Art of the Moving Picture, The



The whirlwind of cowboys and Indians with which the photoplay began, came about because this instrument, in asserting its genius, was feeling its way toward the most primitive forms of life it could find.

Now there is a tendency for even wilder things. We behold the half-draped figures living in tropical islands or our hairy fore-fathers acting out narratives of the stone age. The moving picture conventionality permits an abbreviation of drapery. If the primitive setting is convincing, the figure in the grass-robe or buffalo hide at once has its rights over the healthful imagination.

There is in this nation of moving-picture-goers a hunger for tales of fundamental life that are not yet told. The cave-man longs with an incurable homesickness for his ancient day. One of the fine photoplays of primeval life is the story called Man's Genesis, described in chapter two.

We face the exigency the world over of vast instruments like national armies being played against each other as idly and aimlessly as the checker-men on the cracker-barrels of corner groceries. And this invention, the kinetoscope, which affects or will affect as many people as the guns of Europe, is not yet understood in its powers, particularly those of bringing back the primitive in a big rich way. The primitive is always a new and higher beginning to the man who understands it. Not yet has the producer learned that the feeling of the crowd is patriarchal, splendid. He imagines the people want nothing but a silly lark.

All this apparatus and opportunity, and no immortal soul! Yet by faith and a study of the signs we proclaim that this lantern of wizard-drama is going to give us in time the visible things in the fulness of their primeval force, and some that have been for a long time invisible. To speak in a metaphor, we are going to have the primitive life of Genesis, then all that evolution after: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and on to a new revelation of St. John. In this adolescence of Democracy the history of man is to be retraced, the same round on a higher spiral of life.

Our democratic dream has been a middle-class aspiration built on a bog of toil-soddened minds. The piles beneath the castle of our near-democratic arts were rotting for lack of folk-imagination. The Man with the Hoe had no spark in his brain. But now a light is blazing. We can build the American soul broad-based from the foundations. We can begin with dreams the veriest stone-club warrior can understand, and as far as an appeal to the eye can do it, lead him in fancy through every phase of life to the apocalyptic splendors.

This progress, according to the metaphor of this chapter, will be led by prophet-wizards. These were the people that dominated the cave-men of old. But what, more specifically, are prophet-wizards?

Let us consider two kinds of present-day people: scientific inventors, on the one hand, and makers of art and poetry and the like, on the other. The especial producers of art and poetry that we are concerned with in this chapter we will call prophet-wizards: men like Albert Dürer, Rembrandt, Blake, Elihu Vedder, Watts, Rossetti, Tennyson, Coleridge, Poe, Maeterlinck, Yeats, Francis Thompson.

They have a certain unearthly fascination in some one or many of their works. A few other men might be added to the list. Most great names are better described under other categories, though as much beloved in their own way. But these are especially adapted to being set in opposition to a list of mechanical inventors that might be called realists by contrast: the Wright brothers, and H. Pierpont Langley, Thomas A. Edison, Charles Steinmetz, John Hays Hammond, Hudson Maxim, Graham Bell.

The prophet-wizards are of various schools. But they have a common tendency and character in bringing forth a type of art peculiarly at war with the realistic civilization science has evolved. It is one object of this chapter to show that, when it comes to a clash between the two forces, the wizards should rule, and the realists should serve them.

The two functions go back through history, sometimes at war, other days in alliance. The poet and the scientist were brethren in the centuries of alchemy. Tennyson, bearing in mind such a period, took the title of Merlin in his veiled autobiography, Merlin and the Gleam.

Wizards and astronomers were one when the angels sang in Bethlehem, "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." There came magicians, saying, "Where is he that is born king of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him?" The modern world in its gentler moments seems to take a peculiar thrill of delight from these travellers, perhaps realizing what has been lost from parting with such gentle seers and secular diviners. Every Christmas half the magazines set them forth in richest colors, riding across the desert, following the star to the same manger where the shepherds are depicted.

Those wizard kings, whatever useless charms and talismans they wore, stood for the unknown quantity in spiritual life. A magician is a man who lays hold on the unseen for the mere joy of it, who steals, if necessary, the holy bread and the sacred fire. He is often of the remnant of an ostracized and disestablished priesthood. He is a free-lance in the soul-world, owing final allegiance to no established sect. The fires of prophecy are as apt to descend upon him as upon members of the established faith. He loves the mysterious for the beauty of it, the wildness and the glory of it, and not always to compel stiff-necked people to do right.

It seems to me that the scientific and poetic functions of society should make common cause again, if they are not, as in Merlin's time, combined in one personality. They must recognize that they serve the same society, but with the understanding that the prophetic function is the most important, the wizard vocation the next, and the inventors' and realists' genius important indeed, but the third consideration. The war between the scientists and the prophet-wizards has come about because of the half-defined ambition of the scientists to rule or ruin. They give us the steam-engine, the skyscraper, the steam-heat, the flying machine, the elevated railroad, the apartment house, the newspaper, the breakfast food, the weapons of the army, the weapons of the navy, and think that they have beautified our existence.

Moreover some one rises at this point to make a plea for the scientific imagination. He says the inventor-scientists have brought us the mystery of electricity, which is no hocus-pocus, but a special manifestation of the Immanent God within us and about us. He says the student in the laboratory brought us the X-ray, the wireless telegraph, the mystery of radium, the mystery of all the formerly unharnessed power of God which man is beginning to gather into the hollow of his hand.

The one who pleads for the scientific imagination points out that Edison has been called the American Wizard. All honor to Edison and his kind. And I admit specifically that Edison took the first great mechanical step to give us the practical kinetoscope and make it possible that the photographs, even of inanimate objects thrown upon the mirror-screen, may become celestial actors. But the final phase of the transfiguration is not the work of this inventor or any other. As long as the photoplays are in the hands of men like Edison they are mere voodooism. We have nothing but Moving Day, as heretofore described. It is only in the hands of the prophetic photo-playwright and allied artists that the kinetoscope reels become as mysterious and dazzling to the thinking spirit as the wheels of Ezekiel in the first chapter of his prophecy. One can climb into the operator's box and watch the sword-like stream of light till he is as dazzled in flesh and spirit as the moth that burns its wings in the lamp. But this is while a glittering vision and not a mere invention is being thrown upon the screen.

The scientific man can explain away the vision as a matter of the technique of double exposure, double printing, trick-turning, or stopping down. And having reduced it to terms and shown the process, he expects us to become secular and casual again. But of course the sun itself is a mere trick of heat and light, a dynamo, an incandescent globe, to the man in the laboratory. To us it must be a fire upon the altar.

Transubstantiation must begin. Our young magicians must derive strange new pulse-beats from the veins of the earth, from the sap of the trees, from the lightning of the sky, as well as the alchemical acids, metals, and flames. Then they will kindle the beginning mysteries for our cause. They will build up a priesthood that is free, yet authorized to freedom. It will be established and disestablished according to the intrinsic authority of the light revealed.

Now for a closer view of this vocation.

The picture of Religious Splendor has its obvious form in the delineation of Biblical scenes, which, in the hands of the best commercial producers, can be made as worth while as the work of men like Tissot. Such films are by no means to be thought of lightly. This sort of work will remain in the minds of many of the severely orthodox as the only kind of a religious picture worthy of classification. But there are many further fields.

Just as the wireless receiving station or the telephone switchboard become heroes in the photoplay, so Aaron's rod that confounded the Egyptians, the brazen serpent that Moses up-lifted in the wilderness, the ram's horn that caused the fall of Jericho, the mantle of Elijah descending upon the shoulders of Elisha from the chariot of fire, can take on a physical electrical power and a hundred times spiritual meaning that they could not have in the dead stage properties of the old miracle play or the realism of the Tissot school. The waterfall and the tossing sea are dramatis personæ in the ordinary film romance. So the Red Sea overwhelming Pharaoh, the fires of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace sparing and sheltering the three holy children, can become celestial actors. And winged couriers can appear, in the pictures, with missions of import, just as an angel descended to Joshua, saying, "As captain of the host of the Lord am I now come."

The pure mechanic does not accept the doctrine. "Your alleged supernatural appearance," he says, "is based on such a simple fact as this: two pictures can be taken on one film."

But the analogy holds. Many primitive peoples are endowed with memories that are double photographs. The world faiths, based upon centuries of these appearances, are none the less to be revered because machine-ridden men have temporarily lost the power of seeing their thoughts as pictures in the air, and for the time abandoned the task of adding to tradition.

Man will not only see visions again, but machines themselves, in the hands of prophets, will see visions. In the hands of commercial men they are seeing alleged visions, and the term "vision" is a part of moving-picture studio slang, unutterably cheapening religion and tradition. When Confucius came, he said one of his tasks was the rectification of names. The leaders of this age should see that this word "vision" comes to mean something more than a piece of studio slang. If it is the conviction of serious minds that the mass of men shall never again see pictures out of Heaven except through such mediums as the kinetoscope lens, let all the higher forces of our land courageously lay hold upon this thing that saves us from perpetual spiritual blindness.

When the thought of primitive man, embodied in misty forms on the landscape, reached epic proportions in the Greek, he saw the Olympians more plainly than he beheld the Acropolis. Myron, Polykleitos, Phidias, Scopas, Lysippus, Praxiteles, discerned the gods and demigods so clearly they afterward cut them from the hard marble without wavering. Our guardian angels of to-day must be as clearly seen and nobly hewn.

A double mental vision is as fundamental in human nature as the double necessity for air and light. It is as obvious as that a thing can be both written and spoken. We have maintained that the kinetoscope in the hands of artists is a higher form of picture writing. In the hands of prophet-wizards it will be a higher form of vision-seeing.

I have said that the commercial men are seeing alleged visions. Take, for instance, the large Italian film that attempts to popularize Dante. Though it has a scattering of noble passages, and in some brief episodes it is an enhancement of Gustave Doré, taking it as a whole, it is a false thing. It is full of apparitions worked out with mechanical skill, yet Dante's soul is not back of the fires and swords of light. It gives to the uninitiated an outline of the stage paraphernalia of the Inferno. It has an encyclopædic value. If Dante himself had been the high director in the plenitude of his resources, it might still have had that hollowness. A list of words making a poem and a set of apparently equivalent pictures forming a photoplay may have an entirely different outcome. It may be like trying to see a perfume or listen to a taste. Religion that comes in wholly through the eye has a new world in the films, whose relation to the old is only discovered by experiment and intuition, patience and devotion.

But let us imagine the grandson of an Italian immigrant to America, a young seer, trained in the photoplay technique by the high American masters, knowing all the moving picture resources as Dante knew Italian song and mediæval learning. Assume that he has a genius akin to that of the Florentine. Let him be a Modernist Catholic if you will. Let him begin his message in the timber lands of Minnesota or the forests of Alaska. "In midway of this our mortal life I found me in a gloomy wood astray." Then let him paint new pictures of just punishment beyond the grave, and merciful rehabilitation and great reward. Let his Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise be built of those things which are deepest and highest in the modern mind, yet capable of emerging in picture-writing form.

Men are needed, therefore they will come. And lest they come weeping, accursed, and alone, let us ask, how shall we recognize them? There is no standard by which to discern the true from the false prophet, except the mood that is engendered by contemplating the messengers of the past. Every man has his own roll call of noble magicians selected from the larger group. But here are the names with which this chapter began, with some words on their work.

Albert Dürer is classed as a Renaissance painter. Yet his art has its dwelling-place in the early Romanesque savageness and strangeness. And the reader remembers Dürer's brooding muse called Melancholia that so obsessed Kipling in The Light that Failed. But the wonder-quality went into nearly all the Dürer wood-cuts and etchings. Rembrandt is a prophet-wizard, not only in his shadowy portraits, but in his etchings of holy scenes even his simplest cobweb lines become incantations. Other artists in the high tides of history have had kindred qualities, but coming close to our day, Elihu Vedder, the American, the illustrator of the Rubáiyát, found it a poem questioning all things, and his very illustrations answer in a certain fashion with winds of infinity, and bring the songs of Omar near to the Book of Job. Vedder's portraits of Lazarus and Samson are conceptions that touch the hem of the unknown. George Frederick Watts was a painter of portraits of the soul itself, as in his delineations of Burne-Jones and Morris and Tennyson.

It is a curious thing that two prophet-wizards have combined pictures and song. Blake and Rossetti, whatever the failure of their technique, never lacked in enchantment. Students of the motion picture side of poetry would naturally turn to such men for spiritual precedents. Blake, that strange Londoner, in his book of Job, is the paramount example of the enchanter doing his work with the engraving tool in his hand.

Rossetti's Dante's Dream is a painting on the edge of every poet's paradise. As for the poetry of these two men, there are Blake's Songs of Innocence, and Rossetti's Blessed Damozel and his Burden of Nineveh.

As for the other poets, we have Coleridge, the author of Christabel, that piece of winter witchcraft, Kubla Khan, that oriental dazzlement, and the Ancient Mariner, that most English of all this list of enchantments. Of Tennyson's work, besides Merlin and the Gleam, there are the poems when the mantle was surely on his shoulders: The Lady of Shalott, The Lotus Eaters, Sir Galahad, and St. Agnes' Eve.

Edgar Poe, always a magician, blends this power with the prophetical note in the poem, The Haunted Palace, and in the stories of William Wilson, The Black Cat and The Tell-tale Heart. This prophet-wizard side of a man otherwise a wizard only, has been well illustrated in The Avenging Conscience photoplay.

From Maeterlinck we have The Bluebird and many another dream. I devoutly hope I will never see in the films an attempt to paraphrase this master. But some disciple of his should conquer the photoplay medium, giving us great original works.

Yeats has bestowed upon us The Land of Heart's Desire, The Secret Rose, and many another piece of imaginative glory. Let us hope that we may be spared any attempts to hastily paraphrase his wonders for the motion pictures. But the man that reads Yeats will be better prepared to do his own work in the films, or to greet the young new masters when they come.

Finally, Francis Thompson, in The Hound of Heaven, has written a song that the young wizard may lean upon forevermore for private guidance. It is composed of equal parts of wonder and conscience. With this poem in his heart, the roar of the elevated railroad will be no more in his ears, and he will dream of palaces of righteousness, and lead other men to dream of them till the houses of mammon fade away.

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