January 23, 1915 [A Fool There Was]
I'm losing my train of thought—a fitting development, I suppose, the diary equivalent of a “talking cure”—but of what am I attempting to cure myself? What ails me, there in the cinema? Since the beginning, the projected image has struck me as more than parlor games and diversions. Even the silliest zoetrope animation or stage-bound burlesque exerts a hold on me that is at once intimate and impassive, frivolous and grave. I am thus more than willing to succumb to the notion that the motion picture is more or less a representation of the dream-state, a fluid, spontaneous, coded message that every viewer can share, if he is willing to relinquish his will—and by that I believe I mean his rational judgment, for in the end there's nothing useful about the cinema; no material gain awaits the viewer. The other arts, I want to argue, consistently offer more to the intellect—even the tune of the moment that one whistles half-consciously, the simple painted landscape behind the settee, the humble lines of a simple structure—all invite "rational" participation. And the theatrical performance shares only some of the passive qualities of the motion picture, for in the theater I am always aware that the performers have their own lives, are humans moving near me, taking up their separate space in the scheme of things. But what is the projected image—even of the human form? Flat and shadowed, knowing not that it's watched, I must conclude, but that it will be. Each cinematic performance is an anticipation of observation, of influence. The motion picture actor gazes into the future—while we in the present stare at the past, and will it to the present.
And so perhaps it's not a passive response, a mere waiting thing. But it's not, I'm convinced (and will repeat again) a rational experience. And so I turn once more to Freud and assert the cinema as a wish waiting to be understood, as awful as it may be.
Theda Bara regards her fellow performers as mere things to be eaten, then husks to be discarded. She's not an object, let alone an event—but an instinct, so deeply sexual that she loses all allure and becomes a hollow-eyed representation of my own urges. Yes, she's the “vamp,” an instant success, claiming for the female Dracula’s domain—Stoker’s collection of diary-letters (oh, how dangerously close art sometimes slices) the new template for the stalking figure. It's an “unwashed,” ugly image—and one I can't dismiss. A Fool There Was arises from a play that in turn arose from Kipling’s poem “The Vampire”—all right, then, the immediate source is not Stoker; but the latter claims the film more than Kipling’s rueful tale of "a rag and a bone and a hank of hair," no matter how diligently the photoplay follows each verse, trying its best to turn away from the Vamp and toward the home the man has left behind to languish at her feet—here, the child and wife and stalwart friends become the shadows, the moral imperative, the illusion.
Miss Bara’s coal-black eyes are almost comical—her gaze, though, is purely cinematic, seeing us without knowing who we will be, but confident we'll someday stare back at her. And she moves with machine-like certainty—ungraceful, even stiff, as though a constant force were striking her breast like impotent rage, falling at her white feet. Again, the Good Doctor understands this, I think, this empty-headed entertainment, as subtle as a sledgehammer, but as equally sure in its power to crush the conscious defenses of the rational self. As her hapless victim falls toward her lips, his wailing child ignored, his defeated wife swooning, I knew where the cinema wants to move: inward, where the defenses weaken, and ravenous wishes are granted.