A decade ago all we had were mere snippets of one-minute--or less--duration, kisses and sneezes, up stairs and down, running a bit or throwing a ball. So now, as Edison--intent on extolling the virtues of both Direct Current and Justice--takes us to Coney Island and electrocutes an elephant, we return to cinema's origins--and even further back than the Cinématographe and the Kinetescope, all the way to Muybridge's horse. But of course--now that we have gone to the Moon and shall with regularity soon stretch cinema to full theatrical performances, and beyond--we are no longer interested in discovering the principles of motion, but of cessation. We are compelled not to follow the elephant's gait but its agonies, and to all but smell the thing's flesh as the smoke billows.
And the most significant detail here is not Topsy's shudder, nor the sliding fall she makes. No, it's my keen attendance, my avidity for the death of artifice. Already we patrons of the cinematic art have had our fill of reenactments and even fantasies. Méliès has barely begun, but, like Topsy, he may already be finished, as the moving picture lessens our enthusiasm for anything less than actual spectacle--not in the service of drama or the inviting, open spaces of metaphor, but the narrow road of the tactile experience. Watching Topsy die is exciting--without any effort on the viewer (aside from the not-insignificant erasure of all tender sensibilities). Méliès' lunar voyage presses great demands on us--to leap with faith, to surrender to another's imagination--and thus claim a stake in it. But the quick brutal moment with the elephant is merely itself.
I have not yet worked this out. I do want cinema to do as it pleases--its very existence depends on the actual--and the potential for filmed action to serve as record is great--but the more I see, the more I want, not to be pelted with "the truth," but to be invited to supply my own. Cinema promises, then, a new art, one whose moral weight needs to be laid on like mortar by the viewer, who builds the thing for himself. So perhaps we need more horror-actualities, if only to wall them in. Or something else: We need to watch unflinchingly and suspend not only belief but judgment, and decide afterward, making us at once free and accountable.
But I wonder if I can handle these serpents and not be stung--and I wonder if I am not already bitten, and am waiting to see if I am saved--or, as one should expect, must save myself. I cannot shake the queasy thrill I felt on seeing Topsy die--nor the unease that grows.