July 25, 1896 [The Kiss (Between May Irwin and John Rice)]

It lasted less than twenty seconds, a mere re-enactment of the closing scene of The Widow Jones, currently playing on the New York Stage—but I was transfixed, stunned into attention. Edison has moved on to projected cinema with his Vitascope, and, as with the Lumières' Cinématographe, suddenly the intimate has become impersonal—no, shared, like any object passed hand to hand (or is that eye to eye?). I knew I was watching something entirely manufactured—which means, then, that it was real, an object turned into an action, almost praxis, and so no longer divorced from human meaning and intention, even feeling, as abrupt and devoid of context as it was—but perhaps that is its context, the uncovering of the moment's essence, the private coupling as public display.

This may perhaps mean that the motion picture is allowing us to gaze at the world (here, at each other) with passive acceptance—but in that acceptance we act, we become agents of the moment of watching. The sheer size of their faces, the attention we could not help but pay to their lips, their cheeks, their bearing—toward one another, of course, but also to us, their presentation of themselves as simplified as any irresistible urge—all this combines to draw us in and ask us to, well, exchange our selves with those of the couple on the screen.

And it was not the same as a stage performance—where, despite (and yes, because of) their talents, we see them not only as actors but as other persons, with voices playing to the back row, feet sounding on the stage, garments rustling to and fro. And although they are disguised with makeup and costume, and live in a strange world where their fourth wall disappears so that we may watch them, they live there in front of us, with a recognizable height and depth, and we see them as we choose. But on the screen, that quarter-minute of kissing becomes more than performance. We have no choices but the one the camera has made, and it becomes almost an intrusion, a shameless act—not theirs, not Irwin's or Rice's, but ours, watching their huge faces connect with easy, monumental intimacy, a preposterous sight, a beautiful trespass. I felt I should not look, but I knew I could not turn away, as I perceive a firm shift in my seeing, and in what my eye desires.


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