History Through Hollywood: “The Cinema”
In this History Through Hollywood, I’m tackling one of my favorite essays on film, Virginia Woolf’s “The Cinema.” It was published in 1926 and encompasses an incredible breadth of film theory while beautifully capturing what makes movies different, special, and powerful. Woolf does all of this in her Modernist poetic style that leaves you breathless as you move from confusion to awe at its brilliance.
At first glance, it might seem strange that a novelist would bother with film theory, but “moving pictures” were a very popular topic at the time. As cinema developed in the first half of the 20th century, a lot of people tried to figure out what it was and what it should be. Virginia Woolf threw her hat into the crowded ring, and although “The Cinema” has mostly been studied as a companion to her novels, particularly To the Lighthouse (1927) and its “Time Passes” section, it’s a great piece of film theory in its own right. The essay is typically dense, so this is the first in a series of posts on “The Cinema.” It’s different from my usual offerings, but I hope it will be interesting and enjoyable.
“The Cinema” is also a great reminder of just how young movies are. Film has become such a ubiquitous and powerful art form that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But the technology of moving pictures has only existed since the latter half of the 19th century, and the public has only paid to watch films since the mid-1890s.
The first movies were only a few seconds long and featured documentary style scenes, dance performances, or sporting events such as prize fights. It wasn’t until a few years later that movies as we think of them today (a story crafted from a series of shots with actors and sets) started appearing, and sound and color didn’t become the norm until the late 1920s and ’30s, respectively.
It’s astounding when you think about it: movies with sound and color haven’t even been around for 100 years!
Unsurprisingly, the first films caused a sensation. We are so inundated with “moving pictures” today that it’s hard to imagine the shock and wonder that must have struck a viewer watching her first movie!
The story that audiences at the first screening of “Arrival of a Train” (see above) in January 1896 screamed and fled the theater because they feared the locomotive would crush them is most likely apocryphal, but it was still a mind-blowing experience! No wonder critics, writers, philosophers, and artists got busy attempting to classify and understand the new medium.
So before we dive into Woolf’s essay, here is a very brief look at some of the main threads of classical film theory from the beginning of the 20th century. The questions were big: “What is film? What makes it special/different/similar to what has come before? And what makes cinema good/valuable/artistic? Basically, what are we supposed to do with this new technology/art?*
There were many different answers. Movies were described as dreams, moving paintings, memories, the human mind made visual, plays, “pure” reality, “distorted” reality, mechanized art, symphonies, and photographs come to life. Some claimed that film was a degraded version of painting or theater, while others thought it was a fantastic new frontier that pushed art forward. Some wanted an entirely new aesthetic system for the medium, while others thought it should conform to classic principles. And some hoped for a future of purely abstract, symbolic films, while others campaigned for narrative movies. It was chaotic but exciting!
The theorists who linked cinema to the stage claimed that movies were “filmed theater.” They concluded that the new form was worse than theater: less “real” and immediate since it was recorded, a sadly lacking version of reality that was silent, black and white, and 2-D, and a lower form because it was available to the masses. Or they concluded that it was better; often the same complaints were seen as virtues by the other side, as we see in the concept of photogénie that basically claims filmed images gain beauty and truth that is lacking in reality.
Some wrote about film as a new version of painting, sculpture, photography, or other visual arts, and used established criteria from art history in their arguments. This group sometimes proclaimed that movies weren’t a true art form because they were mechanical and required no skill nor technique to create an image. Alternately, this “ease” recommended moving pictures as a more democratic, realistic medium. And many theorists recognized that artistry was very possible, if not always achieved. But that opened the door to heated discussions of what made a “good” or “beautiful” film in the first place.
Still others preferred comparing the newborn medium to music, since time played a vital role in both. They brought music theory to bear on the problem with complicated arguments about rhythm, motion, and form.
Great minds were also busy deciding if movies were art at all. Or were they the only true art? And what was their artistic destiny? Should movies be abstract and non-narrative? Or purely non-fictional observations of the world? What about telling popular stories or adapting classic literature? Could cinema’s symbolic depths be plumbed and a new language invented? For example, could images smashed back to back combine to create a third idea in their collision, a la Eisenstein’s montage theory?
Sometimes the theories take on surprising urgency, but remember that the future of the form was up for grabs!
As the years passed and new technologies arrived, other issues were addressed. For instance, would sound ruin moving pictures or finally allow them to blossom into their full potential? And should movies remain in shades of black and white or be filmed in color? (For more on that, visit this History Through Hollywood post.)
Into this chaos of theory came Virginia Woolf: essayist, novelist, and intellectual powerhouse. Those who love Woolf’s work prize it for its beauty, its incredible, tangled, Modernist density, and the shimmering flashes of genius that reward your toil through the pages. Those who don’t love her work find it insufferably confusing, mundane in its conclusions, and self-indulgently, even purposefully difficult.
I’m one of the former, so onward to “The Cinema!” It was published in June of 1926 in the New York journal Arts, and it appeared in the Nation and Athenaeum in July of that year.
By that point in Woolf’s career, she was a well-known writer and a member of the Bloomsbury Group, an informal collection of thinkers, writers, and artists that included E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Duncan Grant. She had published two short story collections, many articles and essays, and four novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Besides her own output, Woolf and her husband Leonard had started the Hogarth Press in 1917, which published editions of many important books, including T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Woolf’s own works. She was a busy lady.
Although “The Cinema” is her only work on film, it contains ideas that had preoccupied Woolf and her circle for a while. The concept of time was an especially interesting topic–as she was writing “The Cinema,” she was also working on the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse (1927). If you’ve read that novel, you’ll recognize some of the ideas she discusses in the essay.
You can find the full text of “The Cinema” here, and I’ve also pasted it at the end of this blog post. I’d recommend reading it before continuing.
The essay has three parts: the first deals with the development of cinema and nonfiction film (newsreels), the second looks at narrative cinema and literary adaptations in film (Woolf was not in favor), and the third is a discussion of a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, avant-garde cinema, and the future of film. This post will only deal with the first section and Woolf’s observations of film’s temporal and spatial capabilities and the idea of “absent presence.”
It’s not a particularly straightforward piece (it’s Virginia Woolf so what do you expect?!), with different opinions and ideas sliding across the page, surreptitiously suggesting, dismissing, and calling back various observations. As Brian Phillip noted in his article on “The Cinema,” this style is typical of Woolf’s essays in general :
The pleasure of the essays is so great that we might read two dozen of them before it occurs to us how curiously indefinite their conclusions often are, how simple many of their arguments. We are told, perhaps, only that education may be important to the novelist, or that the Russians are great writers; and yet we emerge with a feeling of unusual completeness and certainty. We have been, we feel, through a process; we have been taken through a process in which something has been changed…
Woolf begins the essay by championing the new art form and analogizing its birth to the birth of music. She compares “bright-eyed naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangor a foretaste of the music of Mozart” to film viewers watching “clangorous” films but seeing the wonderful potential of the medium. It must have been exciting to feel that one was witnessing the birth of a new art form!
Then she moves to films, specifically newsreels: “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.”
Contemporary readers would have gotten those references, but fortunately for us a scholar named David Trotter tracked down more information about the newsreels she mentions: King George V attended a rugby match in March of 1926, the launch of Sir James Lipton’s yacht “Shamrock” had been included in a newsreel sequence released in April, and the horse Jack Horner had just won the 1926 Grand National steeplechase race.
Later in the essay, she mentions watching a ten-year-old film of a wedding, and then The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Trotter discovered that on March 14th, 1926 there was a showing at the Film Society in London of Caligari accompanied by recent newsreels and documentary shorts from 1910-1912. Woolf did attend showings at the Film Society, and she was definitely in London that weekend. The combination of films mentioned in this essay makes it highly probable that she was in the audience on March 14th. This combination of films will become important in a moment.
After mentioning the newsreels of the King, the horse, and the yacht, she imagines the interior dialogue of the spectator:
The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the King, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life. They have become not more beautiful, in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it.
We behold them as they are when we are not there.
We see life as it is when we have no part in it.
Isn’t that extraordinary? The first time I read this essay I wanted to shout “YES! THAT!” The ability of movies to present “life as it is when we have no part in it,” is a big reason why I love film, and especially old film. It’s the basis of the History Through Hollywood series, and the root of my fascination with classic Hollywood. I love cinema’s unique ability to show me something from another time and let me become immersed in its immediacy while at the same time remaining in my own moment; through film, you can experience two realities at once. We can be present and absent in two different realities simultaneously.
After tackling the temporal, Woolf describes how physical realities of space are removed in film:
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…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.
Being removed from the “pettiness of actual existence” and of waves that do “wet our feet” is liberating. It allows us to “open our minds wide to beauty” because we are not concerned about the horse or the waves but can watch as a pure observer. But we are also humbled to think that the “beauty” would have flashed across the screen whether we were in the audience or not; it exists outside of our viewing.
This remarkable passage turns somber as she recounts watching footage of a wedding filmed ten years ago, and describes film’s power to inhabit the past/present and film space/viewer’s space:
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. The war sprung its chasm at the feet of all this innocence and ignorance but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded, up to the very end.
Film can be more than just life as it is lived when the viewer is not there; it can give a glimpse at a world that no longer exists.
The brides onscreen are mothers now, the ushers who were so vibrantly alive are “silent,” (the specter of WWI looms large), and “it is over and done with.” But it is happening now for the viewer! Or more accurately, the representation of the event is happening as it is viewed by the audience. It exists and it doesn’t.
Woolf beautifully describes the conflation of past and present in this passage (and in cinema in general). The present progressive tense she uses (“are emerging”) implies that the action is ongoing; the brides are forever emerging from the abbey. The present progressive tense could be considered cinema’s tense since what is on-screen is happening now, even when it happened years ago.
Unsurprisingly, Woolf is drawn to the “innocence and ignorance” of the wedding and the fact that she knows about the war but the people filmed (in 1910-1912) do not. Cinema preserved the joy and innocence of the pre-war world, “it was thus that we danced…thus that the sun shone,” allowing the viewer to exist in both times simultaneously. I find that same quality fascinating, and I’ve written about the weird disjuncture of watching movies made on the brink of WWII when I know what’s coming but the people onscreen do not.
Thanks to Trotter’s research on the program of films, it seems probable that Woolf experienced the temporal juxtaposition that she writes about in the essay—watching current newsreels, old footage, and Caligari in one afternoon perhaps jumpstarted the idea of absent presence and cinema’s ability to play with time and space.
But such ideas were already swirling in her mind. After all, time as a concept was a popular topic among Woolf’s crowd. And about the same time that she was working on “The Cinema,” Woolf wrote in her diary that in To the Lighthouse she wanted to explore, “this impersonal thing, which I’m dared to do by my friends, the flight of time, and the consequent break of unity in my design.”
In fact, Woolf wrote the first draft of the novel’s “Time Passes” section, often called her most cinematic creation, shortly after finishing “The Cinema.” (The “brides are emerging” and “mothers are tearful” moments always make me think of Prue Ramsay’s fate, so simply stated, in “Time Passes”…)
Elsewhere in the novel, Woolf writes about time as “above and beyond our awareness” and the idea of absent presence using similar language to that in “The Cinema.” For instance, Mr. Ramsay’s philosophical books are about “subject and object and the nature of reality,” or, as his son explains to a bewildered friend, “think of a kitchen table then, when you’re not there.” In “The Cinema,” Woolf suggests that film, by its very nature, provides the viewer with the chance to ponder and witness “kitchen tables” and anything else “when you’re not there.”
If you enjoy Woolf’s novels, it can be fascinating to think about the influence of cinema on her work. But “The Cinema” is also powerful as a work of film theory. Although she wasn’t directly engaging with other theorists, filmmakers, and critics, she does bring up many of the issues they discuss. For example, noted philosopher and critic Georg Lukács wrote about similar ideas but drew very different conclusions. Where Woolf expressed fascination and awe at cinema’s temporal and spatial qualities, Lukács expressed disdain at the “distance” that cinema creates.
In his 1913 essay, “Thoughts on an Aesthetic for the Cinema,” he wrote that live theater is far superior to theater because the “stage is the absolute present” and it is “the power with which a human being, the living will of a living human being, radiates directly and unhindered by mediation out at an equally live audience.”
For Lukács, it is this connection between the actor and the audience that creates the powerful “present,” or what Lukács grandly terms “destiny:” “For to be present is to be alive in a real, exclusive, and utterly intense way: it is destiny itself… ” But cinema is highly mediated–what flashes across the screen could have happened years ago, as Woolf found with the wedding footage. And cinema doesn’t require a connection with the audience. The film doesn’t know if you are there or not!
Woolf was fascinated by the “queer sensation” that arose when she realized that “this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.” But Lukács found that same sensation empty: for him, film’s lack of “presence” and therefore “destiny” makes it scarcely alive as an art form.
Basically, the detachment between audience and film that Lukács finds so troublesome is part of the cinema’s power and attraction for Woolf. Film captures beauty and allows it to “flourish” while releasing the viewer from the “pettiness of actual existence,” and giving her “time” to reflect. Woolf writes of film viewing as a potentially rich, evocative process for the same reasons that Lukács writes of it as a dead, soulless medium. Cool, right?
That’s it on “The Cinema” for now. Thanks for indulging me as I revisited one of my favorite essays. Next time I’ll look at Woolf’s discussion of literary adaptations on film and then her experience of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari! The full text of Woolf’s essay can be found below if you’d like to take a look.
*Libraries overflow with books, dissertations, and articles about early film history and theory, so my discussion is an extremely condensed overview.
Trotter, David. “Virginia Woolf and Cinema.” Film Studies 6 (Summer 2005): 13-26.
Phillips, Brian. “Reality and Virginia Woolf.” The Hudson Review 56.3 (Autumn 2003): 415-430.
“People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart.
The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos. Yet at 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. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.
They have become not more beautiful in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? 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. 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. The war sprung its chasm at the feet of all this innocence and ignorance but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded, up to the very end.
But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own—naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind—her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then ‘Anna falls in love with Vronsky’—that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation, on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene—like the gardener mowing the lawn—what the cinema might do if left to its own devices.
But what, then, are its devices? If it ceased to be a parasite, how would it walk erect? At present it is only from hints that one can frame any conjecture. For instance, at a performance of Dr. Caligari the other day a shadow shaped like a tadpole suddenly appeared at one corner of the screen. It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity. For a moment it seemed to embody some monstrous diseased imagination of the lunatic’s brain. For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’. In fact, the shadow was accidental and the effect unintentional. But if a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression. Terror has besides its ordinary forms the shape of a tadpole; it burgeons, bulges, quivers, disappears. Anger is not merely rant and rhetoric, red faces and clenched fists. It is perhaps a black line wriggling upon a white sheet. Anna and Vronsky need no longer scowl and grimace. They have at their command—but what? Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? It has speed and slowness; dartlike directness and vaporous circumlocution. But it has, also, especially in moments of emotion, the picture-making power, the need to lift its burden to another bearer; to let an image run side by side along with it. The likeness of the thought is for some reason more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself. As everybody knows, in Shakespeare the most complex ideas form chains of images through which we mount, changing and turning, until we reach the light of day. But obviously the images of a poet are not to be cast in bronze or traced by pencil. They are compact of a thousand suggestions of which the visual is only the most obvious or the uppermost. Even the simplest image ‘My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly-sprung in June’ presents us with impressions of moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lift of a rhythm which is itself the voice of the passion and hesitation of the lover. All this, which is accessible to words and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.
Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently—of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking. Annas and Vronskys—there they are in the flesh. If into this reality he could breathe emotion, could animate the perfect form with thought, then his booty could be hauled in hand over hand. Then, as smoke pours from Vesuvius, we should be able to see thought in its wildness, in its beauty, in its oddity, pouring from men with their elbows on a table; from women with their little handbags slipping to the floor. We should see these emotions mingling together and affecting each other. We should see violent changes of emotion produced by their collision. The most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain; the dream architecture of arches and battlements, of cascades falling and fountains rising, which sometimes visits us in sleep or shapes itself in half-darkened rooms, could be realized before our waking eyes. No fantasy could be too far-fetched or insubstantial. The past could be unrolled, distances annihilated, and the gulfs which dislocate novels (when, for instance, Tolstoy has to pass from Levin to Anna and in doing so jars his story and wrenches and arrests our sympathies) could by the sameness of the background, by the repetition of some scene, be smoothed away.
How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement, suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed. And sometimes at the cinema in the midst of its immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency, the curtain parts and we behold, far off, some unknown and unexpected beauty. But it is for a moment only. For a strange thing has happened—while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”