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Virginia Woolf was not impressed by the movies.


And in 1926, between the publications of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Woolf took to the pages of the New Republic to get that message off her chest.

At first sight, the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. ... The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. 

Woolf references a few movies she’d seen, from the 1920 German horror film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, to a film adaptation of Anna Karenina. She was a formidable critic: Her favorite part of Doctor Caligari, for example, was a completely accidental shadow-shape that she noticed at the bottom of the screen. Ouch.

For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous, quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement, “I am afraid.” In fact, the shadow was accidental, and the effect unintentional.

Woolf saw promise in the art of cinema, but as it stood, the storytelling was simply too literal for her liking.

But perhaps Woolf wrote her screed a tad too hastily. It was still the era of silent movies, the dawn of feature films. A year after she wrote that cinema “can say everything before it has anything to say,” the first feature-length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, would hit the marquees.

Today would have been Woolf’s 134th birthday. Read her full article here.