Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Orchestra, Conversation, and the Censorship

This is an excerpt from chapter 14 of poet Vachel Lindsay's The Art of the Moving Picture, which was first published in 1915. (The excerpt below is from the 1922 edition. The passage is little changed from the original.) In this passage, Lindsay argues against using music, but his argument is more economic and egalitarian in spirit than aesthetic: whereas film promises the same entertainment in the small hamlet as available in the big city—"the reels run through as well as on Broadway or Michigan Avenue"—even a medium-sized city hasn't the musical resources to match the orchestra of a big city: "The picture with a great orchestra in a far-off metropolitan Opera House, may be classed by fanatic partisanship with Grand Opera. But few can get at it. It has nothing to do with Democracy." Lindsay himself professes to prefer the sound of soft conversation of the audience, as he takes this murmur to be the sound of democracy.

He also considers the possibility of synchronized sound film. He does not actively object to it, but recognizes better than most in 1915 that it would require a vast improvement in the recording technology and mean a substantial revision in the way stories are presented.


Whenever the photoplay is mixed in the same programme with vaudeville, the moving picture part of the show suffers. The film is rushed through, it is battered, it flickers more than commonly, it is a little out of focus. The house is not built for it. The owner of the place cannot manage an art gallery with a circus on his hands. It takes more brains than one man possesses to pick good vaudeville talent and bring good films to the town at the same time. The best motion picture theatres are built for photoplays alone. But they make one mistake.

Almost every motion picture theatre has its orchestra, pianist, or mechanical piano. The perfect photoplay gathering-place would have no sound but the hum of the conversing audience. If this is too ruthless a theory, let the music be played at the intervals between programmes,[190]while the advertisements are being flung upon the screen, the lights are on, and the people coming in.

If there is something more to be done on the part of the producer to make the film a telling one, let it be a deeper study of the pictorial arrangement, with the tones more carefully balanced, the sculpture vitalized. This is certainly better than to have a raw thing bullied through with a music-programme, furnished to bridge the weak places in the construction.

A picture should not be released till it is completely thought out. A producer with this goal before him will not have the time or brains to spare to write music that is as closely and delicately related to the action as the action is to the background. And unless the tunes are at one with the scheme they are an intrusion. Perhaps the moving picture maker has a twin brother almost as able in music, who possesses the faculty of subordinating his creations to the work of his more brilliant coadjutor. How are they going to make a practical national distribution of the accompaniment? In the metropolitan theatres Cabiria carried its own musicians and programme with a rich if feverish result. In The Birth of a Nation, music was [191]used that approached imitative sound devices. Also the orchestra produced a substitute for old-fashioned stage suspense by long drawn-out syncopations. The finer photoplay values were thrown askew. Perhaps these two performances could be successfully vindicated in musical policy. But such a defence proves nothing in regard to the typical film. Imagine either of these put on in Rochester, Illinois, population one hundred souls. The reels run through as well as on Broadway or Michigan Avenue, but the local orchestra cannot play the music furnished in annotated sheets as skillfully as the local operator can turn the reel (or watch the motor turn it!).

The big social fact about the moving picture is that it is scattered like the newspaper. Any normal accompaniment thereof must likewise be adapted to being distributed everywhere. The present writer has seen, here in his home place, population sixty thousand, all the films discussed in this book but Cabiria and The Birth of a Nation. It is a photoplay paradise, the spoken theatre is practically banished. Unfortunately the local moving picture managers think it necessary to have orchestras. The musicians they can secure make tunes that are most [192] squalid and horrible. With fathomless imbecility, hoochey koochey strains are on the air while heroes are dying. The Miserere is in our ears when the lovers are reconciled. Ragtime is imposed upon us while the old mother prays for her lost boy. Sometimes the musician with this variety of sympathy abandons himself to thrilling improvisation.

My thoughts on this subject began to take form several years ago, when the film this book has much praised, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, came to town. The proprietor of one theatre put in front of his shop a twenty-foot sign "The Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, brought back by special request." He had probably read Julia Ward Howe's name on the film forty times before the sign went up. His assistant, I presume his daughter, played "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" hour after hour, while the great film was rolling by. Many old soldiers were coming to see it. I asked the assistant why she did not play and sing the Battle Hymn. She said they "just couldn't find it." Are the distributors willing to send out a musician with each film?

Many of the Springfield producers are quite [193] able and enterprising, but to ask for music with photoplays is like asking the man at the news stand to write an editorial while he sells you the paper. The picture with a great orchestra in a far-off metropolitan Opera House, may be classed by fanatic partisanship with Grand Opera. But few can get at it. It has nothing to do with Democracy.

Of course people with a mechanical imagination, and no other kind, begin to suggest the talking moving picture at this point, or the phonograph or the mechanical piano. Let us discuss the talking moving picture only. That disposes of the others.

If the talking moving picture becomes a reliable mirror of the human voice and frame, it will be the basis of such a separate art that none of the photoplay precedents will apply. It will be the phonoplay, not the photoplay. It will be unpleasant for a long time. This book is a struggle against the non-humanness of the undisciplined photograph. Any film is correct, realistic, forceful, many times before it is charming. The actual physical storage-battery of the actor is many hundred miles away. As a substitute, the human quality must come in the marks of the presence of the [194] producer. The entire painting must have his brush-work. If we compare it to a love-letter it must be in his handwriting rather than worked on a typewriter. If he puts his autograph into the film, it is after a fierce struggle with the uncanny scientific quality of the camera's work. His genius and that of the whole company of actors is exhausted in the task.

The raw phonograph is likewise unmagnetic. Would you set upon the shoulders of the troupe of actors the additional responsibility of putting an adequate substitute for human magnetism in the phonographic disk? The voice that does not actually bleed, that contains no heart-beats, fails to meet the emergency. Few people have wept over a phonographic selection from Tristan and Isolde. They are moved at the actual performance. Why? Look at the opera singer after the last act. His eyes are burning. His face is flushed. His pulse is high. Reaching his hotel room, he is far more weary than if he had sung the opera alone there. He has given out of his brain-fire and blood-beat the same magnetism that leads men in battle. To speak of it in the crassest terms, this resource brings him a hundred times more salary than another man with [195] just as good a voice can command. The output that leaves him drained at the end of the show cannot be stored in the phonograph machine. That device is as good in the morning as at noon. It ticks like a clock.

To perfect the talking moving picture, human magnetism must be put into the mirror-screen and into the clock. Not only is this imperative, but clock and mirror must be harmonized, one gently subordinated to the other. Both cannot rule. In the present talking moving picture the more highly developed photoplay is dragged by the hair in a dead faint, in the wake of the screaming savage phonograph. No talking machine on the market reproduces conversation clearly unless it be elaborately articulated in unnatural tones with a stiff interval between each question and answer. Real dialogue goes to ruin.

The talking moving picture came to our town. We were given for one show a line of minstrels facing the audience, with the interlocutor repeating his immemorial question, and the end-man giving the immemorial answer. Then came a scene in a blacksmith shop where certain well-differentiated rackets were carried over the footlights. No one heard [196] the blacksmith, unless he stopped to shout straight at us.

The phonoplay can quite possibly reach some divine goal, but it will be after the speaking powers of the phonograph excel the photographing powers of the reel, and then the pictures will be brought in as comment and ornament to the speech. The pictures will be held back by the phonograph as long as it is more limited in its range. The pictures are at present freer and more versatile without it. If the phonoplay is ever established, since it will double the machinery, it must needs double its prices. It will be the illustrated phonograph, in a more expensive theatre.

The orchestra is in part a blundering effort by the local manager to supply the human-magnetic element which he feels lacking in the pictures on which the producer has not left his autograph. But there is a much more economic and magnetic accompaniment, the before-mentioned buzzing commentary of the audience. There will be some people who disturb the neighbors in front, but the average crowd has developed its manners in this particular, and when the orchestra is silent, murmurs like a pleasant brook.

Source: Lindsay, Vachel. The Art of the Moving Picture. 2nd ed. New York: MacMillan, 1922.
Picture Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division