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  • Ambassadors from an Imaginary “Elsewhere”: Cinematic Convention and the Jamesian Sensibility
  • Alan Nadel

Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian contains an episode in which Guy Grand, the billionaire whose practical jokes comprise the bulk of the novel, purchases a movie theater in the 1940s so that he may show altered versions of first-run films:

In one scene in Mrs. Miniver, Walter Pidgeon was sitting . . . in his firelit study and writing in his journal. He had just that afternoon made the acquaintance of Mrs. Miniver and was no doubt thinking of her as he paused reflectively and looked toward the open fire. In the original version of the film he took out a pen knife from the desk drawer and meditatively sharpened the pencil he had been writing with. During this scene the camera remained on his face, which was filled with quiet reflection and modest hopefulness. . . .

The insert Grand made into this film . . . introduced just at the moment where Pidgeon opened the knife . . . a three-second close shot of the fire-glint blade [which] seemed to portend dire evil, and occurring as it did early in the story, simply “spoiled” the film.


As un-Jamesian as such an episode may be, it evokes succinctly, I think, some of James’s concerns. Like so many moments in James’s novels, Guy Grand’s intervention in the narrative of Mrs. Miniver illustrates the way in which the inadvertent glimpse, creating the smallest degree of alteration, inflects everything. If James can be seen as conducting experiments testing the threshold of cognition, experiments from which his best characters must (like Guy Grand) gain nothing [End Page 279] for themselves, cinema can be viewed as the ideal medium. The “moving picture” arose not out of a quest for a new narrative form but rather out of time/motion studies that sought to use a series of photographs to break motion into discrete units. Reversing this process yielded an experiment in perception: what degree of difference in the sequencing of the photos constituted the threshold of apparent animation? Under what conditions could the figure in the carpet appear to move or two discrete postures oxymoronically appear to disappear into one coherent gesture? The coherence of the social gesture or quotidian act, broken down to its minimum thresholds of significance and then reconstituted as the illusion of itself, as an imaginary plenitude, describes equally well, I think, the fundamentals of cinema and the sensibility of James’s fiction.

Cinema’s illusion of coherence, moreover, contains the potential for brutal rupture. Because human perception usually blurs—that is, cannot shake off the ghost of its last impression—in less than one sixth of a second, the conventional film speed of twenty-four frames-per-second, in safely obscuring even the flicker of difference, also permits abrupt change of images, with a simple cut, in a twenty-fourth of a second. Complex syntactical codes, in turn, restore the cut’s disruption to an imaginary coherence of time and space. The rich syntax of cinematic representation thus usually engages the viewer in a chain of modifying clauses that, like late Jamesian prose, continuously recontextualize speech and motion within psychological frameworks that give the visual and aural action resonant significance.

In film and fiction, this syntactic relationship allows exactly what theater precludes: control of the gaze. To put it another way, theater is all presence; everything of it stands before the spectator. While the spectator may thus choose where to look, she has little choice about how to look, for neither the playwright, the director, nor the spectator can manipulate, as cinema does, the frame, distance, angle, and focus that construct theater’s “window” on reality. Cinema acquires its variegated gaze by implying limitless absence, in that the cinematic world, unlike the stage set, is incomplete. The spectator sees fragments—potentially unlimited fragments, but fragments, nonetheless—of an always partial world. In this way, film suffers many of the same limitations and thus many of the same freedoms as does the novel, especially those freedoms and limitations cogent to James’s form of realism, a point suggested in James’s famous passage from the preface to The Portrait...

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pp. 279-285
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