June 20, 1902 [Jack and the Beanstalk]
I believe I've seen something by the French magician Georges Méliès, in which a row of chairs is filled one by one by the same man, multiplying himself—but each with a different instrument in hand—and then playing together, a one-man band of trans-location. Or was it a dream—or some shifting memory, a story I tell myself?
Méliès is in my mind after seeing Jack and the Beanstalk with my children, despite the production's small-town theater atmosphere. It was my eldest's birthday, and we all set out to find a programme they would enjoy. This ten-minute motion picture satisfied them immensely—I think especially since it did not deviate from the tale as they knew it. I was happy for them, and even now, in private, won't spoil their fun; but a part of me felt they had lost something: their own images of Jack and his adventures. For even though they chattered on afterward about the story, and the tricks of the camera that made things appear and change, and seemed perfectly pleased, I wondered if they hadn't let the picture replace their memory of the story with itself, ingrained instantaneously with all the power of the visual, as lasting as the evocations of music that define the moment of listening—and then stretch that definition beyond itself: If next month I read the story to them—and not let them look at the illustrations (which I admit may intrude upon their imaginations almost as much as moving pictures; but I will conveniently suspend this ancillary concern for the sake of the present argument)—I wonder if in their minds they will see only the cinematic Jack and his fee-fie-foe.
But is this something to deplore? I've had the same experience many times—and again, with music as much as cinema. Once the conjurer (ah, Méliès again) makes the substitution, forces the card he wants me to choose, the trick is accomplished, and I applaud as loudly as anyone. Perhaps it's as simple—and, yes, as profound—as Coleridge's suspension of disbelief. I'm perfectly willing to engage in such suspensions—as long as the artist does not cheat, and keeps the promises of his premises (a bit of accidental Gilbert and Sullivan wording, there). And even something as slight as Jack and the Beanstalk is a creature of its word, if I may judge from my children's delight.
I believe I have too often viewed cinema for children without actual children at my side. This may be an error, if only because (if I may indulge) with some moving pictures a little child should lead us.