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Virginia Woolf at the Cinema (Part Four)

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It is telling that Lily’s painting is her interpretation of Mrs Ramsay reading young James a fairy story, framed by a window; here painting, standing in for cinema, acts as a re-negotiation of traditional narrative; not of the fairy story, but the telling of a fairy story, abstracted into a “triangular purple shape” via the “objects of universal veneration,” a mother and child. Here, “something vital” has emerged from “the mists of irrelevant emotions.” Perhaps it should not surprise us, when Mrs Ramsay has her “admirable idea” that “William and Lily should marry,” while knitting a sock for the sickly lighthouse-keeper’s boy; in the act of creating, of assisting a cure, Mrs Ramsay envisages two competing visual elements uniting to mutual benefit. For if novels can support mimesis and symbolism's duality, Virginia Woolf argues, then so can film, instead of merely offering us “Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’) to look upon.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Lily’s canvas is a putative cinema screen, “with its uncompromising white stare,” upon which both artist and reader project their visions – both become the creator. In the words of Walter Benjamin: “...the reader is constantly ready to become a writer.” An audience stands ready to create, if only film succeeds in “the prime difficulty” and finds “some new symbol for expressing thought.” Only then can cinema succeed in establishing itself as a true art form, as the modernist writers strived to do for the novel. Woolf’s discussion of the ‘tadpole’ shape that appeared during a private screening of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (originally released in 1919) shows film can hit upon such language without intention; as Tim Armstrong suggests: “This is to say that what film creates – even as accident – is more significant than what it records.” If filmed in such a way as to leave meanings open, anything recorded may mean something to someone open to multiple meanings.

Woolf’s essay is not only advice to film-makers, but also a warning to the audience. If it remains the case that all cinema can offer us are “toys and sweetmeats,” to keep the brain “agreeably titillated,” the consequences are more serious than we imagine – indeed, the problem lies in what we are no longer able to imagine for ourselves. As Michael Wood says: “...commercial films have overwhelmingly attempted to deny that shadows are shadows, to replace the expressive possibilities with...an all-consuming illusion of life...a system that has come to seem like second nature to us.”

In short, our need for, or rather dependency on, narrative may result in us seeing life as somehow less real than cinema, or failing to live up to the illusions of the silver screen; in addition, our thought processes may become in themselves cinematic, instead of, as Woolf suggested,  cinema triggering sensations within our own consciousness. Wood continues: “...Woolf manages to evoke an abstract, non-mimetic expressive possibility that the film industry, both before and after 1926, has devoted considerable amounts of time and money to refusing.” As far back as 1936, Walter Benjamin realised the effect this refusal might cause: “Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception.”

The advent of the cinema, along with other forms of visual technology, had the potential to alter our perception of reality, our construction of memory, how we saw ourselves and how we told our own story to others – and ourselves. Perhaps this is what Woolf implied in her famous comment of human nature changing in or around December 1910; with the first section of To the Lighthouse set around 1910, James Ramsay will become one of the last of “that great clan” whose perception remains unfiltered by cinema. There appears a critical consensus on this issue in discussions of both Woolf, and Modernism in general. For example, Bradshaw and Dettmar state: “New technologies such as photography and film changed our perceptual apparatus in the same way that Freudian theory did.” “Such technology,” they add, “presents in its very form the changed structure of experience that characterises modernity, not just a new attitude toward reality.”

The transitional sequence, ‘Time Passes,’ in To the Lighthouse, has elicited most comment on

16mm home projector
cinematic influence upon Woolf and the nature of perception. However, as To the Lighthouse is a refinement, or even amplification of the ideas began in Mrs Dalloway, I believe ‘Time Passes’ has its origins in the sequence the 1925 novel in which Peter Walsh takes a nap on a bench in Regent’s Park. In both, we see what Woolf refers to in her essay as “life as it is when we have no part in it.” Or at least the Regent’s Park sequence indicates this, for even here there are patches of a subjective narrative, experienced by “the solitary traveler” who encounters ethereal figures, “visions who ceaselessly float up, pace beside, put their faces in front of the actual thing,” while in ‘Time Passes’, there exists nothing, except time, and the observing consciousness, a textual embodiment, present and film-like – the influence is such that it exists even without us.

Images flicker upon the consciousness of Peter Walsh as he sleeps, the traveler who watches the ‘playback’ of what his subconscious mind has absorbed from the immediate environment (again, the relationship with the space a person occupies is important). In ‘Time Passes’ however, audience and actors are removed; the cameras glide silently from one room to the next; projections of the absent play on screens for nobody but ourselves. Julia Briggs talks of “the almost cinematic actions,” such as “long shots, montages and dissolves,” rendering the reader voyeur and participant.

David Trotter, discussing Laura Marcus’s notion of memory as cinematic projection, points out there is at least one person before the “picture palace screen,” the caretaker, Mrs McNab – although perhaps ‘intercepting’ is a better word, as “Mrs McNab takes nothing in.” For in a novel about the presence within absence, where we are not concerned with “and there she was” so much as ‘and there she wasn’t,’ looking without knowing is another form of death.

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