Don't Look at the Camera

Source: Harry Watt, Don’t Look at the Camera (London: Elek Books, 1974), pp. 29-30

Text: So many of my highbrow associates think they can ‘meet the working man’. Malcolm Muggeridge, for instance, my revered and close friend. He hasn’t a hope. There’s that ghastly accent to start with. (I wonder if I would have talked like him if I’d gone to Cambridge, as my father suggested?) And he’s incapable of meandering on with the platitudes, repetitions and sudden flashes of colour in ordinary man’s speech. Without an innocuous Scots accent, a knowledge of football, boxing, cricket and horse racing, plus a few dirty stories mostly involving the bosses, and a capacity to swear, without repeating myself, for about two minutes, I could never have found the material to write the documentary films I did, both in peace and war. I imagine that Malcolm, master of words that he is, has not got these gifts. I once went with him to see The Bridge Over The River Kwai [sic] in a suburban cinema in Sydney, Australia. It was not one of my happier evenings. To start with, Malcolm can never speak sotto voce. He declaims, wherever he is. And that exaggerated ‘Pommy’ voice, echoing out over the Bijou Cinema, Cronulla, nearly started a riot. When William Holden, the co-star, disappeared, apparently killed, Malcolm said – as usual, at the top of his voice – ‘Thank God that dreary Yank has gone. I found him intolerable!’ I explained, very sotto voce, that Holden had been paid a million dollars for the picture, and as it was only a third of the way through, he was bound to reappear. When he did, Malcolm boomed ‘How clever you are, Harry, I can never understand the economic intricacies of your dreadful industry. So we have to put up with the awful shit to the end.’ At that, an enormous Rugby League forward, sitting behind us, got up and said ‘Listen, you Pommy poof, one more word out of you, and I’ll sink ya.’ Malcolm, of course, was not in the least discountenanced, and merely said, ‘My dear chap, I was only making what I thought was a perfectly valid criticism of a rather second-rate piece of cinema.’ The gorilla sat down, baffled. But I imagine Malcolm would have had great difficulty in achieving an intimacy with that Aussie.

Comments: Harry Watt (1906-1987) was a British documentary and feature film director, renowned for his contribution to such films as Night Mail, London Can Take It!, Target for Tonight and The Overlanders (one of a number of films he made in Australia). Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a celebrated British journalist and social commentator, known for his early advocacy of left-wing views only to turn to strong conservatism in his latter years. He had a notably accentuated upper class English voice.

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 238

Text: AGE: 64 SEX: M. NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BRICKLAYER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HELPMATE TO FATHER

I am going to mention the titles of four films. First The Common Touch. I cannot remember ever enjoying a film so much as this as regards a film for what I call a working class audience. To me there were no special ‘stars’ all actors and actress’s were of equal value, it was a very human, sensibly and elevating story, very well acted. The second picture or film is Smiling Through featuring Jeannette MacDonald and other ‘stars’. As I sat watching and listening to this film story I seemed to be taking part in it myself, and each time I saw it (and I saw it many times) I enjoyed it more and more. The singing was superb, the acting was such that it made the story very real, the facial expressions of all taking part was very convincing although I saw it during war time, it made me forget war, and lifted my thoughts to higher levels, this was a clean, decent and elevating film, and time well spent seeing it and also well worth the money paid.

Sentimentally yes, upholding that most beautiful of all things Love, yes, and if these two things were to die out, I think this world, would be even a poorer place than it is to day. Love is ridiculed far too much in some pictures or films and on the ‘stage’ yes I know that I am old fashioned, but let us have more films like these two. And now from the sublime to the most ridiculous, I refer to two films, in which I got up out of my seat to leave the cinema, I was that disgusted, but I saw them through. First The Miracle of Morgans Creek a film that was anything but elevating, in fact, if the producer had been sitting with me, and had heard what some children were saying about it I think his face would have gone very red, a film that was of no use to the world, in fact not even a good moral film. The other film was Cassonova Brown [sic] perhaps, it was with seeing Gary Cooper in such stirring films before, and then to see him in a dud film such as this, another film that I think could have been done without. Yes let us have ‘Decent’ films like the first two I have mentioned. If anyone should have had an Oscar award, I think all the leading ‘stars’ in Smiling Through should have one each. As I am getting on in years, perhaps I shall never have the chance to travel, so I would like to see more travel films, which are a delight, and also good education. Films with Jazz and Swing bands I do not like, they are far too harsh.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and Their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are The Common Touch (UK 1941), Smiling Through (USA 1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (USA 1944) and Casanova Brown (USA 1944).

These are the British

Source: Drew Middleton, These are the British (New York: Knopf, 1957), pp. 244-245

Text: Television is the greatest new influence on the British masses since the education acts of the last century produced a proletariat capable of reading the popular press, a situation capitalized by Lord Northcliffe and others. And the mass attention to “what’s on television,” like every other change in Britain, has social connotations. Among many in the middle class and the upper middle class it is close to class treason to admit regular watching of television. “We have one for Nanny and the children,” a London hostess said, “but we never watch it. Fearfully tedious, most of it.”

Significantly, the middle class, when defending its right to send its sons to public schools, emphasizes that the working class could send its sons to the same schools if it were willing to abandon its payments for television. This may reveal one reason for the middle-class dislike for this form of entertainment. Television sets are expensive, and possibly the cost cannot be squeezed into a budget built around the necessity of sending the boy to school. The spread of television-viewing in Britain has had far-reaching economic and social effects. A sharp blow has been dealt the corner pub, by tradition the workingman’s club. Since the rise of modern Britain, it is to the pub that the worker has taken his sorrows, his ambitions, and his occasional joys. There over a pint of bitters he could think dark thoughts about his boss, voice his opinions on statesmen from Peel to Churchill, and argue about racing with his friends. “These days,” a barmaid told me, “they come in right after supper, buy some bottled ale — nasty gassy stuff it is, too — and rush home to the telly. In the old days they came in around seven, regular as clockwork it was, and didn’t leave until I said ‘Time, gentlemen, please.'”

Television also has affected attendance at movies and at sports events. The British have never been a nation of night people, and nowadays they seem to be turning within themselves, a nation whose physical surroundings are bounded by the hearth, the television screen, and quick trips to the kitchen to open another bottle of beer. My friends on the BBC tell me this is not so; television, they say, has opened new horizons for millions and is the great national educator of the future. It is easy to forgive their enthusiasm. But how can a people learn the realities of life if what it really wants on television is sugary romances or the second-hand jokes and antics of comedians rather than the admirable news and news-interpretation programs produced by both the BBC and the Independent Television Authority? The new working class seems to be irritated by attempts to bring it face to face with the great problems of their country and of the world. Having attained what it wants — steady employment, high wages, decent housing — it hopes to hide before its television screens while this terrible, strident century hammers on.

Comments: Drew Middleton (1913-1990) was an American journalist, who worked for the New York Times for which he served as its chief London correspondent 1953-1963. These are the British is a portrait of the British way of life.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Plain-towns of Italy

Source: Egerton R. Williams, Plain-towns of Italy: The Cities of Old Venetia (London: J. Murray, 1912), pp. 142-143

Text: After a dinner in company with various gentlemen who ate with their hats on (according to the peasant’s manner), consumed alarming quantities of meat and macaroni with the sole aid of their knives, and roared continuously at each other with deafening bellows, I solaced my nerves with some caffè nero at a sidewalk table in the main piazza; and then found a cinematograph exhibition, which gave a performance of five numbers for the modest sum of thirty centesimi, in the first class.

Moving pictures are now the one great amusement of the Italians. There is hardly a town so small as not to possess at least one such show; and the prices are usually twenty centesimi for the second class, thirty or forty for the first. Here the national love of tragedy is prominently manifested; the popular piece must have plenty of blood-letting, and above all a harrowing finis, that leaves most of the characters upon the ground. Especially successful this evening was the story of Parasina; when it ended with the death of herself and Ugo upon the block, a united sigh of satisfaction arose from the excited populace. The concluding number, as always, was supposed to be very funny – “comicissima,” – and consisted of the usual chase of one person by many others, at whose clearly intentional tumbles the audience roared with delight.

Footnote: In the cities there is often also a third class, costing ten centesimi; at which rate children and private soldiers are nearly everywhere admitted, the latter proving the mainstay of the business in garrison-towns. As a teacher for them of general information, it is invaluable; and one sees them, night after night, drinking in with open mouths the wonders of this world.

Comments: Egerton Ryerson Williams (?-?) was a British travel writer. The film show he attended was in the town of Bassano (now Bassano del Grappa) in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. Parasina was a poem by Lord Byron which was turned into an opera by Donizetti and based on the 15th century historical figure Parisina Malatesta. The film was probably Parasina (Italy 1909), production company SAFFI-Comerio.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Working North from Patagonia

Source: Harry A. Franck, Working North from Patagonia; being the narrative of a journey, earned on the way, through southern and eastern South America (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 261-266

Text: The “Companhia Brazileira” advertized extensively, and the Kinetophone was well patronized from the start. Brazilians take readily to novelties, especially if they can be made the fashion, and our audiences of the second day included both priests and “women of the life,” which is a sure sign of popular success in Brazil. As our doubled entrance fee of two milreis was high for those times of depression, also perhaps because the “Cinema Pathé” was considered a gathering place of the élite, we entertained only the well dressed, or, perhaps I should say, the overdressed. They were blasé, artificial audiences, never under any circumstances applauding or giving any sign of approval; they always gave me the impression of saying, “Oh, rather interesting, you know, as a novelty, but I could do much better myself if I cared to take the time from my love-making and risk soiling my spats and my long, slender, do-nothing fingers.” But as they continued to bring us as our share of the receipts more than a conto of reis a day, it was evident that they found the performance pleasing.

[…]

The motion-picture having come after all the business part of Rio was built, there was no room to erect “movie palaces” which have elsewhere followed in the train of Edison’s most prostituted invention. All the cinemas along the Avenida Central are former shops, without much space except in depth, and as the temperature quickly rises when such a place is crowded, the screen often consists of a curtain across what used to be the wide-open shop door, so that one on the sidewalk may peep in and see the audience and even the orchestra, though he can see nothing of the projected pictures within an inch of his nose. Alongside the “movie” house proper another ex-shop of similar size is generally used as a waiting-room. Here are luxurious upholstered seats, much better than those facing the screen, and some such extraordinary attraction as a “feminine orchestra specially contracted in Europe.” For the waiting-room is of great importance in Rio. It takes the place in a way of a central plaza and promenade where the two sexes can come and admire one another, and it is often thronged immediately after the closing of the door to the theater proper, by people who know quite well they must sit there a full hour before the “section” ends. In fact, young fops sometimes come in and remain an hour or two ogling the feminine charms in the waiting-room and then go out again without so much as having glanced at the show inside. In contrast, many cinemas have “second-class” entrances, without waiting-room and with seats uncomfortably near the screen, where the sockless and collarless are admitted at reduced prices.

It does not require long contact with them to discover that Latin films are best for Latins, for both audience and actors have a mutual language of gestures and facial expressions. The lack of this makes American films seem slow, labored, and stupid, not only to Latins, but to the American who has been living for some time among them. It is a strange paradox that the most doing people on the earth are the slowest in telling a story in pantomime or on the screen. What a French or an Italian actress will convey in full, sharply and clearly, by a shrug of her shoulders or a flip of her hand, the most advertised American “movie star” will get across much more crudely and indistinctly only by spending two or three minutes of pantomimic labor, assisted by two or three long “titles.” The war quickly forced the “Companhia Brazileira,” as it did most of its rivals, to use American films; but neither impresarios nor their clients had anything but harsh words for the “awkward stupidity” and the pretended Puritanic point of view of those makeshift programs — with one exception, Brazilian audiences would sit up all night watching our “wild west” films in which there was rough riding. Curious little differences in customs and point of view come to light in watching an American film through South American eyes. For instance, there is probably not a motion-picture director in the United States who knows that to permit a supposedly refined character in a film to lick a postage stamp is to destroy all illusion in a Latin-American audience. Down there not even the lowest of the educated class ever dreams of sealing or stamping a letter in that fashion. An American film depicting the misadventures of a “dude” or “sissy”, was entirely lost upon the Brazilian audiences, because to them the hero was exactly their idea of what a man should be, and they plainly rated him the most “cultured” American they had ever met. Bit by bit one discovers scores of such slight and insignificant differences, which sum up to great differences and become another stone in that stout barrier between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon divisions of the western hemisphere.

[…]

Sunday is the big theater or “movie” day in Brazil, for then the families of the “four hundred” turn out in full force. On our seventh day they were standing knee-deep in the waiting-room most of the afternoon and early evening. The congestion increased that part of my duties which had to do with auditing, for the head of a family often paused to shake hands effusively with the door-keeper, after which the entire family poured boldly in, and it became my business to find out whether there had been anything concealed in the effusive hand, and if not, why the box-office had been so cavalierly slighted.

One afternoon the Senhor Presidente da Republica came to honor the fourth performance of the day with his patronage, and to give us the official blessing without which we had been forced to open. A corps of policemen was sent first to hang about the door for nearly two hours — giving passers-by the impression that the place had been “pinched.” There followed a throng of generals, admirals, and unadmirables in full uniform, who waited in line for “His Excellency.” The president came at length in an open carriage, his girl wife beside him, two haughty personalities in gold lace opposite them, and a company of lancers on horseback trotting along the Avenida beside them. The waiting line fawned upon the leathery-skinned chief of state, bowed over the hand of his wife, then the whole throng surrounded the loving pair and, pushing the humble door-keeper scornfully aside, swarmed into the cinema without a suggestion of offering to pay the entrance fee. Luckily the doors were not high enough to admit the lancers, who trotted away with the red of their uniforms gleaming in the afternoon sunshine. It was my first experience with the official “deadheads” of Brazil, but by no means my last.

We quickly found, too, that the official gathering was bad for business. Surely any American theater holding 510 persons would fill up when the President of the Republic and his suite were gracing it with their presence! Yet here there was only a scattering of paying audience as long as the “deadheads” remained, which, thanks perhaps to a film showing them in the recent Independence Day parade, was until they had heard the entire program once and the Kinetophone twice. The president, it seemed, was hated not only for his political iniquities, but the élite looked down upon him for marrying a girl little more than one-fourth his own age and letting her make the national presidency the background for her social climbing; and to enter the theater while the president and his retainers were there was to risk losing both one’s political and social standing as a high class Brazilian.

Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. For the journey through South America described in this book Franck served as an agent for the Edison Kinetophone, a film projection system synchronised with musical discs, and there are many descriptions of the operation of the Kinetophone and its mixed reception across the continent in Franck’s characteristically sardonic style. Although the publication date of the book is 1921, the trip must have occurred around 1913-14. The president of the Brazilian republic referred to is Hermes da Fonseca.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Moving Picture Show

Source: Howard D. King, ‘The Moving Picture Show’, The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. LIII no. 7, 14 August 1909, pp. 519-520

Text: The development of the cheap moving picture and musical theaters as factors in the health of the community seems to have escaped the notice of the medical press. To-day every village and hamlet in the United States boasts a moving picture show. In the large cities of the north and cast it is not unusual for a hundred and often more to be in operation. In Europe they are outnumbered only by the public houses and cabarets. As is well known, the great majority of these theaters exist where the population is greatly congested, as in tenement districts and laboring settlements. The reason for this is obvious. It is the patronage of the poorer classes which makes the moving picture industry a paying proposition. These cheap theaters are usually located in old rookeries or poorly paying commercial sites, as abandoned shops of small tradesmen, etc. In the construction or building alteration of these places for their special needs the one object in view is to obtain a maximum seating capacity in as small a space as possible. No attention whatever is paid to ventilation and not the slightest heed given to the simplest sanitary details. The health or comfort of the patron is a secondary consideration. Municipal regulation is limited to fire prevention and safety exits – and this only after several serious catastrophes.

The performances are continuous, and thus an ever-moving stream of humanity, constantly passing in and out, stirs up dust and dirt that verily reeks with tubercle bacilli. The programs in these resorts have been considerably lengthened owing to the keenness of competition. The result is that an audience is confined within these ill-ventilated and poorly sanitated amusement resorts often for more than an hour and a half, breathing in air which has become befouled and disease-laden through lack of sufficient air capacity. The superabundance of carbon dioxid and organic matter in the air gives rise to sick stomach, headache and a drowsy feeling. The small fee of admission is responsible for a class of patronage which is entirely oblivious of the simplest health precautions. Spitting on the floor is a common practice and is allowed to go unnoticed. Signs calling attention to the dangers of the vicious habit of indiscriminate expectoration are rare. The use of the electric fan in certain of these resorts, while refreshing to the overheated patron, also serves to dry up the sputum with greater dispatch, thus increasing its disease productiveness. Cleaning the premises is impossible during the hours of operation, which gives some idea of the amount of filth that accumulates.

Robust and vigorous individuals employed as singers and musicians, appearing as often as twelve and thirteen times a day in these crowded resorts, soon undergo a remarkable change of health. Poor ventilation produces not only discomfort and loss of energy, but greater susceptibility to disease, especially tuberculosis. Many of the singers are raw amateurs and know nothing of the care and preservation of the voice, and in many instances a voice capable of greater things is lost to the public through exposure to such unfavorable conditions. Laryngeal troubles are a frequent source of annoyance to this class of people through excessive vocal effort and constant confinement. I have treated many of the singers employed by the cheap moving picture shows and found the majority of them to be of a decided phthisical tendency. The film operator who is confined cubby-hole at an exceedingly high temperature falls an easy prey to tuberculosis. Constant attendance at the scene of employment, coupled with the irregularity of meals and uncertain hours, is responsible for the fact that many of the male artists become alcoholics. Taken all in all, the cheap provincial picture theater artist has no easy task and sooner or later another victim is enrolled under the banner of the white plague.

The general practitioner is often consulted by a patient complaining of headache and burning eyes which run water as soon as they come in contact with strong light. After a thorough examination, including urinalysis, the patient is referred to an ophthalmologist in order that a refractive error may be corrected and the patient relieved of the heartache and the visual irritation. In a great number of cases the ophthalmologist will report that there is no error of refraction and that he is unable to account for the headache and the running burning eyes. An inquiry into the habits of the patient will elicit the information that he is a devotee of the moving picture show. The constant gazing on a rapidly moving and scintillating film with every mental faculty alert to maintain the connection of the story is sufficient to produce an eyestrain of great severity and thus cause headache and burning eves. The only remedy is rest and cessation from this form of amusement. After a few weeks vision becomes normal or nearly so and no ill results are experienced unless the patient resumes his former habits. In many cases the eye trouble assumes a severity that calls for long and persistent treatment on the part of the ophthalmologist.

Moving picture shows in tenement districts and labor settlements should exhibit pictures that tend to elevate the mind and improve the moral condition of their audiences. Pictures portraying scandal, illicit amours and criminal cupidity very often have a debasing effect on a mind that is already morally warped through environment and surroundings, thereby bringing to the surface a latent criminality. If the moving picture shows are to remain, radical changes must be made.

Rigid inspection by the health authorities is absolutely necessary. Proper ventilation by means of exhaust air fans, airifiers and other ventilating appliances and numerous apertures with sufficient air intake must be provided. The number of cubic feet of air necessary for health should be determined by the seating capacity. The flooring should be oiled, not carpeted or covered with dust-gathering material. Plush-covered and velvet-covered seats should also be prohibited for obvious reasons. Suspension of the performance at the end of every five hours, when the orchestra or seating hall should undergo a thorough cleaning, is of urgent necessity. The cleaning could be accomplished within forty-five minutes by the aid of the vacuum cleaner and should be followed by a draught of pure air throughout the place, it possible. At the termination of the day’s performance the whole resort should be given the proper sanitary attention. Signs should be conspicuously posted as to the evils of spitting.

CONCLUSIONS

That a great deal of eye trouble is due to moving picture shows cannot be denied. The singers, musicians and film operators of these resorts fall an easy prey to tuberculosis through excessive vocal efforts, constant confinement, irregular habits and long hours. As a disseminator of tuberculosis the moving picture theater ranks high and it will become necessary to enact special health laws to remedy the evil.

Comments: Dr Howard D. King practiced in New Orleans. Early motion picture venues were regularly criticised for their poor hygiene, and the films condemned as the cause of eye-strain. It was common practice at this time for singers to perform in American nickelodeons, along with illustrative slides, in between reel changes.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Kinema

Source: [Filson Young], ‘Kinema’, The Living Age, vol. 272 (1912), pp. 565-567 (originally published in The Saturday Review, 27 January 1912, pp. 108-109)

Text: This is one of the words there is no escaping from. Distorted, misspelled, mispronounced, debased by unholy conjunctions and alliances, it has nevertheless, in the sacred phrase of banality, “come to stay”; and, with the gramophone and the piano-player, to share the doubtful distinction of being one of the wonders of this age. The kinematograph has worked itself into the life of the people in a way that I, for my part, never suspected until I took up an important-looking book the other day and found that it was entirely devoted to the study of the rise, progress, philosophy and anatomy of the kinematograph. Thus the thing even has its literature. And I feel bound in honesty to say that this book is an extremely honest and competent piece of work, in which is modestly and clearly set forth a complete history of this very remarkable business, with abundant photographs and diagrams for the mechanically-minded, and containing certain statistics which I venture to think would stagger most readers. The work appears in Mr. Heinemann’s “Conquests of Science Series”; and the title itself suggests some curious reflections. Are we really conquering science or is science conquering us? That marvellous monster of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in its infancy we led as one might lead a lion cub by a ribbon, which we played with and made into a parlor toy: what has it become, and what is it becoming? There is something a little grim about this title “Conquests of Science” appearing on a large book devoted to the kinematograph.

Being always behind the times in such matters, it was only the other day that I went for the first time into a Kinema Palace, as I believe those very white and very gold buildings that diversify the squalor of the humbler thoroughfares are called. I had often been allured by their façades, but from some confusion of mind by which I associated them with those dismal halls where the entertainment consists of peering into an endless number of little metal machines, I had never ventured inside. And when at last I did succumb I was not a little surprised. I did not know that London habitually amused itself between the afternoon hours of twelve and six; but here was a crowd of people pouring into what looked like an ordinary theatre. They were not the idle rich nor yet the wealthy poor; they were people of the lower middle classes, who looked as if they ought to have been at work, but were here disbursing sums varying from a shilling to five shillings with great readiness. The prices themselves were a surprise; I had thought of threepence or sixpence as a reasonable price to pay for an hour’s vision of flickering pictures with motes dancing over them, and a headache; but I think my stall cost five shillings. And there, at the high noon of the London day, in the midst of perhaps the busiest human activity in the world, some hundreds of us sat waiting in a darkened, plush-upholstered hall, like mourners at a funeral waiting for the corpse.

Presently a harmonium, violin, and a piano began some whining and twittering attempt at an overture, and the pictures appeared. We all know them; even I, who am no patron of Kinema palaces, am familiar with them in the larger world of the music-hall. There was the Durbar, a dancing succession of troops marching at about fifteen miles an hour, of well-known figures walking up to you, looming nearer and nearer, and then apparently cut off in the prime of life and blotted out as though they had never been; the industrial pictures of money being coined at the Mint — tons of bullion poured out before one’s eyes while someone behind the screen jingled sixpenny worth of halfpence in a tin tray; some wonderful things and some stupid things; and then, finally, the plunge into real, thick, treacley sentiment, the middle-aged man brooding by the fireside (such a fireside!) and looking at the face of his sweetheart in an old album (such an album!), and seeing visions of himself and his sweetheart as children, as young man and maiden, as bride and bridegroom (such a bride and bridegroom!); and, finally, the disturbance of the gentleman’s meditation by the arrival in the room of his wife, who, when she turns her face to the audience, is seen to be identical with the heroine of the old fool’s meditations. This the audience liked; and I saw a stout woman, who might have been a publican’s wife, wiping away an undoubted tear.

They did not give me for my five shillings what I really longed for — one of those breathlessly rapid dramas in which babies are thrown at people in the street, motor-cars fly asunder before your eyes, and long trains of people, headed by a policeman and a nursemaid, and receiving constant accretions in the shape of chimney-sweeps, clergymen, bricklayers, and school children, pursue one another apparently in the full light of day across thoroughfares which are unmistakably recognizable as the Champs Elysées and the Avenue du Trocadéro. It is an unending pleasure to see men running at thirty-five miles an hour and clashing into each other at a corner and exploding in a cloud of smoke. One feels at such moments that life is really a busier and braver thing than the dull crawl of one’s own experience.

But there is another side to the picture. Men have toiled and used splendid brains in order that these things should be; one cannot help asking oneself how far they are worth while. All over the world there are great theatres with stages far larger and more modern than Covent Garden or the Paris Opera, equipped with every kind of scenic effect, on which dramas are dally performed to no other spectator than the little crystal lens in front of an unrolling film; sometimes as many as two thousand people at a time are employed in a drama on one of these great stages. Is this to be the theatre of the future? We have almost abolished thinking from our theatres; are we also to abolish hearing, and seeing in any except one dimension? There is another, perhaps the greatest, evil of the kinematograph craze, the evil which it shares with the pianola-player and the gramophone. It is that these things really narrow the life and experience of men. They bring life to one’s door; and it will soon be possible for people to have all the adventurous experience they want within a radius of half a mile of their own house. No journeys need be taken; you pay sixpence and sit in a chair that is mechanically rocked like a railway carriage, and look out upon the moving scenery of the Andes, the Alps, or the Rockies. You need not go through the toil and discipline of learning the technique of music; turn a handle, and all that Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin groaned in travail with, wept tears of blood for, or laughed and sang out to the world, is at your command. You need not go and hear a great oration; the very voice will issue for you from your brass-throated gramophone on the morrow. All of which is bad, and means loss of life in the fullest and most serious sense. It is not the conquest of science, but the abuse of science.

But there is no question about there being a real use for the kinematograph. To such perfection has it been brought that it can record the movement of an insect or a bird’s wing, or the flight and penetration of a projectile. Films have been made so delicate that they will take a picture in an exposure of 1-42,000th of a second; the mechanism has been so perfected that streams of consecutive pictures can be taken at the rate of 5000 per second, the measurement and control of this being entrusted to a tuning-fork — so far beyond our mere mechanical abilities do such figures take us.

And as an historical record also the kinematograph has its legitimate use. Sometimes — very rarely — looking upon that illuminated square, one has for the moment a sense of real illusion, of looking through a glass and seeing the sea breaking on some tropical shore, or the figures of men moving and smiling in a distant land. Think if we could once see in the same way King John crossing to the little Thames island to give Englishmen their freedom, or Anne Boleyn driving through the streets of Westminster to her wedding, or Cromwell speaking in the House of Commons, or King Charles I, making his farewell on the scaffold! It would not be so much on the central figures that we should pore as upon the crowds and the people in the street, seeing actually before our eyes what men and women looked like, how they moved about, what clothes they wore, what manners they had in those dim, far-off days. Five hundred years hence the English people will in this way be able to see scenes of our life in England; we shall not be so isolated from them; they will know us really as we are, and along with the figures and faces of the great will be preserved and made familiar to our descendants of the twenty-fifth century some otherwise utterly unimportant people, who pushed to the front of crowds and took the trouble to see public shows. And perhaps the most familiar figures of our day to the people of coming days will be the figures of policemen. Thus you see even the kinematograph will not really tell the truth; for there is no such thing as mechanical truth or mechanical record of truth. And that is the crowning fault of mechanism when it takes the place of human effort and labor.

Comments: Filson Young (1876–1938) was a British journalist and essayist. The Living Age was an American magazine which reproduced selections from English and American magazines and newspapers. The article was originally published in British magazine The Saturday Review. The book on film the writer refers to is Frederick A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (London: Heinemann, 1912). Typical cinema prices of the time were between threepence and sixpence, and the suggestion of a five shilling seat sounds like an exaggeration. The ‘Durbar’ refers to newsfilms of the Delhi Durbar celebrations of 1911. Many trick and chase films of the period were indeed filmed in Paris, by the Pathé and Gaumont firms.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Source: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin, 2003 – orig. pub. 1949), pp. 4-5, 10-11

Text:Behind Winston’s back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plate commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste – this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania …

[Winston decides to write a secret diary]

… For some time he sat gazing stupidly at the paper. The telescreen had changed over to strident military music. It was curious that he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say. For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years. At this moment, however, even the monologue had dried up. At this moment, however, even the monologue had dried up. Moreover his varicose ulcer had begun itching unbearably. He dared not scratch it, because if he did so it always became inflamed. The seconds were ticking by. He was conscious of nothing except the blankness of the page in front of him, the itching of the skin above his ankle, the blaring of the music, and a slight booziness caused by the gin.

Suddenly he began writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what he was setting down. His small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops:

April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never —

Winston stopped writing, partly because he was suffering from cramp. He did not know what had made him pour out this stream of rubbish. But the curious thing was that while he was doing so a totally different memory had clarified itself in his mind, to the point where he almost felt equal to writing it down. It was, he now realized, because of this other incident that he had suddenly decided to come home and begin the diary today.

Comments: George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950), British novelist and essayist. His dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in the future but serves as a satire of the time in which is was written (1948) and life under totalitarianism. Winston Smith is the novel’s rebellious protagonist. The act of writing a diary would be punished by death or twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp. Telescreens function both as means to broadcast programmes and as surveillance devices. The lower classes are referred to as ‘proles’.

Il Cinematografo

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Il Cinematografo’, Het Vaderland, 22 April 1911, pp. 1-2, English translation by Ivo Blom in ‘North and South: two early texts about cinema-going by Louis Couperus’, Film History vol. 20, issue 2 (2008), pp. 127-132

Text: The following night, while my wife is exchanging small talk with the German Generals’ wives and Majors’ widows – in the drawing room of the pension house – I am walking around at a loose end, ‘with my soul under my arm’, and with that same soul I walk into a cinematografo, for the sum of 20 Centesimi. I just happen to like contrasts. I just happen to like to sit one night, chic, with my wife, on a rather expensive poltrone in a gala performance, and the next night visit those public amusements where the common man for a few Soldi gives himself the illusion of something very beautiful sad, gay, and in particular sentimental. I once read that Edison invented the cinema to give the common-man his theater. I entirely agree with that, but … But what I want to say, I won’t say right away. First I will describe what the waiting room looks like … because, if you have paid 30 Centesimi, you don’t wait: there are always places, however, if you want something cheaper, for two Soldi less, you need to wait … in the waiting room. You’ll understand, dear reader, that I am frugal that I will wait, right … [e]specially because the waiting amuses me, or rather interest me … This waiting room is very dirty. People often spit on the ground with great gobs, and nobody minds. The ground is covered not only with saliva but also with tangerine peel, used matches, cigarette butts and torn entrance tickets. On a platform is a palm-court orchestra of some pale girls dressed in white. All around are test-your-strength machines, shooting galleries, candy automats …Chairs are against the wall; every chair is taken; the place is full to the brim. Look at all those tired faces that sharply light up like ghosts in the cruel and stark electric light. These are not the Roman marchionesses, princesses, loaded with their family jewels; these are not gentlemen in tails and elegant lieutenants shining in gold; this is not the noble spawn of the Duke of the Abruzzi. This is the tired waiting of the ‘common man’ – with wife and kids, often with babies – after the common man has finished working. He is out, he is going to amuse himself; he wants above all to see something. When he is out with his family, it easily costs him almost a Lira. But he gets a lot in return. He starts with resting on a chair, in front of an enormous ‘mirror’, which, ghostlike, reflects to him his pale, tired face. He also perceives electric light on walls with art nouveau patterns and he hears the din of the palm-court orchestra. When he is finally allowed to enter, then he, his worn-out wife and worldly-wise children, first see a dal vero: a parade or an instructive industry film or a trip through Norway or Switzerland. Secondly, a sentimental drama, which moves their petty bourgeois souls to tears in such a marvellous way: stolen children, noble little chimney sweeps, virtue especially rewarded … And now and then something of opera or true comedy, but without the words and with no more music thank the plonky piano accompaniment. And as life is so merry and gay, the delicious show ends with a farce, which often consists of drunken men and people tumbling over each other and running after one other through fields and roads: oh such merry farces, drawn from lovely merry life! The little citizen, for his four soldi, is educated, has a tear squeezed from the eye, and has his ‘laughing muscle’ tickled. Alright, I allow him that. I allow him this cheap theater of Edison. But … And now I will say it … Why, after he is educated, cannot the tear be squeezed from his eye with beauty; the laughing muscle tickled … with grace? Does it have to happen – is it not possible to let it happen – but with coarse, false, weepy sentimentality … and with an even more coarse, more false, drunkard’s burlesque?

The show is over. I have stayed until the end. And not like yesterday, in the chic Opera, left before the end. It is because I wanted to see that distressing exodus of common men, with their pale, spent faces, arm in arm with their worn-out wives, behind them their worldly-wise children. And they seemed even more tired than when I saw them in the waiting room. They didn’t seem to be cheered up by the vulgar drunkard’s farce. Reader, forgive me that I led you to a gala night of the Cinematografo … I like contrasts, you know.

Comments: Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet and is considered one of the leading figures in Dutch literature. He wrote about films in his regular ‘Bioscoop’ column for the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post, and occasionally elsewhere as in this piece on visiting a Rome cinema for Het Vaderland, which is part of a series ‘Pages from my diary’. The previous ‘diary’ article had covered a visit to the Teatro Costanzi in Rome to see Verdi’s opera Macbeth, alluded to here (the Roman marchionesses etc). My thanks to Ivo Blom for his permission to reproduce his translation, and to Deac Rossell for alerting me to the Film History article. Ellipses are as given in the Film History translation.

The Photoplay

Source: Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York/London: D. Appleton and Company, 1916), pp. 215-220

Text: Enthusiasts claim that in the United States ten million people daily are attending picture houses. Sceptics believe that “only” two or three millions form the daily attendance. But in any case “the movies” have become the most popular entertainment of the country, nay, of the world, and their influence is one of the strongest social energies of our time. Signs indicate that this popularity and this influence are increasing from day to day. What are the causes, and what are the effects of this movement which was undreamed of only a short time ago?

The economists are certainly right when they see the chief reason for this crowding of picture houses in the low price of admission. For five or ten cents long hours of thrilling entertainment in the best seats of the house: this is the magnet which must be more powerful than any theater or concert. Yet the rush to the moving pictures is steadily increasing, while the prices climb up. The dime became a quarter, and in the last two seasons ambitious plays were given before audiences who paid the full theater rates. The character of the audiences, too, suggests that inexpensiveness alone cannot be decisive. Six years ago a keen sociological observer characterized the patrons of the picture palaces as “the lower middle class and the massive public, youths and shopgirls between adolescence and maturity, small dealers, pedlars, laborers, charwomen, besides the small quota of children.” This would be hardly a correct description today. This “lower middle class” has long been joined by the upper middle class. To be sure, our observer of that long forgotten past added meekly: “Then there emerges a superior person or two like yourself attracted by mere curiosity and kept in his seat by interest until the very end of the performance; this type sneers aloud to proclaim its superiority and preserve its self-respect, but it never leaves the theater until it must.” Today you and I are seen there quite often, and we find that our friends have been there, that they have given up the sneering pose and talk about the new photoplay as a matter of course.

Above all, even those who are drawn by the cheapness of the performance would hardly push their dimes under the little window so often if they did not really enjoy the plays and were not stirred by a pleasure which holds them for hours. After all, it must be the content of the performances which is decisive of the incomparable triumph. We have no right to conclude from this that only the merits and excellences are the true causes of their success. A caustic critic would probably suggest that just the opposite traits are responsible. He would say that the average American is a mixture of business, ragtime, and sentimentality. He satisfies his business instinct by getting so much for his nickel, he enjoys his ragtime in the slapstick humor, and gratifies his sentimentality with the preposterous melodramas which fill the program. This is quite true, and yet it is not true at all. Success has crowned every effort to improve the photostage; the better the plays are the more the audience approves them. The most ambitious companies are the most flourishing ones. There must be inner values which make the photoplay so extremely attractive and even fascinating.

To a certain degree the mere technical cleverness of the pictures even today holds the interest spellbound as in those early days when nothing but this technical skill could claim the attention. We are still startled by every original effect, even if the mere showing of movement has today lost its impressiveness. Moreover we are captivated by the undeniable beauty of many settings. The melodrama may be cheap; yet it does not disturb the cultured mind as grossly as a similar tragic vulgarity would on the real stage, because it may have the snowfields of Alaska or the palm trees of Florida as radiant background. An intellectual interest, too, finds its satisfaction. We get an insight into spheres which were strange to us. Where outlying regions of human interest are shown on the theater stage, we must usually be satisfied with some standardized suggestion. Here in the moving pictures the play may really bring us to mills and factories, to farms and mines, to courtrooms and hospitals, to castles and palaces in any land on earth.

Yet a stronger power of the photoplay probably lies in its own dramatic qualities. The rhythm of the play is marked by unnatural rapidity. As the words are absent which, in the drama as in life, fill the gaps between the actions, the gestures and deeds themselves can follow one another much more quickly. Happenings which would fill an hour on the stage can hardly fill more than twenty minutes on the screen. This heightens the feeling of vitality in the spectator. He feels as if he were passing through life with a sharper accent which stirs his personal energies. The usual make-up of the photoplay must strengthen this effect inasmuch as the wordlessness of the picture drama favors a certain simplification of the social conflicts. The subtler shades of the motives naturally demand speech. The later plays of Ibsen could hardly be transformed into photoplays. Where words are missing the characters tend to become stereotyped and the motives to be deprived of their complexity. The plot of the photoplay is usually based on the fundamental emotions which are common to all and which are understood by everybody. Love and hate, gratitude and envy, hope and fear, pity and jealousy, repentance and sinfulness, and all the similar crude emotions have been sufficient for the construction of most scenarios. The more mature development of the photoplay will certainly overcome this primitive character, as, while such an effort to reduce human life to simple instincts is very convenient for the photoplay, it is not at all necessary. In any case where this tendency prevails it must help greatly to excite and to intensify the personal feeling of life and to stir the depths of the human mind.

But the richest source of the unique satisfaction in the photoplay is probably that esthetic feeling which is significant for the new art and which we have understood from its psychological conditions. The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us. No wonder that temples for the new goddess are built in every little hamlet.

Comments: Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) was a German psychologist who was a professor of experimental psychology at Harvard University. His book The Photoplay is considered as the first serious work of film theory and is still highly regarded. The selection above comes from the chapter ‘The Function of the Photoplay’.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive