Virginia Woolf Watches The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari & Writes “The Cinema,” a Seminal Attempt to Understand the Power of Movies (1926)

“A shad­ow shaped like a tad­pole sud­den­ly appeared at one cor­ner of the screen,” recalls Vir­ginia Woolf. “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.’ ” She wit­nessed this at a screen­ing of the silent Ger­man Expres­sion­ist hor­ror film The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari (which you can watch for your­self above), and in it glimpsed the future of cin­e­ma itself.

Woolf elab­o­rates on this glimpse in her essay “The Cin­e­ma,” first pub­lished in a 1926 issue of the jour­nal The Nation and Athenaeum. (The British Library has a scan from the pub­li­ca­tion here.) “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,” she begins. “But these philoso­phers have pre­sum­ably for­got­ten the movies.” She goes on, in this short piece, to come to grips with this new artis­tic medi­um, to artic­u­late her expe­ri­ence of it (as “the eye licks it up all instan­ta­neous­ly”) as well as its poten­tial and then-cur­rent lim­i­ta­tions, such as an over-reliance on lit­er­ary mate­r­i­al.

“The alliance is unnat­ur­al,” the author of Mrs. Dal­loway (filmed in 1997, and two years lat­er more imag­i­na­tive­ly used as the basis for Michael Cun­ning­ham’s nov­el The Hours, turned into cin­e­ma itself in 2002) declares about the adap­ta­tion of nov­els into movies. “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.’ ” She com­plains, as New York­er film crit­ic Richard Brody puts it, “that moviemak­ers, instead of rely­ing on the inher­ent prop­er­ties of cin­e­ma, har­ness the mak­ing of images to sto­ry­telling by way of lit­er­a­ture,” pre­sum­ably fail­ing to under­stand that “the cinema’s dis­tinc­tive pow­er involves cre­at­ing a new kind of visu­al expe­ri­ence.”

“It is only when we give up try­ing to con­nect the pic­tures with the book,” writes Woolf, “that we guess from some acci­den­tal scene — like the gar­den­er mow­ing the lawn — what the cin­e­ma might do if left to its own devices.” Nine­ty years lat­er, many cinephiles still dream of that gar­den­er mow­ing the lawn, await­ing the day that cin­e­ma gets left to its own devices to ful­fill the vast cre­ative and artis­tic promise only occa­sion­al­ly explored by the film­mak­ers. Woolf likens them to a “sav­age tribe” who, “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.” Cin­e­ma devel­oped rapid­ly in the day of Dr. Cali­gari, and has devel­oped in cer­tain ways since, but its great­est expres­sions lie ahead — an obser­va­tion as true now as when Woolf, with slight dis­ap­point­ment but nev­er­the­less great expec­ta­tion, first made it. You can read here sem­i­nal essay, “The Cin­e­ma,” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari, the Influ­en­tial Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Film (1920)

Vir­ginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Nev­er Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

Vir­ginia Woolf Offers Gen­tle Advice on “How One Should Read a Book”

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Vir­ginia Woolf

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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