Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: A Tear for Lycidas’, Close Up vol. VII no. 3, September 1930, pp. 196-202
Text: During last year’s London season we saw and heard one Talkie, Hearts in Dixie and wrote thereof in Close Up and foreswore our sex by asserting, in bold, masculine, side-taking, either-or fashion, that no matter what degree of perfection might presently be attained by the recording apparatus we were certain that the talkie, as distinct from the sound-film, will never be able to hold a candle to the silent film.
This year, therefore, though we knew there must be small local halls still carrying on, and hoped that our own little Bethel, which we had left last autumn ominously “closed for repairs,” might have taken courage to re-open, we felt that we were returning to a filmless London. Resignedly.
There was, there always is, one grand compensation: we came fully into our heritage of silent films. “The Film,” all the films we had seen, massed together in the manner of a single experience — a mode of experience standing alone and distinct amongst the manifolds we assemble under this term — and with some few of them standing out as minutelv remembered units, became for us treasure laid up. Done with in its character of current actuality, inevitably alloyed, and beginning its rich, cumulative life as memory. Again and again, in this strange “memory” (which, however we may choose to define it, is, at the least, past, present and future powerfully combined) we should go to the pictures; we should revisit, each time with a difference, and, since we should bring to it increasing wealth of experience, each time more fully, certain films stored up within. But to the cinema we should go no more.
Arriving, we found our little local hall still wearing its mournful white lie. All over London we met — there is no need to describe what we met, what raucously hailed us from the facade of every sort of cinema. Our eyes learned avoidance, of facade, newspaper column, hoarding and all the rest.
But ears escape less readily and we heard, as indeed, bearing in mind the evolution of pianola and gramophone, we had expected to hear, of the miracles of realism achieved by certain speech-films. Of certain beautiful voices whose every subtle inflection, every sigh, came across with a clarity impossible in the voice speaking from the stage. People who last year had wept with us had now gone over to the enemy and begged us to see at least this and that too marvellous. Others declared that each and every kind of speech film they had seen had been too dire.
We accepted the miracle so swiftly accomplished, the perfected talkie, but without desire, gladly making a present of it. Wishing it well in its world that is so far removed from that of the silent film. Saw it going ahead to meet, and compete with, the sound-film. Heard both rampant all over the world.
Driven thus to the wall, we improvised a theorem that may or may not be sound: that it is impossible both to hear and to see, to the limit of our power of using these faculties, at one and the same moment. We firmly believe that it is sound.
The two eloquences, the appeal to the eye and the appeal to the ear, however well fused, however completely they seem to attain their objective — the spectator-auditor — with the effect of a single aesthetic whole, must, in reality, remain distinct. And one or the other will always take precedence in our awareness. And though it is true that their approximate blending can work miracles the miracle thus worked is incomparably different from that worked by either alone.
Think, for example, of the difference between music heard coming, as it were, out of space and music attacking from a visible orchestra. Recall that an intense concentration on listening will automatically close the eyes. That for perfect seeing of a landscape, work of art, beloved person, or effectively beautiful person, we instinctively desire silence. And agree, therefore, that there neither is, nor ever can be, any substitute for the silent film. Agree that the secret of its power lies in its undiluted appeal to a single faculty.
It may be urged that to the blind the world is a sound-film whose images must be constructed by the extra intelligent use of the remaining senses helped out by memory, while to the deaf it is a silent film whose meaning cannot be reached without some contrived substitute for speech. That deaf people are more helpless and are usually more resentful of, less resigned to, their affliction than are the happier blind. And that therefore the faculty of hearing is more important than that of sight: the inference being that the soundless spectacle is a relatively lifeless spectacle.
Those who reason thus have either never seen a deaf spectator of a silent film or, having seen him, have failed to reflect upon the nature of his happiness. For the time being he is raised to the level of the happy, skilful blind exactly because his missing faculty is perfectly compensated. Because what he sees is complete without sound, he is as one who hears. But take a blind man to a never so perfect sound-film and he will see but little of the whole.
In daily life, it is true, the faculty of hearing takes precedence of the faculty of sight and is in no way to be compensated. But on the screen the conditions are exactly reversed. For here, sight alone is able to summon its companion faculties: given a sufficient degree of concentration on the part of the spectator, a sufficient rousing of his collaborating creative consciousness. And we believe that the silent film secures this collaboration to a higher degree than the speech-film just because it enhances the one faculty that is best able to summon all the others: the faculty of vision.
Yet we have admitted, we remember admitting, that without musical accompaniment films have neither colour nor sound! That any kind of musical accompaniment is better than none. The film can use almost any kind of musical accompaniment. But it is the film that uses the music, not the music the film. And the music, invisible, “coming out of space,” enhances the faculty of vision. To admit this is not to admit the sound-film as an improvement on the silent film though it may well be an admission of certain possible sound-films as lively rivals thereof.
Life’s “great moments” are silent. Related to them, the soundful moments may be compared to the falling of the crest of a wave that has stood poised in light, translucent, for its great moment before the crash and dispersal. To this peculiar intensity of being, to each man’s individual intensity of being, the silent film, with musical accompaniment, can translate him. All other forms of presentation are, relatively, diversions. Diversions in excelsis, it may be. But diversions. Essential, doubtless, to those who desire above all things to be “taken out of themselves,” as is their definition of the “self.”
Perhaps the silent film is solitude and the others association.
* * *
Wandering at large, we found ourselves unawares, not by chance, we refuse to say by chance, in a dim and dusty by-street: one of those elderly dignified streets that now await, a little wistfully, the inevitable re-building. Giving shelter meanwhile to the dismal eddyings and scuttlings of wind-blown refuse: grey dust, golden straw, scraps of trodden paper. Almost no traffic. Survival, in a neglected central backwater, of something of London’s former quietude.
Having, a moment before, shot breathlessly across the rapids of a main thoroughfare, we paused, took breath, looked about us and saw the incredible. A legend, not upon one of those small, dubious façades still holding their own against the fashion, but upon that of the converted Scala theatre: Silent Films. Continuous Performance. Two Days. The Gold Rush.
Why, we asked, stupefied, had we not been told? Why, in the daily lists, which still, hopelessly hopeful, we scanned each day, was there no mention of this brave Scala?
A good orchestra. Behind it the heart of Chaplin’s big wandering film: the dream wherein the sleeping host entertains his tragically absent guests with the Oceana Roll, showing itself to an empty house.
To the joy of re-discovering a lost enchantment was added strange new experience. Within us was all we had read and heard and imaginatively experienced of the new conventions. All that at moments had made us sound-fans. Enhancing critical detachment. We were seeing these films with new eyes. They stood the test. These new films, we said, may be the companions, they can never be the rivals of the silent film. The essential potency of any kind of silent film, “work of art” or other, remains untouched.
Later we saw The Three Musketeers and agreed, perhaps with Fairbanks, we trust with Fairbanks, that if melodrama be faithfully sought all other things are added unto it. And we were looking forward to Metropolis and The Circus when suddenly the theatre closed.
The experiment, we gathered, had not been a success.
But what, we would respectfully enquire of the Scala management, what is the use of winking in the dark? What is the use of having a silent season, in an unfrequented by-street, and leaving London’s hundreds of thousands of silent-film lovers to become aware of it by a process of intuition? Advertisement is surely less costly than an empty house. And we are prepared to wager that any house bold enough to embark on a silent season and to advertise it at least to the extent of listing it in the dailies will gather its hundreds for each showing.
[Humble apologies to The Boltons cinema in Kensington and the Palais de Luxe in Piccadilly; of whose current loyalty to the silent film the writer is informed too late for tribute in this article.]
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. The films mentioned are Hearts in Dixie (USA 1929), The Gold Rush (USA 1925), The Three Musketeers (USA 1921), Metropolis (Germany 1927) and The Circus (USA 1928). The Scala was a small theatre between Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road in London which occasionally showed films in the 1910s and 1920s.
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