Spellbound

Film: The Creative Process

by John Howard Lawson
Hill & Wang, 249 pp., $5.95

Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear

by John Russell Taylor
Hill & Wang, 380 pp., $7.95

Behind the Screen

by Kenneth Macgowan
Delacorte, 576 pp., $15.00

For the two worst years of my life I was theater critic for the New Statesman. On the average, I saw three shows a week, often five, sometimes more, and remember from all that welter only two occasions with pleasure: Oliver as Coriolanus, Mostel as Bloom. The rest is a vast and miserable smudge of boredom. At the end of my two years sentence I took a vow never voluntarily to go to the living theater again—except to see friends perform, or for money. Yet since childhood I have gone quite as often to the movies, still do, and can see no possible reason to stop. It is not a question of quality: at one point I developed a passion for bad films; it took me a long time to come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that bad films were not as good as I thought they were. Instead, it is a question of the kind of response the movies elicit.

Theater-going is, above all, a social act, involved with booking in advance, dressing up, and eating an unspeakable, expensive meal before. You go, as Eric Bentley once remarked, for the company of the actors. You sit there in the half-light, sharply aware of them as people much like yourself, knocking themselves out to amuse you, fallible, anxious, often a bit pathetic. It takes the genius of a Mostel or an Olivier to go through that social barrier into the realm of compulsive illusion.

Yet even a second-rate movie can enter that world effortlessly. The cinema has, after all, all the conditions working for it. It is informal, casual, private. You sit passively while the stuff of dreams—the primal image of love, the fantasies of violence, loss, and anguish, magnified beyond all imagination, is acted out before you, usually in black and white, the color of dreams. It is the art of utter illusion, as purgative as a successful psycho-analysis, and far, far cheaper.

I exaggerate, of course. Yet the cinema, as Gorki noticed as early as 1896, has a curious knack of stirring things up:

It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim.

This ability to disturb you obscurely yet profoundly is stronger in the cinema than in any of the more formal contemporary arts. It is also often stronger in good “commercial” movies than in most deliberately “art” products. It is stronger, that is, in the films of Nicholas Ray than in those of Satyajit Ray, in Shane than in Alexander Nevsky, in Rossen’s The Hustler than in Bresson’s Pickpocket. The reasons, I suppose, have something to do with the stars, the expensive professionalism, and the relatively simple points made within simple frameworks. Despite themselves, the dream-factories have turned out not so much dreams as myths for the commercial mass societies. Cooper …

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