Continuous performance

As part of my Picturegoing survey of eyewitness accounts of going to see pictures, I have been reproducing what is among the best pieces of sustained writing on the process of cinemagoing, the ‘Continuous Performance’ essays written by Dorothy Richardson for the film journal Close Up.

Dorothy Richardson
Dorothy Richardson

Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British novelist, a pioneer of stream-of-consciousness technique, and one of those writers one is rather more likely to have read about than to have read. Certainly I’ve never yet found the time to dip into her 13-volume novel sequence Pilgrimage, but what I do know and admire is her writing on cinema. It was in 1927 that she was invited to write for the avant garde film journal Close Up, edited by filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson, novelist Bryher and poet H.D. She was unsure whether she was the right person at first, recommending D.H. Lawrence as a possible alternative (“You know Lawrence loathes films? Foams about them. I’m sure he’d foam for you”). Happily for us (because Lawrence’s loathing was not complemented by much understanding) she took up the challenge, and her major contribution was a set of twenty essays published between 1927 and 1933, under the title ‘Continuous Performance’. She took as her subject the experience of filmgoing, critiquing the cinema from the audience’s point of view. This was radical at the time – Close Up was a film art journal and none of its other contributors had such social concerns – and it still feels radical now.

‘Continuous performance’, or ‘continuous show’, was a phrase regularly used to denote that a cinema was showing its films on a continuous basis and that you could drop in at any time to see the show. Such continuousness was an important factor in the early acceptance of cinema as a social form: you didn’t have to turn up at a particular time, instead the cinema was there whenever needed, at your convenience. It conformed to your own time. Of course ‘continuous performance’ also means a stream of thought akin to Richardson’s experiments. Her theme was not any one film (individual films are seldom mentioned in her essays) but cinema as experience, as a new social and cultural phenomenon whose special feature lay in its continuity.

It is perhaps a blessed relief that Richardson does not employ a stream of consciousness technique to her cinema essays. Nevertheless, they are not easy reading, in that one has absorb each line with care, lines heavy with allusion whose argument only gradually becomes apparent. Take for example, the opening to her 1931 essay ‘Narcissus‘:

Discontent may be rooted in the contempt of one who believes mankind to be on its way to a better home and thinks, or most oddly, appears to think, that he honours that home by throwing mud at this. Or it may be just the natural mysterious sense of incompleteness haunting those for whom at times, haunting even those for whom all the time, life is satisfying beyond measure. More generally it is the state of having either lost or never fully possessed the power of focussing the habitual.

From this kind of discontent, escape by flight is impossible. Another house, another town, country, planet, will give only a moment’s respite, for each in turn, and each with more swiftness than the last, will close in and become odious while, perversely, those left behind will mock the fugitive by revealing, with an intensity that grows as it recedes further and further into the distance, the qualities that once had charmed him.

Close Up
Close Up

It is only gradually that her argument evolves into a subtle analysis of the special status of the cinema spectator. ‘Narcissus’ is typical of her style, but unusual in that refers to specific films, and avant garde works at that – Macpherson’s Borderline, and the films of Dziga Vertov. What generally distinguishes Richardson’s film writing from her Close Up peers is her focus on the ordinary experience of cinemagoing. The art film is an aberration, or a distraction – the real matter is being among the regular cinema audience and trying to understand what is distinctive and new about the phenomenon. She wrote about live music accompaniment, about cinema shows in the country, cinema in the slums, film intertitles, cinema spaces, about the special status of the female spectator, and particularly about the change from silent to sound film (which she regretted but begrudgingly accepted).

Here she is, in ‘The Front Rows‘, writing about the young boys who habitually occupied the front rows of cinemas:

Anyone visiting from time to time a local cinema whose audience is almost as unvarying as its films, cannot fail to have remarked the development of the front rowers, their growth in critical grace. Their audible running commentary is one of the many incidental interests of a poor film. It is not only that today the lingering close-up of the sweet girl with tragically staring tear-filled eyes is apt to be greeted with jeers, and the endless love-making of the endless lovers with groans. It is not only that today’s front rowers recognise all the stock characters at a glance and can predict developments. It is that the quality of the attention and collaboration that almost any stock drama can still command is changed. For although attention never wavers and collaboration is still hearty and still the sleek and sleekly-tailored malefactor is greeted at his first and innocent seeming entry as a wrong’un and the hero, racing life in hand through a hundred hairbreadth escapes to the rescue is still loudly applauded and applause breaks forth anew when the villain is flung over the cliff, the front rows are no longer thrilled quite as they were in their earlier silent days by all the hocus-pocus. They come level-headed and serenely talking through drama that a year ago would have held them dizzy and breathless. Even a novel situation does not too much disturb them. They attend, refuse to be puzzled, watch for the working out.

Richardson writes in reaction to the many arguments produced at the time on the supposed evil influence of the cinema on the young. It is typical of her to find virtue where others saw only vice. For her, the cinema elevated people, educated them, brought stories to a mass audience who were enriched by them, and whose art was crucially shaped by its audience. As she writes in her final ‘Continuous Performance’ essay:

[T]the power of the Film, of Film drama, filmed realities, filmed uplift and education, all its achievements in the realm of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, appealing to the many, and in the realm of the abstract, appealing only to the few, rests alike for the uninstructed, purblind onlooker and the sophisticated kinist [i.e. cinéaste], upon the direct relationship, mystic, joyous, wonderful, between the observer a continuous miracle of form in movement, of light and shadow in movement, the continuous performance, going on behind all invitations to focus upon this or that, of the film itself.

Hers was an unusual voice in film criticism at the time, and remains unusual now. The documented experience of film is too often divorced from its surroundings, despite those surroundings being essential to film’s comprehension. Of course we now experience films across so many more platforms than was the case in the 1920s, but maybe our gain in access has been accompanied by a decrease in appreciation. That’s what Dorothy Richardson homes in on – how transformative cinema was, artistically and socially, and how those two purposes were necessarily intertwined. She documents how important cinema was in opening the eyes of everyone.

Richardson wrote other pieces for Close Up, but the ‘Continuous Performance’ essays make for a remarkably homogeneous, affirmative and thought-provoking body of work. There is no less of a need for such an empathetic understanding on our current viewing experience, living as we do with our own form of a continuous performance that flits from screen to screen – the cinema, the TV, the tablet, the phone. The medium continues to be liberating. We need to be reminded not simply of its art, but its goodness.

Below is the full set of essays, each linking to the relevant Picturegoing page, which is turn will link you to the digitised original on the Internet Archive. Close Up was digitised thanks to the outstanding efforts of the Media History Digital Archive, the online library of media journals and reference sources which has so changed historical film studies.

Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. I no. 1, July 1927
Musical Accompaniment’, Close Up vol. I no. 2, August 1927
Captions’, Close Up vol. I no. 3, September 1927
A Thousand Pities’, Close Up vol. I no. 4, October 1927
There’s No Place Like Home’, Close Up vol. I no. 5, November 1927
The Increasing Congregation’, Close Up vol. I no. 6, December 1927
The Front Rows’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, January 1928
Continuous Performance VIII’, Close Up vol. II no. 3, March 1928
The Thoroughly Popular Film’, Close Up vol. II no. 4, April 1928
The Cinema in the Slums’, Close Up vol. II no. 5, May 1928
Slow Motion’, Close Up vol. II no. 6, June 1928
The Cinema in Arcady’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, July 1928
Pictures and Films’, Close Up vol. IV no. 1, January 1929
Almost Persuaded’, Close Up vol. IV no. 6, June 1929
Dialogue in Dixie’, Close Up vol. V no. 3, September 1929, pp. 211-218
A Tear for Lycidas’, Close Up vol. VII no. 3, September 1930
Narcissus’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 3, September 1931
This Spoon-fed Generation?’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 4, December 1931
The Film Gone Male’, Close Up vol. IX no. 1, March 1932
Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. X no. 2, June 1933

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