The Devil and the Statue | Cinema Year One

Joseph Owen explores the camera apparatus in three early silent shorts.
Credit: George Méliès

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Joseph Owen

A Flight from the Void

There is a man, standing, with a top hat and cane, gesticulating wildly. His appeals to the camera seem to grow more vociferous, but the viewer cannot hear him because the film is silent and its soundtrack consists of a jaunty, music hall staccato. Performing the extreme close-up par excellence, the camera enters the gaping mouth of our antagonist. We (the audience) and the photographer (the subjective perspective) fall into the dark void of his stomach. This state is momentary, before we are catapulted back out. The man is now grinning gleefully, close to laughing. The film is over. We look stupid. 

James Williamson’s The Big Swallow (1901) is absurd but comprehensible: it is an abstraction with obvious intent. The new technologies of cinema claim to render the modern human; in fact, these constitute a derisory conceit. The camera is an eye, is it? A neutral tool of rational perception? No, it is a flight from the void; it exposes rather than resolves the crisis of representation. At the start of the 20th century, authoritative images exist only in dispute. The dominant machine, of which the camera is emblematic, promises to rule without favour, but its power is insidious; it deceives the maker, the subject and the audience. Humans fear the vacuum, to the extent that they will cling to deceptive and ambiguous pictorial forms. 

This explains the seduction of mythic stories to illustrate the anxieties of the epoch. Georges Méliès produces one such tale in The Devil and the Statue (1901), a retelling of archetypal lovers and a transposition of Romeo and Juliet’s romance to Venice, where Romeo arrives on a gondola playing a lute, only to be interrupted by the frantic devil, who pursues Juliet across a plush palatial room. The less-than-two-minute narrative is processed almost entirely through a fixed perspective on the set design, inviting the viewer’s eyes to move from the window on the left-hand side, across to the hemicycle in the centre, and to the far right of the platform where a frozen Madonna waits to rescue the harried damsel and extinguish the devil.

The demonic depiction is startling. The ornate furnishings disappear to reveal the evil within. Through incipient visual effects trickery, the dancing devil expands to a great height before the Madonna intervenes, causing in him a voluminous shrinkage, generating a void of representation. This is the problem with resuscitating apparently abiding myths; they jar in the present, because time is out of joint, and the symbolic order has been shaken. The devil is lost in space; the fallen angel of our nightmares leaves behind a stage of black nothing, a scene of no-image. This is not Captain Ahab’s white whale, which, for all its philosophical might, still claims physical contours. This is closer to Beckett’s white wall, an implacable revelation of pure thought without detail or consequence, against which his eternally suffering subjects endlessly deteriorate. 

Nonetheless, the modern subject must cling to the hope of images; it must seek out new ones. In What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York (1901), directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, the camera sits on the pavement. It holds a perspective on the road and the passers-by populating the sidewalk. Men in suit attire stroll past while a horse and carriage pull away. A hot air grate rests flat and ominous in the foreground. On multiple occasions, people avoid it, which forms a prescient accumulation of the climactic act. A young couple comes into view, walking towards the camera. The scene is set; the woman, played by Florence Georgie, saunters over the grate, her dress billows out, the gust beneath sending her into a surprised chuckle, reserved for both the spectacle and social propriety, to gain the upper hand on the mocking audience, those in the film and out. 

The date of the recording reads 21st August, 1901. In cities such as New York, the modern formulations of technology, industry and economy are being expressed, the truths of the time taking root. How will the factories and the cogs and the workers and the commerce absorb the loss of old pictures, the demise of old authorial authority? What goes into all of that blank space, which once held the vestiges of representation? The reproduction of classic myths, advocated by Méliès, will be superseded, and the modernist ridicule of realism, propounded by Williamson, effaced from memory. That billowing dress, modestly blown upwards and comically pulled down, endures instead, retaining the force and potency of the era-defining image. Georgie’s silhouette stance, her hands pressing against the garment, then calcifies in the cultural consciousness. Transformed into Marylin Monroe’s angular pose in The Seven Year Itch (1955), it spawns afterlives upon afterlives, a repeated image of simple consumption, the icon of a new century that fills the representative void, now temporarily hidden and, for the time being, forgotten.