July 1, 1907 [Cohen's Fire Sale]
Cinema these days urges us to live in dual worlds: the ersatz and the actual, the pleasant and the grotesque, the light-hearted and the vicious. And they are not merely juxtaposed but substituted, the artificial flung at us, coating the real like paste or mud—but am I too harsh? Isn't there something giddy in the plunge from the stage to the actuality, from laughter to grimace? I can't assert otherwise: I love the cinema because of its excesses, its unapologetic clumsiness. I can feel the camera operator's hands resting on my eyes, in an odd way closing them, replacing my vision with his own.
Something whispers a warning, though: Here, for instance, in Cohen's Fire Sale, we begin as usual on the stage, a millinery, the flat swaying as an actor brushes against it, the gestures broad (keeping the back row's attention), the action more so. Hats arrive, are mistakenly taken away as rubbish (a prankish commentary on the value of the latest from France), and the chase ensues as the hats fall here and there providing amusement and accidental haute couture for all—children dancing to the organ grinder, washer-women, even the workers at the dump. All the while Mr. Cohen fumes and rants helplessly—until he enlists his cat(!) to help him start a fire to collect the insurance, with resultant explosion, flame, and actual firemen—and oh, once more we end with a kiss.
It's vulgar and hilarious, obvious and startling—and at the heart of it lurks one more substitution: derision for kindness, the Jewish proprietor's nose protruding so much that it interferes with his kiss, a scorned hero, irritating and oily. It's the kind of thing one would have barely noticed without the cinema, this meanness. In the midst of my laughter the film revealed itself—no, myself; and not (I hope) as a villain, but simply another fool. I will admit I feel more embarrassed than ashamed—the picture was so ridiculous (and funny); but, once more, uncertainty lingers, and with a wink and a whisper the picture hints at what I am asked to surrender to indulge cinema's coarse will.
My moral sense cringes, but so does my aesthetic sensibility. Perhaps that dual response is the one I should examine, if only to catch myself as I fall into the moving picture.