Red, Black, Blond and Olive

Source: Edmund Wilson, Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations – Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (London: W.H. Allen, 1956), pp. 72-73

Text: What draws people down to this vacuum? How do they amuse themselves here?

These vacationists look soft and vapid. You rarely see a really pretty girl, and the men do not give the impression of doing much fishing or swimming. You find them at the movies in the evening. The American ideal of luxury is in Miami carried to lengths that I have never encountered before. At my hotel, I had the annoyance of removing encasements of cellophane from the toilet-seat and the drinking tumbler. In the movie-house, the seats are the kind that swing noiselessly back and forth to let people get in and out, and their cushions melt beneath one like a featherbed. A subdued indirect lighting, like the sweet creamy liquid of an ice-cream soda, bathes a dove-gray and shrimp-pink interior, the walls of which are ornamented with large cameo-like white seashells framing naked mythological figures that seem to have been badly imitated from the bas-reliefs of Paul Manship in Rockefeller Center, and with branching white plaster exfoliations that remind one of the legs and defensive antennae of the crawfish in the Miami aquarium. The film – Oh, You Beautiful Doll – was a technicolor that covered the whole surface of a high and overpowering screen with a routine sentimental romance, trumped up to manufacture glamor from the career of an American song-writer whose songs were widely sung in my college days. They were commonplace enough then, and today they are simply sickly. These attempts on the part of Hollywood to exploit the immediate past – in which the fashions of the eighties and nineties are sometimes confused with those of the twenties – show the precipitous decline of the movies as purveyors of entertainment, since the producers, after wrecking such contemporary talent as their salaries have tempted to Hollywood, have now been obliged to fall back on the favorites, first, second or third rate, of the day before yesterday and yesterday, when it was possible for a producer or an actor, a composer or a dancer, to perfect an art of his own and create for himself a reputation. Yet this product has its steady customers: one finds oneself among them here. Comfortably padded in the muffled atmosphere that seems to smell of scented face-powder – one cannot tell whether the theater has been perfumed or the women are all using the same cosmetics – this inert and featureless drove that have been drifting through the bleached sunny streets now sit watching stereotyped characters that are made to appear impressive by being photographed in very bright colors and gigantically magnified. The three shorts that follow the first showing of the film all happen to deal with animals: a hunting number, an animated cartoon that gets some not ill-deserved laughs, and a picture about racing whippets. The commentator seems slightly embarrassed at the spectacle of the uniformed attendants who have a full-time job grooming the whippets. “You may think they work as hard as the dogs,” he propounds, with his microphone emphasis that gropes through time and space and can never drive any nails. “Well, they work a lot harder!” The truth is that so many Americans, specialized in operating machines or in transacting long-distance business, have deteriorated as animal organisms, that we now have a special pleasure in watching almost any agile animal. What the audience gets out of these animal shorts is the same thing that l have been getting out of looking out the window at the birds and contrasting them with the Miami vacationers.

Comments: Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was an American writer and critic. This account of a film show in Miami occurs at the start of an account of a visit to Haiti in 1949. Oh, You Beautiful Doll (USA 1949) was directed by John M. Stahl and starred June Haver and Mark Stevens. It was a musical based on the life of the composer Fred Fisher.

Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (1925-1977) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA, and co-owner with her husband, Dr. Francis Threadgill, of the Washington modern art Gres Gallery, 1958-62. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

All the Gaits of Horses

Source: ‘All the Gaits of Horses’, The Sun [New York], 18 November 1882, p. 1

Text: ALL THE GAITS OF HORSES

SHOWN IN MOVING PICTURES BY THE ZOOPRAXISCOPE

Motions that Artists’s Eyes Have Failed to Follow – The Exact Difference Between Ambling, Pacing, Trotting, and Galloping.

Professor Eadweard Muybridge delivered last evening, in the Turf Club Theatre, an exceedingly interesting lecture upon the attitudes of animals in motion, illustrating it by photographs made by instantaneous process and by a machine called the Zoöpraxiscope which caused animals and human beings to appear in actual motion upon the screen in a startingly lifelike manner. He explained first the ingenious apparatus by which those pictures were made – a series of twenty-four cameras each fitted with an electro-exposer that exposed the negative to the light for one five-thousandth of a second when an animal in motion before it broke a thread and made the electric connection.

The series of pictures thus produced represented every movement of any animal for the observation of which this apparatus was employed and revolutionized the old ideas of the motions of quadrupeds in their several gaits, especially of those of horses. It had been a matter of dispute whether the horse ever had three feet on the ground at one time when walking. These pictures settled that. He always has two feet on the ground and part of the time three, the two feet being alternately diagonals and laterals.

Wherever a walking horse is supported on two feet and the suspended feet are inside, the suspended feet are invariably on the same side; where he is supported on two extended feet the suspended feet inside are diagonals. If a horse drops the left hind foot on the ground the next to follow will be the left fore foot, followed by the right hind and finally by the right fore.

Egyptian, Assyrian and Roman pictures were shown to demonstrate that an erroneous idea of this motion prevailed in the earliest attempts at art. It was perpetuated in the famous statue of Marcus Aurelius, which has been the model of almost all equestrian statues to the present day, and is as conspicuous in the equestrian statues of Washington, in Boston and in Union Square as in any of the old Egyptian or Assyrian pictures. It is not possible for a horse to walk in the way there depicted. Meissonier had a correct idea of a horse’s walk when he painted his great picture of Napoleon in 1814 but the critics ridiculed it and pronounced it incorrect. Now he has the satisfaction of knowing that he was right and they were all wrong. Miss Thompson also was correct and the critics derided her for being so. Now the laugh is on the other side.

A dozen pictures were next shown illustrative of a horse ambling, a gait in which he is never altogether clear of the ground, but is supported alternately by one and two feet, the single foot being alternately a fore and a hind foot, and the two foot alternately laterals and diagonals. This was best understood when actually represented by the zoöpraxiscope and the demonstration was so perfect as to elicit great applause from the spectators.

The racking or pacing gait was next amply illustrated. In it the horse moves the lateral foot simultaneously instead of the diagonal foot as in the trot. Then the trot was shown in an exhaustive series of photographs covering every movement of a trotting horse both at a slow and a fast trot. In the latter the horse was, at one point, in his stride entirely off the ground, the right fore and hind feet quite clear and others not quite touching. In a fast trot time the horse invariably puts the heel down first, never the ball of the foot or toe.

By an ingenious arrangement of five cameras five pictures were successfully made simultaneously from different points of view, for artists’ use, of horses in the several attitudes of motion and several of these foreshortened animals, when thrown upon the screen, were astonishingly comic however true to nature they unquestionably were.

The canter was next shown in which during a portion of his stride the horse has three feet on the ground and the fourth almost touching it. Then the gallop was illustrated. A fast horse going rapidly, Mr. Muybridge said, will be in the air three times in a single stride, he believed, but this was only his conjecture arguing from the illustrations he had obtained.

The lecturer reverted again to ancient history showing the old Egyptian and Assyrian models of the running horse – models blindly followed by artists ever since – in which the animal is presented poising himself on both hind feet extended far behind with his fore feet stretched far out ahead of him together. The North American Indians had a much more correct idea of the motion of a horse as was demonstrated by their rude pictures upon a buffalo robe that Lafayette bought when in this country and took back with him to Paris.

The horse as he appears in jumping was the subject of the final series of horse pictures, and afforded some of the most surprising and brilliant effects of the zoöpraxiscope. In response to a question of an auditor as to whether the horse, in jumping, got his power from his hind legs, the lecturer replied that he undoubtedly did, that he raised the front part of his body with his fore legs and took his spring from his hind legs. In speaking of horses jumping he said that the horse of which some of these pictures were made had risen 15 feet in front of a 3 ft. 6 in. hurdle, cleared it, and alighted 11 feet beyond it. In alighting from a jump the horse always lands first on his fore feet, with them 36 or 40 inches apart.

Following these pictures were a long series of illustrations of the various gaits of oxen, a wild bull, Newfoundland dog, hound, deer, goat and hog. In speaking the motions of the ox, Mr. Muybridge criticised Rosa Bonheur sharply, pointing out that in her picture of three yokes of draught oxen laboring, she misssed the natural movements of the beasts. The goat runs like a horse and the deer like the hound, bounding rather than running. In one part of the deer’s stride its attitude was very near to that which artists have so long inaccurately made as that of the running horse.

Then there were many more instantaneous photographs of Hazaek walking, and running, and jumping; of athletes boxing, turning plain somersaults and twisting somersaults. “Hazael was very much astonished at the various attitudes in which he had unconsciously placed himself when jumping,” remarked the lecturer. “And I should think he would be,” responded a voice from among the audience in the darkness in a tone of conviction that set everybody laughing. The pictures that astonished Hazael certainly did show him in a wondrous series of twists.

Photographs of pigeons and sea gulls in flight, beautiful pictures, with the birds in an infinite variety of positions upon an exquisite background of clouds concluded the exhibition. Remarking upon them, the lecturer pointed out birds that at the moment of being photographed had their wings down below their bodies, and said that but two peoples had over pictured birds in that natural position, the Egyptians and the Japanese.

Comments: Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) was a British photographer whose developments in instantaneous sequence photography, most famously of horses galloping, led the way to motion pictures. Muybridge was able to show his photographic sequences in motion by use of his invention, the Zoöpraxiscope. This projected silhouette images based on the photographs from a rotating glass disc. In effect the result was a proto-animation derived from the original photographs. Muybridge lectured extensively with the Zoöpraxiscope in Europe and America from 1880 onwards. Jean-Ernest Louis Meissonier and Rosa Bonheur were French artists. George Hazael was a renowned British athlete who settled in America.

Links: Copy at Chronicling America

D.V.

Source: Diana Vreeland (ed. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill), D.V. (New York: Harper Collins, 2011, orig. 1984), pp. 48-50

Text: One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German movie called L’Atlantide, with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

We sat there, the movie started … and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! I have no idea if I actually saw the movie I thought I was seeing, but I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes … they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration … And then you see the fata morgana. That means if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

Then … a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm … and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine-looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

And et cetera.

This goes on and on, I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand … to here … where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was simply sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who ever lived … and her cheetahs! The essence of movie-ism.

Then … the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down — and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!

“Oh,” I said, “you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s exactly what I did.”

She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt — no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and of course the great thing was to get out of the theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed … and they were off!

Ah! What a gesture! I’ve never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style. Style was a great thing in those days.

Comments: Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was a fashion writer who worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she was editor-in-chief. Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who gained great fame in France. Her pet cheetah’s name was Chiquita. L’Atlantide (Germany/France 1932) was directed by G.W. Pabst. My thanks to Artemis Willis from bringing this unique passage to my attention.