WHEN THE MOVIES MADE A KILLING
Mass killing and mass entertainment were born at almost the same time a century ago. There were precursors to both in the 19th century, of course, and the technology in each case has advanced rapidly in the past 100 years: by the middle of the past century we had bombs that could destroy whole cities and television was becoming the true opiate of the masses.
In the second half of the 20th century, like the sedatives so freely prescribed in the same period, TV was a drug that could mask the effects of alienation and misery without solving any of the underlying problems.
Today, it is worse again: wireless devices mean one doesn’t need to be at home to be staring at a screen, and the internet and social media mean consumers can personalise the content they are consuming into a far more seductive and toxic mixture of narcissistic indulgence. Social media, digital entertainment and computer games keep the mind in a state of constant superficial arousal and distraction. Instead of fostering the strength, focus and balance that tend to produce happiness, media distraction makes the mind weak, enervated and unhappy.
The mental pathology we have produced is the invisible analog of the obesity that is destroying bodies wherever a modern diet of mass-produced processed food has been adopted. We wonder why we face an epidemic of anxiety, depression, attention deficit syndrome, addictions and anti-social behaviour, as obtusely as we wonder why there is an epidemic of obesity when we are surrounded by aggressively promoted junk food.
We medicalise these inevitable consequences and prescribe drugs to treat the symptoms. The answer, in both cases, is simple but radical: to remove the cause of the condition. The consumer mindset assumes the answer to a problem must be to purchase some new product or service, but the answer lies in less, not more. It doesn’t cost anything to lose weight and live a healthier life, nor does it cost anything to become saner, wiser and happier: the habitual paradigms of acquisition and consumption are inapplicable in these cases.
The delivery of junk food for the mind has taken two momentous steps during the past 100 years. The first was to have mass entertainment streamed into the home; the second was to have it available in portable form, further restricting the possibility of solitude and silence. A century ago, when it was still common to play musical instruments at home and people still talked around the dinner table, one had to go out to see the new moving pictures.
And our forebears went out in considerable numbers. Cinemas were once ubiquitous, and even though many have been demolished since the rise of TV, we can still recognise, in almost any older shopping centre, buildings that were once picture theatres but now mostly are used for some other purpose.
During World War I when cinema was less than 20 years old — as we learn from the exhibition War Pictures at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne — more than 65,000 people in Australia bought tickets on any night of the week. Given the size of our population at the time, that must mean the average person went to the movies at least four times a week, and in practice — leaving out the very old and the very young — many people must have gone much more often.
This sort of frequency meant that, apart from newsreels, advertisements and feature films, it was possible to show serials, since audiences could be counted on to return for the next instalment. In fact the exhibition begins with episodes from the extraordinarily popular and gruesome French serial Fantomas, five series of which were produced between 1913 and 1914.
The entrance to the exhibition is designed to evoke a period picture theatre, inside which viewers sit to watch what is essentially a documentary composed of a sequence of films from the four years of the war. The result is a fascinating collage evoking the mixture of news, entertainment and propaganda a contemporary audience would have experienced.
We realise at once that the surviving material is very fragmentary because the original films were made on flammable cellulose nitrate.
May 30-31, 2015 War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-18 Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until July 26. Often, as in the case of the first war movie made in Australia, A Long Long Way to Tipperary, released months after the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, only tantalising fragments survive. The reels shown in cinemas were known as “war pictures”, the title adopted for the exhibition.
We see new recruits undergoing medical examination, then marching in uniform to embark on troopships, including units of light horse and horse-drawn hospital carriages. There are advertisements, too, including some clever work by Harry Julius in stop-motion animation using white chalk on a black background: Miss Australia, we are told, used to buy £500,000 of clothes imported from Germany or Austria every year but henceforth will buy products manufactured in Australia instead.
A lot more remains of another film that opened in July 1915, The Hero of the Dardanelles. In early scenes we discover a young man toying with a cricket bat until he sees a recruitment poster. Then we find him and other young men being trained as infantry soldiers: learning to fire rifles, dig foxholes, and so on. The film is as much propaganda as feature and semi-documentary, as we see from another scene in which he urges civilian friends at a pub to join up.
After this we meet him again on the troopship, writing to his mother who is seen praying at home, then in a few scene-setting and rather incongruously picturesque shots in Egypt with the pyramids and Sphinx. The climax of the film is the landing at Gallipoli, which was re-created at Tamarama Beach in Sydney.
International films were shown too, including Giovanni Pastrone and Gabriele d’Annun- The Cast of Officer 666
The Hero of the Dardanelles zio’s Cabiria (1914), the melodramatic Italian epic from which we watch the episode of the heroine being rescued from sacrifice to the bestial Carthaginian god Moloch. From DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), we are shown the episode of the assassination of president Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.
From 1916 comes a documentary on women’s contribution to the war effort: we see them working in munitions factories, putting bullets into bandoliers. The slogan “Keep the homes fires burning” is displayed over footage of troop ships departing for Europe. Perhaps most interesting of all is a mail sorting centre — again staffed by women — in which we realise what a vital part of the war effort it was to ensure that men at the front could receive news from home and in turn write to their families; several moving letters from this time have been published in newspapers recently.
From the same year comes The Battle of the Somme, a British production that was the first to