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.’

The Lumière brothers improved on the Kinetoscope in 1895 by combining camera and projector in their Cinématographe. In Britain Robert Paul produced his own camera and projector when Edison refused to supply him with films. Paul also patented a design for a time machine based on H.G. Wells’s short story, in which a series of moving platforms would ‘transport’ an audience to different periods with the help of images projected on a screen and a ‘conductor’ who would lead them back to the present day (he never actually built the machine). This was a crucial moment in the development of cinema technology, as viewing shifted from individual peepshows to collective projections.

Silent films were never silent, and Marcus writes interestingly about the mixture of voices and sounds that accompanied or competed with early cinema. Film lecturers or actors frequently narrated films and audiences did not feel compelled to stop talking during short reels. Marcus says that the American poet and early film critic Vachel Lindsay reported that immigrants to the US learned English by listening to their neighbours reading out intertitles. From the German novelist Gert Hofmann’s semi-autobiographical account of his grandfather, she draws the story of a film lecturer forced out of work by the coming of the sound era, only to find his voice again at Nazi party meetings. Erwin Panofsky remembered the ‘weird and spectral feeling’ that would come over the auditorium when the pianist left his ‘post’ for a few minutes, and the film ‘was allowed to run by itself, the darkness haunted by the monotonous rattle of the machinery’.

Members of the Bloomsbury Group were uncharacteristically silent about the new art form. ‘A new art comes upon us so surprisingly that we sit silent, recognising before we take the measure,’ Woolf wrote late in her life. Perhaps this is the reason there is so little written evidence of Bloomsbury’s engagement with cinema, despite the biographical evidence to the contrary. Roger Fry and Maynard Keynes were founding members of the Film Society, and it’s likely that Leonard and Virginia Woolf attended some of the screenings. Woolf refers to trips to the ‘Picture Palace’ in her diaries and wrote an essay on ‘The Cinema’ in 1926. Clive Bell wrote two articles on cinema in the 1920s; the Hogarth Press published two pamphlets on film by the music critic Eric Walter White; and Roger Fry, in ‘An Essay in Aesthetics’ (1909), mentioned that it was only when he watched a ‘cinematograph’ that he noticed the bizarre habit people have of turning a full circle when they get off a train.

In ‘The Cinema’, Woolf pays much more attention to the viewer’s experience of the medium and the visual qualities of film than to the stories it told. She writes of watching, during a screening of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a dark shadow that appeared ‘like a tadpole’ at the corner of the screen, then ‘swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity’. The shadow was not part of the film but the effect of a malfunctioning projector. Where other critics have seen this as a typical example of the modernist preference for form over content, Marcus argues that the significance of Woolf’s response to the film – the tadpole ‘seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement, “I am afraid”’ – was her realisation that cinema could make emotion visible. By looking out of the corner of her eye, Woolf understood the film in front of her. She had been thinking about cinema for a long time before she wrote this essay. She complains in a 1918 review that a novel by Compton Mackenzie moves too fast, like a movie, with one image relentlessly following another. Yet by the time she wrote Jacob’s Room in 1922, she appears to be experimenting with this method herself. She wrote in her diary in January of that year that she felt time was ‘racing like a film at the Cinema’ and that she would ‘try to stop it. I prod it with my pen. I try to pin it down.’

Film scholarship has tended to focus on French, Russian and German film writing in the modernist period; Marcus’s emphasis is on British and American writing. She traces American film studies back to the 1910s and 1920s, c0ncentrating in particular on Vachel Lindsay’s writings. Lindsay’s theory of film as a hieroglyphic language was taken up by ‘a whole gamut’ of film-makers and theorists including Eisenstein, Jean Epstein, Siegfried Kracauer and Adorno. Marcus argues that Lindsay, along with Victor Freeburg and the Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, focused on the sense of ‘beauty’ in film as a way of elevating its status to one of the ‘high arts’. Film criticism in England in the 1920s was also preoccupied with film’s status, as well as with the evolution of the British film industry and anxiety about the ephemerality of the medium. In 1928, the film critic Robert Herring wrote in the London Mercury that we get ‘tired’ of talking about our hope for the development of cinema in England because ‘we see so little of it fulfilled.’

One of the critics revived by Marcus is Iris Barry. In histories of modernism Barry gets a walk-on part because of her relationship with Wyndham Lewis, but she was a published poet, film critic for the Daily Mail, Spectator, the Adelphi and Vogue, a founding member of both the London and New York Film Societies, and director of MoMA’s film library. She wasn’t interested in ‘arty’ films, but saw cinema as a means to enrich the subconscious. If a girl in the audience feels that her life is dreary, she explained in Let’s Go to the Pictures (1926), she can be comforted by the idea that things do happen to other people.

Cinema audiences were predominantly female in the 1920s. C.A. Lejeune, then the film critic for the Manchester Guardian, described women stealing an hour in the afternoon to ‘relax unseen’ in the darkness of the ‘kinema’. The novelist Dorothy Richardson, a film critic for Close Up, saw women with infants at a cinema in North London on a Monday afternoon in July 1927, their ‘faces sheened with toil’, ‘figures of weariness at rest’. The notion that the cinema might be a sanctuary for mothers persists in the current fashion for weekday mother-and-baby screenings – though fewer faces are sheened with toil.

Writing in the Spectator, Barry claimed that, in film, ‘chairs and tables, collar-studs, kitchenware and flowers take on a function which they have lost.’ The idea that inanimate objects were granted life on the screen was a popular one and seems not to have been greeted with much anxiety, despite its usual association with the uncanny. Joyce’s singing bar of soap and Bella the brothel madam’s erotic talking fan must have drawn on cinematic effects. French avant-garde film theorists were fond of the concept of ‘photogénie’ which, for Jean Epstein, elevated ‘a revolver in a drawer, a broken bottle on the ground’ to the status of characters in a drama. Photogénie described the shock of seeing ordinary things as if for the first time – a typically modernist moment of the sublime. In order to understand how an ‘animal, a plant or a stone can inspire respect, fear or horror’, Epstein continues, we must watch them on the screen ‘living their mysterious, silent lives’. This was a favourite theme for modernists, encapsulated in William Carlos Williams’s maxim: ‘No ideas but in things.’ Woolf, in ‘Solid Objects’, writes about a politician who becomes so enamoured of a piece of glass that he is unable to pursue his career and becomes instead a collector of china and stones. The British novelist Mary Butts harboured a life-long obsession with pebbles and stones: ‘The life, the potency that lives in the kind of earth-stuff that is hard and coloured and cold. Yet is alive and full of secrets, with a sap and a pulse and a being all to itself.’ Film appeared to offer the perfect means to represent the life of objects.

Marcus issues a challenge when she points out that no history of the Film Society, which operated until 1939, has yet been written. A draft by David Robinson, written in 1963 and held at the British Film Institute, was vetoed by Iris Barry because she felt that it gave the ‘quite unfair and incorrect impression that the FS was largely some sort of organ of Soviet propaganda and its members a horde of rough-necks’. Known by the actor Ivor Montagu’s family as ‘Ivor’s Sunday afternoons of gloom’, the society’s early programmes were dominated by German films (largely because the founders had seen them), but by its fourth season, in 1928, it was giving more and more room to Soviet films that had been banned by the British Board of Film Censors. A screening of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg in February 1929 caused a stir – questions were asked in the House – when it was reported that a cheer had gone up when the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ appeared on the screen. The society’s early members included David Cecil, Roger Fry, J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Augustus John, Keynes, Shaw, St Loe Strachey, Ellen Terry and Wells. Stories appeared in the press about ‘the big cars, the women in striking hats, the well-known Bloomsbury figures making themselves conspicuous in the audience with their unconventional dress and loud conversation’. The society was mocked in the London Mercury by Milton Waldman’s fictional lowbrow, who knew that Robert Wiene’s Raskolnikov was a ‘superior affair because it took place on a Sunday afternoon’ but saw ‘nothing much new in the spectacle before him’.

Marcus pays a good deal of attention to the films as well as the film writing produced by the group associated with Close Up, ‘The Only Magazine Devoted to Films as an Art’, which appeared between 1927 and 1933. The journal was founded by the novelist Winifred Ellerman (Bryher) and her husband, the Scottish artist Kenneth Macpherson, with regular input from H.D., who was her lover. Pabst told Bryher that Close Up was the ‘thing we all desire, the paper expresses our inmost psychological thoughts’: his only surprise was that ‘an English man should have written it’. Close Up didn’t promote an avant-garde so much as a new kind of psychological realism in film, opposed to the ‘false dreaming’ of commercial cinema: it published articles about the relationship between film and psychoanalysis, film as education, international cinema, spectatorship, gender and the transition to sound. It also carried the first English translation of Eisenstein’s influential essay ‘The Fourth Dimension in the Kino’, based on a course of six workshops that he had given to 20 members of the Film Society the previous autumn. Robert Herring, who contributed to Close Up as well as to the London Mercury, had attended the workshops and afterwards wrote to H.D. that Eisenstein had put ‘into new, crystal terms all one knew (nothing else); but surprising one that what one knew was so complicated’.

The theory of the fourth dimension was Eisenstein’s attempt to pin down the unique qualities of film as a medium. In his essay, he explains his own conception of the principles of montage. Lev Kuleshov had conducted experiments in 1918 in which he juxtaposed the same image of an actor’s face with images of different kinds to show how our interpretation of images is affected by editing. But Eisenstein understood montage to be about more than editing. In one of his workshops, he reportedly urged his students to ‘choose pieces which do not fit’. Where Pudovkin had seen montage as a way of linking images to propel a narrative, Eisenstein defined it as collision. ‘Overtonal’ montage, the crucial concept in Eisenstein’s essay for Close Up, transported the experience of the spectator from an emotional response to a direct ‘physiological sensation’. Eisenstein compared this to the sensation of listening to Debussy as opposed to Beethoven. Herring evolved his own theory of the magic of cinema, whereby the ‘thing that is larger than the thing itself … is what makes it real’. But in Eisenstein’s theory the overall impression received from watching a film is a ‘real piece, a real element … of the fourth dimension’. Recognising that some might be put off by such talk, Eisenstein reassured his readers that the idea that we live in a ‘four-dimensional space-time continuum’ is ‘commonplace’ and that soon they would feel just as much at home in the fourth dimension as if ‘we were in our bedsocks.’

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