Gloomy Sunday Afternoons

Caroline Maclean

  • The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period by Laura Marcus
    Oxford, 562 pp, £39.00, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 923027 3

‘You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life – in the life of writers,’ Tolstoy allegedly said on his 80th birthday, in 1908. It is difficult, now, to recapture the excitement that greeted the first moving images. The new magical machine, it was variously believed, could bring the dead back to life, enable people to travel in time and space, arouse sexual desire, speak (silently) in a universal language, and offer magnified and telescopic views of reality. Tolstoy went on to say that ‘a new form of writing will be necessary’ because the ‘swift’ scene changes on film were more effective than the ‘heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed’.

In The Tenth Muse, Laura Marcus gives a lively account of the impact of moving images on a wide range of writers and critics in the first three decades of the 20th century. As David Trotter notes in Cinema and Modernism,[*] his account of the impact of film on Woolf, Joyce and Eliot, critics have tended to associate modernist literature with montage, a term used by Russian film-makers of the 1920s to indicate a quick succession of images, not unlike the jumble of impressions in The Waste Land. But, as Trotter then points out, Eliot would not have seen any Russian formalist cinema until the establishment of the Film Society in London in 1925. The relationship between the literary and cinematic isn’t merely a matter of the exchange of ‘transferable narrative techniques’ between writers and film-makers. Marcus examines writing about cinema, and looks for its presence in literary texts. She captures the wonder, fear, pleasure and incredulity felt by writers in front of the screen, from Gorky’s response to the Lumière brothers’ first films in 1896 – ‘Last night I was in the kingdom of the shadows’ – to Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939), in which the narrator is a camera, ‘its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’. Her focus on the development of a language of film aesthetics ties together the preoccupations of film-makers and film writers: time, space, repetition, movement, emotion, absence, presence, vision, sound and silence.

The history of early cinema is as much about its audiences, buildings, distributors and publicists as it is about the films themselves. Ian Christie notes in The Last Machine (1994) that until around 1907 people didn’t visit the cinema with the idea of seeing a particular film. Audiences were captivated by the novelty of moving pictures: a baby having breakfast, a train arriving at a station, a fantastical journey to the moon. Depending on where and when you were living you might have seen a moving picture in a biograph, cinematograph, nickelodeon or penny gaff. Marcus, however, is concerned not so much with the new technology as with the written response to it.

Film histories tend to begin in 1872, the year the photographer Eadweard Muybridge proved, to settle a bet, that horses lift all four feet off the ground as they gallop. Muybridge was not a projection man, but he did invent the Zoopraxiscope, a rotating version of the 19th-century magic lantern. Thomas Edison, along with William Dickson, invented the Kinetoscope, the machine that launched the commercial film industry, in 1891; in Edison’s Kinetoscope Parlours viewers peeped through a hole in the top of a wooden box to watch Annabelle Moore’s ‘Butterfly Dance’, to take one example. One of the earliest film histories is an account of Edison’s life and inventions by Dickson and his sister Antonia. The book includes a photo of a monkey that ‘laughed, actually laughed’ at a filmstrip in a Kinetoscope. By associating the birth and development of cinema with the evolution of the primate, the Dicksons anticipated avant-garde film theories of the 1910s and 1920s, which, preoccupied with the ‘primitivism’ of the medium, portrayed the cinema as both absolutely new yet also linked to the archaic: the Dicksons imagine a scene in the early history of man in which ‘one tiny Simian fell into ecstasies of delight over his reflected image.’

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[*] Blackwell, 205 pp., £17.99, January 2007, 978 1 4051 5982 1.