Geoffrey O’Brien shows us how, after more than a century of motion pictures, we have become an international community personally and culturally inhabited by films. We do not merely view them. Movies are so pervasive that we become them. The Phantom Empire (1993) is a collection of philosophical essays that explores, in language of sinuous and seductive rhythms, our relationship with cinema.
“How did you wander into this maze, anyway, and how would you get out? Do you in fact want to, or would you prefer to sink deeper into it, savoring its manifold ramifications and outlying distortions?” Mister Memory locates us in our spectator’s position, our minds filled with movie images universally shared. “How often you’ve wished that memory could be as sharp, solid, and mechanical as a movie, that the mind could give way to remembering as effortlessly as the eye submits to the ritual glide of the camera…” If so, then “…the camera would have preserved (our memories) the way people preserve food, for sustenance in time of famine.”
“For its education in focus and order the eye was indebted to certain privileged windows: objects whose function was to teach what an object was.” The Garden of Allah explains how the movies enter our consciousness, at first through our senses, then by our exposure to and habitation of a world permeated by movie advertising and impact, and peopled by others profoundly affected by scenes, dialog, and visual imagery with a compulsion to share their excitement.
A Short History of Fun describes how the movies affect our experience of time. “As a medium in which the dead continued to walk about, movies provided an education in time. Events could be dated by which actors were still alive, or by how many wrinkles they had acquired.”
World War II changed the movies. “In the world the war had made, reality was black-and-white. Color was suitable for candy wrappers, comic books, and Maria Montez vehicles.” Orpheus and His Brothers identifies the new wave of European directors that emerged in the 1950s who reevaluated film aesthetics. “There was life in the ruins, a rusted rotting life, menacing and erotic.” “Out of the ashes, out of the rubble, something new was being born. It was art. It healed.”
“What did people do, anyway, before there were movies?” Ghost Opera is a recapitulation of how the movies were invented from an accumulation of entertainment technologies over millennia, from campfire shadow shows through the magic lantern to Cinerama and beyond.
“For the first twenty years, it was almost enough to show things… The spectator wallowed in the visible like a neighbor perched on a stoop watching the world go by.” In The Author of the Visible, directors learn to personalize their films. “It was a question of narrowing the range of choice, to minimize both the depth and the periphery so that there could be no escape from the enclosed surface.”
“The directors who made the most indelible marks on memory… were those who knew best how to exclude all information except the tiny amount required to give their dream narratives minimal coherence..” The Souk of Knowledge and the Wide Open Spaces ruminates on the meaning of Westerns. “The Western derived its strength from the reiteration of what was already self-evident.” “The Western became the genre of genres because it was most obviously the common property of the emerging global communications tribe… Nowhere – not Lapland or Fiji or the remotest estuaries of the Indian Ocean – was Hopalong Cassidy a stranger.”
“In the last days of imperial Hollywood, the big show was the spectacle of the show’s disappearance.” In The Italian System, the dying Hollywood studios produce bloated, cost-heavy epics. “The trouble in the empire was highlighted by the encounter, in Hollywood’s shadow, of another Hollywood, its cheap twin… in Europe it was still possible to work with enough speed and violence and crudity to make movies suited to the world they were being shown in.” The Italian studios ransack cinema history. “All the movies ever made constituted a storehouse of images waiting to be appropriated and pasted into place.”
A Ticket To Hell recounts the development of the horror film. “The taste for danger, a flirtation with evil, hovered around the movies from the beginning. Part of the attraction of the medium was that it allowed spectators to sate themselves on horrors without fearing contamination. Whatever had been captured for their gaze was really elsewhere, with no risk of anything escaping from the screen into the audience.”
In The Magic Cockpit, movies reach a point of exhaustion: plot devices, images, story lines – everything had already been done. “The opaque icons just accumulated, like non-biodegradable plastic jetsam piling up on Pacific atolls. Marilyn, Bogart, JFK, Garbo, Lugosi, Elvis, Duke Wayne, Judy Garland: all were destined finally to be blank marks stirring not even a flicker of response.”
“Just as movies have their dream sequences, dreams have their movie sequences.” Dream Sequence meditates on the evolution of movies from a capacity in the human brain to form dreams to the effect of dreaming on reality. “After Chuang Tzu dreamed of being a butterfly, he couldn’t say for sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.” In a roundabout, absurdly elaborated fashion – requiring special effects laboratories, wagonloads of art directors and prop men, and years of systematic alchemical research – the brain had set about creating an image of itself, with a view toward projecting it into every corner of This Island Earth.”
Geoffrey O’Brien is a poet, editor, and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. In his Phantom Empire, we are besotted subjects who have been beguiled to believe that our rulers, the filmmakers, are fashioning shadows from trapped particles of light for our benefit. We surrender willingly, hostages to Hollywood and all the international avatars of Hollywood that have but one purpose: to make us spectators eager to pay for our enchantment.
Whatever our pleasures be: King Kong, The Bank Dick, Fantasia, Hellzapoppin’, Gunga Din, Mister Hulot’s Holiday, The Third Man, Northwest Passage, The African Queen, A Walk in the Sun, A Hard Day’s Night, They Might Be Giants, Harold and Maude – the movies are not here to serve us. Like the tall, benevolent extraterrestrials in the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man, they are here to serve themselves.
(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 2011)