Art of the Moving Picture, The



Again, kind reader, let us assume it is eight o'clock in the evening, for purposes of future climax which you no doubt anticipate.

Just as the Action Motion Picture has its photographic basis in the race down the high-road, just as the Intimate Motion Picture has its photographic basis in the close-up interior scene, so the Photoplay of Splendor, in its four forms, is based on the fact that the kinetoscope can take in the most varied of out-of-door landscapes. It can reproduce fairy dells. It can give every ripple of the lily-pond. It can show us cathedrals within and without. It can take in the panorama of cyclopæan cloud, bending forest, storm-hung mountain. In like manner it can put on the screen great impersonal mobs of men. It can give us tremendous armies, moving as oceans move. The pictures of Fairy Splendor, Crowd Splendor, Patriotic Splendor, and Religious Splendor are but the embodiments of these backgrounds.

And a photographic corollary quite useful in these four forms is that the camera has a kind of Hallowe'en witch-power. This power is the subject of this chapter.

The world-old legends and revelations of men in connection with the lovely out of doors, or lonely shrines, or derived from inspired crusading humanity moving in masses, can now be fitly retold. Also the fairy wand can do its work, the little dryad can come from the tree. And the spirits that guard the Republic can be seen walking on the clouds above the harvest-fields.

But we are concerned with the humblest voodooism at present.

Perhaps the world's oldest motion picture plot is a tale in Mother Goose. It ends somewhat in this fashion:—

The old lady said to the cat:—
"Cat, cat, kill rat.
Rat will not gnaw rope,
Rope will not hang butcher,
Butcher will not kill ox,
Ox will not drink water,
Water will not quench fire,
Fire will not burn stick,
Stick will not beat dog,
Dog will not bite pig,
Pig will not jump over the stile,
And I cannot get home to-night."

By some means the present writer does not remember, the cat was persuaded to approach the rat. The rest was like a tale of European diplomacy:—

The rat began to gnaw the rope,
The rope began to hang the butcher,
The butcher began to kill the ox,
The ox began to drink the water,
The water began to quench the fire,
The fire began to burn the stick,
The stick began to beat the dog,
The dog began to bite the pig,
The frightened little pig jumped over the stile,
And the old lady was able to get home that night.

Put yourself back to the state of mind in which you enjoyed this bit of verse.

Though the photoplay fairy-tale may rise to exquisite heights, it begins with pictures akin to this rhyme. Mankind in his childhood has always wanted his furniture to do such things. Arthur names his blade Excalibur. It becomes a person. The man in the Arabian tale speaks to the magic carpet. It carries him whithersoever he desires. This yearning for personality in furniture begins to be crudely worked upon in the so-called trick-scenes. The typical commercialized comedy of this sort is Moving Day. Lyman H. Howe, among many excellent reels of a different kind, has films allied to Moving Day.

But let us examine at this point, as even more typical, an old Pathé Film from France. The representatives of the moving-firm are sent for. They appear in the middle of the room with an astonishing jump. They are told that this household desires to have its goods and hearthstone gods transplanted two streets east. The agents salute. They disappear. Yet their wireless orders are obeyed with a military crispness. The books and newspapers climb out of the window. They go soberly down the street. In their wake are the dishes from the table. Then the more delicate porcelains climb down the shelves and follow. Then follow the hobble-de-hoy kitchen dishes, then the chairs, then the clothing, and the carpets from over the house. The most joyous and curious spectacle is to behold the shoes walking down the boulevard, from father's large boots to those of the youngest child. They form a complete satire of the family, yet have a masterful air of their own, as though they were the most important part of a human being.

The new apartment is shown. Everything enters in procession. In contrast to the general certainty of the rest, one or two pieces of furniture grow confused trying to find their places. A plate, in leaping upon a high shelf, misses and falls broken. The broom and dustpan sweep up the pieces, and consign them to the dustbin. Then the human family comes in, delighted to find everything in order. The moving agents appear and salute. They are paid their fee. They salute again and disappear with another gigantic leap.

The ability to do this kind of a thing is fundamental in the destinies of the art. Yet this resource is neglected because its special province is not understood. "People do not like to be tricked," the manager says. Certainly they become tired of mere contraptions. But they never grow weary of imagination. There is possible many a highly imaginative fairy-tale on this basis if we revert to the sound principles of the story of the old lady and the pig.

Moving Day is at present too crassly material. It has not the touch of the creative imagination. We are overwhelmed with a whole van of furniture. Now the mechanical or non-human object, beginning with the engine in the second chapter, is apt to be the hero in most any sort of photoplay while the producer remains utterly unconscious of the fact. Why not face this idiosyncrasy of the camera and make the non-human object the hero indeed? Not by filling the story with ropes, buckets, fire-brands, and sticks, but by having these four unique. Make the fire the loveliest of torches, the water the most graceful of springs. Let the rope be the humorist. Let the stick be the outstanding hero, the D'Artagnan of the group, full of queer gestures and hoppings about. Let him be both polite and obdurate. Finally let him beat the dog most heroically.

Then, after the purely trick-picture is disciplined till it has fewer tricks, and those more human and yet more fanciful, the producer can move on up into the higher realms of the fairy-tale, carrying with him this riper workmanship.

Mabel Taliaferro's Cinderella, seen long ago, is the best film fairy-tale the present writer remembers. It has more of the fireside wonder-spirit and Hallowe'en-witch-spirit than the Cinderella of Mary Pickford.

There is a Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa, who takes the leading part with Blanche Sweet in The Clew, and is the hero in the film version of The Typhoon. He looks like all the actors in the old Japanese prints. He has a general dramatic equipment which enables him to force through the stubborn screen such stagy plays as these, that are more worth while in the speaking theatre. But he has that atmosphere of pictorial romance which would make him a valuable man for the retelling of the old Japanese legends of Kwannon and other tales that are rich, unused moving picture material, tales such as have been hinted at in the gleaming English of Lafcadio Hearn. The Japanese genius is eminently pictorial. Rightly viewed, every Japanese screen or bit of lacquer is from the Ancient Asia Columbus set sail to find.

It would be a noble thing if American experts in the Japanese principles of decoration, of the school of Arthur W. Dow, should tell stories of old Japan with the assistance of such men as Sessue Hayakawa. Such things go further than peace treaties. Dooming a talent like that of Mr. Hayakawa to the task of interpreting the Japanese spy does not conduce to accord with Japan, however the technique may move us to admiration. Let such of us as are at peace get together, and tell the tales of our happy childhood to one another.

This chapter is ended. You will of course expect to be exhorted to visit some photoplay emporium. But you need not look for fairy-tales. They are much harder to find than they should be. But you can observe even in the advertisements and cartoons the technical elements of the story of the old lady and the pig. And you can note several other things that show how much more quickly than on the stage the borderline of All Saints' Day and Hallowe'en can be crossed. Note how easily memories are called up, and appear in the midst of the room. In any plays whatever, you will find these apparitions and recollections. The dullest hero is given glorious visualizing power. Note the "fadeaway" at the beginning and the end of the reel, whereby all things emerge from the twilight and sink back into the twilight at last. These are some of the indestructible least common denominators of folk stories old and new. When skilfully used, they can all exercise a power over the audience, such as the crystal has over the crystal-gazer.

But this discussion will be resumed, on another plane, in the tenth chapter: "Furniture, Trappings, and Inventions in Motion."

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