The other day I saw a film without the picture. Two films, actually, a double bill of What’s Opera, Doc? and Blade Runner at the Museum of Modern Art in which the bulbs had been quite deliberately removed from the projectors. The evening was a restaging of a work by Louise Lawler, originally presented in 1979 and now occasioned by the artist’s recently opened MoMA retrospective. I’d long been enamored of Lawler’s conceit but, prior to that night, never had a chance to encounter her piece firsthand. Among its first iterations was an imageless unspooling of The Misfits, and on more than one occasion I daydreamed about what it might have been like to attend, to sit in the dim stillness of the theater as Marilyn Monroe utters, with breathy curiosity, the last line she would ever speak on screen: “How do you find your way back in the dark?”
At first Lawler was hesitant to include A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture in the exhibition, concerned that it might not operate in precisely the same way it had all those years earlier. Cinema, during the interval, had undergone manifold changes—as a technology, as a cultural phenomenon—and so the results of her intervention would necessarily be different. Ultimately she came around to the idea, and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps the function of the work had indeed shifted by 2017, but the effects of this simple, slyly perverse maneuver were even more varied and considerable than I dared hope. The viewer, a term which here remains surprisingly apposite, becomes ever more alert to certain aspects of the cinema that might typically elude notice—the built environment of the theater, the silhouettes of their neighbors in the aisles, the projectionist readying a reel for a changeover.
Lawler’s project requires our attention to be everywhere recalibrated, and in this process of learning how to watch a literally unwatchable film there were also brief if inevitable episodes of mental drift. In one such moment my thoughts wandered, rather unimaginatively, to a movie theater: Metrograph, or more precisely its bookstore. I remembered perusing the shelves and being impressed to find, alongside other treasures like a stack of vintage Film Culture issues, several copies of Close Up, which ran from 1927 to 1933 and positioned itself as “the only magazine devoted to film as an art.” Published by the Pool Group, a queer ménage à trois consisting of H.D., Bryher, and Kenneth Macpherson, the publication notably featured a regular column by Dorothy Richardson called “Continuous Performance.”
Though somewhat forgotten today and largely, regrettably out of print, in her time Richardson was hailed as a major modernist writer, regularly mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; it was to her novel Pointed Roofs, in fact, that the term “stream of consciousness” was first applied to literature. Lawler brought Richardson to mind because the latter’s contributions to Close Up were in many cases less about specific films or filmmakers—a soaring appreciation of Chaplin manages to never once mention him by name—than the social architecture of the picture palace, the peculiarities of its atmosphere, or matters that could otherwise appear peripheral. They stand, in my estimation, as some of the great essays about moviegoing ever written, handily available for the curious on the Internet Archive. She revealed how much there is to see at the cinema, if we simply look beyond the screen.
Her dispatches ranged from an ethnography of committed “front rowers” to an argument for solo musical accompaniment over grander orchestras (“With the help of the puff of smoke and our pianist’s staccato chord we can manufacture our own reality”). She favored the neighborhood movie theater, its modest scale, acknowledging the virtue of cinema as a humble public ritual (“One cannot show off one’s diamonds in the dark”). Optimism is evinced about the medium’s potential to conscript poor and rural film patrons into the enterprise of modernity, but lamented is the arrival of the talkie (“Agree,” she insists of the silent cinema, “that the secret of its power lies in its undiluted appeal to a single faculty”). Yet some of Richardson’s best lines come from unexpected sources, like the rude chatterings of a fellow audience member:
For all her bad manners that will doubtless be pruned when the film becomes high art and its temple a temple of stillness save for the music that at present inspires her to do her worst, she is innocently, directly, albeit unconsciously, upon the path that men have reached through long centuries of effort and of thought. She does not need, this type of woman clearly does not need, the illusions of art to come to the assistance of her own sense of existing. Instinctively she maintains a balance, the thing perceived and herself perceiving. She must therefore insist that she is not unduly moved, or if she be moved must assert herself as part of that which moves her. She takes all things currently. Free from man’s pitiful illusion of history, she sees everything in terms of life that uncannily she knows to be at all times fundamentally the same. She is the amateur realist. Not all the wiles of the most perfect art can shift her from the centre where she dwells. Nor has she aught but scorn for those who demand that she shall be so shifted. And between her scorn and the scorn we have felt for her who shall judge?
As the credits for Blade Runner began, invisibly, to roll, the soundtrack swelled and a patch of MoMA’s theater lit up, a smartphone beaming as its owner flipped through missed texts. Another amateur realist? I felt amused and annoyed in equal measure. Lawler’s work upheld Richardson’s final verdict on the subject: we’re all part of the spectacle.
Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry as well as a Programmer at Large for Film Society of Lincoln Center.