March 3, 1911 [What Shall We Do with Our Old?]

The little drama is offered as "an actual occurrence"—but that's not why we're in the moving-picture parlor, is it? I'm not sure. We've watched many "actual occurrences," from Muybridge's horse to the San Francisco earthquake—but if it's all the same to the motion-picture people, we prefer our occurrences to be fictional. Just ask Méliès, or Griffith—or even that waning moon, Edison, who seems more intent on rescuing infants from eagles' nests than touring New York City.

But I'm being unfair. The "actuality" is alive and well—but it's embedded in narrative, embellished with passion and pathos. And it resides in the viewer's mind, always: The fictional motion picture world is, after all, a record of actual people, more and more in actual settings. As staged as the scenarios may be, they occur in a fluid silence untouched by our attention—aside from the economic concerns (the seats must be filled); but still, the moving-picture show is an object essentially beyond our influence, like the projected reality of the camera obscura. And we may deride the result, but that does not still the flow of film through the projector. I continue to wrestle with this dilemma of the cinema: its imperturbable nature, our consuming eyes, the power each has (sometimes at cross-purposes) to hold the other still and force some kind of connection. The motion-picture image is not, in a sense, an "image"—that is, a static object one can peruse with leisure. It moves, it rushes along while we keep our seats. And no matter how much I might complain, I am caught up in that rush, and acquiesce to the living story, the "bio-graph." The moving finger, having writ, is read.

And so "what shall we do with our old?" The elderly woman and her carpenter husband suffer in their hovel—replete with the Biograph logotype on the wall; these trademarks inserted in the action are sometimes more than a little distracting; on the other hand, given my mood, they remind me of the cinema's ego, announcing itself as an object separate from me, playing hide-and-seek with the Real.

But I digress.

The man is ill, the wife frets, the doctor advises fresh air. But the old hands at the shop are let go, and money troubles multiply—and then she grows ill. The aged carpenter is arrested for stealing food—and, while the judge is cold, the other officers of the court seem sympathetic—until the judge joins them, grows kindly, and frees the husband—who arrives home, only to find that his wife has died. The merciful make their departure.

The events transcend their handling, and what is maudlin and clumsy grows affecting, even dismaying. The picture leaves no hope, no answer to the question. Of course, a social message is conveyed—but when the vehicle is the cinema, a splintered logic overcomes: It's all so awkward and awful (in more than one sense of the word) and inescapable and heartless, even as it tugs at our heartstrings. Again, I grope for my meaning, but in the end all I know for certain is my response, out of proportion with everything about the experience except my perception that it moves—not as in "emotionally affecting"; I am merely noting the fact that it moves—through the projector, and so on.

—What do I mean here? Oh, I've had enough; suffice to say that I want someone to do something with our old—as I continue to watch the cinema do as it wills.


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