture is motionless; but would be hindered, if the picture moved.

The photograph of a friend, on my mantelpiece, gives play to my remembrance of him. Within the limits of photography, it is perfect. But if it moved–if its eyes followed me about the room, and its hands had that little gesture which he had with his hands, and its lips opened and shut–it would be hateful, and I should throw it in the fire.

The great pictures in the National Gallery–the Rembrandt portraits, the Raphael Madonnas–imagine them moving. Their beauty would vanish, their nature would be destroyed. The Trustees would immediately sell them, to get rid of them. Probably, they would go on tour: admission threepence, children a penny. Then they would be “filmed,” and the films would be “released,” and a hundred reproductions would be gibbering all over the country. The originals would finally be bartered, in Central Africa, to impressionable native potentates, in exchange for skins or tusks: and if pictures were able to curse, these certainly would curse the day on which they began to move.

By these instances, it is evident that pictures ought not to move. The worse they are, the less it would shock us if they did. The better they are, the more it would shock us. Why must they not move? Because they are works of art. It follows, that moving pictures are not works of art.

They are works of science: they are “scientific toys.” Science invented them, just for the fun of inventing them: made them out of an old “optical illusion.” They are that friend of my childhood, the zoëtrope, or wheel of life, adjusted to show the products of instantaneous photography. They are “applied science.” You are so familiar with them that you overlook the ingenuity of them. Here I have the advantage of you: for they came so late into my life that I was properly amazed at them. My first sight of a moving picture, like my first sight of an x-ray picture, was a revelation not to be forgotten. There was a procession of cavalry: and when I saw a photograph whisking its tail, I marvelled at a new power come into the world, and am still marvelling. But you will never get the full delight of moving pictures till you have lectured with them, been behind the scenes, handled films, and become well acquainted with those hot little fire-proof chambers where the wheels are set spinning, and the great shafts of light are projected, and out of the whirlwind of electrical forces the picture flings itself on the screen. Only, for this invention, give honour where honour is due, to Science.

But scientific inventions, unlike works of art, have an immeasurable power of growth and development. They can be improved ad libitum: they can be multiplied ad infinitum. Nothing could be less like a work of art coming from a studio than a scientific invention coming from a laboratory. The work of art is made once and for all: it may be copied, but it cannot be repeated: you cannot have two sets of Elgin Marbles, or two Sistine Madonnas. The scientific invention is like the genie who came out of the fisherman’s jar: you cannot tell where it will stop, nor what it will do next. Moving pictures may be nothing more than a scientific toy, but they are the whole world’s favourite toy: the whole world is playing with them: and if they were suddenly to be taken away, the whole world would miss them. Think what a colossal enterprise this world’s plaything now is: what legions of lives, what millions of money, are spent over the production, multiplication, and exhibition of moving pictures. Famous actors pose for them, thousands of secondary actors make a living out of them, the ends of the earth are ransacked for new scenes and subjects: even politics, and international rivalries, are dragged in the train of this huge industry. I have read of the factions which divided the people of Byzantium over their chariot-races: but these were nothing to the world’s submission to moving pictures. Is there any limit to their kingdom, any measure of their influences? These factories and companies and wholesale houses and palaces and flaming advertisements everywhere–what will be the end of it all? Thirty years hence, will they have more power over us than they have now, or less?

I hope they will have less, and will use it more carefully. I should like to see the War bring down the moving-pictures business to one-third of its present size, bring it down with a rush, and with the prospect of a further reduction. Picture-palaces in London are like public-houses: too many of them, too many of us nipping in them; too many people making money out of us, whether we be nipping in the palaces or the houses. The more we patronise them, the more they exploit us: and some of us are taking more films than are good for us. Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? But we can easily get so fond of cakes and ale that we spoil our appetites for our regular meals. Besides, our cakes ought to be wholesome, and our ale ought not to be adulterated. The bill of fare, at the picture-palaces, includes trash: but it pays them to sell it to us: and we behave as if these palaces belonged to us, while they behave as if we belonged to them. Picture-palaces and public-houses, alike, amuse all of us and enrich some of us: they do good, they do harm: they have to be watched, these by censorship, those by the police: and both these and those are backed by wealth, and by interests too powerful to be set aside. The differences between them are accidental: the likenesses between them are essential. The moving-pictures trade is the younger of the two: and the result on us of too many films is different from the result of too much liquor. But these differences are not very profound: and the likenesses are plain enough. They would be even more plain to us, if we could have our moving pictures at home, as we have our liquor, out of a bottle. We have to go into the street for them: we have to consume them on the premises. If we could have them at home, as it were in half-pints, all to ourselves, we should more distinctly feel it our duty to draw the line at one or two, for fear of getting into a habit of them.

II

What is the nature of moving pictures? What are they “of themselves,” and where do they come in the general order of things? Take, for instance, a waterfall. If we look at a waterfall, we see water moving. If we look at a picture of a waterfall, we imagine water moving. If we look at a moving picture of a waterfall, we see a picture moving, a very beautiful object: still, we are looking at an “optical illusion,” not at a waterfall. Or take a more critical example: take a moving picture which not merely moves, but acts. What is it, really, that we are looking at, when we see, on the screen, Hamlet, or How She Rescued Him, or Charlie Chaplin? It was my privilege and honour, in the first winter of the War, to give lantern-lectures to soldiers, on the protective treatment against typhoid fever: and one happy day, we had Charlie Chaplin, till it was time to have Pasteur and the bacilli of typhoid. Besides, I have met his flat effigy, again and again, outside the palaces: that little hat and moustache, and the look of Shelley about the eyes, and that suit of clothes, and the little cane which, like General Gordon’s, is so curiously personal and inseparable from him. So I feel that I know him; and I know that I envy him: for he makes, they say, a very large income: and the laughter which he gave us that day was as clean and wholesome as the smell of a pinewood: which is more than you can say of all picture-house laughter.

But what is it, really, that I was looking at, on the screen? He is an actor equal to Dan Leno: the same unfaltering originality, the same talent for dominating the scene, holding our attention, appealing to us by his diminutive stature, his gentle acceptance of situations as he finds them, his half-unconscious air of doing unnatural things in a natural way. But think what we lose in the transition from Dan Leno on the stage to Charlie Chaplin on the screen. Dan was really there: Charlie is not. Dan talked and sang: Charlie is mute. Dan’s performance was human: Charlie’s, by the cutting of the film, and by the driving of the machine at great speed, is super-human. In brief, on the Drury Lane stage I saw Dan Leno, and heard him: but on the screen I do not see Charlie Chaplin–let alone hearing him: I see only a moving picture of him: and this picture so cleverly faked that I see him doing what he never did nor ever could. It was delightful, every moment of it: all the same, it is an optical illusion. Nor is it a straightforward illusion, like the old zoëtrope: it is rendered grotesque and fantastical by the conjuring-tricks of the people who made the film.

Still, he was delightful; for it was pantomime, dumb-show, knockabout farce, with a touch of magic in it. But I could not bring myself to see Macbeth or Hamlet on the screen; for I have seen Irving’s Macbeth and Forbes-Robertson’s Hamlet, heard their voices, learned my Shakespeare from them. Shakespeare without the words, Shakespeare without the living presence of the actor, would be intolerable. You can see, or lately could, at the “Old Vic” in the Waterloo Bridge Road, for threepence, Shakespeare acted, nobly acted, with simplicity and with dignity. Let nothing ever induce you to see him “filmed.”

Of the rest of the legion of filmed plays, let him write who can. The output of the London picture-palaces, in farce, comedy, drama, and melodrama, can hardly be less than two thousand plays twice in every twenty-four hours. Many of them are American: and those that I have seen were condensed, pungent, over-acted, and spun too fast. Now and again, a book is filmed as a play: for example, East Lynne, and Les Misérables. The effect of a filmed book might be very good: for you might get a pleasant sense that you were reading it with moving illustrations. The ordinary theatrical films cannot give you this sense. They are surprisingly clever. Only, the better they are, the more you want to have the real thing: to hear the voices, to see the players themselves. You cannot be properly thrilled by the best of heroines tied to a stake, nor by the worst of villains with a revolver: she is shrieking at the top of her voice–look at the size of her mouth–but where is the shriek? He fires–look at the smoke–but where is the bang? You are mildly excited: but you are not so excited as you ought to be: you know, all the time, that you are not at the play: you are at an optical illusion, looking with more or less interest at a scientific toy.

Give me leave to hammer at this point: for I want to make it clear to you and to myself. First, let us be agreed that a play on the stage is worth a thousand plays on the screen: for it is the real thing: it is real voices, living presences: the interpreters are there, as real as real can be. The artifices and conventions of play-acting do not spoil the reality of the play: it is only unimaginative minds which are baulked by them. A good play, well acted, satisfies and educates something in us which nothing else can reach. Call it the imagination, or the emotions, or whatever you like: the love of a good play is too old and too natural to care what name you give to it. A play on the screen is not real: there are neither voices, nor presences: there is only a moving picture, moving too swiftly to be a good picture of a play. You cannot command, over an optical illusion, the imagination and the emotions which come of themselves over a real play. They refuse to be fooled. Wrong number, they say, and put the receiver back on the hook.

It follows, that the best plays, on the screen, are those which can best afford to lose the advantage of voices and presences, and to be taken for what they are. Wild farce, with lots of conjuring-tricks in it, is the best of all. In pantomime, with a film so faked and speeded-up that fat men run a mile a minute, and cars whirl through space like shooting stars, and all Nature is convulsed, these picture-plays are at their best, joyfully turning the universe upside-down with the flick of a wheel. In the mad rush of impossibilities, there is no time for words, and no need of them. When Charlie Chaplin, for instance, leaned lightly against a huge stone column, and immediately it fell to bits, I did not want him to say anything: no words of his could sober an event so stupendously drunk.

But more ambitious films, which pretend to give us comedy and drama, are less successful. You miss the sound of voices: you miss the presence of the living actors. The poorer the play is, the less you miss them. Thus, you can enjoy, for the few minutes of its existence, a sensational film, a bit of claptrap and swagger: but Heaven forbid that you should enjoy Shakespeare filmed, with scraps of words thrown on the screen at short intervals.

Judge the performance of a moving picture as you judge the performance of a gramophone. Each is a scientific toy: each produces an illusion, the one through our eyes and the other through our ears: and each gets its best results by staying inside its natural limits. Comic sounds, comic songs, swinging band-music with lots of brass and big drum in it, go well on a gramophone. But do you want to hear high-class music on it? Do you want to hear the voice of a dead friend on it? Not you: let it stick to being a gramophone: let it not profane either the music of the Immortals, or the voices of the dead.

III

The answer comes, that all this talk is tainted with self-conceit. That you and I are superior persons, forgetful of “the masses.” That the picture-palaces enliven the dullness of thousands of stupid little country-towns, and are a safe refuge of entertainment for legions of young men and young women who would have no other meeting-place but the streets. That moving pictures amuse the whole nation, and quicken the mind and widen the outlook and charm the leisure of countless lives more heavily burdened than yours and mine: lives of the hard-driven ill-educated “masses,” who cannot be expected to care for Shakespeare and the National Gallery.

And there is much truth in this answer. Only, it is a one-sided statement. If you could take the opinions of London working-women, with families of young children, just enough wages coming-in to keep a home over their heads, and a flaming picture-palace, with a lot of nasty trash on its programme, just round the corner, you would hear many opinions unfavourable to them rubbishy pictures: many descriptions of the children’s nerves upset by sham horrors, and the children’s pennies wasted on stuff which ought to be labelled Poisonous. The chief business of the palaces is to make money out of us. Where it pays them to give us rubbish, there they give us rubbish: where it pays them to raise a laugh over something disgraceful to us, there they set themselves to be blackguardly.

But praise them for that great gift which they, and they alone, can give to us. Moving pictures of real things, moving pictures of real life–we can never be too thankful for these. It is these, which are the new power come into the world. To watch, on the screen, every moment of the swing of waves and the dash of surf, every fleck of light on a river, every leaf stirring in the wind, is a grand experience: you find yourself watching them with more attention than you bestow on real water and real woods. For, on the screen, you are looking at pure movement, all by itself: you are not distracted by any thought of bathing in that sea, or of going on it: you just watch it, enjoying the mere sight of it moving.

In the display of moving pictures of real things, all the way up from elemental movement to human action, the picture-palace is our good friend: it is servant, by divine appointment, to reality. Moving pictures of living germs of disease, colossally magnified by the adjustment of micro-photography to the making of a film, are the delight of all doctors: moving pictures of wild creatures are the delight of all naturalists: scenes of human life in diverse parts of the world–the crowds in London streets, the crowds in Eastern bazaars, the work and play and habits and customs of the nations–these are the delight of all of us, and will never cease to delight us. For this wealth of visions, this treasury of knowledge, let us be properly grateful.

Only, the higher we go, the more careful we must be to exercise restraint and reverence. It is one thing, to film dumbshow, and another thing, to film real life and real death. Of living men, whom shall we film, and under what conditions, that we may pay sixpence to see them without loss of dignity in them, and without loss of reverence in ourselves? Crowds are not the difficulty: for they are comedy: but we ought to think twice before we film the tragedy of a crowd of people scared or starved. The difficulty is with single figures of great men, or a little group of them, or a multitude of men employed in the business of a great tragedy. Have we any rule, in this matter, to guide us?

During the last few weeks–here is mid-September–we have been made to think over these questions, by the proposal to film the Cabinet, and by the exhibition of the Somme pictures.

The proposal to film the Cabinet was abandoned. The plan was not to film a real Cabinet Council, but to film the Members of the Cabinet, in the Council-room, looking, more or less, as if they were holding a real Council.

Thus, it would have been a picture of real life, but of real life posing for the camera. His Majesty’s Ministers would have put themselves under some of the conditions of acting for a picture-play. This they would have done to please us: they would have shown themselves to us, looking just as they look when they are at work for us. The objection was raised, that the Cabinet would lose dignity: you will find a parallel passage in Shakespeare: and the point for us here is, that the value of a moving picture of a great man is lowered, if he is posing for it. There is no man too great to be filmed, if only he be unconscious of the process, or absolutely indifferent to it: but it is said that the one King who has posed in a group taken for his political advantage is Ferdinand of Bulgaria. Sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat. Much comfort will his people have of this moving picture of him, six months hence.

But the Somme pictures: the official pictures, taken for our Government, of the advance on the Western Front. A moving picture of a little group of great men, behaving as the camera expects them to behave, might deservedly fail to have power over us. But here are legions of men, not under orders from the camera, but employed in a business of tragedy such as the world has never suffered till now: men great, not in the Westminster-Abbey sense of the word, but in the greatness of their purpose, in their unconquerable discipline, their endurance: they go into the presence of Death without looking back, and they come out from it laughing, some of them: you see them treading Fear under their feet, you see Heaven, revealed in their will, flinging itself on the screen. You and I, safe and snug over here, let us receive what they give us, their example.

Be content to see these pictures once: they are too tragic to be taken lightly: but see them, if it be only to understand what the picture-palaces might achieve for your country. That which began as a scientific toy has become a world-power. Certain firms, preferring money to honour, have turned it to vile uses, and have proved themselves to be enemies of the people. But things will mend: they will mend very slowly, but the War will help them to mend: and the picture-palaces will gradually learn to take us seriously, and to play down to us less, and up to us more.

Comments: Stephen Paget (1855-1926) was a British surgeon and essayist. The Cabinet film referred to was an abortive attempt by Cecil Hepworth in 1916 to film the British cabinet as though in session, apparently cancelled after advance notice of the plans caused ridicule in some circles (though Hepworth did successfully film a series of ‘interviews’ with British politicians that same year). The ‘Somme pictures’ refers to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). My thanks to Nick Hiley who first drew this essay to my attention.

Links: Copy of I Sometimes Think at Internet Archive
Copy of ‘Moving Pictures’ essay at Gaslight
Discussion of the essay at The Bioscope

The Movies in Moscow

Source: V.P., extract from ‘The Movies in Moscow’, The Manchester Guardian, 5 January 1927, p. 16

Text: Since the vogue of “Potemkin” it has been recognised that we must reckon, both artistically and politically, with the Russian historical film. It is well to remember that under the Romanoffs historical drama was practically forbidden on the Russian stage; Alexis Tolstoy’s “Czar Feodor” was an exception, and even it was cut. With such a past, is it to be wondered at that among the hundred films made this year by the Soviets’ two big companies the majority are historical? Consider some of the titles: “The Year 1905,” “The Ninth of January,” “Pushkin and Nicolai the First,” “Rasputin’s Plot,” “The End of Koltchak,” “Ivan the Terrible,” “The Decembrists,” “Black Sunday,” “The Wings of the Slave.” As for the historical accuracy of these stories, we say the Soviets distort. The retort that they merely correct a previous distortion which silence has shaped, as a hole in the ground shapes the earth about its mouth.

When I asked my Russian friends on a recent visit to Moscow “What motion pictures are on now, and what shall I see?” they answered, “Our beautiful new film ‘Matt’ you must see. It is beautiful, as splendid as “Potemkin”; but of course it is about the revolution. It shows us again our sorrows. So we ourselves like best our newest comic picture ‘The Case of the Three Million.'”

The seats at the “Kino” were from forty kopecks to a rouble, and, wishing to be as inconspicuous a stranger as possible, I compromised on a fifty-kopeck place. Yes, said the girl at the window, the picture had just begun, but, of course, I could enter. And would I not like her to keep an extra five kopecks of the change and give me this postcard instead? The extra was for the British miners – it was not obligatory, but it would be gracious of me. The postcard was a picture of Lenin making a speech.

Then I went upstairs and found myself in a long foyer, where I was made to understand that I must wait for the next show because it was taken for granted no one would care to see a picture in the middle or disturb others already arrived. After two hours I was admitted, and found myself unpleasantly conspicuous as the only person sitting in the cheap seats; three or four rows behind me the audience began to appear, and far back, where the view was good, were all the rouble places – full. As for “The Case of the Three Million,” it was a bad film, but interesting, about a comic thief whom, at the end of his nefarious adventures, we saw tailored into a serious, self-satisfied bourgeois and sending a pitiful pickpocket who had inefficiently filched his white gloves to gaol. Another day I saw a new picture, not yet released, called “The Wings of the Slave” – of little interest, except that it was incredibly cruel. The slave was a sixteenth-century peasant who made himself a pair of wings that worked and, before the Czar and his Court, flew to the ground from a high tower, proved the principle of the airplane, and was persecuted by the Czar. He was imprisoned and his wings were smashed because it was believed that such intelligence could only come from the Devil. But this flying scene was but one scene in thousands of feet of film unwinding one horror after another – stupid horror that showed all nobles cruel and all peasants kind, and showed these things without beauty or reticence or any hint of any principle of art. This indescribable picture was shown us in a little room in a school building, and as its horrors accumulated I heard the voice of little children raised in repeating lessons, and after a little while some of them came and watched with us. Could this thing be made by men of the same community as those who had made “Potemkin”? But apparently it was the public, not the company, that knew how to appraise “Potemkin.” “Its success was a great surprise to us,” said the Sov-Kino, “a great triumph.” I was told many interesting things. The great popularity here of the American films is permitted because it was felt after the Revolution that kinos must be kept open at all costs, and there were no Russian pictures to fill them, so the American pictures were freely cut and recaptioned and distributed. Now the Russians make films of their own; but a film that only runs in Russia earns only one-third of its cost, so a foreign market will be acceptable. No noticeable stars have arisen in the Red film firmament, nor are the 300 student-players now studying in Moscow at the Kinema University encouraged to aspire to stardom, nor the stage stars encouraged to come to the screen. Balanovkaya is a name to remember; and, after Eisenstein, who is now in the provinces making a new historical film, the three best producers are Ivonosky, Kilischoff, and Pudolfkin. It was Pudolfkin who made “Matt.” …

Comments: The article is signed ‘V.P.’. Among the films mentioned are Bronenosets Potemkin / Battleship Potemkin (USSR 1925), Devyatoe yanvarya / The Ninth of January (USSR 1925), Poet and Tsar / Poet i tsar (USSR 1927), Konets Sankt-Peterburga / The End of St Petersburg (USSR 1927), Dekabristi / The Decembrists (USSR 1927), Krylya kholopa / Wings of a Serf (USSR 1926), Mat / Mother (USSR 1926), Protsess o tryokh millyonakh / The Three Million Case (USSR 1926). The Year 1905 was a planned multi-episode history from which Battleship Potemkin was the only outcome. Ivan the Terrible was title given to Wings of a Serf when shown outside the USSR. I cannot identify Rasputin’s Plot or Black Sunday. The film directors mentioned are Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Ivanovsky, Lev Kuleshov (presumably) and Vsevolod Pudovkin. The article continues with a review of Pudovkin’s film Mat.

Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress

Source: Vachel Lindsay, ‘Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress (After seeing the reel called “Oil and Water”)’ in The Congo, and other poems (New York: Macmillan, 1918 – orig. pub. 1914), pp. 108-110

Text:
Beauty has a throne-room
In our humorous town,
Spoiling its hob-goblins,
Laughing shadows down.
Rank musicians torture
Ragtime ballads vile,
But we walk serenely
Down the odorous aisle.
We forgive the squalor
And the boom and squeal
For the Great Queen flashes
From the moving reel.

Just a prim blonde stranger
In her early day,
Hiding brilliant weapons,
Too averse to play,
Then she burst upon us
Dancing through the night.
Oh, her maiden radiance,
Veils and roses white.
With new powers, yet cautious,
Not too smart or skilled,
That first flash of dancing
Wrought the thing she willed:-
Mobs of us made noble
By her strong desire,
By her white, uplifting,
Royal romance-fire.

Though the tin piano
Snarls its tango rude,
Though the chairs are shaky
And the dramas crude,
Solemn are her motions,
Stately are her wiles,
Filling oafs with wisdom,
Saving souls with smiles;
‘Mid the restless actors
She is rich and slow.
She will stand like marble,
She will pause and glow,
Though the film is twitching,
Keep a peaceful reign,
Ruler of her passion,
Ruler of our pain!

Comments: Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) was an American poet with a particular interest in the cinema. He wrote several poems on film stars, and a somewhat high-flown work of early film theory, The Art of the Motion Picture (1915). Blanche Sweet was an American film actress, best known for her performances in the films of D.W. Griffith, including Oil and Water (USA 1913).

Links: Copy of The Congo, and other poems at Internet Archive

Autobiography of a Yogi

Source: Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1946)

Text: The motion picture art can portray any miracle. From the impressive visual standpoint, no marvel is barred to trick photography. A man’s transparent astral body can be seen rising from his gross physical form, he can walk on the water, resurrect the dead, reverse the natural sequence of developments, and play havoc with time and space. Assembling the light images as he pleases, the photographer achieves optical wonders which a true master produces with actual light rays.

The lifelike images of the motion picture illustrate many truths concerning creation. The Cosmic Director has written His own plays, and assembled the tremendous casts for the pageant of the centuries. From the dark booth of eternity, He pours His creative beam through the films of successive ages, and the pictures are thrown on the screen of space. Just as the motion-picture images appear to be real, but are only combinations of light and shade, so is the universal variety a delusive seeming. The planetary spheres, with their countless forms of life, are naught but figures in a cosmic motion picture, temporarily true to five sense perceptions as the scenes are cast on the screen of man’s consciousness by the infinite creative beam.

A cinema audience can look up and see that all screen images are appearing through the instrumentality of one imageless beam of light. The colorful universal drama is similarly issuing from the single white light of a Cosmic Source. With inconceivable ingenuity God is staging an entertainment for His human children, making them actors as well as audience in His planetary theater.

One day I entered a motion picture house to view a newsreel of the European battlefields. World War I was still being waged in the West; the newsreel recorded the carnage with such realism that I left the theater with a troubled heart.

“Lord,” I prayed, “why dost Thou permit such suffering?”

To my intense surprise, an instant answer came in the form of a vision of the actual European battlefields. The horror of the struggle, filled with the dead and dying, far surpassed in ferocity any representation of the newsreel.

“Look intently!” A gentle voice spoke to my inner consciousness. “You will see that these scenes now being enacted in France are nothing but a play of chiaroscuro. They are the cosmic motion picture, as real and as unreal as the theater newsreel you have just seen – a play within a play.”

My heart was still not comforted. The divine voice went on: “Creation is light and shadow both, else no picture is possible. The good and evil of maya must ever alternate in supremacy. If joy were ceaseless here in this world, would man ever seek another? Without suffering he scarcely cares to recall that he has forsaken his eternal home. Pain is a prod to remembrance. The way of escape is through wisdom! The tragedy of death is unreal; those who shudder at it are like an ignorant actor who dies of fright on the stage when nothing more is fired at him than a blank cartridge. My sons are the children of light; they will not sleep forever in delusion.”

Although I had read scriptural accounts of maya, they had not given me the deep insight that came with the personal visions and their accompanying words of consolation. One’s values are profoundly changed when he is finally convinced that creation is only a vast motion picture, and that not in it, but beyond it, lies his own reality.

Comments: Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was an Indian guru, renowned for his 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi through which he spread the idea of yoga and meditation worldwide. This distinctive memory of cinemagoing comes from the First World War period, when he was living in India. Maya means ‘cosmic delusion.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

The Cinématographe in Rochester, New York

Source: Excerpt from The Post-Express, Rochester New York, 6 February 1897 p. 14, quoted in George C. Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film (Greenwich, Conn.: new York Graphic Society, 1973), pp. 17-18

Text: The Lumière Cinématographe will begin its fifteenth consecutive week at the Wonderland [Theatre] next week, continuing what was log ago the longest run ever made by any one attraction in this city. People go to see it again and again, for even the familiar views reveal some new feature with each successive exhibition. Take, for example, BABY’S BREAKFAST, shown last week and this. It represents Papa and Mamma fondly feeding the junior member of the household. So intent is the spectator usually in watching the proceedings of the happy trio at table that he fails to notice the pretty background of trees and shrubbery, whose waving branches indicate that a stiff breeze is blowing. So it is in each of the pictures shown; they are full of interesting little details that come out one by one when the same views are seen several times …

Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe made its USA debut at Keith’s Union Square Theater, New York, on 29 June 1896. The film described here is Le Repas de Bébé (France 1895). It featured Auguste and Marguerite Lumière and their baby daughter Andrée.

This Spoon-Fed Generation?

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: This Spoon-fed Generation?’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 4, December 1931, pp. 304-308

Text: When, not so very long ago, Everyman’s earth was motionless and solid beneath his feet, his immediate concerns were apt to fill and close his horizon. He knew, dimly and forgetfully, that his world, inhabited by foreigners as well as by the English, was engaged in hurtling through space at unimaginable speed and had possibly heard that the solid part of it was but a thin crust. But he thought in terms of solidity, and his universe was a vague beyond that mattered but little in comparison with his personal beyond, the stable world of daily life whose ways he knew and whose unchangeability.

Each generation, it is true, has had in turn to experience the break-up of a known world. The remotest historical records yield anathema, that might have been written yesterday, on modern noise and hustle, on new-fangled ideas and the perilous paths pursued by the ignorant young; and wistful longings for the good old days.

But until to-day Everyman remained relatively self-contained, and could plan his life with fair certainty in a surrounding that could be counted upon to remain more or less in place. Himself, his house, street, town, nation, all were stable; and beyond these secure stabilities his imagination rarely wandered.

The normal moral shocks awaiting him came gently. They were called disillusionments: change and decay, the loss, with age, of the sense of personal stability and personal permanence. But the solid earth remained unchanged, and one of the consolations of the elderly sane was the enchantment, growing in proportion to their own detachment, of the distant view of life, focussed now for the first time and free from the fret of immediacy, taking on an ever more moving beauty and intensity.

But to-day, it is not only that science from whom had come the news of the tumultuous movement of everything, has begun to doubt the sufficiency of its methods of approach to render any exact account of the ultimate nature of reality, but also that its news, all the latest news, that tomorrow may be contradicted, is now common property almost from the moment of its arrival.

Everyman lives in a world grown transparent and uncertain. Behind his experience of the rapidity and unpredicticability of change in the detail of his immediate surroundings is a varying measure of vicarious experience of the rapidity and unpredictability of change all over the world, and a dim sense that nobody knows with any certainty anything whatever about the universe of which his world is a part.

A new mental climate is in existence. Inhabited not only by those few whose lives are spent in research and those who are keenly on the lookout for the results of further research, but also in their degree by the myriads who have been born into the new world and can remember no other. Uncertainty, noise, speed, movement, rapidity of external change that has taught them to realise that to-morrow will not be as to-day, all these factors have helped to make the younger generation shock-proof in a manner unthinkable to the majority of their forbears.

And more than any other single factors (excepting perhaps Radio through which comes unlocalised, straight out of space, music with its incomparable directness of statement, and news forcing upon his attention the existence of others than himself and his relatives, friends and enemies; and knowledge, if he have the taste for it, and a truly catholic diversity of stated opinion) has the Cinema contributed to the change in the mental climate wherein Everyman has his being.

Insidiously. Not blatantly, after the manner of the accredited teacher, is the film educating Everyman, making him at home in a new world.

And this it is, this enlightment without tears, that makes so many of those who were brought up under a different dispensation cry and cry without ceasing against both Radio and Cinema as spoon-feeders of an Everyman who becomes more and more a looker and a listener, increasingly unwilling to spend his leisure otherwise than in being entertained.

Up hill and down dale we may criticise both Radio and Cinema. Nothing is easier. Nor is it other than desirable that the critical faculty should play freely upon these purveyors of Everyman’s spiritual nourishment. But it is surely deplorable that so many people, both good earnest folk and the gadfly cynic, should be so busy in and out of season with the parrot-cry of “spoon-feeding”? Deplorable that the Cinema, in the opinion of these pessimists, should be the worst offender. Radio, they declare, is sometimes, astonishingly and inexplicably, turned on as an accompaniment to occupation. But to “the pictures” everything is sacrificed; home, honour, mind, heart, body, soul and spirit. So they allege.

Is there an atom of justification for these wild statements? Do they not melt like morning mists before the sunny power of even half as much imaginative attention as the navvy may give to the average picture-show?

Cut out good films, instructional films, travelogues and all the rest of it. Leave only the average story-film, sensational or otherwise, the News Reel and the comic strip. Judge, condemn, all these, right and left. Is it possible to deny, even of this irreducible minimum of value, that it supplies to the bookless, thoughtless multitude the majority of whom do not make even that amount of unconscious contact with aesthetic and moral beauty that it is implied in going to church, a civilising influence more potent and direct than any other form of entertainment available in their leisure hours, and sufficiently attractive to draw them in large numbers? Is a man spoon-fed the moment he is not visibly and actively occupied?

Is there not a certain obscenity, a separation of the inner spirit from the outer manifestation thereof, in regarding pictures we despise and audiences we loftily look down upon in their momentary relationship as we imagine it to exist in the accursed picture-house? Should we not rather set ourselves the far more difficult task of conjuring up the pre-picture outlook on life of those who make no contact with art in any form, and then try to follow out in imagination the result of the innumerable gifts of almost any kind of film, bestowed along with it, unawares, and therefore remaining with the recipient all the more potently: the gift of quiet, of attention and concentration, of perspective? The social gifts: the insensibly learned awareness of alien people and alien ways? The awakening of the imaginative power, the gift of expansion, of moving, ever so little, into a new dimension of consciousness?

Surely those positive cultural activities are more than enough to balance the much-advertized undesirabilities and to disqualify the verdict of “spoon-feeding.”

The scaremongers would perhaps cease to wail if the film-fans, deserting the cinemas, battered down the closed doors of museums and picture-galleries and spent their evenings in silent contemplation not of lively human drama, and lively human nonsense and the living news of the changing world, but of the immortal frozen records of the things of the spirit that are unchanged from age to age.

Has it occurred to them to reflect that film-audiences, popular picture audiences, growing by the bread they have eaten, are maturing, are themselves cultivating and improving the medium from which they have drawn life? And that these audiences seen in the bulk, disregarding single, exceptional individuals, are much more capable of appreciating the wares of museum and gallery than were, in the bulk, their pictureless predecessors?

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Loitering with Intent

Source: Peter O’Toole, Loitering with Intent: The Child (New York: Hyperion, 1992), pp. 22-23

Text: The appalling, tormented end of King Kong upset me greatly. Gorgeous great monkey that he was. It was plain he meant no harm to the lady he held so carefully in his hand as he shimmied to the giddy top of the Empire State Building. You could see he was fond of the girl and only minding her. Why hadn’t they just let him be in his jungle? Wanting no more than to bump his chest, let rip the odd rumbling great yodel, chew a banana and fling a few trees about. Why capture him, rope and chain him, take him away to lock him up so that people could gawk at him? He was a superb beast. It was his capturers and keepers who were brutal. No wonder he broke loose and fled up the tallest thing to a tree he could find. But they chased him and found him and got him. They blinded him with search lights, they wounded him with bullets, they set aeroplanes on him, to fly at him and frighten him and shoot, shoot, shoot him. Wicked they all were and cruel. It pleased me hugely when King Kong snatched the aeroplane attacking him and snapped it into bits. Serve it right. None of it was fair and may King Kong be blessed forever for putting up a good scrap.

Mind you, there were hugs and sweets from Mummy to console. There was the sway and clatter of a tram ride to Roundelay Park to enjoy, ice cream to lick as my mother and I held sticky hands when we walked through the trees and down to my magical lake there.

Yes, I quite understood that King Kong was only a story, only a picture, it hadn’t really happened. They were only pretending, they hadn’t truly hurt that mighty monkey, it was just like a game. Mummy explained it all simply and clearly to me as we dipped our hands into the water of the lake to remove the vanilla and the strawberry and my mother had thrown the last of her ice-cream cornet to the ducks. And yet: I didn’t want to see that film ever again.

Comments: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013) became a notable screen actor. Roundelay Park is in Leeds. King Kong was made in 1933.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Muriel Giles, C707/433/1-3, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: What about the cinema, did you ever go to see a film or a matinee?

A. No, there were – wasn’t much in the cinema line in those days. I remember going to one when they first came out, my father took me – at Liverpool stat – just before Liverpool Street station – we were waiting for a train or something, and we had – and we went into this horrible little place and it was all – this was when they first came out, you know, it was all little benches you had to sit on, and it was Pearl White and those sort of people and – all these terrible things and then – nothing was speaking you see, it was all action and – and then just – they just leave you right in the midst of it, she was tied to the line and; the train was just coming along you know, and we had to go out.

Comments: Muriel Giles (1899-?) was born in Stoke Newington, London, and raised in Royston, Hertfordshire. Her father managed a timber yard. It is possible that the cinema she recalls was the Automatic Vaudeville and Daily Bioscope, which was located outside Liverpool Street station at 27-28 Bishopsgate Street Without and as the Daily Bioscope was arguably the first cinema in London, opening in May 1906. It remained in operation until at least 1913. Pearl White was the star of the Perils of Pauline serial, which was released in 1914. Mrs Giles was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

What's It All About?

Source: Michael Caine, What’s It all About? (London: Century, 1992), pp. 31-32

Text: We had won the war but the shops were empty and even to get your legal ration of things you had to queue for hours. The one blinding light in the middle of all this gloom was the cinema, where I could escape for a couple of hours to somewhere better – usually America. I became an absolute fanatic about the cinema and besotted with what seemed to me the glamour of America. Most dreams are a let-down, but the cinema has been more fantastic for me than anything I could have imagined in those dark, depressing days, and America itself greater than anything I could have possibly imagined it to be. I really don’t know what I would have done at that time without the cinema and the public library, the two places where I could escape the grim reality of everyday life. I short I had become what they always said in my school reports: a dreamer.

In the library again my influences were American. I became interested in books about the war. The British wrote about officers, with whom I could not identify, but then I found Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity; great books, written by ordinary soldiers about ordinary soldiers. I unconsciously started to identify with my own class in the cinema as well. The British cinema also seemed to be about the lives of the middle class and the aristocracy, whereas people in American films seemed to be to be more like me.

Comments: Michael Caine (b. 1933) is a British film actor, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. he returned to London after the war having been evacuated to Norfolk, and this portion of his memoirs is from his time in London.

What’s It All About?

Source: Michael Caine, What’s It all About? (London: Century, 1992), pp. 31-32

Text: We had won the war but the shops were empty and even to get your legal ration of things you had to queue for hours. The one blinding light in the middle of all this gloom was the cinema, where I could escape for a couple of hours to somewhere better – usually America. I became an absolute fanatic about the cinema and besotted with what seemed to me the glamour of America. Most dreams are a let-down, but the cinema has been more fantastic for me than anything I could have imagined in those dark, depressing days, and America itself greater than anything I could have possibly imagined it to be. I really don’t know what I would have done at that time without the cinema and the public library, the two places where I could escape the grim reality of everyday life. I short I had become what they always said in my school reports: a dreamer.

In the library again my influences were American. I became interested in books about the war. The British wrote about officers, with whom I could not identify, but then I found Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity; great books, written by ordinary soldiers about ordinary soldiers. I unconsciously started to identify with my own class in the cinema as well. The British cinema also seemed to be about the lives of the middle class and the aristocracy, whereas people in American films seemed to be to be more like me.

Comments: Michael Caine (b. 1933) is a British film actor, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. he returned to London after the war having been evacuated to Norfolk, and this portion of his memoirs is from his time in London.