On a Return Visit to the Kingdom of Shadows

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

You can believe what a strange place it was, I think, as you’ve probably been there as well. Many times. There were prancing goats and ballroom dancers and what looked suspiciously like scenes from next week’s episode of “Scream Queens.” A long-lost high school acquaintance and his new bride cut their wedding cake, the groom looking far more dapper and domestic than the last time I saw him playing hackysack outside the cafeteria.

And all this played out without a sound, a noiseless approximation of life erupting from my Facebook feed, flickering out into my dark and equally silent apartment.

The great Russian writer Maxim Gorky first stepped into the Kingdom of Shadows in 1896, at a public demonstration of the wondrous new Lumière cinématographe. Gorky recorded his encounter with “the movies” in a local paper a few days later, in what remains one of the most prescient, and faintly disturbing, descriptions of the fledgling medium. For Gorky, the colorless, silent images projected in front of him were ghosts: an arresting but uncanny and empty version of real life.

Over 100 years later, the portal to that eerie realm has opened again, and it lives on your computer screen.

Silent cinema has long been considered obsolete, only referenced or discussed outside of the most serious film circles when a nostalgia-heavy piece like Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning “The Artist” (2011) comes along. But quietly (hah!), the language of the earliest movies has made a comeback in those inescapable, auto-playing clips that clog social media. The people uploading these videos (sports teams, Hollywood studios, Buzzfeed, your mother) know that you may not happen to be in a place where you can listen to an accompanying audio track. So perhaps they include written signs: captions, subtitles, intertitles, etc. Or, more often than not, they simply let the images speak for themselves, dealing in the common tongue of gesture, action, and pratfalls.

From the very beginning, movies were meant as a curiosity. Tom Gunning, a film theorist with an even keener eye than Gorky, introduced the idea of the “cinema of attractions” to describe the hyper-aware hyper-pleasure early audiences received from moving images: they were (and are) visual stimulation in its purest form. Eventually the curiosity faded, and filmmakers started to steal tricks like narrative, character, and theme from other media in order to keep our attention. But the cinema of attractions never really went away – at the heart of every blockbuster and home video and commercial is the truth that, very simply, we like to watch.

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the internet knows this, and the recent proliferation of platforms for posting and exchanging video has allowed for an explosion of moving image material that defies comprehension. All of us, from news outlets and clothing retailers to musicians and construction workers, are more obsessed than ever with creating video to document, inform, entertain, attract.

The visual noise is overwhelming, and, at times, unsettling. As I flicked through various social media the other night, I felt the shadows creeping in: there I sat, still, while a piano-playing friend of a friend mimed a sonata, one of Gorky’s “soundless spectres.”

OK, sure, with a click of the mouse I could turn on the sound. But would that really be a relief? Was it really the hiss and clatter of a train as it arrives at the station that Gorky missed? Was it the experience itself – or rather, the lack of it? Just as Gorky was not standing at a train station, I am not playing a piano – I am watching someone else do so, and somewhere in that difference is the Kingdom of Shadows.

The next day, I am sitting in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The sun is bright, and warm – a last gasp of summer before the equinox – and Brooklynites are out in force. I’ve spent an hour with John Le Carré in my hand and another with NPR in my ear. I watch the back-and-forth bustle at the baseball fields for a few minutes, and then, idly, pull out my phone and once again sift through Facebook. Automatically, highlights from Chicago Cub Jake Arrieta’s 20th victory on the season flit by.

There are no more shadows. This is a Kingdom of Reflections.

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