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Shakespeare Quarterly 53.2 (2002) 241-259



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Cinema and the Kingdom of Death:
Loncraine's Richard III

Peter S. Donaldson


Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. . . . If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Everything there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air—is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is no life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre. . . . And all this is in a strange silence where no rumble of wheels is heard, no sound of footsteps or of speech. Nothing. Not a single note of the intricate symphony that always accompanies the movements of people. 1

I. The Kingdom of Shadows

Writing under the pseudonym "I. M. Pacatus," Maxim Gorky began his review of the Lumière program for the 4 July 1896 edition of Nizhegorodski listok with these words. Published in the new medium's second year of existence, these remarks are one of the earliest—perhaps the very earliest—statement of the idea of cinema as a kingdom of death. Gorky's position, that cinema is a pale and unworthy shadow of life, a kind of death-in-life, contrasts sharply with the better-known idea that cinematic images were "living" representations, surpassing all past media in presenting life itself. This construction could be heard even in the names of early production companies and cinematic processes: Vitagraph, Bioscope, Biograph. If photographic images were drawn by "nature's pencil," 2 cinematic images added movement to photography's almost unmediated registration of the lineaments of the living world. And yet movement without color and without sound could be thought of as more uncanny than still images, creating spectral stirrings of the pallor of the tomb, or even mortifacient, death-producing, not only failing at the simulation of the fullness of life but actively producing half-life, a kind of death. While Gorky intends his remarks to be critical, the experience he describes is, paradoxically [End Page 241] , a compelling one; for who would not wish, in the safety of the exhibition space, to visit the land of the shadows?

Though Gorky's review may be the first example of a response to cinema that linked the new medium to death, Antonia Lant's researches have shown that related ideas of living death, spectral life, and mummification were already a pervasive presence in the discursive world into which film was introduced. 3 Magic-lantern "phantasmagoria" date from the late-eighteenth century and by 1801 were advertising the appearance of "phantasms or apparitions of the dead or absent, in a way more illusive than has ever been offered to the eye in a public theatre." 4 Later in the century, such shows acquired a close connection to ancient Egypt, its cult of the dead, and its practices of entombment and mummification. "Egyptian" elements were introduced into the shows and into the design and architecture of the display spaces, and in time these associations were transferred to cinema. For example, the Egyptian Hall in London, where magic-lantern shows took place, became a cinema exhibition space as early as 1896. The new art of cinema could be construed as even closer to the mummies of ancient Egypt than the magic-lantern shows had been:

There was an association between the blackened enclosure of silent cinema and that of the Egyptian tomb, both in theoretical texts and in the use of Egyptian architectural style for auditoriums: a perception of cinema as a necropolis, its projection mysterious and cursed, issuing a warning to spectators . . . a noted parallel between mummification as preservation for a life beyond life and the ghostliness of cinematic images . . . a link between the chemistry of mummification and that of film development and printing. . . . 5

Films about mummies coming to life began to appear very early with Cléopâtre (dir. Georges Méliès, 1899...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-3555
Print ISSN
0037-3222
Pages
pp. 241-259
Launched on MUSE
2002-07-01
Open Access
No
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