Art of the Moving Picture, The



The moving picture captains of industry, like the California gold finders of 1849, making colossal fortunes in two or three years, have the same glorious irresponsibility and occasional need of the sheriff. They are Californians more literally than this. Around Los Angeles the greatest and most characteristic moving picture colonies are being built. Each photoplay magazine has its California letter, telling of the putting-up of new studios, and the transfer of actors, with much slap-you-on-the-back personal gossip. This is the outgrowth of the fact that every type of the photoplay but the intimate is founded on some phase of the out-of-doors. Being thus dependent, the plant can best be set up where there is no winter. Besides this, the Los Angeles region has the sea, the mountains, the desert, and many kinds of grove and field. Landscape and architecture are sub-tropical. But for a description of California, ask any traveller or study the background of almost any photoplay.

If the photoplay is the consistent utterance of its scenes, if the actors are incarnations of the land they walk upon, as they should be, California indeed stands a chance to achieve through the films an utterance of her own. Will this land furthest west be the first to capture the inner spirit of this newest and most curious of the arts? It certainly has the opportunity that comes with the actors, producers, and equipment. Let us hope that every region will develop the silent photographic pageant in a local form as outlined in the chapter on Progress and Endowment. Already the California sort, in the commercial channels, has become the broadly accepted if mediocre national form. People who revere the Pilgrim Fathers of 1620 have often wished those gentlemen had moored their bark in the region of Los Angeles rather than Plymouth Rock, that Boston had been founded there. At last that landing is achieved.

Patriotic art students have discussed with mingled irony and admiration the Boston domination of the only American culture of the nineteenth century, namely, literature. Indianapolis has had her day since then, Chicago is lifting her head. Nevertheless Boston still controls the text-book in English and dominates our high schools. Ironic feelings in this matter on the part of western men are based somewhat on envy and illegitimate cussedness, but are also grounded in the honest hope of a healthful rivalry. They want new romanticists and artists as indigenous to their soil as was Hawthorne to witch-haunted Salem or Longfellow to the chestnuts of his native heath. Whatever may be said of the patriarchs, from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Amos Bronson Alcott, they were true sons of the New England stone fences and meeting houses. They could not have been born or nurtured anywhere else on the face of the earth.

Some of us view with a peculiar thrill the prospect that Los Angeles may become the Boston of the photoplay. Perhaps it would be better to say the Florence, because California reminds one of colorful Italy more than of any part of the United States. Yet there is a difference.

The present-day man-in-the-street, man-about-town Californian has an obvious magnificence about him that is allied to the eucalyptus tree, the pomegranate. California is a gilded state. It has not the sordidness of gold, as has Wall Street, but it is the embodiment of the natural ore that the ragged prospector finds. The gold of California is the color of the orange, the glitter of dawn in the Yosemite, the hue of the golden gate that opens the sunset way to mystic and terrible Cathay and Hindustan.

The enemy of California says the state is magnificent but thin. He declares it is as though it were painted on a Brobdingnagian piece of gilt paper, and he who dampens his finger and thrusts it through finds an alkali valley on the other side, the lonely prickly pear, and a heap of ashes from a deserted camp-fire. He says the citizens of this state lack the richness of an æsthetic and religious tradition. He says there is no substitute for time. But even these things make for coincidence. This apparent thinness California has in common with the routine photoplay, which is at times as shallow in its thought as the shadow it throws upon the screen. This newness California has in common with all photoplays. It is thrillingly possible for the state and the art to acquire spiritual tradition and depth together.

Part of the thinness of California is not only its youth, but the result of the physical fact that the human race is there spread over so many acres of land. They try not only to count their mines and enumerate their palm trees, but they count the miles of their sea-coast, and the acres under cultivation and the height of the peaks, and revel in large statistics and the bigness generally, and forget how a few men rattle around in a great deal of scenery. They shout their statistics across the Rockies and the deserts to New York. The Mississippi Valley is non-existent to the Californian. His fellow-feeling is for the opposite coast-line. Through the geographical accident of separation by mountain and desert from the rest of the country, he becomes a mere shouter, hurrahing so assiduously that all variety in the voice is lost. Then he tries gestures, and becomes flamboyant, rococo.

These are the defects of the motion picture qualities also. Its panoramic tendency runs wild. As an institution it advertises itself with the sweeping gesture. It has the same passion for coast-line. These are not the sins of New England. When, in the hands of masters, they become sources of strength, they will be a different set of virtues from those of New England.

There is no more natural place for the scattering of confetti than this state, except the moving picture scene itself. Both have a genius for gardens and dancing and carnival.

When the Californian relegates the dramatic to secondary scenes, both in his life and his photoplay, and turns to the genuinely epic and lyric, he and this instrument may find their immortality together as New England found its soul in the essays of Emerson. Tide upon tide of Spring comes into California through all four seasons. Fairy beauty overwhelms the lumbering grand-stand players. The tiniest garden is a jewelled pathway of wonder. But the Californian cannot shout "orange blossoms, orange blossoms; heliotrope, heliotrope!" He cannot boom forth "roseleaves, roseleaves" so that he does their beauties justice. Here is where the photoplay can begin to give him a more delicate utterance. And he can go on into stranger things and evolve all the Splendor Films into higher types, for the very name of California is splendor. The California photo-playwright can base his Crowd Picture upon the city-worshipping mobs of San Francisco. He can derive his Patriotic and Religious Splendors from something older and more magnificent than the aisles of the Romanesque, namely: the groves of the giant redwoods.

The campaign for a beautiful nation could very well emanate from the west coast, where with the slightest care grow up models for all the world of plant arrangement and tree-luxury. Our mechanical East is reproved, our tension is relaxed, our ugliness is challenged every time we look upon those garden paths and forests.

It is possible for Los Angeles to lay hold of the motion picture as our national text-book in Art as Boston appropriated to herself the guardianship of the national text-books of Literature. If California has a shining soul, and not merely a golden body, let her forget her seventeen-year-old melodramatics, and turn to her poets who understand the heart underneath the glory. Edwin Markham, the dean of American singers, Clark Ashton Smith, the young star treader, George Sterling, that son of Ancient Merlin, have in their songs the seeds of better scenarios than California has sent us. There are two poems by George Sterling that I have had in mind for many a day as conceptions that should inspire mystic films akin to them. These poems are The Night Sentries and Tidal King of Nations.

But California can tell us stories that are grim children of the tales of the wild Ambrose Bierce. Then there is the lovely unforgotten Nora May French and the austere Edward Rowland Sill.

Edison is the new Gutenberg. He has invented the new printing. The state that realizes this may lead the soul of America, day after to-morrow.

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