Monday 7 January 2013

Mrs Woolf goes to the movies

On Sunday 14th March 1926 Virginia Woolf did something that may seem to us mildly surprising - she spent the afternoon at the cinema. We shouldn't really wonder at this - T. S. Eliot attended boxing matches at the Albert Hall and Wittgenstein liked to watch rowdy Betty Grable musicals. One can't be ferociously highbrow all the time.  

Mrs Woolf was 34 years old and her taste in movies didn't extend to the wholly lowbrow. She was one of the earliest members of the recently-formed Film Society, an organisation devoted to the promotion of avant-garde, foreign and (as we would now say) 'indie' films.

This was the fifth screening in the Society's first season. Virginia sat through a typically eclectic bill beginning with an early factual film from France, la Circulation du Sang (1912), followed by the experimental short Ballet Mécanique (written by Fernand Léger to music by George Antheil, 1914), D. W. Griffith's two-reeler western The Sheriff's Baby (US 1913) and, as the main feature, Robert Wiene's expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). 

We know what the author of Mrs Dalloway made of all this because the screening prompted her to write a magazine piece entitled 'The Cinema' which first appeared in the New York journal Arts in June and in the Nation and Athenaeum the following month. It's full of surprises.

She begins by describing her response to different kinds of film starting with newsreel (i.e what would later become known as documentary):

[A]t first sight, the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the King shaking hands 
       with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand 
       National.  [Jack Horner was the American race horse who won the 1926 Grand National at odds of

She then reflects on the mutability of such banal events caught by cinematographers and captures something of the melancholy that permeates cinema, including the audience and her readers in a personal pronoun:

         Further, all this happened ten years ago, we are told. We are beholding a world which has gone     

         beneath the waves. Brides are emerging from the abbey – they are now mothers; ushers are ardent  
         – they are now silent; mothers are tearful, guests are joyful; this has been won and that has been 
         lost, and it is over and done with. 

'Ten years ago'? Woolf is making a point, but manipulating timescales to do so. She's actually in a kind of future subjunctive, i.e. 'all this will have happened ten years ago, we shall in time come to realise'. In a spellbinding passage she reflects on the ephemeral instability of the image and suggests it is the 
audience, not the flickering representations of fellow humanity, which are the spectral presence; that the film has an objective existence independent of the spectator's gaze: 

         We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in 

         it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not 
         knock us down. The King will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this    
         point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to 
         generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave 
         break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation 
         – this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.

I'm currently researching the responses of modernist writers to cinema in the 1920s and was delighted to discover that most of the newsreel footage seen and described by Mrs Woolf that Sunday afternoon over ninety years ago can now be found on the British Pathé website: 

It's all there - whether we behold it or not.

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