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  • Shock and “Perfect Contemplation”:Dorothy Richardson’s Mystical Cinematic Consciousness
Fig 1. Table of Contents, Close Up 1, no. 1, July 1927.<br/><br/>Image courtesy of Museum of Modern Art Library.
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Fig 1.

Table of Contents, Close Up 1, no. 1, July 1927.

Image courtesy of Museum of Modern Art Library.

[End Page 51]

It was a Monday and therefore a new picture. But it was also washing day, and yet the scattered audience was composed almost entirely of mothers. Their children, apart from the infants accompanying them, were at school and their husbands were at work. It was a new audience, born within the last few months. Tired women, their faces sheened with toil, and small children, penned in semidarkness and foul air on a sunny afternoon. There was almost no talk. Many of the women sat alone, figures of weariness at rest. Watching these I took comfort. At last the world of entertainment had provided for a few pence, tea thrown in, a sanctuary for mothers, an escape from the everlasting qui vive into eternity on a Monday afternoon.

—Dorothy Richardson, Close Up 1, no. 1 (July 1927)1

In her first contribution to the film journal Close Up, Dorothy Richardson recounts her inaugural trip to a picture palace in North London, where she is struck by a profound sense of restorative “quiet” and by the new kinds of communities forming around the cinema. When initially asked to contribute to the journal, Richardson is convinced that with her predilection for “simple sentiment,” she has nothing to offer, yet assures Bryher, Close Up’s assistant editor, that she knows she has “some notes somewhere & will look them up,” but fancies “they are simply about seeing movies, regardless of what is seen.”2 Richardson’s odd notes quickly grew into a regular column, “Continuous Performance”—a title drawn from the early cinematic practice of running movies back to back, continuously. And over the journal’s six-year run (1927–1933), Richardson resolutely examines cinema’s propensity to move viewers into a new realm of consciousness, asserting in her 1931 article “Narcissus”: “the whole power of the film” rests in “this single, simple factor”: “the reduction, or elevation of the observer to the condition that is essential to perfect contemplation.”3

In espousing a contemplative, absorptive mode of perception, Richardson defends a mode of looking which is denigrated as uncritical, apolitical, sentimental, in short as “feminine,” in much historical film criticism, and by drawing on tenets of mysticism, in which absorption in the image is sought after and cultivated, succeeds in forging an alternative model of spectatorship. By creating a place for sympathetic identification within the avant-garde context of the journal,4 Richardson breaks with the tradition of Brechtian defamiliarization now customarily associated with the political cinema and anticipates the late writing of Sergei Eisenstein (also a Close Up contributor), who argued that sympathetic absorption could impel the spectator to take a dialectical leap into a subject position antithetical to one’s own—therein bringing about social and political change.5

While Close Up critics were part of the same socio-cultural milieu as Eisenstein and German cultural critics Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin and were integrated into the Berlin/Neu-Babelsberg film scene in the 1920s and 30s, their criticism is seldom dealt with in the same context—a strange oversight, considering they were compelled by many of the same issues.6 Over the journal’s six-year run, one common concern of Eisenstein and the Weimar critics emerged as a central focus: the connection between film and shock. Within the aesthetic debates of the 1920s and 30s, film’s propensity to induce shock was generally attributed to its ability to produce a state of distraction [End Page 52] in the viewer. Against this established position, the contributors to Close Up develop what I term an alternative “contemplative aesthetic”—locating film’s shock effect in its capacity to generate states of deep contemplative absorption.

In examining the unique aesthetic developed on the pages of Close Up, this essay seeks to restore a crucial perspective to the aesthetic conversations of the 1920s and 30s and to trace its historical and theoretical implications. In marked contrast to the Vorticists and Futurists, who...


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