November 25, 1907 [The Rivals, College Chums]

I set down my newspaper and discard my playbill and walk into the Nickelodeon—and there they are again, comic strips and Broadway, postcards and Tin Pan Alley, flickering and large—too big to hold, but cozy in their familiar shades. The Rivals ply their awkward wares (their selves) to the sly-coy young lady, the men thwarting one another, trading wins and losses—and of course at the end she chooses a third; predictable—because we've seen it all before, as with the College Chums (Charley's Aunt without the bother of character and a discernible plot) shedding then donning garments in a low-Shakespeare gender-switch as the man dresses as a woman, and finds he may be losing the girl, but seems to be gaining the father. The jig is, eventually, up. (I pause to yawn.)

But along the way, taken together, something (or at least some things) rescue these films from pale-copy oblivion. In College Chums, the telephone conversation between the girl and one of the chums capers like Méliès. Their words form in air, float in a line toward one another; even his stammering finds its animated-letter equivalent. I watched it twice just for that sequence, a jarring interruption in the "plot" but a telling, albeit momentary, tear in the fabric of banality, the film asserting itself as cinematic—that is, visual, technical, even (almost) boundless. And when she interrupts him her words demolish his, a silly but potent visual metaphor for all the trouble these two encounter. The later scene of dress-up pales in comparison. For a moment, they were nowhere but in a film.

And the leap is not only trick effects. These two pictures hint at things to come, as cinema expands to meet, not merely the comic strip (which of late seems the motion picture's truest model) but the mind itself, leaping from interior to exterior, person to person, view to view, emotion to emotion, ever-more-rapid jumps daring the viewer to keep up, despite cinema's stagy quality and often-wearying familiarity—or perhaps it is precisely that familiarity with which moving pictures cannot dispense, the dependence on the visual cues repeated (signaling direction, time, occupied and empty spaces), all in terms of the succession of images; and the demand on the viewer to make the connections (spatial, temporal, personal) from space to space, person to person. I think we might need familiar plots, then (or images) to help us fashion these bonds of narrative—or simple recognition of the "real": human faces, motions, gestures seen all at once with their surroundings, the "back"-ground no longer so, incorporating itself into the lives of the figures, as setting, character, and action blend into a distinctly cinematic whole—united by the viewer's gaze, witnessing motion and tableau, the only one to make sense of it.

It is much to consume at once; we may, then, be lucky that so far it's all Sunday comics and song-snippets, "scenes from life" and popular melodramas. Seeing is difficult enough; any sense of believing in "film art" will have to flow like a torrent from our eyes into our heads, with "thinking" a last concern. What I'm fumbling toward is a sense of film-as-art, the technical in service to the theatrical—or perhaps something more, not mere service but usurpation; or some third development, beyond the mechanisms of both cinema and narrative. In any case, it appears we must begin in familiar territory before striking out for parts unknown.


Popular Posts