H.D. [Hilda Doolittle]
[ The eleven articles that the Modernist poet and novelist H.D. [Hilda Doolittle] wrote for Close Up, a film journal of the early 20th century edited by Kenneth Macpherson, appeared in the journal’s first two years. The first three [reproduced here] appeared under the title ‘The Cinema and the Classics’. They are investigations and celebrations of film art as a new classicism, of a ‘beauty’ wholly submerged by Hollywood film, but revealed in the new German and Russian cinema (of Pabst, Kuleshov, Eisenstein) which is the topic of a number of H.D.’s subsequent Close Up articles.
A number of the tenets expressed in the ‘Cinema and the Classics’ pieces echo the ‘Imagist’ aesthetics with which H.D.’s early poetry is associated – spareness, directness, ‘restraint’ – as well as the ‘Hellenism’ which was a central aspect of her poetics throughout her long writing career. The interplay between an aesthetics of formal restraint and one of emotional, spiritual or ‘psychic’ transcendence, between holding back and going beyond, runs throughout H.D.’s film writings. [From an introduction to these articles by Laura Marcus]
I [CLOSE UP Vol 1, no 1, July 1927]
I suppose we might begin rhetorically by asking, what is the cinema, what are the classics? For I don’t in my heart believe one out of ten of us highbrow intellectuals, Golders Greenites, Chautauqua lecturers, knows the least little bit about either. Classics. Cinema. The word cinema (or movies) would bring to nine out often of us a memory of crowds and saccharine music and longdrawn out embraces and the artificially enhanced thud-offs of galloping bronchoes. What would be our word-reaction to Classics? What to Cinema? Take Cinema to begin with, (cinema = movies), boredom, tedium, suffocation, pink lemonade, saw-dust even: old reactions connected with cheap circuses, crowds and crowds and crowds and illiteracy and more crowds and breathless suffocation and (if’we’ the editorial ‘us’ is an American) peanut shells and grit and perhaps a sudden collapse of jerry-built scaffoldings.
Danger somewhere anyhow. Danger to the physical safety, danger to the moral safety, a shivering away as when ‘polities’ or ‘graft’ is mentioned, a great thing that must be accepted (like the pre-cinema days circus) with abashed guilt, sneaked to at least intellectually. The cinema or the movies is to the vast horde of the fair-to-middling intellectuals, a Juggernaught crushing out mind and perception in one vast orgy of the senses. So much for the cinema. (Our ‘classic’ word-reaction will come along in due course.) I speak here, when I would appear ironical, of the fair-to-middling intellectual, not of the fortunately vast-increasing, valiant, little army of the advance guard or the franctireur of the arts, in whose hands mercifully since the days of the stone-writers, the arts really rested. The little leaven. But the leaven, turning in the lump, sometimes takes it into its microscopic mind to wonder what the lump is about and why can’t the lump, for its own good, for its own happiness, for its own (to use the word goodness in its Hellenic sense) beauty, be leavened just a little quicker? The leaven, regarding the lump, is sometimes curious as to the lump’s point of view, for all the lump itself so grandiloquently ignores it, the microscopic leaven. And so with me or editorially ‘us’ at just this moment. Wedged securely in the lump (we won’t class ourselves as sniffingly above it), we want to prod our little microbe way into its understanding. Thereby having the thrill of our lives, getting an immense kick out of trying to see what it is up to, what I am up against, what we all, franc-tireurs, have to deal with.
First as I say, amazing prejudice. The movies, the cinema, the pictures. Prejudice has sprouted, a rank weed, where the growth of wheat is thickest. In other words, film that blossom here in Europe (perhaps a frail, little, appreciated flower) are swiftly cut and grafted in America into a more sturdy, respectable rootstock. Take ‘Vaudeville’, for example, a film that I didn’t particularly revel in, yet must appreciate, Zolaesque realism which succeeded admirably in its medium; was stripped (by this gigantic Cyclops, the American censor) of its one bloom. The stem is valuable, is transplanted, but the spirit, the flower so to speak of ‘Vaudeville’ (we called it here ‘Variete’), the thing holding its created centre, its (as it happens) Zolaesque sincerity, is carefully abstracted. A reel or in some cases an artist or a producer, is carefully gelded before being given free run of the public. The lump heaving under its own lumpishness is perforce content, is perforce ignorant, is perforce so sated with mechanical efficiency, with whir and thud of various hypnotic appliances, that it doesn’t know what it is missing. The lump doesn’t know that it has been deprived of beauty, of the flower of some producer’s wit and inspiration. The lump is hypnotized by the thud-thud of constant repetition until it begins to believe, like the African tribesman, that the thump-thump of its medicine man’s formula is the only formula, that his medicine man is the only medicine man, that his god, his totem is (save for some neighbouring flat-faced almost similar effigies) the only totem. America accepts totems, not because the crowd wants totems, but because totems have so long been imposed on him, on it, on the race consciousness that it or him or the race consciousness is becoming hypnotized, is in danger of some race fixation; he or it or the race consciousness is so duped by mechanical efficiency and saccharine dramatic mediocrity that he or it doesn’t in the least know, in fact would be incapable (if he did know) of saying what he does want.
He learns that there is a new European importation for instance of a ‘star’; this importation being thudded into his senses for some months beforehand, his mind is made up for him; she is beautiful. We take that for granted. There I agree, the leaven and the lump are in this at one. The lump really wants beauty or this totem of beauty would not be set up by its astute leaders. Beauty. She is beautiful. This time ‘she’ is a northern girl, a ‘nordic’, another word they fall for. A Nordic beauty has been acclaimed and we all want to see her. I am grateful (it was my privilege) that I, for one, saw this grave, sweet creature before America claimed her. I saw her, as I see most of my pictures, more or less by accident. At least the divine Chance or classic Fortune that more or less guides all of us, led me one day to worship. I, like the Lump, am drawn by this slogan, ‘Beauty’, though this particular enchantress was not particularly head-lined on the provincial bill-boards. In fact, the whole cast was modestly set forth in small type along with the producer and I thought ‘well it looks harmless anyhow’ and it was raining and so in Montreux, Switzerland, I happened (as it happened) to see my first real revelation of the real art of the cinema.
I am led a little afield in trying to realize in retrospect the vast deflowering that took place in at least one rare artist. I dare say it is a common occurrence but in this particular case particularly devastating. I saw ‘Joyless Street’ (‘Die Freudlose Gasse’) in Montreux, some two or three years ago when it was first ‘released’ from Germany to take its tottering frail way across Europe towards Paris, where it was half-heartedly received, to London, where it was privately viewed by screen enthusiasts, only last winter, at one of those admirable Sunday afternoon performances of the London Film Society. In the meantime, I had seen Greta Garbo, deflowered, deracinated, devitalized, more than that, actively and acutely distorted by an odd unbelievable parody of life, of beauty, we were efficiently offered (was it at the Capitol about a year ago?) ‘The Torrent’. Greta Garbo in Montreux, Switzerland, trailing with frail, very young feet through perhaps the most astonishingly consistently lovely film I have ever seen (‘Joyless Street’) could not be, but by some fluke of evil magic, the same creature I saw, with sewed-in, black lashes, with waist-lined, svelte, obvious contours, with gowns and gowns, all of them almost (by some anachronism) trailing on the floor, with black-dyed wig, obscuring her own nordic nimbus, in the later a Torrent’. The Censor, this magnificent ogre, had seen fit to devitalize this Nordic flower, to graft upon the stem of a living, wild camellia (if we may be fanciful for a moment) the most blatant of obvious, crepe, tissue paper orchids. A beauty, it is evident, from the Totem’s stand-point, must be a vamp, an evil woman, and an evil woman, in spite of all or any observation to the contrary, must be black-eyed, must be dark even if it is a nordic ice-flower and Lya de Puttiesque.
Beauty is what the Lump and the Leaven alike demand. So ‘beauty, here it is,’ says the Ogre. The Ogre knows that the world will not be sustained, will not exist without that classic, ancient Beauty. Beauty and Goodness, I must again reiterate, to the Greek, meant one thing. To Kalon, the beautiful, the good. Kalon, the mob must, in spite of its highbrow detractors, have. The Ogre knows enough to know that. But he paints the lily, offers a Nice-carnival, frilled, tissue-paper rose in place of a wild-briar. Beauty was made to endure, in men, in flowers, in hearts, in spirits, in minds. That flame, in spite of the highbrow detractors, exists at the very centre, the very heart of the multitude. It is the business of the Ogre, the Censor, to offer it a serpent for an egg, a stone for bread. It is the duty of every sincere intellectual to work for the better understanding of the cinema, for the clearing of the ground, for the rescuing of this superb art, from its hide-bound convention. Perseus, in other words, and the chained
Virgin. Saint George in other words, and the Totem dragon. Anyhow it is up to us, as quickly as we can, to rescue this captured Innocent (for the moment embodied in this Greta Garbo) taking frail and tortuous veils of light and shadow, wandering in photogenetic guise that Leonardo would have marvelled at and Tintoretto radiantly acclaimed. Greta Garbo, as I first saw her, gave me a clue, a new angle, and a new sense of elation. This is beauty, and this is a beautiful and young woman not exaggerated in any particular, stepping, frail yet secure across a wasted city. Post-war Vienna really wrung our hearts that time; the cheap, later clap-trap of starving stage Vienna had not yet blighted and blunted our sense of proportion and reality. Before our eyes, the city was unfolded, like some blighted flower, like some modernized epic of Troy town is down, like some mournful and pitiful Babylon is fallen, is fallen. The true note was struck, the first post-war touch of authentic pathos, not over-done, not overexaggerated, a net of finely spun tragedy, pathos so fine and so intolerable that after all, we can’t wonder that the flagrant, Parisian, commercial ‘buyers’ must disdain it.
London could not (being governed also by a brother to our American Cyclops) allow this performance to be broadcast. War and war and war. Helen who ruined Troy seems to have taken shape, but this time it is Troy by some fantastic readjustment who is about to ruin Helen. Little Miss Garbo (I think of her as little; I believe from the columns of ‘gossip’ I read dished up in various Hollywood camera news productions that ‘Greta Garbo is taller than John Gilbert’, a thing they seem in some subtle way to have, among many other things, against her) brought into her performance of the professor’s elder, little daughter in ‘Joyless Street’, something of a quality that I can’tGreta Garbo in Montreux, Switzerland, trailing with frail, very young feet through perhaps the most astonishingly consistently lovely film I have ever seen (‘Joyless Street’) could not be, but by some fluke of evil magic, the same creature I saw, with sewed-in, black lashes, with waist-lined, svelte, obvious contours, with gowns and gowns, all of them almost (by some anachronism) trailing on the floor, with black-dyed wig, obscuring her own nordic nimbus, in the later a Torrent’. The Censor, this magnificent ogre, had seen fit to devitalize this Nordic flower, to graft upon the stem of a living, wild camellia (if we may be fanciful for a moment) the most blatant of obvious, crepe, tissuepaper orchids.
A beauty, it is evident, from the Totem’s stand-point, must be a vamp,an evil woman, and an evil woman, in spite of all or any observation to the contrary, must be black-eyed, must be dark even if it is a nordic ice-flower and Lya de Puttiesque. Beauty is what the Lump and the Leaven alike demand. So ‘beauty, here it is,’ says the Ogre. The Ogre knows that the world will not be sustained, will not exist without that classic, ancient Beauty. Beauty and Goodness, I must again reiterate, to the Greek, meant one thing. To Kalon, the beautiful, the good. Kalon, the mob must, in spite of its highbrow detractors, have. The Ogre knows enough to know that. But he paints the lily, offers a Nice-carnival, frilled, tissue-paper rose in place of a wild-briar.
Beauty was made to endure, in men, in flowers, in hearts, in spirits, in minds. That flame, in spite of the highbrow detractors, exists at the very centre, the very heart of the multitude. It is the business of the Ogre, the Censor, to offer it a serpent for an egg, a stone for bread. It is the duty of every sincere intellectual to work for the better understanding of the cinema, for the clearing of the ground, for the rescuing of this superb art, from its hide-bound convention. Perseus, in other words, and the chained Virgin. Saint George in other words, and the Totem dragon. Anyhow it is up to us, as quickly as we can, to rescue this captured Innocent (for the moment embodied in this Greta Garbo) taking frail and tortuous veils of light and shadow, wandering in photogenetic guise that Leonardo would have marvelled at and Tintoretto radiantly acclaimed. Greta Garbo, as I first saw her, gave me a clue, a new angle, and a new sense of elation. This is beauty, and this is a beautiful and young woman not exaggerated in any particular, stepping, frail yet secure across a wasted city. Post-war Vienna really wrung our hearts that time; the cheap, later clap-trap of starving stage Vienna had not yet blighted and blunted our sense of proportion and reality. Before our eyes, the city was unfolded, like some blighted flower, like some modernized epic of Troy town is down, like some mournful and pitiful Babylon is fallen, is fallen. The true note was struck, the first post-war touch of authentic pathos, not over-done, not overexaggerated, a net of finely spun tragedy, pathos so fine and so intolerable that after all, we can’t wonder that the flagrant, Parisian, commercial ‘buyers’ must disdain it. London could not (being governed also by a brother to our American Cyclops) allow this performance to be broadcast. War and war and war. Helen who ruined Troy seems to have taken shape, but this time it is Troy by some fantastic readjustment who is about to ruin Helen. Little Miss Garbo (I think of her as little; I believe from the columns of ‘gossip’ I read dished up in various Hollywood camera news productions that ‘Greta Garbo is taller than John Gilbert’, a thing they seem in some subtle way to have, among many other things, against her) brought into her performance of the professor’s elder, little daughter in ‘Joyless Street’, something of a quality that I can’t for the life of me label otherwise than classic. As long as beauty is classic, so long beauty on the screen, presented with candour and true acumen, must take its place with the greatest master-pieces of the renaissance and of antiquity.
For there is no getting over this astonishing and indubitable fact. Beauty as it has existed in pre-Periclean Athens, in the islands of the Cyclades, in the temple of Karnak, in the frescoes of Simone Martini and the etchings of Albrecht Durer still does find expression, still does wander veiled as with dawn, still does wait for a renaissance to hail her. Miss Garbo is a symbol, was, I should say, a symbol as I saw her in ‘Joyless Street’.
She may again become some such glorified embodiment as flung itself in its youth and its strange, statuesque abandonment across the wretched divan of Madame whatever-was-her-name’s evil house. Beauty, the youth and charm, by just a fluke, wasn’t tarnished in that atmosphere. The odd thing was that this story of poverty and fervid business speculation and the lady of the world and her lovers and her pearls and the young financier and their meeting in this ill-flavoured establishment and the secret murder, wasn’t commonplace, wasn’t trivial, partook of the most ethereal overtones of subtlety. Tragedy rang like little bells, fairy bells almost. Tragedy didn’t dare, those days, to stalk openly in its ornate purple. Not in Europe, not in London or Paris or Vienna. Murder and pearls and speculation seemed perilously a part of life in those days.
Tragedy was a muse whose glory was for the moment over-shadowed with an almost mystical, hardly to be expressed quality that one might possibly define as pathos. Beauty and the warrior were at rest. For the rest of us in London and Paris and Vienna, there was something different, something too subtle to be called disintegration or dissociation, but a state in which the soul and body didn’t seem on good terms. Hardly on speaking terms. So it is that this fine little Greta Garbo with her youth, her purity, her straight brows and her unqualified distinction found a role to fit her. She had, it is true, appeared, I am told, creditably in other films; it was my good fortune to meet her first in this ‘Joyless Street’ or, as it was billed in our lake Geneva small-town, ‘La Petite Rue Sans Joie’. The theatre, I need hardly say, was half empty. The performance began with a street (will I ever forget it) and the sombre plodding limp of a one-legged, old ruffian. No appeal to pity, to beauty, the distinguished mind that conceived this opening said simply, this is it, this is us, no glory, no pathos, no glamour. Just a long, Freudian, tunnel-like, dark street. Nothing within sight, nothing to dream of or ponder on but … the butcher’s shop with its attendant, terrible, waiting line of frenzied women. Life is getting something to eat said the presenter of this ‘Petite Rue Sans Joie’. Getting it somehow, anyhow. Beauty itself must come to me, says La Petite Rue Sans Joie and one after another through sheer boredom with starvation, the ‘girls’ of the neighbourhood, the banal, the merely pretty, the sometimes ambitious, and the sheerly slovenly are drawn within the portals of la Petite Rue. For in the little street there is a shop that rivals even the butcher’s for gaiety and distraction. It is neatly disguised, yet thinly. Clothes are bought and sold by a certain suave Madame (the performance of this entrepreneuse whose name I have forgotten, was amazing) and the little bigger of the little daughters of the proud, utterly destitute, brilliant, youngish, middle-aged professor strolls from time to time discreetly to its portal. Madame who is so suave, so kind (will I ever forget the subtlety of her make up, that suggested shadow of a mustache across her sly upper lip) one day offers the little Mademoiselle a fur coat to wear home, she needn’t pay for it yet, just wear it and keep warm, things are so hard, madame is so suave, so genuinely sympathetic. The little lady loses her job through the insidious gift. A fur coat. Everyone knows what that means in post-war Vienna. The Manager of the office is pleased, didn’t know this wild-flower was a game one. He summons her, offers a rise in salary, the usual denouement, of course, she being she, can’t possibly accept it. La Petite Rue Sans Joie seems perilously near to swallowing our Beauty.
Helen walking scatheless among execrating warriors, the plague, distress, and famine is in this child’s icy, mermaid-like integrity. Her purity shines like an enchanter’s crown. We know nothing can happen to her, yet do we? Things happen, we ourselves have known them to happen … one by one, our audience (already meagre) has risen, has blatantly stamped downstairs. I hear words, whispers, English. CA thing like this … filthy … no one but a foreigner would dare present it.’ La Petite Rue Sans Joie was a real, little street. It was a little war-street, a little, post-war street, therefore our little picture palace in our comparatively broad-minded Lake Geneva town, is empty. People won’t, they dare not face reality.
And beauty, among other things, is reality, and beauty once in so many hundred years, raises a wan head, suddenly decides to avenge itself for all the slights that it has negligently accepted, sometimes through weariness, sometimes through sheer omnipotence, sometimes through cynicism or through boredom. Simonetta, the famous Medician Venus (though I don’t care for her), one and one and one, all stand as witnesses that once in so often, beauty herself, Helen above Troy, rises triumphant and denounces the world for a season and then retires, spins a little web of illusion and shuffles off to forget men and their stale formulas of existence. Well beauty has been slurred over and laughed at and forgotten. But Helen of Troy didn’t always stay at home with Menelaus. Beauty has been recognised and for that reason (as the world will not face reality and the ogre, the Censor, this Polyphemus knows well enough that beauty is a danger), Miss Garbo has been trained, and that with astonishing efficiency, to sway forward and backward in long skirts with pseudo-Lillian Gish affectation, to pose with a distinct, parrot-like flare for the Gloria Swansonesque. Her wigs, her eye-lashes have all but eclipsed our mermaid’s straight stare, her odd, magic quality of lmost clairvoyant intensity. She simpers. Something has been imposed, a blatant, tinsel and paper-flowers and paste-jewel exterior, yet it doesn’t quite dominate this nordic ice-flower. Beauty brings a curse, a blessing, a responsibility. Is that why your Ogre, the Censor, is so intent on disguising it, on dishing it up as vamp charm, as stale,
Nice-carnival beauty-as-we-get-it-in-a-beauty-contest? Greta Garbo remains Greta Garbo. Let us hope she takes it into her stupid, magic head to rise and rend those who have so defamed her. Anyhow for the present, let us be thankful that she, momentarily at least, touched the screen with her purity and glamour. The screen has been touched by beauty, and the screen, in spite of all the totems, must finally respond, Polyphemus of our latest day, to the mermaid enchantment.
II [CLOSE UP Vol. I, no. 2 August 1927]
We need, I think, next more precision, more ‘restraint’ in the presentation of classic themes. Such films as Quo Vadis or Theodora are excellent in their milieu and since dealing with turbulent and late periods, they are of necessity, ornate, over-crowded, over-detailed and confused. However, even this is a moot point. Helen of Troy was excellent in particulars. But to present the ‘classic’ it is not necessary to build up paste board palaces, the whole of Troy, the entire over-whelming of a battle fleet. The ‘classic’ as realism could be better portrayed by the simplest of expedients. A pointed trireme prow nosing side ways into empty space, the edge of a quay, blocks of solid masonry, squares and geometric design would simplify at the same time emphasize the pure classic note. There is already a stamp, a tradition. A room, in a pseudo-classic film, as a rule, reaches on and on, through doors and door-ways. The Last Days of Pompeii was in this particular the most excruciating. A Greek interior should be simple, cold and chaste, with one blocked in door-way, not a vista often; with one single fountain jet, not an elaboration of Jean Bologniaesque detail. Again with the costume. We need simple beautiful line, bodies almost naked as in the German production Force and Beauty.
This experiment failed, of course, grievously in parts as all really broad innovations are bound to do, but there was one short excerpt of life as it should be, German classic that became almost Greek classic. Young men swing through a door way, this time consistently weather worn (why must these ‘classic’ interiors all smell of varnish?) across (this was excellent) strewn earth and sand down to an open circus-like palestra. In the distance there were figures wrestling in pure vase-gesture, black-figure vase pre-fifth century gesture. The men swaying forward walked as soldiers not as ballet dancers. They did not mince. There was also one exquisite naked silhouette of a woman, the famous judgement of Paris tableau. The contour of this film Aphrodite was beautiful and the setting adequate, but again simplification would have rammed in the really exquisite and inspired creation. The ‘classic’ as seen on the screen suggests (with rare and inspired exceptions) a rather rowdy Chelsea arts ball rather than a pre-fifth or fifth century piece of sculpture or clean line drawing. We want to remove a lot of trash, wigs in particular, Nero’s wig, the blond Mary Pickford curls of the blind Nydia in Pompeii, hair piled and curled and peaked and frizzed like old photographs of our 1880 great aunts. Sweep away the extraneous.
Now this is not so difficult as it might seem. According to preconceived cinema rote (cinema tradition is mercifully young enough to be modified, to be utterly re-inspired) a classic ‘set’ is built up, is constructed and before it, classic figures, even the most successful, are apt to be blurred or cheapened. Expense has to be considered and this is where the young innovator has his big chance. The true classic is not a thing of built up walls, any more than the true Elizabethan gains by elaborate stage scenery and pasteboard perspective. Streets and by-ways should be on one plane, we should be somewhere, not all over the place. We should be somewhere with our minds, lines should radiate as toward a centre not out and away from the central point of interest, whether that central point is an altar, a shop, a street corner, a window or a person. We should be somewhere, our getting on somewhere else will come in due course. The days of paste-board Rialtos is, or should be, over in the art of the stage as well as in the more subtle, though for the moment less traditionally evolved, art of the cinema. There is where our hope lies. It isn’t too late to get down to dots, to begin at the beginning, to, if necessary, sweep away what has already been over-elaborated and lay fresh altar blocks. As I say our least set should have its focus of simplicity, its as it were altar block, should mean something. Should be somewhere. This ‘somewhere’ is easy to accomplish, a blank drop scene, a room, such as we live in to-day, bare of accessories. A bare square room is to-day what it was in Pompeii, what it more or less was in Athens, in Syracuse.
A garden remains a garden and a rosebush a rose-bush. Laurel trees still exist outside suburbia and a classic laurel grove for instance is easy to represent; one branch, placed against a soft back drop, or against a wall of any empty room, with suitable cross-effect of shadow. The fascinating question of light alone could occupy one for ever; this edge of a leaf and this edge of a leaf; the naturalistic and the sheer artificial must merge, melt and meet. The pure classic does not depend for effect for instance, on a whole, a part has always been important, chiselling and cutting, shaping and revising. A laurel grove rises in one branch set against a plain room wall, and a figure without exaggerated, uncouth drapery becomes Helen or Andromeda or Iphigeneia [Iphigenia] more swiftly, more poignantly against just such a wall, obtainable by anyone, anywhere, than in some enormous rococo and expensive ‘set’ built up by the ‘classicists’ of Hollywood who spread Nero’s banquet table with Venetian glass and put the quattrocento Romola to sleep (or to dine) in a more or less eighteenth century milieu.
Not that I have any quarrel with any of the ‘set’ makers, with scene shifters or the general miracle-workers of such elaborate and startling effects as, for instance, the flight of the Children of Israel and the Pharaoh’s chariots. Pharaoh’s chariots, Pharaoh’s horses were excellent, but sand and horses and excellently trained circus-riders have their place. I am concerned here chiefly with attempts at more subtle simple effects; they so often fail for lack of some precise and definite clear intellect at the back of the whole, one centralizing focus of thought cutting and pruning the too extraneous underbrush of tangled detail. Someone should slash and cut. Ben Hur drove his chariot with decorum and with fervour but… when I would begin to criticize I am lost myself in a tangle of exciting detail, am myself so startled and amazed by certain swiftness, certain effects of inevitable precise mass movement (such as, in another instance, the crowd again crossing sand in Babylonian Intolerance) that I lose my own clue, become sated and lost and tired. Isn’t that the danger? Satiety? Having become sated with the grandiose, can’t someone with exquisite taste and full professional share of technical ability light our souls with enthusiasm over, as I have said, one laurel branch, one figure sitting sideways, one gesture (not too frigid and not too stagily static) as for example toward a waiting enemy? Iphigenia pleading for her life against one rough edge of built-up altar, with severe wall again, and possibly (to balance the edge of altar) the slim, updarting geometric line of half an Ionic (or, correct me, Doric?) pillar. Sand and rock and sea. These are the Greek equivalent for the Roman mass of soldiery, the Praetorian formations and the vast thronging of the colosseum. You and you and you can cause Odysseus with one broken oar to depict his woefulness. You can bring Callypso[Calypso] back with violet tufts, herself placed perhaps against one single heavy rock, a thread of violets perhaps in her tight bound hair. Don’t above all, let hair stream in the wind as happened (perhaps not without a certain charm) in Helen Of Troy. Keep slightly natural, naturalistic but formalised. If the hair must hang, it must hang heavy, like gold threads in a Crivelli altar piece, like the carved Ionic maidens of the Acropolis Museum, like the Delphic Charioteer himself, should he unloose his head-band.
Or if madness is indicated, make it a psychic manifestation done with intricate but simple fade-outs or superimposed impressions. Here the camera has it over all other mediums. Success is obtainable in representation of psychic phenomena, can be obtained, has, in certain instances, been. The pseudo-classic madness of Victor Varconi in The Last Days of Pompeii was banality incarnate. But, turning from madness to vision, not only can we recall men and women of antiquity, but the gods themselves. Hermes, indicated in faint light, may step forward, outlined in semi-obscurity, or simply dazzling the whole picture in a blaze of splendour. Helios may stand simply and restrained with uplifted arm. And here again no suggestion, I beg you, of drapery.
If he must stand sideways let him do so, but for heaven’s sake don’t deface the image of god with a dish-clout! Tear away hideousness from the human form, from the human mind and from the human spirit. A perfect medium has at last been granted us. Let us be worthy of it. You and I have got to work. We have got to begin to care and to care and to care. Man has perfected a means of artistic expression, that, I assure you, would have made Phidias turn in his grave (if he had a grave) with envy. Light speaks, is pliant, is malleable. Light is our friend and our god. Let us be worthy of it. Do not let us defame light, use and waste brilliant possibilities, elaborate material, making light a slave and a commonplace mountebank. Light has bounced on broncos, has levelled shafts at iron Indians, has burst into barricades, and has minced in crinolines long enough for one generation.
Elaborate experiment – that was well enough – and waste and waste and waste must inevitably precede perfection of any medium. But don’t let’s put up with too much of it. Here is our medium, as I say here is the thing that the Elusinians would have been glad of; a subtle device for portraying of the miraculous. Miracles and godhead are not out of place, are not awkward on the screen. A wand may (and does) waft us to fabulous lands, and beauty can and must redeem us.
But it must be a chaste goddess that we worship and a young goddess, and perhaps a little a ridiculous goddess. We must expect to be laughed at, must expect detractors and defamers as Athene must expect them if she strolled full armed or without arms down the Tottenham Court Road. We don’t want exaggeration certainly, but modernity in dress, in thought, true modernity approaches more and more to classic standards. How many perfectly exquisite studies can be made of youth, sans drapery, or even with slight modifications (if your youth happens to be a maiden) of its last party frock. A judicious arrangement of a simple headband, for example, may transform Mary Jones into an Isthmian Calliope or young Tom Smith into Thessalian Diomed. This is partly what I mean by ‘restraint’, an artistic restraint that does not previsualise a Helen, an Andromeda, an Iphegenia, a Diomed, or a young Hercules as antiquated stage or ballet types done up in henna-ed wigs. Types approaching the most perfect of the pre-fifth century vase paintings and the most luminous of pre-Periclean sculpture are to be found, I am certain, among the unexploited. I have no quarrel with the professional as professional but with the professional in one art pretending to know everything about another art of whose very existence he is ignorant. Scholars should be brought in on this. Walls should arise if, for example, Troy-walls must arise, that are either exact in technical detail or else that are suggested merely, as I have earlier indicated by a few great stones. And so on. It is preconceived ideas that destroy all approach to real illumination. What do you know of beauty, of life, of reality should be the first questions that a manager or producer asks his scenic artist. Not what was your job in New York, Chicago, Brixton, or Hollywood. So with the costumier. Begin at the beginning. Don’t begin in the muddled middle. Our classic ladies of the screen are so often reminiscent of the spirit that led the Bernhardts and the Duses of the period to appear in crinoline when playing Phaedra. We want to do away with the crinolined Phaedras of this latter day and get back to stark reality.
That is where the beauty of the human body as the human body should have some sort of innings, but will it? Simplicity, restraint, formalisation are all Greek attributes, Hellenic restraint and Hellenic naturalisation that never saw the human body frankly other than the body of its deity. God made man, we are taught from our earliest days, in his own image. Well, let’s up then and teach our teachers, our great-aunts who heard us our catechism that we do believe in God and do believe in beauty. Get away from all this broncho-chest-muscle business. Why can’t some girl or boy just walk on, in a fleecy peplum if you want but somehow just be the thing, do the thing with no exaggeration of sentiment such as we were treated to by Diotima in that nightmare (to me) Heilegeberge (Wrath Of The Gods). Mountains are classic, the sea, sand, and the really charming grace and agility of Tom Jones when he leaps on a crowded City bus. Haven’t you yourself noticed it? Untrained yet unsullied movement should merge with professional power and tact. The screen is the medium par excellence of movement – of trees, of water, of people, of bird wings. Flowers open by magic and magic spreads cloud forms, all in themselves ‘classic’. Though, on the other hand, the most ornate back parlour crowded with gimcracks can represent ‘restraint’ if the mind presenting it has its own intense restrained unit of idea. Take Greed as an example of the classic mind at work upon ornate exaggeration of detail in a sordid modern tenement atmosphere.
Here is my point and my contradiction; the over elaborate tenement detail of Greed struck a far more classic note than those sentimental German slow-ups of Diotima doing bare-foot dancing on an uncomfortable slab of sea rock. The classic then, coming down to dots, is a point of view and ‘restraint’ is a classic virtue which means simply tact and intuition and a sense of the Tightness and the fitness of things in their interrelation. Diotima dancing on the mountains was so simply silly. With all its over elaborate detail, the dramatization of the impulse that led an illiterate, self-educated quack dentist to die in a desert with vultures hovering over his gold-laden, dying mule was Aescuylean. It is obvious that certain self conscious portraits of semi-naked studies must be fore-ordained banality. While perhaps some little unexpected effect of a bare arm lifted might bring back (as it does sometimes in a theatre) all of antiquity.
We must work self-consciously and at the same time leave vast areas of mind and spirit free, open to idea, to illumination. I feel (though up to the present only in part successful) the only reality of this sort has come from Germany. The young men and the Paris tableau of the first instance in the Force and Beauty (Kraft und Schonheit) that I have mentioned and another ‘throned Cytherian’; that proud simple figure curled this time on a great shell in the prologue of Helen of Troy. Could anything be more true, more real, more unsullied, more unstudied yet more exactly artificial, in the sense of art made reality? Aphrogeneia. She is there always in my mind as an example of what art can do, what can be done and what must be done. Beauty restrained and chaste, with the over-weaving of semi-phosphorescent light, in a few tense moments showed that the screen can rise to the ecstatic level of the poetic and religious ideals of pure Sophoclean formula.
III [Vol. I, no. 5 November 1927]
THE MASK AND THE MOVIETONE
The problem arises (it has been dogging us for some time) is the good old-fashioned conventionalised cinema product a more vivid, a more vital, altogether in many ways a more inspiring production than his suave and sometimes over-subtlised offspring? Our hero with sombrero, our heroine with exactly set coiffure, each in himself, in herself a mask of himself or herself, one with sleek dutch-doll painted in black cap of piquante elf like mahogany coloured hair, another with radiant curls, so many dolls, are treasures – boy dolls in sombreros – are they to be discarded, are we going to be asked to discard them for another set of boxes, containing such intricate machinery, such suave sophistication of life that we wonder if we really want them? Do we want little ivory balls for instance, pretty as they are, fitting into ivory balls, and all the intricate paraphernalia of meccano or jigsaw puzzle to tax our little minds to breaking? Don’t we really want what we know, what we see, what intellectually we can aptly ‘play’ with? Don’t we? Or do we? I mean do we really want to give up curls and painted-in dutch-doll fringes, and beautifully outlined eyes and eyelashes and doll-stuffed bodies (doing for instance trapeze turns just like real circus people) for something perhaps ‘better’? Do we really want to discard our little stage sets and all the appliances that we have grown so used to for something more like ‘real’ life? Well, do we or don’t we? Please answer me. I am at my wits’ end. Do we or don’t we want to scrap our old dolls? The problem reasserted itself with renewed force at a New Gallery demonstration of the Movietone. Here we have our little people. Here comes our heroine. Truly it is not the heroine exactly of our most most vapid romances, of our most, most old box of dolls and paper-dolls but it is the sort of toy that we are used to, a doll, a better doll, a more highly specialised evolved creation but for all that a doll (Raquel Meller) steps forward. It bows, it smiles, it is guaranteed to perform tricks that will shame our nursery favourites but do we want ?
The doll in question, a Spanish doll this time, done up in Castillian [Castilian] embroidery, not over exaggerated with suitable decor of operatic street scene and so on, steps out smiles pathetically, tragically, or with requisite pathos, familiar gestures but somehow sensitized, really our old bag of tricks. And then wonder of wonders, the doll actually lifts its eyes, it breathes it speaks – it speaks. This is no mechanical voice off, it is the vision itself, the screen image actually singing with accuracy and acumen, with clear voice and beautiful intonation, singing and moving, moving and singing, voice accurately registering the slightest change of expression (Raquel Meller with her Flor del Mar and La Tarde del Corpus) each tiny fall and lift of note following raised eyebrow or curl of lip or dejection of drooping shoulder. Voice follows face, face follows voice, face and voice with all their subtle blending are accurately and mechanically welded. They are welded- that is the catch. The catch is that the excellent actress with all her beauty and her finished acting had a voice as beautifully finished as her screen image but it was (wasn’t it?) welded to that image. Her voice and herself moving with so finished artistry were welded not (and this seemed some odd catastrophe) wedded.
The projection of voice and the projection of image were each in itself perfect and ran together perfectly as one train on two rails but the rails somehow functioning in perfect mechanical unison, remained a separate – separate entities, fulfilling different mechanical requirements. It seemed to me, astonished as I was at both (beauty of face and mellow finish of song) that each in some diabolic fashion was bringing out, was under-stressing mechanical and artificial traits in the other. Each alone would have left us to our dreams. The two together proved too much. The screen image, a mask, a sort of doll or marionette was somehow mechanized and robbed of the thing behind the thing that has grown to matter so much to the picture adept. A doll, a sort of mask or marionette about which one could drape one’s devotions, intellectually, almost visibly like the ardent Catholic with his image of madonna, became a sort of robot. Our old doll became replaced by a wonder-doll, singing, with musical insides, with strings that one may pull, with excellent wired joints. But can we whisper our devotion to this creature?
Are we all beings of infinite and pitiful sentiment? I didn’t really like my old screen image to be improved (I might almost say imposed) on. I didn’t like my ghost-love to become so vibrantly incarnate. I didn’t like to assert my intellect to cope with it any more than I should have liked Topsy (of the old days) suddenly to emerge with wired-in legs and arms and with sewed-on bonnet and really grown-up bead bag dangling (also sewed on) from one wrist. We want, don’t we, our old treasures? Or do we want a lot of new toys, mechanical and utterly proficient?
O well, there it is. I know and see and admire. I do think it is wonderful to hear and see. ‘Speaks for Itself reads the slogan on the folder. But do we want our toy dog to ‘speak for itself? Do we really want our rag doll to stand up and utter? Don’t we, like the pre-fifth peoples of Attica, of Crete, of the Cyclades treasure old superstitions (even the most advanced of us) and our early fantasies? Take away our crude upright pillar, take away our carved symbols of Demeter and our goat-herd chorus, said pre-fifth century Athenians and you rob us of our deity. Haven’t we been just a little hurt and disappointed that our dolls have grown so perfect? Well, that is for you to say and you to say and you to say. We each have an idea and a sentiment. We are all sentiment when it comes to discarding dolls for (it seems incredible) robots. Don’t look so nice, and sing so nicely at the same time, I want to scream at Raquel Meller, for I seem to be about to be done out of something. She is doing everything. I want to help to add imagination to a mask, a half finished image, not have everything done for me. I can’t help this show. I am completely out of it. This acting, singing, facial beauty is perfected. This screen projection is not a mask, it is a person, a personality. That is just it. Here is art, high art, but is it our own art? Isn’t cinema art a matter (or hasn’t it been) of inter-action? We have grown so used to our conventions, our intellectual censors have allowed us to acclaim such silly and sometimes vapid figures. You may fall in love said our censor with things so patently outside the intellectual scope of your realities. You may fall in love with gilt curls or a sailor doll or a brainless sombrero image. For these were masks, images of man, images of women, the feminine, the masculine, all undistressed, all tricked up with suitable accoutrements.
Then we sank into light, into darkness, the cinema palace (we each have our favourite) became a sort of temple. We depended on light, on some sub-strata of warmth, some pulse or vibration, music on another plane too, also far enough removed from our real artistic consciousness to be treated as ‘dope’ rather than accepted in any way as spiritual or intellectual stimulus. We moved like moths in darkness, we were hypnotized by cross currents and interacting shades of light and darkness and maybe cigarette smoke. Our censors, intellectually off guard, permitted our minds to rest. We sank into this pulse and warmth and were recreated. The cinema has become to us what the church was to our ancestors. We sang, so to speak, hymns, we were redeemed by light literally. We were almost at one with Delphic or Elucinian candidates, watching symbols of things that matter, accepting yet knowing those symbols were divorced utterly from reality.
The mask originally presented life but so crudely that it became a part of some super-normal or some sub-normal layer of consciousness. Into this layer of self, blurred over by hypnotic darkness or cross-beams of light, emotion and idea entered fresh as from the primitive beginning. Images, our dolls, our masks, our gods, Love and Hate and Man and Woman. All these attributes had their more or less crude, easily recognised individual complements. Man and Man and Man. Woman and more and more and more Woman. Bits of chiffon became radiantly significant, tiny simple and utterly trivial attributes meant so much. Or didn’t they? I mean that is what the moving pictures have done to us sometimes. We are like pre-fifth Athenians waiting for our Aeschylus, our Sophocles, our Euripides. We are being told that the old gods won’t do and we know they won’t do really. We must have refinement and perfection and more intricate machinery.
Now I know that this is quite right. I do know. I know and utterly appreciate for instance the immense possibilities of the Movietone in certain circumstances. If it were used properly there would be no more misunderstandings for instance (or there shouldn’t be) of nations. I mean that five minutes of what I call ‘bottled’ America should do more for the average intelligent English mind than ten weeks on that continent. Look at ‘Lindy’. Now we have all seen this charming gentleman, alighting, arising, swooping a little, crowded and pushed and pulled here and there and which way. But did we know ‘our Lindy’ till we saw him, till we heard him at the New Gallery Movietone performance? ‘Colonel Lindberg’s departure for Paris and reception in Washington’ read the second number on our programme. The first bit (‘departure for Paris’) showed blatantly the flaws of the excellent Movietone. I mean the crowds came up in funny little squeaks and whistles and gasps. Someone whistling (I suppose at random) somewhere, cut across vital and exaggerated while more important factors of group surge and voice rhythm were blurred over utterly. The buzz and whirr of the plane wheels was excellent but we were not particularly impressed by that as we have been so long familiar with the same sort of thing adequately represented ‘off at the average cinema. The plane buzzed off dramatically but the slice ‘departure for Paris’ was really only the somewhat usual topical budget number somewhat more skilfully presented. But that ‘reception in Washington’ should teach statesmen better. I mean look and look and look at what I call ‘bottled’ America and look and look and look. Turn on that reel ten thousand times and then talk to me of international understanding. Does the average Englishman understand the average American (I say average) and vice versa? Can they? Do they? If you want to understand America, I feel like saying to Lord Birkenhead (who made an address, 5 on our excellent programme) go (or come) and look and look and look at this particular reel, ‘and reception in Washington’. Nations should understand (but they won’t, with the best of intentions, do) nations. It would make life so simple if we really wanted, really to understand anybody. Where would be our speeches and our receptions and our conferences and our gatherings? Half of life would be out of an occupation. If we could not sit up nights hating Englishmen or Frenchmen or Italians or Spaniards or American (or Americans) where, where would all our energy and our spirit flow to? I mean where would we get to? We would be, like pre-Periclean Athenians,
I fear, really ready for an Art Age. Art, art, ahrt and arrrt and AHRT age. Yes, we would be ready for an art age. Turn on a thousand times and go on turning bits of ‘bottled’ Germany, and ‘bottled’ America, kings and presidents and the reception by varied peoples of varied kings and generals and senators and presidents and we will understand each other. Nations are in turns of wrists, in intonations of voices and that is where the Movietone can do elaborate and intimate propaganda. Peace and love and understanding and education could be immensely aided by it. The Movietone outside the realm of pure sentiment, treated from a practical viewpoint is excellent in all particulars. Oh, how we could understand if only we wanted to understand, each other. Take the president’s voice for instance. In it is an America (or should I say the America) that many of us, even through natives of its eastern sea-coast, never meet with. The words of President Coolidge cut across London mist and our Europeanized consciousness like dried brush crackling in a desert. Arid, provincial, pragmatic and plain it held singular vitality. I mean (speaking all too personally) Lord Birkenhead, standing in a garden before a hedge of oak trees (or it ought to have been, if it wasn’t, oak trees) was really bottled ‘England’ just as the president with his arid talk of republicism and his ‘man of the people’ stunt was ‘bottled’ and then distilled America. The Germans, we are told, are delighted and rock with mirth at the screen aspect of the French president. Well, let us rock and scream and laugh at one another. Laughter precludes a sort of affectionate acceptance. Let us laugh but let it be in temples, in gatherings, the group consciousness is at the mercy of Screen and Movietone. Let us understand one another. Let the Movietone become a weapon in the hand of a Divinity.
UNDERSTANDING was the deity of Athens, Mind and Peace and Power and Understanding. Know thyself (we all know) says the deity of Delphi, who is Beauty and Inner Understanding (which is mantic) and more Beauty and Art in the abstract that we all hope for. This new invention seems an instrument of dual god-head. A miracle is literally unrolled before our eyes. We are too apt to take divinity for granted. Understanding, Athene with her olive wreath, another sort of understanding, Helios with his justice and his power of divination, are both eager for new neophytes. Here is an instrument of twin divinity. Tone and vision, sight and sound, eyes and ears, the gate ways to the mind are all appealed to. We are visionaries, we may become prophets. We are adepts, moving at will over foreign lands and waters, nothing is hidden from us. Apply the Movietone to questions of education and international politics and you will do away with revolutions. Well, there it all is in a nut-shell, ‘bottled’. But are we ready for so suave simplification? Some of us will grow in outer and in inner vision with the help of this invention. Others will be left cold as they would be left inert before another Mons or Marathon. Yet it stands to reason that a new world is open, a new world of political understanding, of educational reform, or art (in its pure sense) even. Art, I repeat unparenthetically, may in its pure essence be wedded not merely welded to art. I felt frankly disappointed in Raquel Meller. By some ironic twist of psychic laws, it seems impossible to be luke-warm, to be ‘almost good enough’, Madame Meller does not lack power and personality. But some genial sub-strata of humour or humanity seemed wanting. Mechanical efficiency, technique carried to its logical conclusion do not make divinity. I felt however in Nina Tarasova and Miss Gertrude Lawrence (numbers 7 and 11 on our programme) a full-blooded vitality that nothing can diminish. Madame Tarasova registered sorrow and despair with almost oriental subtlety; though her gesture was obvious, her real artistry redeemed her curious appearance and her bulk, unwieldy as our now familiar Chang elephants only served by some ironic twist of circumstance to increase our appreciation. The grandeur of voice in this case seemed healing and dynamic. Madame Tarasova, magnified to the size of Big Ben almost, became as hugely interesting. One laughs, (or used to) at scientific projections, lizards like dinosaurs, beetles exaggerated out of recognition, gargantuan night-moths, flower petals that would enclose Cleopatra’s Needle. We used to laugh hysterically at these things, but now take them for granted.
So for the moment the spectacle of an operatic singer complete with voice strains our credulity. Voice and body beat and pulsed with what dynamic energy. We laughed of course. But as I say, didn’t we used to laugh in somewhat the same fashion at the exaggerated antics of enormous ants and hornets? We are used to nature, expanded and ennobled past all recognition, now we must again readjust and learn to accept calmly, man magnified. Man magnified, magnified man, with his gestures, his humors, his least eccentricities stressed to the point of almost epic grandeur. Art to conceal art. Is there any more damaging revelation than art revealed? Art is cut open, dissected so to speak by this odd instrument. Movietone creates and recreates until we feel that nothing can remain hidden, no slightest flaw of movement or voice or personality undetected. It is odd how damaging this double revelation is to some otherwise (we should think) unassailable artistes, while others apparently not so fine, emerge unscathed and smiling. Gertrude Lawrence for instance endured this double ordeal with wit and subtlety. The screen Gertrude Lawrence, at first sight a slim mannequin, became animated with fluid inspiration. Her gesture and her speech, in this case completely wedded. The pure artist perhaps cannot be assailed, and certainly Madame Tarasova and Miss Lawrence stood this trying ordeal valiantly.
There it is. We stand by our own gods, like or dislike, there is no possible strict standardization to be arrived at. We cannot weigh and measure our affections, we cannot count and label our wavering emotions. I like this, you like that, X or Y or Z like something different. Personally, though I admit the brilliance of this performance, I was not totally won over by it. I think for a long time we have perhaps unconsciously, accepted, as I said earlier, the cinema palace as a sort of temple. So I say yes to anything having to do with reality and with national affairs and with education: then the Movietone is perfect. The outer vision, yes, should be projected, the outer sound, yes, should be amplified and made accessible. Everyone should have access to great music as easily as to books in libraries. This Movietone places people and things, catalogues them. It is excellent as a recorder, as a corrective of technical flaws, or as a means of indefinitely protracting artistic perfection. Art under this magnascope can be dissected and analysed. As an instrument of criticism, yes, as an instrument of international understanding, yes and yes and yes. As a purveyor of ideas and even ideals, yes. But somehow no.
There is a great no somewhere. The Movietone has to do with the things outside the sacred precincts. There is something inside that the Movietone would eventually I think, destroy utterly, for many of us. That is the whole point really of the matter. Is our temple, our inner place of refuge, to be crowded out with gods like men, not masks, not images, that are so disguised, so conventionalized that they hold in some odd way possibility of some divine animation? If I see art projected too perfectly (as by Raquel Meller) don’t I feel rather cheated of the possibility of something more divine behind the outer symbol of the something shown there? The mask in other words seems about to be ripped off showing us human features, the doll is about to step forward as a mere example of mechanical inventiveness. We cannot worship sheer mechanical perfection but we can love and in a way worship a thing (like Topsy with her rag arms) that is a symbol of something that might be something greater.
We feel fearful that our world may be taken from us, that half-world of lights and music and blurred perception into which, as I said earlier the being floats as a moth into summer darkness. Like a moth really we are paralysed before too much reality, too much glamour, too many cross currents of potentialities. There is too much really for the soul to cope with, and all these out-reaching odd soul-feelers, that you and I and Tom Jones and the shop girl and the barber and the knife boy have sometimes felt threatened with odd maladies. We want healing in blur of half tones and hypnotic vibrant darkness. Too mechanical perfection would serve only I fear, to threaten that world of half light. We hesitate to relinquish our old ideals and treasures, fearing we may lose our touch with mystery by accepting this new (this sort of Euripidean sophistication) in place of the old goat-herd and his ribald painted chorus.