March 14, 1903 [Electrocuting an Elephant]

A decade ago all we had were mere snippets of scarcely one minute 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 Méliès' Moon and shall with regularity soon stretch cinema to full theatrical performances, and beyond—we're 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 creature'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—not of Topsy, but 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 saps 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, to put it coldly, exciting—because the only effort it requires of the viewer is the erasure of all tender sensibilities. Certainly, 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, an abandonment of virtue we not only accept but anticipate.

I have not yet worked this out. I want cinema to do as it pleases (after all, 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—well, not to be pelted with "the truth" but to be invited to supply my own. Cinema, then, promises 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 both belief and 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'm not already bitten, and am waiting to see if I'm saved—or, as one should expect, must save myself. I can't shake the queasy, shameful thrill I felt on seeing Topsy die—nor the unease that follows.


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