IN the September issue of the American Mercury, George Jean Nathan has written six pages of "Notes on the Movies"; they are important, but not exactly in the way Mr. Nathan may think they are. He is, it goes without saying, much more intelligent than most critics and most manufacturers of the movies; but it is disheartening to find that a man of Nathan's wit and discrimination should think it worth-while to announce the oldest critical platitudes about the movies and, in dealing with principles, should have arrived in 1927 at a point which every thoughtful observer of the screen left behind ten years ago and which I myself had to give up at least as long ago as last August.
First in Mr. Nathan's notes is his attack on the pretext of censorship, summed up in his final sentence: "The circumstance that the censors have stolen some small coins out of their purse can't conceal the fact that that purse betrays an unmistakable resemblance to a sow's ear." Correct. In actual practice, the censors have probably improved as many films as they have spoiled; the objection to censorship is untouched by this circumstance.
Second: that the business end of the movies should be separated from the producing end. Correct.
I reserve the next three points for the end, because they are significant.
Sixth: Presentations. Three years ago, when presentations began to be terribly elaborate, movie-lovers protested, ineffectively. The presentations have grown worse, until now they stand simply as a confession of defeat on the part of the movie-makers or theater-owners. For weeks in succession, Roxy's theater has advertised everything from the prologue to the ushers, with the name of the picture in small type; it was not until "What Price Glory?" moved in that the film was put in first place. The profits from the movie houses, in the long run, are so great that they can afford to pay Whiteman and Gilda Gray fabulous sums to appear for short or long periods. The presentations are, when they lack such attractions, unholy bores; most of them are, nevertheless, as good as the pictures which follow.
(Seventh point reserved). Eighth; "It is a trivial point, and one beneath the dignity of an old professor, but I should like to inquire why those who have wondered over the pull of the movies and the audiences they have drawn from the theater haven't noticed how very much better-looking the girls are than those on the stage." The old M. Nathan, always leering from behind ths mask! I should like to inquire whether he has ever noticed the occult fact, here revealed for the first time, that the camera often makes people look lovelier than they are.
Ninth: playwrights as scenarists: "Of all the playwrights . . . only one, Stallings, has shown the slightest sign of appreciating the difference between the screen and the stage." Correct in principle, if not numerically. I can think of no other.
Tenth: the uniformity system. In the theater there are divisions: star companies, road companies, stock companies, second-year companies, and so on; vaudeville and burlesque have their gradations; there are art theaters, small and big; but movies "must all be fashioned with a single type of audience in mind, and that type the lowest." Mr. Nathan notes the beginnings of a little-theater movement in the movies; even the less competent critics for the New York dailies have observed the fact that nearly all of these judge art in the movies by the foreign label, by dreariness or daring of theme, and that, with exceptions, they have presented pretty bad movies—cinematically speaking. Further point: except for the happy ending which may be banished in some cases by esthetic canons, there is nothing in a supremely good movie to make it unpalatable to the people who now admire supremely bad ones. "The Last Laugh" had a substantial run in New York; Chaplin has never been exactly a flop; "The Birth of a Nation" made millions for various people; "Metropolis" ran as long as "Sunya." An intelligent outlook on life, a feeling for tragedy, a refusal to truckle to sentimentality, may imperil a picture. But I undertake to make a pretty good picture out of "The Queen of the Cossacks."
And now to the major points. "The moving pictures, I need not say"—say's Mr. Nathan, and one wishes that he hadn't said it—"are simply pantomime with a compere in the form of printed titles." The moving pictures are nothing of the sort. Pantomime is pantomime; pantomime is also part of the player's equipment before the camera. The moving pictures are sequences of scenes in which pantomime plays a part. It is long since I have seen Rin-tin-tin, but as I recall, his pictures were above the average; the ride of the Klansmen was good moving picture and was about as pantomimic as the page of type you are now reading. There is as much pantomime in "Chang" (a few shots excepted) as there is in the Mississippi River. Mr. Nathan is under the thrall of Chaplin—a very good thing to be—and Chaplin is a superb mime, but he does not depend entirely on his gift. He uses it again and again to sharpen his point, or to broaden it, as he requires. If the movie were pantomime, then it would only be a question of begetting sufficient skill in that art to reproduce any stage play. But Mr. Nathan, correctly, and five years behind all the other good critics of the movie, warns against close relations with the stage.
"The present system ... is to take the movie story away from the expert pantomimists and give it to the camera, in other words, to convert the camera into a dramatist." Mr. Nathan protests. But it is a sign of progress in the movies to take the movie (hang the story!) away from the pantomimists; and the intention is not to make the camera a dramatist, but to make it—sometliing for which I lack a name—say, cinetist—a maker of movies. "You can photograph pantomime and you can, further, photograph drama in so far as it is pantomime, but you can't photograph drama of any other kind, that is, and persuade anyone but a half-wit. You can't photograph, with the greatest camera ever invented, metaphysical drama, or the drama that lies in luscious, beautiful, moon-struck words, or the drama of wit, or the drama that emerges from the conflict of ideas." The misleading word in all this is "photograph" ; so long as Mr. Nathan sees nothing in the movies but photograpliy, lie is too myopic to be a serious critic. But before going into that, I suggest to Mr. Nathan that he go to see a very old film, "Cabiria," in which a master of luscious, beautiful, moon-struck words collaborated. He will see there that no effort has been made to photograph the drama that lies in words, but that an extremely successful effort (as it seemed to me many years ago) was made to create, in another medium, something of the same effect created by the spoken words on the stage. With the simplest camera ever made, I will undertake to create the counterpart of the drama of wit—but only the counterpart. To create drama, by photography or otherwise, is no part of the function of the movie.
The business of the movie, say's Nathan, is "to be absolutely realistic where the stage is artificial and . . . on occasion artificial where the stage is sadly realistic." The business of the movie is nothing of the kind. It is to create a picture conforming to its own laws, limitations, and requirements. It may need at times to be realistic—and considering that it can be, infinitely more so than the stage, the novel, or any other form of art, it ought to exploit its special character. But until it develops style (which means that the realistic and the artificial will both be molded to a general conception underlying the specific scene, reel, or film) it will not be worth considering as a work of art. The movie can tell the story of a violent action better than any other medium, let us say; some movies ought to do this, always. But this does not mean that the movie is committed to violence. It happens that the movie is also a prime instrument for the projection of fantasy; and tricks; and scenic investiture; and farce; and, regrettably, the movie seems to have become the favorite means of communicating jokes to people—printed jokes carefully collected by the Literary Digest. But no single one of these things exhausts the movie's possibilities.
"The movie as we see it by and large at the present time is simply a stage play, its unities corrupted, stripped of its words, and made to show all the scenes . . '. that the dramatist has . . . succeeded . . . in keeping off the stage." Correct. But the cure for this ill is not to reduce the movie to photographing pantomime or photographing any other single thing. Effective scenes in the movies are those in which one recognizes a rhythm and senses a style; and great movies will be made when directors, having developed a style of their own, are left free to put into their movies whatever is appropriate to them of intelligence and beauty. This happy state will not come so long as people otherwise intelligent and capable of making distinctions continue to think of the camera merely as a photographic instrument. In the hands of the good director, it is an instrument of creation. If it is necessary for him to make his people seem midgets, he can place his camera in an aeroplane; if he wants them to appear to be standing on their heads, the camera obliges. And particularly the camera is his servant in creating the greater illusion, of an existence different from our own, yet conceivable because it seems to live by its perfect laws. It needs to be set free, not from its own limitations, but from the limitations of other arts.
This article originally ran in the November 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.