APRIL 24, 2014
AT THE BEGINNING of All Movies Love the Moon, Gregory Robinson’s spirited collection of prose poems about silent film, we meet Ralph Spence, one of the best-known and highest-paid title card writers of the silent era. “All bad little movies when they die go to Ralph Spence,” his tagline read. By injecting the right words into an incoherent jumble of pictures, Spence’s language gave early movies a decipherable syntax, magically turned people running around on screen into characters who wanted things.
Now Ralph Spence is one of the many forgotten figures of early cinema, though Gregory Robinson still dreams about him. The old title card writer shows up, armed with a martini and a story about the old days, oblivious to the ways cinema’s developments have left him (and other title card superstars like Anita Loos and Joseph Farnham) behind. He’s a sad figure, but he’s found in Robinson a sympathetic ear. “I worry if I don’t listen to him,” Robinson admits to us, “no one will.”
Spence serves as a presiding spirit throughout All Movies Love the Moon, which looks closely at 37 different films all produced between 1900 and 1931. Robinson’s own combinations of words and images pay homage to the old title card writers, though his purposes largely run counter to his precursors’ attempts at cinematic sense making. Spence’s words sutured films together; Robinson’s prose poems work to pull the world of silent film apart. Each new page takes an individual movie and explores it centrifugally, letting its images echo and ping in the fleeting depths of the author’s own history. The overall effect is Eisensteinian, a stack of clashes forcing our attention toward the meanings that occur where Robinson’s discreet and radically different units collide.
Robinson populates these gaps in energetic ways, moving fluidly between the autobiographical and the fantastical, the lyrical and the mundane. He orders the films chronologically, but history is porous here. The prose poems wander between Edwin Porter, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Hitchcock, Dune, Happy Meals, Zen, Freud, Uwe Boll, Edison, “The Imp Girl,” The Apple Store, Frank Kermode, and Justin Timberlake. A caption beneath a title card still from F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh connects it to Fight Club for the way both films link work and personal identity. On the page opposite, Robinson’s “The Last Laugh (1924)” details his own terrible work experiences at Burger King, where his “true potential would blossom by putting things in fryers and pulling them out.” The mix — from Murnau and Emil Jannings to David Fincher and Edward Norton to Robinson himself — creates a frenetic continuity, one where silent cinema’s narrative structures help enliven and order the banalities of Robinson’s life. The lines on his résumé flicker like frames through a projector, culminating with a purposeful melodramatic flourish:
You are not your job, but there are no dividing lines in the soul. For whatever I am, I am also Burger King and Di Nappoli Pizza, Ponderosa Steak House and grocery stores and bookstores and café sinks filled with dishes. I am a human sign for companies with inexcusable indifference to human suffering.
Robinson also hones in on the title cards’ reliance on irony, the moments old movies depended on the audience recognizing the wide rift between the images on screen and the words being used to narrate them. Rather than detachment, though, the title cards’ ironic stance created a deeper intimacy between film and viewer. “Something happens in that darkness,” Robinson writes about the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle, American Aristocracy. That something is an oscillation between separation and immersion, the moment when semblances on screen take on a new realness and life, what Robinson describes as “the voice of the movie speaking directly to you.”
Early cinema’s precarious relationship with the fourth wall — the anonymous figures who can’t help but look directly into the camera, the apocryphal stories of a theater evacuation at the sight of an approaching train on screen — still remains one of its most alluring qualities. Robinson understands how this gives silent film its strange aura, how the nostalgia and intimacy it fosters ushers us into a space where watching filmed life still seems like an act laden with magic. Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), where Edison’s dopey protagonist mistakes a movie for the real thing and attacks the projectionist, reminds us how long the meta-cinematic has been part of film history. But in Uncle Josh’s delusional reaction Robinson also sees a skewed sort of wisdom, a reflection of our own desires to be subsumed by an illusion:
Underneath the buffoonery, Uncle Josh gets the final word. The would-be boob knew too well that movies are not part of time but images of time itself, how cats that die in movies haunt us as real cats do […] and the projectionist, with his pretensions of good clean fun — well, he deserved what he got.
Robinson’s interested in all the ways movies haunt, and death, both cinematic and real, is always hovering at the peripheries of All Movies Love the Moon. It shows up as early as How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900), when a car careens toward the captive audience. It lurks in the serial murders of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in a man burned alive in West of Zanzibar, and in the massacres and battles that rage as Lillian Gish tirelessly rocks her child in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Death is integral to narrative cinema, and we in turn use movies as a safe space to encounter it. “Where else can you learn to die if not at the movies,” Robinson asks. Seeing these countless simulations of death both educates and comforts us; in the ghostly images on screen Robinson senses the possibility of an encounter with real people who were once in his life but have now passed away: “In the corners of the screen they speak, in flickers and scratches, saying through the darting of our eyes that they are not that far gone.”
Death lurked in the form of silent cinema itself. The mere existence of title cards was evidence of the medium reaching out for more, hinting at the unavoidable encroachment of synchronized sound. In the collection’s final third, Robinson focuses on the decline of silent movies, returning us to a boozy Ralph Spence, who gloomily admits his glory days are done: “‘I get it,’ he says, ‘nothing lasts. But it is hard to get untangled from silver and nostalgia.’”
It is hard and, as Robinson suggests, oftentimes our myths and nostalgic hopes hold more sway than the truth. In his prose poem on George Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, Robinson mentions Lucretius, the original theorist of the persistence of vision. Robinson reveals to us the theory isn’t true. Pictures don’t burn “into the retina just long enough for another to take its place, and voilà! The dead come alive”; the phi phenomenon, discovered three years before The Birth of a Nation, debunked all that. But ask most people why movies look like they’re moving and they’ll answer with Lucretius’ theory. It’s comforting to think things work that way. As metaphor, the persistence of vision captures the core desire film embodies — that pull between the fleeting moment and our desire to see it persist forever — more powerfully than the phi phenomenon ever could.
We’re farther away now from the silent era than we ever have been, but, in many ways, we may be closer than we think. Vine and Instagram videos have rolled back our ideas about film length; the Lumière brothers’ film rolls were eight times longer than any Vine. The same twisted faces and hyperbolized outrage of Griffith’s melodramas populate 24-hour news and reality television. As subway commuters hunch over their iPads watching The Hobbit or Frozen, it’s hard not to think of film’s earliest days, when each audience member stood immersed in the individualized kinetoscopic world unfolding in front of them.
The quick clashes of All Movies Love the Moon remind us of that mythical power silent films still hold. Their disintegrations and rudimentary grammar make them seem like artifacts from another world, but it also makes them hyper-alive, humming with a vibrancy that contemporary movies can’t match. They illustrate an endless, culture-wide backward glance, despite the fact that time has moved, and will always keep moving, forward. “Follow the beam,” Robinson writes of Méliès, the first genius of cinematic magic: “It is a rare kind of monster up there, roaming the moon, ghosting the screen. It is the product of daily sacrifice, where frames sear and claws tear and eyes forget until eventually, the dead just stay dead.”