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Art and the Screen

from At half-past eight: essays of the theatre, 1921-1922 (1923)

by James Agate
(1877-1947 )

LET ME CONFESS THAT I CANNOT make up my mind about the film called Way Down East. The theatre proper seldom finds me in any quandary, alas! beyond that imposed in the choice between nonsense and rubbish; the difficulty about this production of D.W. Griffiths is that I know what I think about it absolutely, but not relatively. Absolutely it is, with one exception, the best "picture" I have seen; how high we should place the best achievement of the screen is another matter. The need for circumspection was borne in upon me by the answers of three of my friends whom I invited to assist my judgment. The first desired that evening to finish a book by Marcel Proust; the second was engaged to hear a Brahms Symphony; the third telegraphed curtly, "Never go to films."

   The implication that the film cannot be considered a form of art is, I am sure, utterly wrong. Art is not an immutable thing, rigidly contained within fixed laws. The principle of beauty may be unalterable; its expression must keep pace with mechanical invention. Those who wilfully deny the aesthetic possibilities of the film seem to me to belong to the slightly demented order of beings who would go back to printing in black letter, hand-loom weaving, the viol da gamba, and the toga. Art stopped short neither with the Empress Josephine nor with Mr. Edison. What a mess of it serious composers would have made if they had stopped resolutely at the harpsichord and ignored the piano! The piano was bound to come, and the artist could best defend it from the vulgar by using it himself. So, too, the cinema had to come, and our dramatists can best preserve this new medium of drama from the clowns by utilizing it themselves. Synchronization is in the air, and I am persuaded that the operatic composer will do well to consider the screen-scenario as the peg upon which he must, sooner or later, hang his score. The authors of drama and of music-drama may as well compose themselves to the situation first; as last, since, like Mrs. Bardell, to this situation they must come. It is inevitable. It is inevitable because the screen is a medium which the clowns, so far from exhausting, cannot even adequately fill. All art is the depicting of emotion; the art of the theatre should be obedience in one form or another to the primal behest, "Tell me, or show me, or make me hear a story." The story may be of shipwreck on some desert isle, or of bournes faintly discoverable to the spirit, but it remains essentially a story. Art, we may safely say, can never be divorced from some form of remembered experience. The screen presents that experience, or story, more direly, more nakedly, than any other medium. All other forms of art proceed by means of clothing; so that you behold not the facts but tailoring. But there are many simple folk who can read life and not books, who can put two and two together so long as they are allowed to do it for themselves. They resent the artist, who for them gets in the way. A girl lost in a snowstorm and her lover in search of her need no comment. They make up a page in a book which anybody may read without the trouble of learning to spell. Now if the screen delighted none but the illiterate we could afford to leave it to the buffoons. Since, however, my own emotion tells me that in proper hands it is capable of affording intense aesthetic delight, we cannot so abandon it.

   The cinema is undoubtedly the biggest educational event since the invention of printing. Its appeal is wider than that even of music; Eskimo and Hottentot may not hear artificial sound-patterns with our ears, but at least they must see actual happenings with our eyes. Millions, were they suddenly deprived of the cinema, would feel its loss more than that of the printing-press. (Symbols could always be arranged to show the winner of the two-thirty.) Millions have been captured by the cinema in ten years, whose imagination has been untouched by five hundred years of the written word and three thousand of the spoken. If the cinema were fitted for none but boors, the question of its use might well remain an economic one. I would maintain that we can no more proclaim its ultimate accomplishment than the man who first accidentally banged his fist against a stretched goat-skin could foretell his. Be it remembered, too, that unlike all the other arts the cinema has not had the advantage of slow growth. It was a pure mechanical invention, sprung suddenly upon the type of mind most antithetical to that of the artist, one which had the additional disability of being American. "I think," said Hogarth to Horace Walpole, "it is owing to the good sense of the English that they have not painted better." I think it is owing to the vulgarity of Americans that they have filmed so sentimentally. The English painter tried to turn sterling sense into poetry, the American producer knew that he could in no way transfigure the search for the almighty dollar. And so launched upon the sentimentality which nauseates. Way Down East does not contain one ounce of sentimentality; it is, however, full of sentiment. Mr. D.W. Griffiths in this film has realized many things. He has realized that an art, of which the essence is the noninterference of the artist, will tell the simple stories best. His theme of seduction is as simply treated as in "Adam Bede," though I would not have you infer that Mr. William Brady, the original author; has a mind as big as George Eliot's. In Hetty's case, you remember, there was not the concession of the mock marriage. Mr. Griffiths has realized that tawdriness comes with trivial ornament. In allowing his story to tell itself, he has shown himself a master of avoidances.

   But this producer has virtues more positive. He has that which allows you to dwell upon things intrinsically beautiful, so that the mind has time to impregnate itself with beauty and attain to that disposition in which cold, substantial fads begin to glow with warm, insubstantial meaning. The artist, one may think, is no more than a preparer of the mind, one in whose presence you wring from fads not their significance, not even his interpretation, but your own very special sense of their meaning and beauty. So in this simple instance of art by photography the mind is allowed to make what it will of a bunch of lilac, a bird pecking a girl's cheek, a jollification in a country inn. It is possible that the sophisticated have thought their fill of these simple things, that they are more dependent than the unlettered upon the interprettations of others. If this be so, I see nothing in the lovemaking by the river to prevent me from harking back to that passage which begins, "Pipe, happy sheep-boy, love!" There is no reason, except that her "trouble" is over instead of being to come, why I should not re-create in that little figure trudging the unending road that poor wretch who, in one of Hardy's novels, drags herself from mile post to mile-post. Nor yet why the festivities at the farm should not remind me of Mr. Wardle's. I do not say that these borrowings are necessary; I do say that some transmutation of these simple things is possible, in one's own mind if it comes to the pinch. The fineness of the ultimate gold depends upon the fineness of the mind which does the transmuting. The sea-change into coral and pearl depends from the magic of the sea.

   There is, in this film, that keen differentiation of character, whereby each figure stands out so that you can raise it, in the general process of metamorphosis, to an abstract quality. Thus the Squire becomes Intolerance and the gossip Tittle-Tattle. There is the musical illustration, a "Sinfonia Domestica" of remembered ballads, of themes which would bespeak jollity if carved on a frieze, of appropriate silences. There is the great thrill of the ice-floe. These, singly, are admirable. They could have been put together so that their sum had been without meaning. The picture as I saw it twice on successive days — moves me strangely; proportion and rhythm, which together are the foundation of all art, must have gone to the making of this film as surely as to that volume of Proust which my friend desired to finish. The crux of the matter is not to what extent a particular film is pathetic or amusing, but to decide whether we may include even the best film within the scope and category of art. I think, definitely, that in this case we may, and that in the case of such a picture as Broken Blossoms we must. Way Down East seems to me to be a less good film than Broken Blossoms, because it lacks that strangeness of beauty which Pater marked off from order in beauty. Yet it has the compensations of order, its charmers being among those "who soon as we are born, are straight our friends." It is less good because it lacks the Whistlerian fogs and shadows of that setting, and that dock in Limehouse ever recurring like some pedal point. I once read an Eastern poem of but a single line

"Oh, these wistaria flowers!"

some of the ache and beauty of which Richard Bartelmess got into his performance of the Chinese boy. His part in Way Down East hardly admits of distinction. Here, too, Lilian Gish cannot be more than fragrant in gentleness and woe, though her scene with the dead child is most moving. Whereas that other picture shows that she possesses the power without which we must not use the word "genius." And use it of this actress I do, deliberately. How like Sarah she can look! It is curious that, when she lets her hair fall down the sides of her pinched, woe-begone face, with all the expressiveness of that wistful countenance drawn from the eyes down the long suspense of the nose, to come to final meaning in the trembling mouth — it is curious that this plain little American child should give the world an exact image of the great actress in her far-off youth.