Source: Osman Edwards, ‘Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn’, Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, vol. 16 (1918), pp. 16-32
Text: We know how he loved to mingle unobtrusively with the joys and sorrows of his unsophisticated neighbours. He gives the following account of a visit to a Tokyo cinema:
“Here I, too, have been looking at scenes of the Boer War – shadowed by the cinematograph. The representation was managed so as to create only sympathy for the Boers: and I acknowledge that it made my heart jump several times. The Boer girls and wives were displayed as shooting and being shot. What you would have enjoyed were the little discourses in Japanese, uttered between each exhibition. They were simple and appealed to Japanese sympathy, – to the sense of patriotism, and the duty of dying to the last man, woman, and child for one’s country.
Also I saw the Paris Exhibition (1900) in the Kinematograph – and – a can-can! Before the shadows began to dance, their dancing was properly apologised for to the Japanese audience. ‘It is rather queer dancing,’ said the man, ‘but the French think that it is very fine!’ The dancers kept white veils or something before them when they kicked, – police injunction, perhaps! You can imagine how the audience felt – and how I felt with them! And I was glad when it was over.”
Comments: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an Irish-Greek journalist and travel writer best known for books on Japan, where he lived from 1890, taking on Japanese nationality with the name Koizumi Yakumo. The films of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) may have been the fictions produced by the Edison company. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this reference to my attention.
Source: Karel Čapek (trans. Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová), ‘The Age of the Eyes’, The People’s Paper [Lidové noviny], 22 February 1925, reproduced in Believe in People: The Essential Karel Čapek (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pp. 18-20
Text: You may have noticed that conspicuously few old people go to the cinema. Even if you take into account that older people are as a rule more frugal and more comfortable, and all in all, less profligate than the rest of us, it’s not a sufficient explanation for why so few of them indulge in the depraved invention of luminous pictures. The older generation expresses open disgust for this modern spectacle. They mutter something like, ‘Don’t bother us with such tosh,’ and open yesterday’s paper or a fifty-year-old novel instead. Meanwhile, the said fifty-year-old novel is being enacted on the screen of a picture palace round the corner, and the rest of us, who are breathlessly watching its flying action, can’t understand that an old man has the patience to read such ancient trash. The average film is, in the vast majority of cases, much closer to Walter Scott than to, say, Vít Nezval, and resembles George Sand more closely than George Bernard Shaw. The average film doesn’t pick up on modern literature, but on old literature. As a matter of fact, it’s the direct successor of old novelistic fiction. The younger generation doesn’t realise that in the cinema they give themselves up to the lush imaginative world of their distant fathers. The older generation doesn’t have an inkling that the shadowy pictures they are so contemptuous of are bone of their bones, or rather I should say the shadow of their bones. Which is of course a typical, unbridgeable rift between the generations.
It seems to me, then, that the older generation doesn’t reject film because it’s too modern, or too silly, but for more profound reasons: because it’s too fast and isn’t rendered in words. I am of the opinion that older people would take pleasure in going to the cinema if texts instead of pictures were projected on the screen. In the beginning of their world is the word, not an optical event. A picture in itself, a picture without language, doesn’t mean anything; it must get words to acquire reality. An old man sees just shadows, shadows, shadows on the screen, bolting, and unreal. If they waited for a moment, he could find a term for them and describe them in words. But alas, they’ve gone, and new shadows are fluttering there in a mute hurry of events. The word lasts, the word can be remembered, the word is solid and firm. But movement doesn’t last long enough to be interpolated into what exists and what is valid; it’s just a change, a transition, and not a decent, reliable, enduring being. An old man watches the running film as if dreams were being shot before him; if he read in a book about a lissom damsel walking like a doe, he’d believe it, but when he sees a lissom damsel on the screen, walking like a doe, he doesn’t recognise this poetic moment because it’s not written there with binding words. It doesn’t say anything, it’s just phoney and monkey business. And the old man leaves the cinema as if he hadn’t seen anything. Don’t bother me with such tosh, he says.
A kind of re-education of people has really taken place here. A person sitting in the cinema must have found a shorter connection between the eye and the brain without the medium of words; in a technical sense, he may even have found a direct connection between the eye and the brain. The older generation probably lacks this direct connection, this leaping of a spark from the retina straight to the cerebral centres. They are more of a reading, conceptual type, while today’s man is becoming a visual type. My late Granny had to read out loud to properly understand what she was reading, for her the word was still an auditory, not a visual, image. In bygone times most readers must have perceived reading through the ear. Later on a more trained reader dropped this aural digression and understood directly by means of verbal signs. In film even the word has turned out to be a digression; we are learning to understand without words. I don’t want to decide if it is progress for the time being it’s a fact.
But surely film threatens literature to a considerable extent, not because it wants to replace it, but because it develops another kind of people – a visual instead of a reading type. The reading sort is patient; it takes its time to penetrate the circumstances, to bask in the descriptive passages and follow the conversation from start to finish. The visual type will not be so patient; it wants to seize the situation in a single glance, to comprehend the story without letting it last, and immediately see something new. But perhaps one day people will run from that stampede of pictures back to the book, to take a breather, or rather, they’ll have the radio narrate fairy tales and novels nice and slowly for them; they’ll listen with closed eyes, letting themselves be lulled by the word, which will re-assume its original destiny – to be spoken language. Maybe who knows? – maybe the book will die out, maybe it will become a curious cultural heritage like inscribed Babylonian bricks. But art will not die out.
Comments: Karel Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech novelist, essayist and playwright, best known for his science fiction works including the play R.U.R. which introduced the concept of the robot. He was no enthusiast for the cinema, but liked the audiences. Vít Nezval was Vítězslav Nezval, a Czech avant garde poet.
Source: Anon., ‘Kinoplastikon: As Seen From the Stalls’, The Bioscope, 8 May 1913, p. 391
Text: The cinematograph industry, from its very inception, has been so prolific of novelties and sensations, that we have now grown almost accustomed to living in a condition of perpetual astonishment. The biggest surprise of all, of course, was the cinematograph itself, but since then we have had colour films. speaking films, singing films – in fact, films of almost every character it is possible to imagine or desire. Celluloid has become the embryo of a new universe, which seems to contain everything that was in the old world, and a great deal besides that the old world never dreamed of.
One of the latest wonders to come forth from the inexhaustible womb of the moving picture camera is kinoplastikon, the remarkable “living, singing, talking camera pictures,” of which, as our readers will remember, an enthusiastic description was given in our issue of March 20th. by our special correspondent, Mr. John Cher, who saw them in Vienna, before they had been brought to this country. As most people know, they have now come to England, and are to be seen each night in the west-end of London, at the beautiful Scala Theatre, where we had the pleasure of making their acquaintance the other evening.
Kinoplastikon pictures are certainly very surprising when you first set eyes on them, especially when they come, as they do at the Scala, in the middle of a programme of ordinary cinematograph films. The curtain goes up, and the stage is revealed, bare, to all appearance, of everything but a conventional set. Then, suddenly, you hear the grating of a gramophone beginning to work. The orchestra strikes up in accompaniment. And, without warning, two white pierrots dance on from the wings – as naturally and as easily as though they were beings of real flesh and blood. They give a xylophone duet – their instrument apparently resting on a table which has been placed there beforehand, in full view of the audience, by a solid human attendant – and then, their performance finished, they skip off the stage to make their bows in answer to the riotous storm of applause which marks the conclusion of their “turn.” Five other pictures follow, one of them a flute solo and the other vocal performances.
The appearance of these amazing spirit creatures is curious. They resemble the figures of an ordinary cinematograph film, cut away from their original background with a pair of scissors, and set to caper and gesticulate, their vitality unimpaired, upon a wooden stage. Some of them are in black and white only; others are coloured artificially.
To offer any explanation of how Kinoplastikonis “worked” would be imprudent without investigating it more closely – and we have not yet had an opportunity of examining these “picture people,” except at a respectful distance from the auditorium. Speaking without prejudice, one would imagine that they are related, more or less nearly, to the famous ghosts of the late lamented Professor Pepper, the maker of mirror miracles. They are advertised as being presented “without a screen”; one rather fancies, however, that the screen is invisible, as, on the left-hand side of the stage, the creatures disappeared a trifle before they reached the wings. In, mid-air, also, are occasionally noticed white spots, which seemed to suggest scratches upon a black film.
Kinoplastikon produces a stereoscopic effect, because the figures in its films stand in the middle of an ordinary stage, and thus really have space before and behind them, In themselves, however, they are not stereoscopic, a fact which was observable in the last film shown, where a woman stood in front of several other people, the latter appearing unnaturally small and out of perspective, as is the case in an ordinary photograph.
It is difficult to make speculations about the future of Kinoplastikon without knowing more of its modus operandi. Even if it accomplishes nothing more than the sort of thing which may be seen at the Scala, however, it may always be safely relied upon to make a novel and effective item in a variety programme. And it certainly constitutes a remarkably fine example of the “talking picture.”
Comments: Kinoplastikon was a means of showing coloured motion pictures, with sound, in stereoscopic relief. The original system was the invention of the German film pioneer Oskar Messter, who named it ‘Alabastra’. Based on the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ stage illusion, whereby seemingly life-like images could appear on stage via reflected projection from a mirror, Messter extended the idea to employ motion picture film, hand tinted and with musical accompaniment. An adaptation of Alabastra was exhibited in Vienna under the name Kinoplastikon, subsequently appearing in Britain in 1913 at the Scala Theatre, London. The films were produced in a studio lined with black velvet (the actors had to be dressed entirely in white) on the roof of the Scala theatre, with synchonrised sound-on-disc accompaniment using Cecil Hepworth’s Vivaphone system. The director was Walter Booth. As the reviewer suspected, a screen was used, though hidden from view.
Kinoplastikon excited much comment, with suggestions that it was the future of entertainment, but as Hepworth observes in his autobiography, Came the Dawn, “It suffered, I suspect, from the usual fate which almost always dogs the steps of any ghost-illusion. Very few people are interested in an illusion of that kind as an illusion. They may think it is clever but do not bother to wonder how it is done; they don’t even care. Unless it tells some story, or belongs to some story which cannot well be told without it. it very soon ceases to intrigue them”. Kinoplastikon was exhibited in Austria, Britain, France, Russia and the USA, but it swiftly disappeared.
Source: Queen Victoria’s journal entry for 28 June 1854
Text: We went after breakfast with the 4 Children & Ladies & Gentlemen to see Albert Smith’s “Ascent of Mont Blanc”, a panorama, which he describes, interspersed with anecdotes & wit of the most amusing kind, delivered with the most surprising volubility. The last song was inimitable. The views were extremely pretty & the room fitted up charmingly as a Châlet. The Performance took place at the Egyptian Hall.
Comments: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) records seeing panoramas several times in her journals. Albert Richard Smith (1816-1860) was a British entertainer, novelist and mountaineer. In 1851 he successfully ascended Mont Blanc, and a show devised and presented by Smith the following year about the expedition, at London’s Egyptian Hall, became one of the most renowned and popular entertainments of its time. The show, entitled Mr Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc, opened on 15 March 1852. Smith’s talk of his adventures was illustrated by moving panoramas, painted by William Beverley, which moved horizontally for the section covering Smith journey to the Alps, and vertically for the ascent. The show ran for seven seasons six years, with each new season changing elements of of the presentation. The Swiss chalet was added to the staging for the second season.