I was born in 1941 into war-time Britain. As I spent the first six years of my life in the country, I saw no moving images whatsoever; there was no access to the cinema in the Sussex countryside and obviously no TV. Even when my family moved back to London after the war, we only occasionally went to the cinema so, in these circumstances, I can remember quite clearly the first films I saw. Recently I realised that four particular scenes from my childhood film-going had left a kind of afterimage in my memory. Furthermore, not only are they visually connected but they also strangely prefigure, as it were, my much later (1990s) fascination with the film fragment. Here I want to try to reconstruct the four scenes and why they made such an impression on me as a child and why these afterimages still mean something to me now.
The first film I saw was Nanook of the North (1922), probably because my father, who was Canadian, had a special interest in Inuit communities. He had travelled up the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Circle and spent some time living with ‘Eskimos’, as they were then called, before joining the army and coming to England during the war. There must have been some revival of Nanook in London in the late 40s. The second film, more conventionally, was The Red Shoes, released in 1948 so around and about then. By that time my sister and I were (primitively but enthusiastically) taking ballet dancing classes and for us, as for so many other ballet mad little girls of our generation, The Red Shoes was an obvious and very special treat. In 1951 we went to see Renoir’s The River, which would have had a double appeal. Once again, in the first instance, it was parental: when my mother was at Oxford in the late twenties, she had become a dedicated cinephile, recording the films she saw in a notebook, and Renoir was a particular favourite of hers. Rumer Godden’s novella would have been a further appeal: a group of girls, their friendships, their rivalries, first love etc in the exotic and strange Indian setting. (Also, around and about 1951, for reasons that I won’t go into here, my mother took us to An American in Paris. Although it was an extremely memorable experience, it didn’t leave an ‘afterimage’.) The final film came later: Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe. When it came out in London in 1954, I was taken with a school friend by his very sophisticated mother. I must have seen quite a few other movies by then, but Robinson Crusoe is the last in the series of films that I want to talk about here.
The films, Nanook, The Red Shoes, The River and Robinson Crusoe all remained vaguely in my memory. But It was only when I was thinking about stillness and the moving image, about the cinematic fusion of the animate and the inanimate (the thoughts that finally coalesced into Death 24x a Second) that these four moments of uncanniness came back to me, returning strong visual images that had persisted across a later life-time of film-going. So, this is what happened: as I rediscovered these early memory traces, they seemed to chime with the more theoretical interests of my approximately forty-five year older self, which I superimposed retrospectively.
First of all, there is the image of Nanook as he struggles with a fish that he’s caught through a hole in the ice but he can’t succeed in landing. He clings to his rod and line; his body, in my memory at least, is jerked about, his movements losing their normal continuum and smoothness. Furthermore, the force acting upon him is invisible and in a certain sense mysterious. In my retrospective imagination, Nanook’s de-naturalised figure seemed embody, on the screen, the jerky movement of celluloid as it runs through the projector. It seemed as though the optical effect, the Phi Phenomenon, with which the projector creates the cinema’s illusion of movement and streamlines the human body on screen, had suddenly lost its efficacy.
Secondly, for many years, the only image that I retained from The Red Shoes comes from the ballet ‘The Red Shoes’. Vicky dances through a fairground into an increasingly surreal and fantastic setting. Suddenly, a piece of newspaper is picked up by the wind; it mutates into the shape of a man, who dances away with her. The paper man never becomes an actual man; he hovers between the shape of a human and his original substance. For me, (again retrospectively) this figure materialised the cinema’s uncanny blurring of the animate and the inanimate, reminder that the appearance of human movement on the screen is a fantastic illusion created by the succession of still frames that run through the projector. Jean Epstein said of cinema: ‘a transformation as amazing as the generation of life from inanimate things.’
Thirdly, The River. Surprisingly, the scene that stayed in my memory had nothing to do with the film’s romance, with the teenage girls and their first loves. I remembered the little boy’s fascination with a cobra that he tries to tame by playing a pipe and bringing offerings of milk. The cobra lives in the roots of an enormous tree and, when it finally emerges, its long, curled shape seems to bring to life the long stretches of root that made up its home. Once again: a fusion between the animate and the inanimate but one that’s enhanced uncannily by the boy’s wonder at this mysterious creature. While he might hope to tame the cobra, he also treats it like a god and it will ultimately kill him.
Finally, Robinson Crusoe. In the scene that stayed with me, Crusoe creates a scarecrow to protect his crops. Somehow (I don’t remember, I haven’t re-seen the film) he has found women’s clothes, which he uses to transform the scarecrow into a female companion. As Crusoe fondles and embraces the wooden object, my twelve-year old self was both shocked and fascinated. Here again is an image of the inanimate animated but not so much by the mechanics of cinema as by the mechanics of male desire. Clearly, for my later, Death 24 self this trace of memory prefigured my interest in the fetishization of the female body in and through cinema, which is not so much an attempt to bring a desired object to life but to contain it in the uncanny uncertainty of the beautiful automaton.
All these figures have some relation to the cinema’s fusion of the animate and the inanimate, which in turn leads to the process of film projection. The projector was always the most repressed and the most mysterious of industrial cinema’s machines. Clunky and unsightly, it was hidden away at the back of the auditorium. But it was the true source of the cinema’s magic: tricking the human eye to create the illusion of movement as the series of individual frames are transformed into a stable and continuous flow. Now, in the digital era, invisibility has been overtaken by disappearance and the projector gains poignancy as its use fades into history. These memories are a conscious tribute to the way the magic of the projector seems to have seized hold of my childhood unconscious somehow or other between the formative ages of six and twelve.