Art of the Moving Picture, The



The Action Pictures are sculpture-in-motion, the Intimate Pictures, paintings-in-motion, the Splendor Pictures, many and diverse. It seems far-fetched, perhaps, to complete the analogy and say they are architecture-in-motion; yet, patient reader, unless I am mistaken, that assumption can be given a value in time without straining your imagination.

Landscape gardening, mural painting, church building, and furniture making as well, are some of the things that come under the head of architecture. They are discussed between the covers of any architectural magazine. There is a particular relation in the photoplay between Crowd Pictures and landscape conceptions, between Patriotic Films and mural paintings, between Religious Films and architecture. And there is just as much of a relation between Fairy Tales and furniture, which same is discussed in this chapter.

Let us return to Moving Day, chapter four. This idea has been represented many times with a certain sameness because the producers have not thought out the philosophy behind it. A picture that is all action is a plague, one that is all elephantine and pachydermatous pageant is a bore, and, most emphatically, a film that is all mechanical legerdemain is a nuisance. The possible charm in a so-called trick picture is in eliminating the tricks, giving them dignity till they are no longer such, but thoughts in motion and made visible. In Moving Day the shoes are the most potent. They go through a drama that is natural to them. To march without human feet inside is but to exaggerate themselves. It would not be amusing to have them walk upside down, for instance. As long as the worn soles touch the pavement, we unconsciously conjure up the character of the absent owners, about whom the shoes are indeed gossiping. So let the remainder of the furniture keep still while the shoes do their best. Let us call to mind a classic fairy-tale involving shoes that are magical: The Seven Leagued Boots, for example, or The Enchanted Moccasins, or the footwear of Puss in Boots. How gorgeous and embroidered any of these should be, and at a crisis what sly antics they should be brought to play, without fidgeting all over the shop! Cinderella's Slipper is not sufficiently the heroine in moving pictures of that story. It should be the tiny leading lady of the piece, in the same sense the mighty steam-engine is the hero of the story in chapter two. The peasants when they used to tell the tale by the hearth fire said the shoe was made of glass. This was in mediæval Europe, at a time when glass was much more of a rarity. The material was chosen to imply a sort of jewelled strangeness from the start. When Cinderella loses it in her haste, it should flee at once like a white mouse, to hide under the sofa. It should be pictured there with special artifice, so that the sensuous little foot of every girl-child in the audience will tingle to wear it. It should move a bit when the prince comes frantically hunting his lady, and peep out just in time for that royal personage to spy it. Even at the coronation it should be the centre of the ritual, more gazed at than the crown, and on as dazzling a cushion. The final taking on of the slipper by the lady should be as stately a ceremony as the putting of the circlet of gold on her aureole hair. So much for Cinderella. But there are novel stories that should be evolved by preference, about new sorts of magic shoes.

We have not exhausted Moving Day. The chairs kept still through the Cinderella discourse. Now let them take their innings. Instead of having all of them dance about, invest but one with an inner life. Let its special attributes show themselves but gradually, reaching their climax at the highest point of excitement in the reel, and being an integral part of that enthusiasm. Perhaps, though we be inventing a new fairy-tale, it will resemble the Siege Perilous in the Arthurian story, the chair where none but the perfect knight could sit. A dim row of flaming swords might surround it. When the soul entitled to use this throne appears, the swords might fade away and the gray cover hanging in slack folds roll back because of an inner energy and the chair might turn from gray to white, and with a subtle change of line become a throne.

The photoplay imagination which is able to impart vital individuality to furniture will not stop there. Let the buildings emanate conscious life. The author-producer-photographer, or one or all three, will make into a personality some place akin to the House of the Seven Gables till the ancient building dominates the fancy as it does in Hawthorne's tale. There are various ways to bring about this result: by having its outlines waver in the twilight, by touches of phosphorescence, or by the passing of inexplicable shadows or the like. It depends upon what might be called the genius of the building. There is the Poe story of The Fall of the House of Usher, where with the death of the last heir the castle falls crumbling into the tarn. There are other possible tales on such terms, never yet imagined, to be born to-morrow. Great structures may become in sort villains, as in the old Bible narrative of the origin of the various languages. The producer can show the impious Babel Tower, going higher and higher into the sky, fascinating and tempting the architects till a confusion of tongues turns those masons into quarrelling mobs that become departing caravans, leaving her blasted and forsaken, a symbol of every Babylon that rose after her.

There are fables where the rocks and the mountains speak. Emerson has given us one where the Mountain and the Squirrel had a quarrel. The Mountain called the Squirrel "Little Prig." And then continues a clash of personalities more possible to illustrate than at first appears. Here we come to the second stage of the fairy-tale where the creature seems so unmanageable in his physical aspect that some actor must be substituted who will embody the essence of him. To properly illustrate the quarrel of the Mountain and the Squirrel, the steep height should quiver and heave and then give forth its personality in the figure of a vague smoky giant, capable of human argument, but with oak-roots in his hair, and Bun, perhaps, become a jester in squirrel's dress.

Or it may be our subject matter is a tall Dutch clock. Father Time himself might emerge therefrom. Or supposing it is a chapel, in a knight's adventure. An angel should step from the carving by the door: a design that is half angel, half flower. But let the clock first tremble a bit. Let the carving stir a little, and then let the spirit come forth, that there may be a fine relation between the impersonator and the thing represented. A statue too often takes on life by having the actor abruptly substituted. The actor cannot logically take on more personality than the statue has. He can only give that personality expression in a new channel. In the realm of letters, a real transformation scene, rendered credible to the higher fancy by its slow cumulative movement, is the tale of the change of the dying Rowena to the living triumphant Ligeia in Poe's story of that name. Substitution is not the fairy-story. It is transformation, transfiguration, that is the fairy-story, be it a divine or a diabolical change. There is never more than one witch in a forest, one Siege Perilous at any Round Table. But she is indeed a witch and the other is surely a Siege Perilous.

We might define Fairy Splendor as furniture transfigured, for without transfiguration there is no spiritual motion of any kind. But the phrase "furniture-in-motion" serves a purpose. It gets us back to the earth for a reason. Furniture is architecture, and the fairy-tale picture should certainly be drawn with architectural lines. The normal fairy-tale is a sort of tiny informal child's religion, the baby's secular temple, and it should have for the most part that touch of delicate sublimity that we see in the mountain chapel or grotto, or fancy in the dwellings of Aucassin and Nicolette. When such lines are drawn by the truly sophisticated producer, there lies in them the secret of a more than ritualistic power. Good fairy architecture amounts to an incantation in itself.

If it is a grown-up legend, it must be more than monumental in its lines, like the great stone face of Hawthorne's tale. Even a chair can reach this estate. For instance, let it be the throne of Wodin, illustrating some passage in Norse mythology. If this throne has a language, it speaks with the lightning; if it shakes with its threat, it moves the entire mountain range beneath it. Let the wizard-author-producer climb up from the tricks of Moving Day to the foot-hills where he can see this throne against the sky, as a superarchitect would draw it. But even if he can give this vision in the films, his task will not be worth while if he is simply a teller of old stories. Let us have magic shoes about which are more golden dreams than those concerning Cinderella. Let us have stranger castles than that of Usher, more dazzling chairs than the Siege Perilous. Let us have the throne of Liberty, not the throne of Wodin.

There is one outstanding photoplay that I always have in mind when I think of film magic. It illustrates some principles of this chapter and chapter four, as well as many others through the book. It is Griffith's production of The Avenging Conscience. It is also an example of that rare thing, a use of old material that is so inspired that it has the dignity of a new creation. The raw stuff of the plot is pieced together from the story of The Tell-tale Heart and the poem Annabel Lee. It has behind it, in the further distance, Poe's conscience stories of The Black Cat, and William Wilson. I will describe the film here at length, and apply it to whatever chapters it illustrates.

An austere and cranky bachelor (well impersonated by Spottiswoode Aitken) brings up his orphan nephew with an awkward affection. The nephew is impersonated by Henry B. Walthall. The uncle has an ambition that the boy will become a man of letters. In his attempts at literature the youth is influenced by Poe. This brings about the Poe quality of his dreams at the crisis. The uncle is silently exasperated when he sees his boy's writing-time broken into, and wasted, as he thinks, by an affair with a lovely Annabel (Blanche Sweet). The intimacy and confidence of the lovers has progressed so far that it is a natural thing for the artless girl to cross the gardens and after hesitation knock at the door. She wants to know what has delayed her boy. She is all in a flutter on account of the overdue appointment to go to a party together. The scene of the pretty hesitancy on the step, her knocking, and the final impatient tapping with her foot is one of the best illustrations of the intimate mood in photoplay episodes. On the girl's entrance the uncle overwhelms her and the boy by saying she is pursuing his nephew like a common woman of the town. The words actually burst through the film, not as a melodramatic, but as an actual insult. This is a thing almost impossible to do in the photoplay. This outrage in the midst of an atmosphere of chivalry is one of Griffith's master-moments. It accounts for the volcanic fury of the nephew that takes such trouble to burn itself out afterwards. It is not easy for the young to learn that they must let those people flay them for an hour who have made every sacrifice for them through a life-time.

This scene of insult and the confession scene, later in this film, moved me as similar passages in high drama would do; and their very rareness, even in the hands of photoplay masters, indicates that such purely dramatic climaxes cannot be the main asset of the moving picture. Over and over, with the best talent and producers, they fail.

The boy and girl go to the party in spite of the uncle. It is while on the way that the boy looks on the face of a stranger who afterwards mixes up in his dream as the detective. There is a mistake in the printing here. There are several minutes of a worldly-wise oriental dance to amuse the guests, while the lovers are alone at another end of the garden. It is, possibly, the aptest contrast with the seriousness of our hero and heroine. But the social affair could have had a better title than the one that is printed on the film "An Old-fashioned Sweetheart Party." Possibly the dance was put in after the title.

The lovers part forever. The girl's pride has had a mortal wound. About this time is thrown on the screen the kind of a climax quite surely possible to the photoplay. It reminds one, not of the mood of Poe's verse, but of the spirit of the paintings of George Frederick Watts. It is allied in some way, in my mind, with his "Love and Life," though but a single draped figure within doors, and "Love and Life" are undraped figures, climbing a mountain.

The boy, having said good-by, remembers the lady Annabel. It is a crisis after the event. In his vision she is shown in a darkened passageway, all in white, looking out of the window upon the moonlit sky. Simple enough in its elements, this vision is shown twice in glory. The third replica has not the same glamour. The first two are transfigurations into divinity. The phrase thrown on the screen is "The moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee." And the sense of loss goes through and through one like a flight of arrows. Another noble picture, more realistic, more sculpturesque, is of Annabel mourning on her knees in her room. Her bended head makes her akin to "Niobe, all tears."

The boy meditating on a park-path is meanwhile watching the spider in his web devour the fly. Then he sees the ants in turn destroy the spider. These pictures are shown on so large a scale that the spiderweb fills the end of the theatre. Then the ant-tragedy does the same. They can be classed as particularly apt hieroglyphics in the sense of chapter thirteen. Their horror and decorative iridescence are of the Poe sort. It is the first hint of the Poe hieroglyphic we have had except the black patch over the eye of the uncle, along with his jaundiced, cadaverous face. The boy meditates on how all nature turns on cruelty and the survival of the fittest.

He passes just now an Italian laborer (impersonated by George Seigmann). This laborer enters later into his dream. He finally goes to sleep in his chair, the resolve to kill his uncle rankling in his heart.

The audience is not told that a dream begins. To understand that, one must see the film through twice. But it is perfectly legitimate to deceive us. Through our ignorance we share the young man's hallucinations, entering into them as imperceptibly as he does. We think it is the next morning. Poe would start the story just here, and here the veritable Poe-esque quality begins.

After debate within himself as to means, the nephew murders his uncle and buries him in the thick wall of the chimney. The Italian laborer witnesses the death-struggle through the window. While our consciences are aching and the world crashes round us, he levies black-mail. Then for due compensation the Italian becomes an armed sentinel. The boy fears detection.

Yet the foolish youth thinks he will be happy. But every time he runs to meet his sweetheart he is appalled by hallucinations over her shoulder. The cadaverous ghost of the uncle is shown on the screen several times. It is an appearance visible to the young man and the audience only. Later the ghost is implied by the actions of the guilty one. We merely imagine it. This is a piece of sound technique. We no more need a dray full of ghosts than a dray full of jumping furniture.

The village in general has never suspected the nephew. Only two people suspect him: the broken-hearted girl and an old friend of his father. This gentleman puts a detective on the trail. (The detective is impersonated by Ralph Lewis.) The gradual breakdown of the victim is traced by dramatic degrees. This is the second case of the thing I have argued as being generally impossible in a photoplay chronicle of a private person, and which the considerations of chapter twelve indicate as exceptional. We trace the innermost psychology of one special citizen step by step to the crisis, and that path is actually the primary interest of the story. The climax is the confession to the detective. With this self-exposure the direct Poe-quality of the technique comes to an end. Moreover, Poe would end the story here. But the Poe-dream is set like a dark jewel in a gold ring, of which more anon.

Let us dwell upon the confession. The first stage of this conscience-climax is reached by the dramatization of The Tell-tale Heart reminiscence in the memory of the dreaming man. The episode makes a singular application of the theories with which this chapter begins. For furniture-in-motion we have the detective's pencil. For trappings and inventions in motion we have his tapping shoe and the busy clock pendulum. Because this scene is so powerful the photoplay is described in this chapter rather than any other, though the application is more spiritual than literal. The half-mad boy begins to divulge that he thinks that the habitual ticking of the clock is satanically timed to the beating of the dead man's heart. Here more unearthliness hovers round a pendulum than any merely mechanical trick-movements could impart. Then the merest commonplace of the detective tapping his pencil in the same time—the boy trying in vain to ignore it—increases the strain, till the audience has well-nigh the hallucinations of the victim. Then the bold tapping of the detective's foot, who would do all his accusing without saying a word, and the startling coincidence of the owl hoot-hooting outside the window to the same measure, bring us close to the final breakdown. These realistic material actors are as potent as the actual apparitions of the dead man that preceded them. Those visions prepared the mind to invest trifles with significance. The pencil and the pendulum conducting themselves in an apparently everyday fashion, satisfy in a far nobler way the thing in the cave-man attending the show that made him take note in other centuries of the rope that began to hang the butcher, the fire that began to burn the stick, and the stick that began to beat the dog.

Now the play takes a higher demoniacal plane reminiscent of Poe's Bells. The boy opens the door. He peers into the darkness. There he sees them. They are the nearest to the sinister Poe quality of any illustrations I recall that attempt it. "They are neither man nor woman, they are neither brute nor human; they are ghouls." The scenes are designed with the architectural dignity that the first part of this chapter has insisted wizard trappings should take on. Now it is that the boy confesses and the Poe story ends.

Then comes what the photoplay people call the punch. It is discussed at the end of chapter nine. It is a kind of solar plexus blow to the sensibilities, certainly by this time an unnecessary part of the film. Usually every soul movement carefully built up to where the punch begins is forgotten in the material smash or rescue. It is not so bad in this case, but it is a too conventional proceeding for Griffith.

The boy flees interminably to a barn too far away. There is a siege by a posse, led by the detective. It is veritable border warfare. The Italian leads an unsuccessful rescue party. The unfortunate youth finally hangs himself. The beautiful Annabel bursts through the siege a moment too late; then, heart broken, kills herself. These things are carried out by good technicians. But it would have been better to have had the suicide with but a tiny part of the battle, and the story five reels long instead of six. This physical turmoil is carried into the spiritual world only by the psychic momentum acquired through the previous confession scene. The one thing with intrinsic pictorial heart-power is the death of Annabel by jumping off the sea cliff.

Then comes the awakening. To every one who sees the film for the first time it is like the forgiveness of sins. The boy finds his uncle still alive. In revulsion from himself, he takes the old man into his arms. The uncle has already begun to be ashamed of his terrible words, and has prayed for a contrite heart. The radiant Annabel is shown in the early dawn rising and hurrying to her lover in spite of her pride. She will bravely take back her last night's final word. She cannot live without him. The uncle makes amends to the girl. The three are in the inconsistent but very human mood of sweet forgiveness for love's sake, that sometimes overtakes the bitterest of us after some crisis in our days.

The happy pair are shown, walking through the hills. Thrown upon the clouds for them are the moods of the poet-lover's heart. They look into the woods and see his fancies of Spring, the things that he will some day write. These pageants might be longer. They furnish the great climax. They make a consistent parallel and contrast with the ghoul-visions that end with the confession to the detective. They wipe that terror from the mind. They do not represent Poe. The rabbits, the leopard, the fairies, Cupid and Psyche in the clouds, and the little loves from the hollow trees are contributions to the original poetry of the eye.

Finally, the central part of this production of the Avenging Conscience is no dilution of Poe, but an adequate interpretation, a story he might have written. Those who have the European respect for Poe's work will be most apt to be satisfied with this section, including the photographic texture which may be said to be an authentic equivalent of his prose. How often Poe has been primly patronized for his majestic quality, the wizard power which looms above all his method and subject-matter and furnishes the only reason for its existence!

For Griffith to embroider this Poe Interpretation in the centre of a fairly consistent fabric, and move on into a radiant climax of his own that is in organic relation to the whole, is an achievement indeed. The final criticism is that the play is derivative. It is not built from new material in all its parts, as was the original story. One must be a student of Poe to get its ultimate flavor. But in reading Poe's own stories, one need not be a reader of any one special preceding writer to get the strange and solemn exultation of that literary enchanter. He is the quintessence of his own lonely soul.

Though the wizard element is paramount in the Poe episode of this film, the appeal to the conscience is only secondary to this. It is keener than in Poe, owing to the human elements before and after. The Chameleon producer approximates in The Avenging Conscience the type of mystic teacher, discussed in the twentieth chapter: "The Prophet-Wizard."

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