Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
The insertion of text into the flow of images, that jolt and stutter that imposes interpretation, that takes silent action and lends it the framework of sense: this is Robinson’s interest in film history and poetics, and for this project he looks back on the era when silent film, pursuing narrative, turned to the title cards, splicing prose poems into dreams. We hear of title card writers resurrecting the unwatchable with the insertion of clever text; of writers skillful enough to twist comedy to drama, or vice versa, with a block of projected words, luminous through the haze.
Intrigued by the poetry and visual aesthetic of the title cards of early twentieth century films, Robinson writes his own accompanying prose poems, linked to individual experiences of cinema and coupled, in this book, with images of title cards from each film, captioned by Robinson. Goddard speaks of shot and counter-shot: here we have text (Robinson’s) paired with image-of-text (with accompanying text commentary, by Robinson).
Yet “history” here is unreliable, just as the imposed “interpretation” is radically indeterminate. Robinson plays wry with facts, and he alters or inserts his own, new, images. Sometimes this can be easily sorted out, as when figures hunched over computers show up in a title card supposedly from a 1907 film. Robinson’s real historical material is so bizarre, however, and so frequently unbelievable, that it, too, often seems like the invention of a contemporary prankster. Consider the fact that in 1916’s The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, “Douglas Fairbanks stars as a detective who injects bad guys (and himself) with copious amounts of cocaine.” The character’s name (Robinson remains mum on this) is Coke Ennyday, a Sherlock Holmes parody with a bandolier of syringes. Robinson makes clear at the start of his text that “There is real history here . . . verifiable names and dates. However, if you really want to know the truth about silent movies and the words they contain, this book will provide little assistance.”
Was there a title card in American Aristocracy (1916) that read, “‘Count Xxerkzsxxv’ (To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.)”? And was this written by Anita Loos, “was one of the first professional title writers . . . [who] often spoke directly to the audience”? Why would it matter, here, in the context of reflecting on the experience of cinema itself, dragging your plots into a seat to get reasonably lost in a plot that is not your own: “wall-mounted landscapes and trompe l’oeil . . . this hazy kingdom of silent film and forgotten Polaroids”?
I stopped fact-checking fairly early on, opting instead to try to figure out what Robinson was going for by shuffling real and unreal. The projected world of cinema is, after all, always unreal on one level, and reception of such projections always involves a jumble of chronology and storylines, a splicing of image into narrative, film into life. Robinson wants to get at the truth of title cards, not their associated facts. He wants to get at the truth of just what this imposition of order, of narrative, onto images feels like—meaning, at core, his concern here is the phenomenon of movie-watching, which is the phenomenon of consciousness negotiating image and text.
If one of the earliest special effects in filmmaking consisted of “a single trick: stop the camera, move something, start it again,” Robinson shows us that all film-watching is similarly stop-motion, a folding together of worlds and perspectives, a multivalent encounter. Thus he offers something like a viewing, today, of “Hell’s Hinges,” via association and the sort of internal monologue that runs during that experience: not the film itself, but shot and counter-shot of reference and remembrance, musings and meditations, how “Jennifer Love Hewitt pass[ing] ghost to the next world,” or how Hell is “like the orange fires of burning oil well in Iraq” or how Satan might just be “a jerk, always posting pictures with ironic captions on Hell’s Facebook.” All this is paired with a singularly unironic title card, captioned such that it hinges between comedy and drama, hell as, simultaneously, horror and font of jokes.
Robinson describes films as “our collective dreams,” and he presents his own work as a kind of psychoanalysis, speaking the incomprehensible. We don’t need to understand, he says, just as we don’t need to segregate real from fake. The “false memories” and “ghosts” of cinema are real enough for those of us who experience them, who submit to being drenched by visions and marked by text.
Robinson describes it in terms of physiology, as well: “The eye remembers—at least for an instant. Lucretius called it persistence of vision. Sixteen times a second, each frame sears into the retina just long enough for another to take its place.” There is something natural, in the end, about all this celluloid, these whirring projectors and darkened halls. Robinson hints at a primordial origin, cinema emerging from flames onto rock walls, shadows in moonbeams. No less real for being intangible, fleeting, illusory, and utterly subjective, seen differently by each viewer, felt as intimate and individual by every member of the audience.
Leaving the cinema of Robinson’s book, I was most affected by the glimpse, here, into the inner workings of consciousness. Robinson would surely say that cinema changed everything (more so than Freud, for whose work he has less admiration). We live in a world structured via our experience with cinema, and, thus, our experience of the world looks a lot like what Robinson is doing in these pages, splicing time and space, memories and the moment, consciousness thought and unconscious whispers, narration crashing against the imposition of language from beyond, images lingering and being transformed by our viewing of them...
I had thought, in approaching this review, that I’d be helped by watching Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon, two versions at two speeds, which I watched and then rewatched, dreamt about, watched again, that blue and silver forest, Pierrot so struck by moonlight and the magic lantern, a girl, an eclipse. But then, as I began writing on Robinson, I saw no connection. Anger’s interests, after all, are all visual, the image as mystical communion. Yet as the days went by I realized I was thinking of Rabbit’s Moon at odd times, in improbable ways, like a tricky billiards shot, in ricochet. I kept dreaming of it, and one result was confusion regarding the film versus dreams of the film, and while I tried to think about it, intellectually, to theorize and stuff the thing and its experience into an academic hat, I found myself surprised and increasingly baffled by the work. Rabbit’s Moon, rather than shrinking to something I could sum up with a thesis and analyses, grew, more and more amorphous and incomprehensible.
Which was when I realized the genius of Robinson’s book. Beyond the concern with title cards or film history or even the cinema itself, he gives us a slim experiment in consciousness. I’d read it at random, if I were you: a set of paired pages here, then flip back, flip forward. Read it in front of and beside one of your screens, with or without sound, alternate between this and other texts, these and other images. Robinson is showing us something of how we work, us, “humans,” from prehistory to the Internet age, from shadow play around the fire to streaming via Netflix, story spliced into story, image after image or superimposed, interpretation as an individual act of instantaneous redaction and anthologizing—interpretation as constant process of reimagining, “being” best understood by the analogy of a writer putting title cards to a film as it flickers past.
Official Gregory Robinson Web Site
Official Rose Metal Press Web Site