There is a fault in the current art of the films which is intensely typical of our time. I have hardly ever seen a motion picture in which the motion was not too rapid to give any real sense of rapidity. For just as a thing can be too small to be even seen as small, or too large to be even seen as large, so it can easily be too swift to be even seen as swift. In order that a man riding on a horse should look as if he were riding hard, it is first necessary that he should look like a man riding on a horse. It is not even an impossibly rapid ride, if he only looks like a Catherine wheel seen through a fog. It is not an impression of swiftness; because it is not an impression of anything. It is not an exaggeration of swiftness; because there is nothing to exaggerate. It would be perfectly natural that the pace of such a gallop should be exaggerated; but it is not. All art has an element of emphasis, which is really exaggeration; the exaggeration varies with the type of artistic work to be done, as whether it is tragedy, comedy, farce, or melodrama; but the exaggeration may go to the very wildest lengths without necessarily losing this vividness and actuality. But when it goes past a certain point, in a certain direction, it passes a merely material border of the powers of the eye and the conditions of time and space; and it becomes not a rapid but rather an invisible thing. This would seem to be a very obvious piece of common sense in connexion with any artistic effect; yet these artists and producers, who talk so learnedly and work so laboriously, in connexion with artistic effects, have apparently not yet learnt even a little thing like that.
For instance, I have a simple, melodramatic mind; there is nothing lofty or peace-loving about me; and I thoroughly enjoy seeing people knocked down on the stage. I should have no objection to seeing them knocked down in real life, if the people were wisely and thoughtfully selected. In fact, I have seen them knocked down in real life; and sometimes knocked down very rapidly. It would be entirely in the right spirit of representative art if on the stage or on the film they were knocked down rather more rapidly than they can be in real life. But in nearly all those American cinema stories about “the great open spaces where men are men,” my complaint is that when they begin to fight, the men are not men; but blurred and bewildering flashes of lightning. No man however slick, in no saloon however wild, in no mountains however rocky, ever moved with that degree of celerity to do anything. I therefore cease to believe in the man altogether; as much as if his body had visibly burst in two and the sawdust run out. He may be quicker on the draw than any other man in Red Dog Canyon, but I will be shot if any man ever shot or hit as quickly as all that. The principle applies to every sort of shooting. In one of Mr. Belloc’s satires there is an allusion to an aristocratic infant who was “three years old and shooting up like a young lily.” It is just as if the film were to take this sort of swiftness literally; and show the heroine rapidly elongating like the neck of Alice in Wonderland. It is as if the Coming of Spring were represented on the film in a series of jerks and leaps; as in that famous legendary landscape in which the hedges are shooting and the bull rushes out. In growing more rapid it would grow less realistic; and even if the bull does rush out, he must not rush ten times quicker than any bull is capable of rushing. We may well be content if he rushes about twice as quickly as the quickest bull in the world. But we, who sit watching these bloodless and blameless bull-fights, do not like to see the shattering of all conviction by mere confusion. We do like to fancy for a moment that we are looking at a real bull-fight; that we are contemplating a Spanish bull and not merely an Irish bull.
It is but part of the modern malady; the incapacity for doing things without overdoing things. It is an incapacity to understand the ancient paradox of moderation. As the drunkard is the man who does not understand the delicate and exquisite moment when he is moderately and reasonably drunk, so the motorist and the motion-picture artist are people who do not understand the divine and dizzy moment when they really feel that things are moving. Sometimes the drunkard and the motorist are blended in one perfect whole; and I disclaim all responsibility for the misuse of my jest about drunkenness, especially when it is combined with motoring. But the point is that there is probably an ultimate extreme of speed in which even a drunkard would enjoy nothing except a strangled sense of standing still. There comes a point at which speed stuns itself; and there is an unintentional truth in the exclamation of the radiant ass who declares that his new car is simply stunning. If speed can thus devour itself even in real life, it need not be said that on the accelerated cinema it swallows itself alive with all the suicidal finality of the hero who jumped down his own throat. Cars on the film often go much too fast, not for the laws of New York or London, but for the laws of space and time. For nature has written a Speed Limit in the nerves of the eye and the cells of the brain; and exceeding it, or even trying to exceed it, does not mean going to a prison but to a madhouse.
An artistic effect is something that is slightly impossible; though grammarians and logicians may both think this an impossible phrase. It is something that is mildly mad or faintly absurd. It is something that is just over the precipice of this prosaic world; but not far out in the void of vanity and emptiness. To accelerate a machine so as to make Mr. Tom Mix or Mr. Douglas Fairbanks run a little faster than a man can really run produces a magnificent impression; a theatrical effect like a thunderclap. To make him run a little faster than that destroys the whole effect at a blow; it merely extinguishes the man and exposes the machine. There is a figure in one of Michael Angelo’s frescoes, in which the legs are somewhat lengthened so as to give an overwhelming impression of flying through the air. But if the legs had been extended indefinitely like the two parallel straight lines that could never meet, if they had wandered away in two endless strips over the whole of the Sistine Chapel, they would not produce any impression of rushing or of anything else. But the modern sensationalist has no notion of effecting anything except by extending it; by tugging its nerves out telescopically like some form of Asiatic torture; and increasing the pleasures of man by interminably pulling his leg. And that is why some of us feel the presence of something stupid and even barbaric in all this progress and acceleration; because it is but the elongation of one line and the exaggeration of one idea.
Speed itself is a balance and a comparison, as we know when two railway trains are moving at the same rate and both seem to be standing still. So a whole society may seem to be standing still, if it is only rushing unanimously in a mere routine; for indeed the whole society which we call mankind is for ever rushing on the round orbit of the earth about the sun; but rushing without any marked feeling of exhilaration. The extension of speed in area, as well as in degree, is a way of neutralizing its full artistic effect. I have seen this error also on the films; when so many things are made to move and mix in the motion picture that it seems to be a whirlpool rather than a river. First it is all motion and no picture; and then it is not even motion because it is not even aim; and in all motion there must be the outline of motive. But I suppose that so very simple a blunder must have a rather subtle cause. Nothing is more curious, in the artistic history of mankind, than the obviousness of the things that were left out, compared with the cunning and intelligence of the things that were put in. It is a puzzle to understand how the splendid pagan poets of antiquity managed to get their effects with such few and vague ideas about colour; so that we do not always know whether they mean purple or blue or merely bright. It is equally a puzzle how the magnificent mediaeval craftsmen could not see that their figure-drawing was as bad as their colour scheme was brilliant. All ages leave out something, which to other ages seems very simple and self-evident; and it seems as if this age would make itself a laughing-stock in turn to later times, by not seeing the most obvious of all the psychological facts in aesthetics—the principle of contrast. It will have failed even to understand that you cannot see a man run fast if you cannot see him at all.
From Generally Speaking (1929) by G. K. Chesterton. Published by permission of Messrs. A. P. Watt & Son, London, England.
G. K. CHESTERTON
The time has come to protest against certain very grave perils in the cinema and the popular films. I do not mean the peril of immoral films, but the peril of moral ones. I have, indeed, a definite objection to immoral films, but it is becoming more and more difficult to discuss a definite morality with people whose very immorality is indefinite. And, for the rest, merely lowbrow films seem to me much more moral than many of the highbrow ones. Mere slapstick pantomime, farces of comic collapse and social topsy-turvydom, are, if anything, definitely good for the soul. To see a banker or broker or prosperous business man running after his hat, kicked out of his house, hurled from the top of a skyscraper, hung by one leg to an aeroplane, put into a mangle, rolled out flat by a steam-roller, or suffering any such changes of fortune, tends in itself rather to edification; to a sense of the insecurity of earthly things and the folly of that pride which is based on the accident of prosperity. But the films of which I complain are not those in which famous or fashionable persons become funny or undignified, but those in which they become far too dignified and only unintentionally funny.
In this connexion, it is especially the educational film that threatens to darken and weaken the human intelligence. I do not mean the educational film in the technical or scientific sense; the presentation of the definite details of some science or branch of study. In these innocent matters, even education can do comparatively little harm to the human brain. There are a number of really delightful films, for instance, dealing with exploration and local aspects of biology or botany. Nothing could be more charmingly fanciful than such natural history; especially when its monsters seem to emulate the Snark or the Jumblies, and become figures of unnatural history. But in that sort of unnatural history there is nothing unnatural. The Loves of the Penguins are doubtless as pure as the Loves of the Triangles; and to see a really fine film in which an elephant playfully smashes up four or five flourishing industrial towns or imperial outposts only realizes a daydream already dear to every healthy human instinet. Where the real peril begins to appear is not in natural history, but in history. It is in the story of those talkative and inventive penguins of whom M. Anatole France wrote in the tale of that terrible and incalculable creature, who is so much more ruthless and devastating than the wildest rogue elephant, since he does not destroy industrial cities, but builds them.
In short, it is in relation with the story of Man, the monster of all monsters and the mystery of all mysteries, that our natural history may become in the dangerous sense unnatural. And everybody knows that the commonest way in which history can grow crooked, or become unnatural, is through partisanship and prejudice, and the desire to draw too simple a moral from only one side of the case. Now, it is just here that the most successful films are in some danger of becoming actually anti־ educational, while largely professing to be educational. In this connexion, it will be well to recall two or three determining facts of the general situation of society and the arts to-day. The first fact to realize is this: that only a little while ago the more thick-headed prejudices of provincial history were beginning to wear a little thin. Men would still take, as they were entitled to take, their own side according to their own sympathies. But they were beginning to realize that history consists of human beings, and not of heroes and villains out of an old Adelphi melodrama. Whether men were for or against Queen Elizabeth, they did begin to understand that she was something a little more complex than Good Queen Bess; and that even her unfortunate sister was in a situation not to be completely simplified by the use of a popular expletive, as in Bloody Mary.
It began to be admitted that the great seventeenth-century struggle, about whether England should be a Monarchy or an Aristocracy, could not be used merely to prove that Cromwell was never anything but a saint or Charles I never anything but a martyr. This great change for the good was very largely connected with the passing of the old Two-Party System. There had been a time when people were told to choose, not so much between Gladstone and Disraeli, as between a popular figure who was not Gladstone and another popular figure who was not Disraeli. The wary Old Parliamentary Hand, with his Tory traditions of the Oxford Movement, was represented as a wild, revolutionary idealist, everywhere demanding that the heavens should fall, that some Utopian justice might be done. The cynical cosmopolitan adventurer, with his romantic loyalty to Israel and his open contempt for the common Conservative point of view, was praised as a hearty English country gentleman, innocently interested in crops which consisted chiefly of primroses. These fatuous electioneering fictions were beginning to fade away; partly through a reaction towards the rather acid Lytton Strachey biographies, partly through a more sane and liberal historical interest in historical characters who really were very interesting human beings. And then, when the truth was beginning to pierce through in books, and even in newspapers, the whole light was blotted out by a big, fashionable film, cunningly written and brilliantly performed, in which Disraeli appeared once more as God’s Englishman covered with primroses and breathing the innocent patriotism of our native fields.
The second fact to remember is a certain privilege almost analogous to monopoly, which belongs of necessity to things like the theatre and the cinema. In a sense more than the metaphorical, they fill the stage; they dominate the scene; they create the landscape. That is why one need not be Puritanical to insist on a somewhat stricter responsibility in all sorts of play-acting than in the looser and less graphic matter of literature. If a man is repelled by one book, he can shut it and open another; but he cannot shut up a theatre in which he finds a show repulsive, nor instantly order one of a thousand other theatres to suit his taste. There are a limited number of theatres; and even to cinemas there is some limit. Hence there is a real danger of historical falsehood being popularized through the film, because there is not the normal chance of one film being corrected by another film. When a book appears displaying a doubtful portrait of Queen Elizabeth, it will generally be found that about six other historical students are moved to publish about six other versions of Queen Elizabeth at the same moment. We can buy Mr. Bellows book on Cromwell, and then Mr. Buchaus book on Cromwell; and pay our money and take our choice. But few of us are in a position to pay the money required to stage a complete and elaborately presented alternative film-version of Disraeli. The fiction on the film, the partisan version in the movie-play, will go uncontradicted and even uncriticized, in a way in which few provocative books can really go uncontradieted and uncriticized. There will be no opportunity of meeting it on its own large battlefield of expansive scenario and multitudinous repetition. And most of those who are aifected by it will know or care very little about its being brought to book by other critics and critical methods. The very phrase I have casually used, ‘brought to book’, illustrates the point. A false film might be refuted in a hundred books, without much affecting the million dupes who had never read the books but only seen the film. The protest is worth making, because provincial prejudice of this kind is frightfully dangerous in the present international problem of the hour. It is perfectly natural for nations to have a patriotic art, and even within reason a patriotic education. It naturally teaches people, especially young people, to be proud of the great heroes of their great history; and to conceive their own past in a sort of poetic way like legends. But this is exactly where we may test the difference between a legend and a lie. The outlines of a real hero, like Nelson or Sarsfield, are not altered when the figure is filled up, in maturer stages of knowledge, by the facts about failure or weakness or limitation. The hero remains a hero; though the child, being now grown up, knows that a hero is a man. But the figure of the fictitious Beaconsfield will not support the intrusion of the real Disraeli. It would be destroyed by all that was most interesting in Disraeli; even by all that was most genuine in Disraeli. A dummy of that sort does no good to national credit or glory; all foreigners laugh at it, knowing more about it than we do; and we ourselves can only preserve our solemnity by not going near enough to laugh. That is to make the thing a mere ‘film’ on the eyes of official obscurantism; and to give a new secretive meaning to the title of The Screen’.
From As I Was Saying (1936) by G. K. Chesterton. Published by permission of Messrs. A. P. Watt & Son, London, England.