The Art of the Moving Picture - Vachel Lindsay - ebook

While there is a great deal of literary reference in all the following argument, I realize, looking back over many attempts to paraphrase it for various audiences, that its appeal is to those who spend the best part of their student life in classifying, and judging, and producing works of sculpture, painting, and architecture. I find the eyes of all others wandering when I make talks upon the plastic artist's point of view.This book tries to find that fourth dimension of architecture, painting, and sculpture, which is the human soul in action, that arrow with wings which is the flash of fire from the film, or the heart of man, or Pygmalion's image, when it becomes a woman.

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Vachel Lindsay

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Especially as Viewed from the Heights of the Civic Centre at Denver, Colorado, and the Denver Art Museum, Which Is to Be a Leading Feature of This Civic CentreIn the second chapter of book two, on page 8, the theoretical outline begins, with a discussion of the Photoplay of Action. I put there on record the first crude commercial films that in any way establish the principle. There can never be but one first of anything, and if the negatives of these films survive the shrinking and the warping that comes with time, they will still be, in a certain sense, classic, and ten years hence or two years hence will still be better remembered than any films of the current releases, which come on like newspapers, and as George Ade says:—"Nothing is so dead as yesterday's newspaper." But the first newspapers, and the first imprints of Addison's Spectator, and the first Almanacs of Benjamin Franklin, and the first broadside ballads and the like, are ever collected and remembered. And the lists of films given in books two and three of this work are the only critical and carefully sorted lists of the early motion pictures that I happen to know anything about. I hope to be corrected if I am too boastful, but I boast that my lists must be referred to by all those who desire to study these experiments in their beginnings. So I let them remain, as still vivid in the memory of all true lovers of the photoplay who have watched its growth, fascinated from the first. But I would add to the list of Action Films of chapter two the recent popular example, Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers. That is perhaps the most literal "Chase-Picture" that was ever really successful in the commercial world. The story is cut to one episode. The whole task of the four famous swordsmen of Dumas is to get the Queen's token that is in the hands of Buckingham in England, and return with it to Paris in time for the great ball. It is one long race with the Cardinal's guards who are at last left behind. It is the same plot as Reynard the Fox, John Masefield's poem—Reynard successfully eluding the huntsmen and the dogs. If that poem is ever put on in an Art Museum film, it will have to be staged like one of Æsop's Fables, with a man acting the Fox, for the children's delight. And I earnestly urge all who would understand the deeper significance of the "chase-picture" or the "Action Picture" to give more thought to Masefield's poem than to Fairbanks' marvellous acting in the school of the younger Salvini. The Mood of the intimate photoplay, chapter three, still remains indicated in the current films by the acting of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, when they are not roused up by their directors to turn handsprings to keep the people staring. Mary Pickford in particular has been stimulated to be over-athletic, and in all her career she has been given just one chance to be her more delicate self, and that was in the almost forgotten film:—A Romance of the Redwoods. This is one of the serious commercial attempts that should be revived and studied, in spite of its crudities of plot, by our Art Museums. There is something of the grandeur of the redwoods in it, in contrast to the sustained Botticelli grace of "Our Mary."I am the one poet who has a right to claim for his muses Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, and Mae Marsh. I am the one poet who wrote them songs when they were Biograph heroines, before their names were put on the screen, or the name of their director. Woman's clubs are always asking me for bits of delicious gossip about myself to fill up literary essays. Now there's a bit. There are two things to be said for those poems. First, they were heartfelt. Second, any one could improve on them.In the fourth chapter of book two I discourse elaborately and formally on The Motion Picture of Fairy Splendor. And to this carefully balanced technical discourse I would add the informal word, this New Year's Day, that this type is best illustrated by such fairy-tales as have been most ingratiatingly retold in the books of Padraic Colum, and dazzlingly illustrated by Willy Pogany. The Colum-Pogany School of Thought is one which the commercial producers have not yet condescended to illustrate in celluloid, and it remains a special province for the Art Museum Film. Fairy-tales need not be more than one-tenth of a reel long. Some of the best fairy-tales in the whole history of man can be told in a breath. And the best motion picture story for fifty years may turn out to be a reel ten minutes long. Do not let the length of the commercial film tyrannize over your mind, O young art museum photoplay director. Remember the brevity of Lincoln's Gettysburg address....And so my commentary, New Year's Day, 1922, proceeds, using for points of more and more extensive departure the refrains and old catch-phrases of books two and three.Chapter V—The Picture of Crowd Splendor, being the type illustrated by Griffith's Intolerance.Chapter VI—The Picture of Patriotic Splendor, which was illustrated by all the War Films, the one most recently approved and accepted by the public being The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.Chapter VII—The Picture of Religious Splendor, which has no examples, that remain in the memory with any sharpness in 1922, except The Faith Healer, founded on the play by William Vaughn Moody, the poet, with much of the directing and scenario by Mrs. William Vaughn Moody, and a more talked-of commercial film, The Miracle Man. But not until the religious film is taken out of the commercial field, and allowed to develop unhampered under the Church and the Art Museum, will the splendid religious and ritualistic opportunity be realized.Chapter VIII—Sculpture-in-Motion, being a continuation of the argument of chapter two. The Photoplay of Action. Like the Action Film, this aspect of composition is much better understood by the commercial people than some other sides of the art. Some of the best of the William S. Hart productions show appreciation of this quality by the director, the photographer, and the public. Not only is the man but the horse allowed to be moving bronze, and not mere cowboy pasteboard. Many of the pictures of Charles Ray make the hero quite a bronze-looking sculpturesque person, despite his yokel raiment.Chapter IX—Painting-in-Motion, being a continuation on a higher terrace of chapter three, The Intimate Photoplay. Charlie Chaplin has intimate and painter's qualities in his acting, and he makes himself into a painting or an etching in the midst of furious slapstick. But he has been in no films that were themselves paintings. The argument of this chapter has been carried much further in Freeburg's book, The Art of Photoplay Making.Chapter X—Furniture, Trappings, and Inventions in Motion, being a continuation of the chapter on Fairy Splendor. In this field we find one of the worst failures of the commercial films, and their utterly unimaginative corporation promoters. Again I must refer them to such fairy books as those of Padraic Colum, where neither sword nor wing nor boat is found to move, except for a fairy reason.I have just returned this very afternoon from a special showing of the famous imported film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Some of the earnest spirits of the Denver Art Association, finding it was in storage in the town, had it privately brought forth to study it with reference to its bearing on their new policies. What influence it will have in that most vital group, time will show.Meanwhile it is a marvellous illustration of the meaning of this chapter and the chapter on Fairy Splendor, though it is a diabolical not a beneficent vitality that is given to inanimate things. The furniture, trappings, and inventions are in motion to express the haunted mind, as in Griffith's Avenging Conscience, described pages 121 through 132. The two should be shown together in the same afternoon, in the Art Museum study rooms. Caligari is undoubtedly the most important imported film since that work of D'Annunzio, Cabiria, described pages 55 through 57. But it is the opposite type of film. Cabiria is all out-doors and splendor on the Mediterranean scale. In general, imported films do not concern Americans, for we have now a vast range of technique. All we lack is the sense to use it.The cabinet of Caligari is indeed a cabinet, and the feeling of being in a cell, and smothered by all the oppressions of a weary mind, does not desert the spectator for a minute.The play is more important, technically, than in its subject-matter and mood. It proves in a hundred new ways the resources of the film in making all the inanimate things which, on the spoken stage, cannot act at all, the leading actors in the films. But they need not necessarily act to a diabolical end. An angel could have as well been brought from the cabinet as a murderous somnambulist, and every act of his could have been a work of beneficence and health and healing. I could not help but think that the ancient miracle play of the resurrection of Osiris could have been acted out with similar simple means, with a mummy case and great sarcophagus. The wings of Isis and Nephthys could have been spread over the sky instead of the oppressive walls of the crooked city. Lights instead of shadows could have been made actors and real hieroglyphic inscriptions instead of scrawls.As it was, the alleged insane man was more sensible than most motion picture directors, for his scenery acted with him, and not according to accident or silly formula. I make these points as an antidote to the general description of this production by those who praise it.They speak of the scenery as grotesque, strained, and experimental, and the plot as sinister. But this does not get to the root of the matter. There is rather the implication in most of the criticisms and praises that the scenery is abstract. Quite the contrary is the case. Indoors looks like indoors. Streets are always streets, roofs are always roofs. The actors do not move about in a kind of crazy geometry as I was led to believe. The scenery is oppressive, but sane, and the obsession is for the most part expressed in the acting and plot. The fair looks like a fair and the library looks like a library. There is nothing experimental about any of the setting, nothing unconsidered or strained or over-considered. It seems experimental because it is thrown into contrast with extreme commercial formulas in the regular line of the "movie trade." But compare The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a book of Rackham or Du Lac or Dürer, or Rembrandt's etchings, and Dr. Caligari is more realistic. And Eggers insists the whole film is replete with suggestions of the work of Pieter Breughel, the painter. Hundreds of indoor stories will be along such lines, once the merely commercial motive is eliminated, and the artist is set free. This film is an extraordinary variation of the intimate, as expounded in chapter three. It is drawing-in-motion, instead of painting-in-motion. Because it was drawing instead of painting, literary-minded people stepped to the hasty conclusion it was experimental. Half-tone effects are, for the most part, eliminated. Line is dominant everywhere. It is the opposite of vast conceptions like Theodora—which are architecture-in-motion. All the architecture of the Caligari film seems pasteboard. The whole thing happens in a cabinet.It is the most overwhelming contrast to Griffith's Intolerance that could be in any way imagined. It contains, one may say, all the effects left out of Intolerance. The word cabinet is a quadruple pun. Not only does it mean a mystery box and a box holding a somnambulist, but a kind of treasury of tiny twisted thoughts. There is not one line or conception in it on the grand scale, or even the grandiose. It is a devil's toy-house. One feels like a mouse in a mouse-trap so small one cannot turn around. In Intolerance, Griffith hurls nation at nation, race at race, century against century, and his camera is not only a telescope across the plains of Babylon, but across the ages. Griffith is, in Intolerance, the ungrammatical Byron of the films, but certainly as magnificent as Byron, and since he is the first of his kind I, for one, am willing to name him with Marlowe.But for technical study for Art Schools, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more profitable. It shows how masterpieces can be made, with the second-hand furniture of any attic. But I hope fairy-tales, not diabolical stories, will come from these attics. Fairy-tales are inherent in the genius of the motion picture and are a thousand times hinted at in the commercial films, though the commercial films are not willing to stop to tell them. Lillian Gish could be given wings and a wand if she only had directors and scenario writers who believed in fairies. And the same can most heartily be said of Mae Marsh.Chapter XI—Architecture-in-Motion, being a continuation of the argument about the Splendor Pictures, in chapters five, six, and seven. This is an element constantly re-illustrated in a magnificent but fragmentary way by the News Films. Any picture of a seagull flying so close to the camera that it becomes as large as a flying machine, or any flying machine made by man and photographed in epic flight captures the eye because it is architecture and in motion, motion which is the mysterious fourth dimension of its grace and glory. So likewise, and in kind, any picture of a tossing ship. The most superb example of architecture-in-motion in the commercial history of the films is the march of the moving war-towers against the walls of Babylon in Griffith's Intolerance. But Griffith is the only person so far who has known how to put a fighting soul into a moving tower.The only real war that has occurred in the films with the world's greatest war going on outside was Griffith's War Against Babylon. The rest was news.Chapter XII—Thirty Differences between the Photoplays and the Stage. The argument of the whole of the 1915 edition has been accepted by the studios, the motion picture magazines, and the daily motion picture columns throughout the land. I have read hundreds of editorials and magazines, and scarcely one that differed from it in theory. Most of them read like paraphrases of this work. And of all arguments made, the one in this chapter is the one oftenest accepted in its entirety. The people who dominate the films are obviously those who grew up with them from the very beginning, and the merely stage actors who rushed in with the highest tide of prosperity now have to take second rank if they remain in the films. But most of these have gone back to the stage by this time, with their managers as well, and certainly this chapter is abundantly proved out.Chapter XIII—Hieroglyphics. One of the implications of this chapter and the one preceding is that the fewer words printed on the screen the better, and that the ideal film has no words printed on it at all, but is one unbroken sheet of photography. This is admitted in theory in all the studios now, though the only film of the kind ever produced of general popular success was The Old Swimmin' Hole, acted by Charles Ray. If I remember, there was not one word on the screen, after the cast of characters was given. The whole story was clearly and beautifully told by Photoplay Hieroglyphics. For this feature alone, despite many defects of the film, it should be studied in every art school in America.Meanwhile "Title writing" remains a commercial necessity. In this field there is but one person who has won distinction—Anita Loos. She is one of the four or five important and thoroughly artistic brains in the photoplay game. Among them is the distinguished John Emerson. In combination with John Emerson, director, producer, etc., she has done so many other things well, her talents as a title writer are incidental, but certainly to be mentioned in this place.The outline we are discussing continues throughBook III—More Personal Speculations and Afterthoughts Not Brought Forward so Dogmatically.Chapter XIV—The Orchestra, Conversation, and the Censorship. In this chapter, on page 189, I suggest suppressing the orchestra entirely and encouraging the audience to talk about the film. No photoplay people have risen to contradict this theory, but it is a chapter that once caused me great embarrassment. With Christopher Morley, the well-known author of Shandygaff and other temperance literature, I was trying to prove out this chapter. As soon as the orchestra stopped, while the show rolled on in glory, I talked about the main points in this book, illustrating it by the film before us. Almost everything that happened was a happy illustration of my ideas. But there were two shop girls in front of us awfully in love with a certain second-rate actor who insisted on kissing the heroine every so often, and with her apparent approval. Every time we talked about that those shop girls glared at us as though we were robbing them of their time and money. Finally one of them dragged the other out into the aisle, and dashed out of the house with her dear chum, saying, so all could hear: "Well, come on, Terasa, we might as well go, if these two talking pests are going to keep this up behind us." The poor girl's voice trembled. She was in tears. She was gone before we could apologize or offer flowers. So I say in applying this chapter, in our present stage of civilization, sit on the front seat, where no one can hear your whisperings but Mary Pickford on the screen. She is but a shadow there, and will not mind.Chapter XV—The Substitute for the Saloon. I leave this argument as a monument, just as it was written, in 1914 and '15. It indicates a certain power of forecasting on the part of the writer. We drys have certainly won a great victory. Some of the photoplay people agree with this temperance sermon, and some of them do not. The wets make one mistake above all. They do not realize that the drys can still keep on voting dry, with intense conviction, and great battle cries, and still have a sense of humor.Chapter XVI—California and America. This chapter was quoted and paraphrased almost bodily as the preface to my volume of verses, The Golden Whales of California. "I Know All This When Gipsy Fiddles Cry," a song of some length recently published in the New Republic and the London Nation, further expresses the sentiment of this chapter in what I hope is a fraternal way, and I hope suggests the day when California will have power over India, Asia, and all the world, and plant giant redwood trees of the spirit the world around.Chapter XVII—Progress and Endowment. I allow this discourse, also, to stand as written in 1914 and '15. It shows the condition just before the war, better than any new words of mine could do it. The main change now is the growing hope of a backing, not only from Universities, but great Art Museums.Chapter XVIII—Architects as Crusaders. The sermon in this chapter has been carried out on a limited scale, and as a result of the suggestion, or from pure American instinct, we now have handsome gasoline filling stations from one end of America to the other, and really gorgeous Ford garages. Our Union depots and our magazine stands in the leading hotels, and our big Soda fountains are more and more attractive all the time. Having recited of late about twice around the United States and, continuing the pilgrimage, I can testify that they are all alike from New York to San Francisco. One has to ask the hotel clerk to find out whether it is New York or ——. And the motion picture discipline of the American eye has had a deal to do with this increasing tendency to news-stand and architectural standardization and architectural thinking, such as it is. But I meant this suggestion to go further, and to be taken in a higher sense, so I ask these people to read this chapter again. I have carried out the idea, in a parable, perhaps more clearly in The Golden Book of Springfield, when I speak of the World's Fair of the University of Springfield, to be built one hundred years hence. And I would recommend to those who have already taken seriously chapter eighteen, to reread it in two towns, amply worth the car fare it costs to go to both of them. First, Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, the oldest city in the United States, the richest in living traditions, and with the oldest and the newest architecture in the United States; not a stone or a stick of it standardized, a city with a soul, Jerusalem and Mecca and Benares and Thebes for any artist or any poet of America's future, or any one who would dream of great cities born of great architectural photoplays, or great photoplays born of great cities. And the other city, symbolized by The Golden Rain Tree in The Golden Book of Springfield, is New Harmony, Indiana. That was the Greenwich Village of America more than one hundred years ago, when it was yet in the heart of the wilderness, millions of miles from the sea. It has a tradition already as dusty and wonderful as Abydos and Gem Aten. And every stone is still eloquent of individualism, and standardization has not yet set its foot there. Is it not possible for the architects to brood in such places and then say to one another:—"Build from your hearts buildings and films which shall be your individual Hieroglyphics, each according to his own loves and fancies?"Chapter XIX—On Coming Forth by Day. This is the second Egyptian chapter. It has its direct relation to the Hieroglyphic chapter, page 171. I note that I say here it costs a dime to go to the show. Well, now it costs around thirty cents to go to a good show in a respectable suburb, sometimes fifty cents. But we will let that dime remain there, as a matter of historic interest, and pass on, to higher themes.