July 22, 1907 [Les Affiches en goguette/Hilarious Posters]

I've a growing suspicion that there is only one art in the cinema: that of the confidence-man, smiling as he gives me what I desire—which melts to less than nothing as soon as he departs. A bleak prospect. But I'm rescued by Méliès, who brings a wall of posters to life, figures pouring soup and affections and imprecations on one another, receding as the police threaten this harmless chaos—then breaking free of their paper bonds, the police now caught on the wall. Can one be innocent and sly? Is this cinema's saving—well, if not grace, then talent?

Méliès' three-minute game of living cups-and-balls is awkward in execution, but (as with so many of his conjurations) it engenders subtleties, gaining in delicacy and ingenuity the more I contemplate them. The posters are like the motion-picture screen itself, a fleeting glimpse of mysterious things—all right, perhaps a mere prank, waiting to tweak our noses and run off—but effecting magic as it draws us within the frame, the viewer becoming the subject of viewing. It is a picture-within-a-picture—and more: a picture-within-a-picture-within the picture in my head, the same that I have always seen, its invitation to come closer sometimes a promise, sometimes a threat. And while I'm not always happy with the man I see in the frame (disconcertingly familiar as he is), I give him his freedom.

I seem to have written myself into a strange place, where for a nickel I am both the Clay and the Maker, the object and the agent, allowed to do as I please—as long as I can pay. And the moralist in me wonders, with some grounds, whether that nickel will be enough, or whether the cinema will exact a higher price for all this freedom. For now, no matter: the thing is as obvious as it is potent, and as long as I keep up my guard (and there's the rub, as someone famous once said), I should be able to keep the cinema in its place. Where that is, I'm still discovering.


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