Not everyone liked the silent movies. There were plenty of critics who scorned the new medium, often as much for the audience it drew as the quality of the films themselves. Mechanically-produced, cheap, easy to view, inescapably bound up with urbanisation and crowds, above all modern, they drew contemptuous attacks from many social commentators and critics more at ease with the well-established art forms.
A fascinating example is ‘Moving Pictures‘, an essay by the surgeon and essayist Stephen Paget, from his 1916 book Sometimes I Think, which a friend alerted me to recently. It can be found on the Gaslight website, and I’ll quote a few passages here and encourage you to investigate the essay in its entirety.
Here’s how Paget begins his argument:
We are so accustomed to moving pictures, that we do not trouble ourselves to study their nature, or their place in the general order of things. We take them for granted. Youth, especially, takes them for granted, having no memory of a time when they were not. But some of us were born into a world in which all the pictures stood still: and I challenge youth to defend the cause of moving pictures. Let the lists be set, and the signal given for the assault. On the shield of youth, the motto is Moving Pictures are All Right. On my antiquated shield, the motto is Pictures Ought Not to Move.
Pictures, of one sort or another, are of immemorial age. Portraits of the mammoth were scratched on gnawed bones, by cave-dwellers, centuries of centuries ago: and we look now at their dug-up work, and feel ourselves in touch with them. The nature of pictures was decided at the very beginning of things, as the natures of trees and of metals were decided. It is not the nature of trees to walk, nor of metals to run uphill: it is not the nature of pictures to move. Pictures and statues, by the law of their being, are forbidden to move. That commandment is laid on them which Joshua, in the Bible-story, lays on the sun and the moon – Stand thou still. They must be motionless: ’tis their nature to: they exist on that understanding, as you and I exist on the understanding that we are mortal. If I were not to die, I should not be a man. If pictures were to move, they would not be pictures.
It’s a curious argument, but at root Paget wants pictures not to move because to do so inhibits the imagination. And this leads him to his own logical conclusion, that motion pictures cannot be an art form:
The photograph of a friend, on my mantelpiece, gives play to my remembrance of him. Within the limits of photography, it is perfect. But if it moved – if its eyes followed me about the room, and its hands had that little gesture which he had with his hands, and its lips opened and shut – it would be hateful, and I should throw it in the fire.
The great pictures in the National Gallery – the Rembrandt portraits, the Raphael Madonnas – imagine them moving. Their beauty would vanish, their nature would be destroyed. The Trustees would immediately sell them, to get rid of them. Probably, they would go on tour: admission threepence, children a penny. Then they would be “filmed,” and the films would be “released,” and a hundred reproductions would be gibbering all over the country. The originals would finally be bartered, in Central Africa, to impressionable native potentates, in exchange for skins or tusks: and if pictures were able to curse, these certainly would curse the day on which they began to move.
By these instances, it is evident that pictures ought not to move. The worse they are, the less it would shock us if they did. The better they are, the more it would shock us. Why must they not move? Because they are works of art. It follows, that moving pictures are not works of art.
QED. Paget then intriguingly calls upon the common argument that films were originally a tool of science (which is quite true), only to use this to bolster his argument against them:
They are works of science: they are “scientific toys.” Science invented them, just for the fun of inventing them: made them out of an old “optical illusion.” They are that friend of my childhood, the zoëtrope, or wheel of life, adjusted to show the products of instantaneous photography. They are “applied science.” … But scientific inventions, unlike works of art, have an immeasurable power of growth and development. They can be improved ad libitum: they can be multiplied ad infinitum. Nothing could be less like a work of art coming from a studio than a scientific invention coming from a laboratory. The work of art is made once and for all: it may be copied, but it cannot be repeated: you cannot have two sets of Elgin Marbles, or two Sistine Madonnas. The scientific invention is like the genie who came out of the fisherman’s jar: you cannot tell where it will stop, nor what it will do next.
Paget, despite his distaste for the motion picture, appears to have been sufficiently aware of the medium to describe in knowledgeable detail the circumstances of its exhibition in war-time:
I should like to see the War bring down the moving-pictures business to one-third of its present size, bring it down with a rush, and with the prospect of a further reduction. Picture-palaces in London are like public-houses: too many of them, too many of us nipping in them; too many people making money out of us, whether we be nipping in the palaces or the houses. The more we patronise them, the more they exploit us: and some of us are taking more films than are good for us. … The bill of fare, at the picture-palaces, includes trash: but it pays them to sell it to us: and we behave as if these palaces belonged to us, while they behave as if we belonged to them. Picture-palaces and public-houses, alike, amuse all of us and enrich some of us: they do good, they do harm: they have to be watched, these by censorship, those by the police: and both these and those are backed by wealth, and by interests too powerful to be set aside.
Paget is most interesting, however, when he takes the motion picture to task for its illusion of reality, still more its pretension to drama:
What is the nature of moving pictures? What are they “of themselves,” and where do they come in the general order of things? Take, for instance, a waterfall. If we look at a waterfall, we see water moving. If we look at a picture of a waterfall, we imagine water moving. If we look at a moving picture of a waterfall, we see a picture moving, a very beautiful object: still, we are looking at an “optical illusion,” not at a waterfall. Or take a more critical example: take a moving picture which not merely moves, but acts. What is it, really, that we are looking at, when we see, on the screen, Hamlet, or How She Rescued Him, or Charlie Chaplin?
He is an actor equal to Dan Leno: the same unfaltering originality, the same talent for dominating the scene, holding our attention, appealing to us by his diminutive stature, his gentle acceptance of situations as he finds them, his half-unconscious air of doing unnatural things in a natural way. But think what we lose in the transition from Dan Leno on the stage to Charlie Chaplin on the screen. Dan was really there: Charlie is not. Dan talked and sang: Charlie is mute. Dan’s performance was human: Charlie’s, by the cutting of the film, and by the driving of the machine at great speed, is super-human. In brief, on the Drury Lane stage I saw Dan Leno, and heard him: but on the screen I do not see Charlie Chaplin–let alone hearing him: I see only a moving picture of him: and this picture so cleverly faked that I see him doing what he never did nor ever could. It was delightful, every moment of it: all the same, it is an optical illusion. Nor is it a straightforward illusion, like the old zoëtrope: it is rendered grotesque and fantastical by the conjuring-tricks of the people who made the film.
He then goes on to decry the idea of filming Shakespeare, particularly in dumbshow (‘Let nothing ever induce you to see him “filmed”‘). Yet he is not wholly against film, when it does what only film can do:
It follows, that the best plays, on the screen, are those which can best afford to lose the advantage of voices and presences, and to be taken for what they are. Wild farce, with lots of conjuring-tricks in it, is the best of all. In pantomime, with a film so faked and speeded-up that fat men run a mile a minute, and cars whirl through space like shooting stars, and all Nature is convulsed, these picture-plays are at their best, joyfully turning the universe upside-down with the flick of a wheel. In the mad rush of impossibilities, there is no time for words, and no need of them.
Perhaps inevitably, Paget is most sympathetic towards the film that depicts reality, and, as a doctor, he shows especial interest in the medical film.
In the display of moving pictures of real things, all the way up from elemental movement to human action, the picture-palace is our good friend: it is servant, by divine appointment, to reality. Moving pictures of living germs of disease, colossally magnified by the adjustment of micro-photography to the making of a film, are the delight of all doctors: moving pictures of wild creatures are the delight of all naturalists: scenes of human life in diverse parts of the world – the crowds in London streets, the crowds in Eastern bazaars, the work and play and habits and customs of the nations – these are the delight of all of us, and will never cease to delight us. For this wealth of visions, this treasury of knowledge, let us be properly grateful.
He concludes by referring to the Cabinet film – an failed attempt by Cecil Hepworth to make a film of the British cabinet – arguing that for the great to be filmed is to lower their dignity (“the value of a moving picture of a great man is lowered, if he is posing for it”); contrasting this with the official film of The Battle of the Somme.
A moving picture of a little group of great men, behaving as the camera expects them to behave, might deservedly fail to have power over us. But here are legions of men, not under orders from the camera, but employed in a business of tragedy such as the world has never suffered till now: men great, not in the Westminster-Abbey sense of the word, but in the greatness of their purpose, in their unconquerable discipline, their endurance: they go into the presence of Death without looking back, and they come out from it laughing, some of them: you see them treading Fear under their feet, you see Heaven, revealed in their will, flinging itself on the screen. You and I, safe and snug over here, let us receive what they give us, their exampl
This is a very interesting, thought-provoking essay, which is eloquent in the way it challenges the motion picture’s pretensions to art and its apprehension of reality. It calls for better pictures rather than no pictures at all, and its distaste is chiefly aimed at the business that creates films rather than the masses who watch them. The complete essay is well worth reading. After all, if we are equipped with an imagination, why do we need pictures to move at all?