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“Nothing here is permanent. Once photographed, life here is ended.”
–David O. Selznick
In Vidia the printed image–the photograph, the ghost of light on film, the grains of music magnetized onto tape–is mutable. Further, all media maintain communication with their subjects, so that over time the faces fade from stamps at the death of those they commemorate, the scenes contained on film depopulate into landscapes and frames of vacant rooms, portraits dissolve into pentimento, vocals fade from songs. By intermediate degrees, team photographs dwindle to solitary players, symphonies lapse into solos, choruses to a single, quavering voice. In addition, images keep pace with their originals: faces and voices age, demolished buildings disappear from backgrounds, the sounds of obsolescent instruments decay–so that all remain contemporary. A film of fifty years’ age and another shot yesterday portray the same places, objects, people; each remains aligned in strict and perfect contemporaneity. Seen in process, time is gesture, history the remnant of the past. If we consider a film once popular in the theaters of Vidia, the procession of events makes itself evident. A scene remains in which a maid ascends a curving staircase, curtsies to her mistress, and presents her with a tray on which she has carried a glass of lemonade. For days after its initial release, the film displayed just this scene in theaters across Vidia. Hourly, daily, the young woman mounted the steps, crossed the thres
«hold into her mistress’ ornate salon, made her obeisance and presented her burden of refreshment. Folding the tray beneath her arm, she turned and left, descending the steps.
Within the week, however, a change could be observed: the liquid in the glass had begun to evaporate, and daily, nightly, the maid and her tray bore less and less until, within a month, she carried to her lady an empty glass. Before this process could completely resolve itself, however, a further shift in the image was observed: the maid–or, more accurately, the actress playing the maid–had, weeks after the release of the film, dyed her hair. Where before it had been russet brown, audiences now observed it shift to red, and, as the actress further altered her appearance, her fingernails–and so the nails of the maid she had been hired to play–changed to a scarlet red rarely seen on the hands of domestic servants. Over time, other changes made their appearance, and so subtle shifts of detail begin to make their incursion into the filmed scene.
But these were minor alterations beside the unexpected and much lamented death of the actress cast to play the maid’s employer. On successive evenings, the girl attended on a figure first stretched in languid ease at full length on a baroque settee. Then, by degrees, the nature of the reclining lady’s posture and attitude assumed a change. Viewers in Vidia first observed her pale and grow wan, then quickly weaken and fade, with each screening, growing visibly, unmistakably deathly ill. With news of the actress’ impending demise, theater audiences swelled with those to whom she, though personally unknown, was now the bearer of an urgent personal significance: to packed houses and the profit of theater proprietors across Vidia, she became the visible symbol of the passage of time, of the temporary essence of the media in Vidia. With hushed and earnest expectance, viewers kept nightly vigil before the weakening figure on the screen, and so the Vidians, moment by moment, became fellow-actors in the public spectacle of a well-beloved actress’ death.
On the night of her mistress’ death, the maid rendered her services first to a gaunt and wasted figure, her head shaved and bearing the painful evidences of a long hospitalization, then, at a later showing, to her mistress’ corpse, arranged in rigid ceremony at full length on the settee. Subsequent viewers witnessed the maid enter the salon, curtsy, present her empty tray, kneel again and back away from the place her former employer had once occupied on the now vacant seat.
In this and similar ways, the printed image becomes in Vidia an object of special reverence. It is ephemeral and, much like the subject it portrays, cannot be taken for granted. Whole legions of people tune in nightly to their televisions, their radios, aware that each character they see will eventually change, eventually fade from view. Each voice, each face will age. The once whole and coherent tableau of a director’s intent will eventually become the bare vista of what has been left behind, untouched in the passage of time.So the museums of Vidia, the theaters and libraries–all avail themselves of only the latest examples of their respective genres. An old book in Vidia is missing half its print, the words no longer actively in use unwrite themselves and the names of the dead erase. Still-lifes alone retain their places on gallery walls, portraits gradually lose their point as subjects die, and historic scenes become a frank impossibility.
In fifty years the maid, now a grandmother in slippered decrepitude, haltingly climbs a staircase rendered invisible by a fire on the film studio back lot which has destroyed the set. She stiffly ascends through empty space to the former location of the entrance to the salon. She crosses the threshold with a badly tarnished tray dented on one edge, shuffles through the air where once the floor had stretched, pauses before the space the settee had occupied, achingly curtsies and then turns and hobbles from the room.
In consequence of these conditions, beyond a certain recent point, there are no reruns, no revivals in Vidia; no retrospectives place more current works against the background of their predecessors, no frame of reference cordons off the past; only the present, as calmly unruffled as the surface of a strip of celluloid, flows by its spectators undisturbed. So as reverently as each filmed or printed event is received, it is as reverently, as eagerly displaced by anticipation of the newer, the more current, the only newly minted and struck off. With few exceptions, then, the past is daily sealed off from the present, the recent assumes the character of all-importance and, by quick degrees, recedes into aimless irrele[vance and disuse.
And so in Vidia, beyond a certain lapse of time, the printed image dies. Once paintings lose their subjects, once the faces and profiles fade from stamps, after movies age into long shots of landscapes and music thins to silence on a disc or tape, they are no longer shown, used or played. The Vidians file away their past, reuse old photos gone blank for note paper, paint over whitened canvases, shred film decayed into plain white light. At last, the only audience these fading works receive is the dwindling core of the personally concerned, the survivors of the events portrayed.
So it is with the film whose history we have reviewed here. The last surviving member of the production team, the cameraman through whose lens–through whose eyes–the scene we have watched was filmed, at last reviews his life’s work. Each Sunday throughout the final year of his life, he has been in the habit of visiting, through special arrangement, a film library. There he is seated in a small private theater, the lights are dimmed and, weekly, a film on which he has worked is shown. Sometimes he brings along a guest, a family member or close friend who, though unconnected with the genesis of the film he requests for that particular afternoon, nevertheless was aware in some personal way of its gestation. Perhaps–though it must be confessed, this is the merest speculation–he seeks companionship in his vigil if only to reinforce the unutterable loneliness of his task: watching, hour after hour, week by week, the barren waste of his former craft. Week by week, he sees films of blank unsettled vistas haunted by the ghostly frames of a few, wandering superannuated figures. Week by week he sees the changes time has wrought in his initial composition: buildings have risen in cornfields, parking lots now pave the floors of townhouses, and shipless passengers, floating like aging angels, hover in midair over empty seas.
On the final Sunday of his life, the last day of his retrospective, he comes alone to the library, and chooses to view the film from which we have watched a scene–the last of the many films on which he worked. The young woman who was once the maid has long since entered into the throes of senile dementia. The movie set has been demolished. The studio in which the film was shot has burned to the ground. As the scene approaches, we see the maid fumble uncomprehendingly with the dented tray. Slowly, and with many false starts and distractions, she finds the foot of the stairs, gropes her way through empty impossible space to the top of the lost staircase, and shuffles across the missing threshold of the room in which we last saw the actress who played her mistress die.
But on this particular day, the former cameraman finds attention difficult. Where he has closely watched the remaining images of his former films, noting the survivors and the elisions of place and circumstance which the particular nature of time and memory wreak on the media of Vidia, today he finds himself restive, ill at ease. Perceptions of just a moment ago are hard to retrieve and formalize into coherent thoughts. Alone in his darkened theater, he unbuttons his shirt, presses his hand against his chest: a dull and constant ache, like the sensation of an inner, irritated bruise, troubles him. Beneath the surface of his skin, this sudden and unexpected discomfort presses upon his consciousness, intrudes into his waking thoughts. Awareness of this pain has distracted him throughout the morning, and he shifts now uncomfortably in his chair.k
The Vidians are avid admirers of the present, eager consumers of their own contemporary media. Without t
öhe settled context of the past, without the background of reference and influence, each new effort appears to them fresh and unprompted, alive and inimitable. They find themselves in thrall to the moment, captivated by the reflectionless surface images flashed before them, then trundled silently away. Subtlety and inference have long since fallen away in Vidia, irony is almost unknown. The Vidians’ sense of humor is correspondingly broad: without parody, without the possibility of farce or pastiche--without even the barest references to context and situation--they find delight in crudity and manic force. Their comedies are spectacles of unregenerate directness, the bluntest possible displays of bodily function and attendant social anxiety; their tragedies are infrequent and brief: no Vidian, unaware of the riches potential in other cultures, other eras with their longstanding traditions and mores, cares f†or much more than the passing emotions of the moment. Misfortune–much, eventually, like joy–becomes a purely personal event, fleeting and only barely and in the broadest sense communicable. Genuine catastrophe, even when visited upon a great number, is still finally a collection of individual reminiscences, easily disbursed among the members of the larger society and, in any event, soon forgotten in the rush toward the novel, the promising, the next unreferenced issue of the coming and untroubled moment.
The cameraman shifts again, crosses his leg. On the screen before him, the scene has changed: the camera pans slowly across what was once, at the time of the film’s production, a ballroom scene. Moving slowly from one end of an elaborate and festive hall to the other, across a host of revelers in evening dress, the shot originally ended in the image of a woman--the late actress whose illness and death the film had already chronicled--about to raise her glass in salute. Her voice, which in the film had first rung out joyfully, quieting the partygoers as she offered her toast, had first with the onset of her final illness, faded to a hoarse whisper, then into mute inaudibility as the figure on the screen wasted from a woman in frankly plump middle age to the skeletal wraith she had become at the time of her death. The dais on which she stood--indeed, the whole room around her--had long since been dismantled, torn down for use in other films, as other sets and backdrops. The furnishings of the richly decorated room had long since been scattered, all but the youngest of its celebrating occupants now deceased.
The cameraman withdraws his hand from within his shirt, buttons away the dull ache within his chest. On the screen before him, the erstwhile ballroom scene has been transformed. After fifty years the film, now gone grainy with age and neglect, shows not the elegant revel it first displayed, but a scene ¡distinctly dissimilar; a group of elderly partiers, dressed in the bathrobes and nightclothes of custodial care, shuffle on slippered feet singly or in pairs across an iron foundry floor, gliding belaboredly to the lapsed strains of a vanished dance ensemble. They move in silent disregard of the industrial scene about them, still waltzing past machinery concerned in the production and handling of molten iron. They talk among themselves, oblivious to the factory workers who, unaware themselves that their place of employment once occupied the locale of the film studio, go about their own labors unconcerned.
So history, in Vidia, is measured in reverse. Instead of regarding development as a devi≤ation from past practice and pattern, the available media teach scholars to regard the present as the model from which the past, increasingly, diverges. Over time, events erode in reference to the present, all sources gradually dissolving into a portrait of the here and now. Because of this, the Vidians are buoyed by a constant optimism: there was no golden age from which the current has descended–there never could have been–and the immediate contains all events, all objects, all souls and information which have ever been or ever could exist.
The cameraman sits forward; the kernel of pain in his chest has expanded: his throat is tense, his left arm, upon which he has been leaning, is cramped and stiff. He regards the scene projected before him without humor or interest. Indeed, he seems unaware of it at all as he rises and makes his way toward the aisle of the projection room. The camera has now swept past the scene it once beheld, has now settled on the place where once our actress had raised her glass in glad salute. It now peers into the mouth of an open furnace, the interior of which glows an angry, pocked orange. As the cameraman fumbles free of the last few seats in his row and stands for a moment in the aisle, catching his breath and massaging his stinging arm as he prepares to ascend to the auditorium exit, the camera angle on the screen behind him changes.
In response to the once-offered toast, the surviving guests of the party, circling on the factory floor, turn and leave off their dancing. They consider the end of the room which had once held the focus of their attention. Some of them peer stiffly, fighting against the darkening vision of age, some turn vacant faces marked only by the serenely bland smiles of dementia, but they turn and, in expectation, pause attentively at the point where once they were addressed. In the aisle, the cameraman presses his hands to his side, staggers forward a step, gasps and falls.
And the screen behind him gradually fades to clean white light.
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