Art of the Moving Picture, The



I have read this chapter to a pretty neighbor who has approved of the preceding portions of the book, whose mind, therefore, I cannot but respect. My neighbor classes this discussion of hieroglyphics as a fanciful flight rather than a sober argument. I submit the verdict, then struggle against it while you read.

The invention of the photoplay is as great a step as was the beginning of picture-writing in the stone age. And the cave-men and women of our slums seem to be the people most affected by this novelty, which is but an expression of the old in that spiral of life which is going higher while seeming to repeat the ancient phase.

There happens to be here on the table a book on Egypt by Rawlinson that I used to thumb long ago. A footnote says: "The font of hieroglyphic type used in this work contains eight hundred forms. But there are many other forms beside." There is more light on Egypt in later works than in Rawlinson, but the statement quoted will serve for our text.

Several complex methods of making visible scenarios are listed in this work. Here is one that is mechanically simple. Let the man searching for tableau combinations, even if he is of the practical commercial type, prepare himself with eight hundred signs from Egypt. He can construct the outlines of his scenarios by placing these little pictures in rows. It may not be impractical to cut his hundreds of them from black cardboard and shuffle them on his table every morning. The list will contain all elementary and familiar things. Let him first give the most literal meaning to the patterns. Then if he desires to rise above the commercial field, let him turn over each cardboard, making the white undersurface uppermost, and there write a more abstract meaning of the hieroglyphic, one that has a fairly close relation to his way of thinking about the primary form. From a proper balance of primary and secondary meanings photoplays with souls could come. Not that he must needs become an expert Egyptologist. Yet it would profit any photoplay man to study to think like the Egyptians, the great picture-writing people. There is as much reason for this course as for the Bible student's apprenticeship in Hebrew.

Hieroglyphics can prove their worth, even without the help of an Egyptian history. Humorous and startling analogies can be pointed out by opening the Standard Dictionary, page fifty-nine. Look under the word alphabet. There is the diagram of the evolution of inscriptions from the Egyptian and Phoenician idea of what letters should be, on through the Greek and Roman systems.

In the Egyptian row is the picture of a throne, that has its equivalent in the Roman letter C. And a throne has as much place in what might be called the moving-picture alphabet as the letter C has in ours. There are sometimes three thrones in this small town of Springfield in an evening. When you see one flashed on the screen, you know instantly you are dealing with royalty or its implications. The last one I saw that made any particular impression was when Mary Pickford acted in Such a Little Queen. I only wished then that she had a more convincing throne. Let us cut one out of black cardboard. Turning the cardboard over to write on it the spirit-meaning, we inscribe some such phrase as The Throne of Wisdom or The Throne of Liberty.

Here is the hieroglyphic of a hand: Roman equivalent, the letter D. The human hand, magnified till it is as big as the whole screen, is as useful in the moving picture alphabet as the letter D in the printed alphabet. This hand may open a lock. It may pour poison in a bottle. It may work a telegraph key. Then turning the white side of the cardboard uppermost we inscribe something to the effect that this hand may write on the wall, as at the feast of Belshazzar. Or it may represent some such conception as Rodin's Hand of God, discussed in the Sculpture-in-motion chapter.

Here is a duck: Roman equivalent, the letter Z. In the motion pictures this bird, a somewhat z-shaped animal, suggests the finality of Arcadian peace. It is the last and fittest ornament of the mill-pond. Nothing very terrible can happen with a duck in the foreground. There is no use turning it over. It would take Maeterlinck or Swedenborg to find the mystic meaning of a duck. A duck looks to me like a caricature of an alderman.

Here is a sieve: Roman equivalent, H. A sieve placed on the kitchen-table, close-up, suggests domesticity, hired girl humors, broad farce. We will expect the bride to make her first cake, or the flour to begin to fly into the face of the intrusive ice-man. But, as to the other side of the cardboard, the sieve has its place in higher symbolism. It has been recorded by many a sage and singer that the Almighty Powers sift men like wheat.

Here is the picture of a bowl: Roman equivalent, the letter K. A bowl seen through the photoplay window on the cottage table suggests Johnny's early supper of bread and milk. But as to the white side of the cardboard, out of a bowl of kindred form Omar may take his moonlit wine, or the higher gods may lift up the very wine of time to the lips of men, as Swinburne sings in Atalanta in Calydon.

Here is a lioness: Roman equivalent, the letter L. The lion or lioness creeps through the photoplay jungle to give the primary picture-word of terror in this new universal alphabet. The present writer has seen several valuable lions unmistakably shot and killed in the motion pictures, and charged up to profit and loss, just as steam-engines or houses are sometimes blown up or burned down. But of late there is a disposition to use the trained lion (or lioness) for all sorts of effects. No doubt the king and queen of beasts will become as versatile and humbly useful as the letter L itself: that is, in the commonplace routine photoplay. We turn the cardboard over and the lion becomes a resource of glory and terror, a symbol of cruel persecutions or deathless courage, sign of the zodiac that Poe in Ulalume calls the Lair of the Lion.

Here is an owl: Roman equivalent, the letter M. The only use of the owl I can record is to be inscribed on the white surface. In The Avenging Conscience, as described in chapter ten, the murderer marks the ticking of the heart of his victim while watching the swinging of the pendulum of the old clock, then in watching the tapping of the detective's pencil on the table, then in the tapping of his foot on the floor. Finally a handsome owl is shown in the branches outside hoot-hooting in time with the action of the pencil, and the pendulum, and the dead man's heart.

But here is a wonderful thing, an actual picture that has lived on, retaining its ancient imitative sound and form: the letter N, the drawing of a wave, with the sound of a wave still within it. One could well imagine the Nile in the winds of the dawn making such a sound: "NN, N, N," lapping at the reeds upon its banks. Certainly the glittering water scenes are a dominant part of moving picture Esperanto. On the white reverse of the symbol, the spiritual meaning of water will range from the metaphor of the purity of the dew to the sea as a sign of infinity.

Here is a window with closed shutters: Latin equivalent, the letter P. It is a reminder of the technical outline of this book. The Intimate Photoplay, as I have said, is but a window where we open the shutters and peep into some one's cottage. As to the soul meaning in the opening or closing of the shutters, it ranges from Noah's opening the hatches to send forth the dove, to the promises of blessing when the Windows of Heaven should be opened.

Here is the picture of an angle: Latin equivalent, Q. This is another reminder of the technical outline. The photoplay interior, as has been reiterated, is small and three-cornered. Here the heroine does her plotting, flirting, and primping, etc. I will leave the spiritual interpretation of the angle to Emerson, Swedenborg, or Maeterlinck.

Here is the picture of a mouth: Latin equivalent, the letter R. If we turn from the dictionary to the monuments, we will see that the Egyptians used all the human features in their pictures. We do not separate the features as frequently as did that ancient people, but we conventionalize them as often. Nine-tenths of the actors have faces as fixed as the masks of the Greek chorus: they have the hero-mask with the protruding chin, the villain-frown, the comedian-grin, the fixed innocent-girl simper. These formulas have their place in the broad effects of Crowd Pictures and in comedies. Then there are sudden abandonments of the mask. Griffith's pupils, Henry Walthall and Blanche Sweet, seem to me to be the greatest people in the photoplays: for one reason their faces are as sensitive to changing emotion as the surfaces of fair lakes in the wind. There is a passage in Enoch Arden where Annie, impersonated by Lillian Gish, another pupil of Griffith, is waiting in suspense for the return of her husband. She changes from lips of waiting, with a touch of apprehension, to a delighted laugh of welcome, her head making a half-turn toward the door. The audience is so moved by the beauty of the slow change they do not know whether her face is the size of the screen or the size of a postage-stamp. As a matter of fact it fills the whole end of the theatre.

Thus much as to faces that are not hieroglyphics. Yet fixed facial hieroglyphics have many legitimate uses. For instance in The Avenging Conscience, as the play works toward the climax and the guilty man is breaking down, the eye of the detective is thrown on the screen with all else hid in shadow, a watching, relentless eye. And this suggests a special talisman of the old Egyptians, a sign called the Eyes of Horus, meaning the all-beholding sun.

Here is the picture of an inundated garden: Latin equivalent, the letter S. In our photoplays the garden is an ever-present resource, and at an instant's necessity suggests the glory of nature, or sweet privacy, and kindred things. The Egyptian lotus garden had to be inundated to be a success. Ours needs but the hired man with the hose, who sometimes supplies broad comedy. But we turn over the cardboard, for the deeper meaning of this hieroglyphic. Our gardens can, as of old, run the solemn range from those of Babylon to those of the Resurrection.

If there is one sceptic left as to the hieroglyphic significance of the photoplay, let him now be discomfited by page fifty-nine, Standard Dictionary. The last letter in this list is a lasso: . The equivalent of the lasso in the Roman alphabet is the letter T. The crude and facetious would be apt to suggest that the equivalent of the lasso in the photoplay is the word trouble, possibly for the hero, but probably for the villain. We turn to the other side of the symbol. The noose may stand for solemn judgment and the hangman, it may also symbolize the snare of the fowler, temptation. Then there is the spider web, close kin, representing the cruelty of evolution, in The Avenging Conscience.

This list is based on the rows of hieroglyphics most readily at hand. Any volume on Egypt, such as one of those by Maspero, has a multitude of suggestions for the man inclined to the idea.

If this system of pasteboard scenarios is taken literally, I would like to suggest as a beginning rule that in a play based on twenty hieroglyphics, nineteen should be the black realistic signs with obvious meanings, and only one of them white and inexplicably strange. It has been proclaimed further back in this treatise that there is only one witch in every wood. And to illustrate further, there is but one scarlet letter in Hawthorne's story of that name, but one wine-cup in all of Omar, one Bluebird in Maeterlinck's play.

I do not insist that the prospective author-producer adopt the hieroglyphic method as a routine, if he but consents in his meditative hours to the point of view that it implies.

The more fastidious photoplay audience that uses the hieroglyphic hypothesis in analyzing the film before it, will acquire a new tolerance and understanding of the avalanche of photoplay conceptions, and find a promise of beauty in what have been properly classed as mediocre and stereotyped productions.

The nineteenth chapter has a discourse on the Book of the Dead. As a connecting link with that chapter the reader will note that one of the marked things about the Egyptian wall-paintings, pictures on the mummy-case wrappings, papyrus inscriptions, and architectural conceptions, is that they are but enlarged hieroglyphics, while the hieroglyphics are but reduced fac-similes of these. So when a few characters are once understood, the highly colored Egyptian wall-paintings of the same things are understood. The hieroglyphic of Osiris is enlarged when they desire to represent him in state. The hieroglyphic of the soul as a human-headed hawk may be in a line of writing no taller than the capitals of this book. Immediately above may be a big painting of the soul, the same hawk placed with the proper care with reference to its composition on the wall, a pure decoration.

The transition from reduction to enlargement and back again is as rapid in Egypt as in the photoplay. It follows, among other things, that in Egypt, as in China and Japan, literary style and mere penmanship and brushwork are to be conceived as inseparable. No doubt the Egyptian scholar was the man who could not only compose a poem, but write it down with a brush. Talent for poetry, deftness in inscribing, and skill in mural painting were probably gifts of the same person. The photoplay goes back to this primitive union in styles.

The stages from hieroglyphics through Phoenician and Greek letters to ours, are of no particular interest here. But the fact that hieroglyphics can evolve is important. Let us hope that our new picture-alphabets can take on richness and significance, as time goes on, without losing their literal values. They may develop into something more all-pervading, yet more highly wrought, than any written speech. Languages when they evolve produce stylists, and we will some day distinguish the different photoplay masters as we now delight in the separate tang of O. Henry and Mark Twain and Howells. When these are ancient times, we will have scholars and critics learned in the flavors of early moving picture traditions with their histories of movements and schools, their grammars, and anthologies.

Now some words as to the Anglo-Saxon language and its relation to pictures. In England and America our plastic arts are but beginning. Yesterday we were preeminently a word-civilization. England built her mediæval cathedrals, but they left no legacy among craftsmen. Art had to lean on imported favorites like Van Dyck till the days of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the founding of the Royal Society. Consider that the friends of Reynolds were of the circle of Doctor Johnson. Literary tradition had grown old. Then England had her beginning of landscape gardening. Later she saw the rise of Constable, Ruskin, and Turner, and their iridescent successors. Still to-day in England the average leading citizen matches word against word,—using them as algebraic formulas,—rather than picture against picture, when he arranges his thoughts under the eaves of his mind. To step into the Art world is to step out of the beaten path of British dreams. Shakespeare is still king, not Rossetti, nor yet Christopher Wren. Moreover, it was the book-reading colonial who led our rebellion against the very royalty that founded the Academy. The public-speaking American wrote the Declaration of Independence. It was not the work of the painting or cathedral-building Englishman. We were led by Patrick Henry, the orator, Benjamin Franklin, the printer.

The more characteristic America became, the less she had to do with the plastic arts. The emigrant-train carried many a Bible and Dictionary packed in beside the guns and axes. It carried the Elizabethan writers, Æsop's Fables, Blackstone's Commentaries, the revised statutes of Indiana, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Parson Weems' Life of Washington. But, obviously, there was no place for the Elgin marbles. Giotto's tower could not be loaded in with the dried apples and the seedcorn.

Yesterday morning, though our arts were growing every day, we were still more of a word-civilization than the English. Our architectural, painting, and sculptural history is concerned with men now living, or their immediate predecessors. And even such work as we have is pretty largely a cult by the wealthy. This is the more a cause for misgiving because, in a democracy, the arts, like the political parties, are not founded till they have touched the county chairman, the ward leader, the individual voter. The museums in a democracy should go as far as the public libraries. Every town has its library. There are not twenty Art museums in the land.

Here then comes the romance of the photoplay. A tribe that has thought in words since the days that it worshipped Thor and told legends of the cunning of the tongue of Loki, suddenly begins to think in pictures. The leaders of the people, and of culture, scarcely know the photoplay exists. But in the remote villages the players mentioned in this work are as well known and as fairly understood in their general psychology as any candidates for president bearing political messages. There is many a babe in the proletariat not over four years old who has received more pictures into its eye than it has had words enter its ear. The young couple go with their first-born and it sits gaping on its mother's knee. Often the images are violent and unseemly, a chaos of rawness and squirm, but scattered through the experience is a delineation of the world. Pekin and China, Harvard and Massachusetts, Portland and Oregon, Benares and India, become imaginary playgrounds. By the time the hopeful has reached its geography lesson in the public school it has travelled indeed. Almost any word that means a picture in the text of the geography or history or third reader is apt to be translated unconsciously into moving picture terms. In the next decade, simply from the development of the average eye, cities akin to the beginnings of Florence will be born among us as surely as Chaucer came, upon the first ripening of the English tongue, after Cædmon and Beowulf. Sculptors, painters, architects, and park gardeners who now have their followers by the hundreds will have admirers by the hundred thousand. The voters will respond to the aspirations of these artists as the back-woodsmen followed Poor Richard's Almanac, or the trappers in their coon-skin caps were fired to patriotism by Patrick Henry.

This ends the second section of the book. Were it not for the passage on The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the chapters thus far might be entitled: "an open letter to Griffith and the producers and actors he has trained." Contrary to my prudent inclinations, he is the star of the piece, except on one page where he is the villain. This stardom came about slowly. In making the final revision, looking up the producers of the important reels, especially those from the beginning of the photoplay business, numbers of times the photoplays have turned out to be the work of this former leading man of Nance O'Neil.

No one can pretend to a full knowledge of the films. They come faster than rain in April. It would take a man every day of the year, working day and night, to see all that come to Springfield. But in the photoplay world, as I understand it, D.W. Griffith is the king-figure.

So far, in this work I have endeavored to keep to the established dogmas of Art. I hope that the main lines of the argument will appeal to the people who have classified and related the beautiful works of man that have preceded the moving pictures. Let the reader make his own essay on the subject for the local papers and send the clipping to me. The next photoplay book that may appear from this hand may be construed to meet his point of view. It will try to agree or disagree in clear language. Many a controversy must come before a method of criticism is fully established.

At this point I climb from the oracular platform and go down through my own chosen underbrush for haphazard adventure. I renounce the platform. Whatever it may be that I find, pawpaw or may-apple or spray of willow, if you do not want it, throw it over the edge of the hill, without ado, to the birds or squirrels or kine, and do not include it in your controversial discourse. It is not a part of the dogmatic system of photoplay criticism.

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