Monday, December 26, 2005

Destroy All Kinetoscopes!: Welcome to the Parlor

In 1891, when the first prototype motion-picture viewers were unveiled, to watch a movie you looked through a slot in a wooden cabinet. You viewed the film in a public kinetoscope parlor, and probably talked about it with your friends afterwards. But while you were watching it you were utterly alone and engulfed.

And you sit isolated in your car at the drive-in. And you are careful not to use both arm-rest drink holders at the theater, because it breaks the illusion for the spectator next to you. It reminds you that you are part of a collective audience.

So ask: is this a social action or a private art interface?

I say: even in your living room, by yourself, on your own sofa, turn on your Betamax machine, you are still in that audience. The reason I read film critics isn't to assess if I will like, or want to see a film, or want an empirical weighing of its merits. I read magazine/newspaper/web critics because what I really want to know is what some stranger next to me thought of the picture.

The mission statement here is: Should the kinetoscope explode, should the drive-in burn down, should the DVD player melt, should the theater balcony crumble to the floor, I'm going to tell you what I thought of the picture.

And the poster. And the paperback novelization. And the composer's career. And the theater's concession stand.

This is my battered, yellowing ex-library copy of Magic in the Movies: The Story of Special Effects, published in 1980. For all intents and purposes it is the first film book I ever owned. Not the first I read (Ian Thorne's "Monster Series" for Crestwood House), or one that made me particularly love movies. It is certainly the book that made me begin to understand what a film director's job is, in practical terms. But I want to talk about more nebulous ideas first sparked in me because of this book.

It is a strange book, far too ambitious in trying to explain historic and modern special effects, and chart their historical development in about 140 pages. It overreaches sometimes, as it tries to explain in child-friendly vocabulary what "hydraulic pressure" is, and how it was useful in Superman ("The idea of hydraulics is, very basically, that a little bit of pressure connected to a hydraulic system can lift a great deal of weight"). This stuff is impenetrable sometimes. The book is organized into chapters covering the history and practice of specific effects disciplines — miniatures, makeup, opticals, et cetera — but more or less starts fresh from the beginning of film history for each subject, thus thoroughly knotting the timeline for young film buffs.

The book contains this photograph, in the chapter "Mechanical Monsters: Full-Scale Effects."
It shows the construction of the enormous gorilla head for King Kong. It's an impressive behind-the-scenes photo, and there aren't many from the film's production. Someone in 1933 took this photograph, and now I can see it in a book 50 years later. That happened because a monster movie was important to someone, as more than just fun. It's the book that gave me a notion that film has a dynamic history. I was so immersed in Universal's Golden Age monster movies that I didn't realize the movies were "old." That they don't make them like that anymore.

Not only that, but there are passages such as "It's hard to know whether [Jack] Pierce [head of the Universal makeup department] was being completely honest or was protecting professional secrets. Other sources conflict with Pierce's own version of how he mummified Boris Karloff." In a book that purports to tell us How They Did It, this tells us a) historians have to sort through weirdos and liars and unreliable primary sources, and b) there are secrets locked into the fabric of movies.

Magic in the Movies also contains this still, from the relatively difficult-to-see Méliès film, Conquest of the Pole:

I saw this when I was maybe 10 years old. It looked cooler, scarier, stranger and more alien than any movie I'd ever seen. It looked beautiful. It looked like it had been made for me. I realized that I was not likely to stumble across a silent movie made in France in 1912, and certainly no one was going to show it to me unless I sought it out myself. Suddenly there were unknown, unbelievable, life-changing adventures in cinema out there. And I was going to have to chase them down myself.

I'm going to try to chase them on this journal.

Don't forget to remove your speakers from your window before driving out.