Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead
One of the ongoing debates that picks up steam every now and then is whether we should have high school students read old books in school (this WSJ opinion piece was everywhere recently and the #DisruptTexts tag on Twitter is on fire). Of course, a lot of the impetus behind this is to replace the canon of old dead white guys with a more diverse set of authors and subjects, but I can’t help but think another reason is because adults don’t really read old books anymore either. I mean, do adults even read anymore?
Alan Jacobs thinks we should, and thinks we should also read old books. “Breaking bread with the dead” is provocative phrasing that sounds much weirder than it actually is. Breaking bread is a common term, maybe especially in Christian circles (though this is not an explicitly Christian book) for sharing table fellowship – for sharing a meal and conversation with someone. Jacobs suggests we should see reading old books as an opportunity to join their authors for table fellowship.
Why would we do this? Jacobs actually has a fairly compelling argument, more convincing, probably, than my usual “because it’s good for you and also fun!!” reasoning. Taking an idea from Thomas Pynchon, he argues that expanding our temporal bandwidth increases our personal density – in other words, increasing our understanding of humanity over time (temporal bandwidth) increases our own weightiness, our own ability to stand up to every breeze that blows in our accelerated and windblown culture. For the Christians in the room, this of course brings to mind Ephesians 4:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the headâ€”Christâ€” 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.Ephesians 4:11-16, NKJV
Paul is speaking specifically of staying grounded in the Word of God to avoid heresy, but I do believe that the idea is broadly applicable to life in general. It’s very easy, especially on social media, to get swept up with whatever the topic of outrage du jour is, and sometimes outrage is justified, but how quickly do we get swept on to the next one at a moment’s notice. And how often are we so buried in our own bubbles that we can barely see outside them, much less understand how different viewpoints have shifted throughout history rather than just since last week. Jacobs argues that it is precisely encounters with difference that give us more perspective and more focus for the present.
Jacobs takes up several objections – notably how to deal with the fact that we honestly and in many cases appropriately have major issues with viewpoints common to the past. Like racism and sexism to name two huge ones. His response won’t be enough, likely, for the #DisruptText crowds, but as an already-committed old book apologist, I found it quite useful – don’t discount our objections, but also don’t use those objections to dismiss an entire book/author. They’re complex human beings, just like we are, and because we rightfully denounce their racism doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them in some other way.
Besides increasing our personal density, Jacobs also recommends approaching this table fellowship thinking of the old writers as our neighbors. We don’t always agree with our neighbors. Sometimes we may vehemently disagree with them. Jacobs suggests that learning to engage strange and even sometimes repugnant ideas in books, where we have control over the encounter, is a relatively safe and stress-free way to “practice” engaging our actual real-life neighbors. Ultimately, he hopes we can treat our ancestors as well as our contemporaries and descendents with a spirit of generosity and love – a genealogy of love continuing throughout the generations.
One pushback I can make on the book is he doesn’t really address the value of reading cross-culturally among modern writers rather than reading cross-temporally. This question was actually asked of him during a podcast I listened to, and his response was basically that yes, reading cross-culturally is a great idea and definitely contributes to our personal density, but that reading old books still probably does it more just because our modern world is so globally oriented that even though there are plenty of cultural differences, they aren’t actually as great as the difference between modern culture and, say, Ancient Greek culture, or even Medieval European culture. I would’ve liked to have seen that idea explored in more detail in the actual book. Especially since we inherit our current dominant white culture from these cultures – maybe they’re more different than they are similar, but I can easily see a #DisruptTexts advocate finding this a hard proposition to swallow. Maybe a sequel!
As someone who doesn’t need to be convinced to read old books, I appreciated metaphors like the one I quoted at the top, which took my thinking slightly off his topic, but still relevant to reading widely. The idea of good books and culture in general being a feast echoes Charlotte Mason’s philosophy about spreading a feast for students in terms of offering them lots of great literature, music and art, letting them play in nature, etc. Not everyone will like everything, but everyone’s invited to the feast to browse and enjoy. If we can see and present old books like this, as a feast to enjoy rather than an assignment to dread or a checklist to complete, perhaps breaking bread with the dead would be more enticing for more people.
Like many books about reading, I do suspect this one will largely end up preaching to the choir. Most people who aren’t interested in reading at all, or reading old books in particular, are unlikely to pick this up. Those of us who are interested are likely nodding along in agreement all the way through, not needing to be convinced of his thesis. But I think his arguments on every point give those of us who think the value of reading old books should be self-evident do give us some good arguments for the challengers we run into ourselves, and for that I am very grateful.
Book 2 of 2021 for me. I won’t review everything, and not necessarily in order.
1900-1908: Imitators and Innovation
Moving into the 20th century saw a lot of filmmakers try to imitate MÃ©liÃ¨s’ camera trickery, and soon begin outpacing him. Unfortunately, as innovative as MÃ©liÃ¨s was in creating the trick film, he never really went past that, never able to break free from his conception of the cinema as filmed stage action, and never realizing the capabilities of the camera beyond stopping and starting time. There are many great MÃ©liÃ¨s films in the first half of this decade, but it’s not long before they begin to feel tiresome. In this section, we’ll see trick films continue to be central, but other types of narratives and editing techniques will also start to be developed. I cut the date off at 1908 instead of 1909 because 1909 is when D.W. Griffith really started taking off, and marks the shift from trick film to more complex narratives. We’ll catch up 1909 to 1912 in the next post, and then I’ll try to go year by year after that.
Going to Bed Under Difficulties
One of my favorite MÃ©liÃ¨s subgenres is the haunted inn, where a weary traveler tries to get to bed but he can’t seem to make it – chairs move, the bed disappears, his clothes walk off on their own. In this case, the furniture stays put, but he can’t seem to manage to keep his clothes off. There are many of these, and they’re one of the few types of MÃ©liÃ¨s films that never got old for me even when I was tiring of him. I also just really love the English title of this.
The Delights of Automobiling
After a near-decade of cinema domination from the US and France, Great Britain jumped on the scene with some decidedly delightful (and macabre) films from Cecil M. Hepworth, including this one which features a motorcar exploding…and look out for what’s falling from the sky. Great example of wry British black humor.
Grandma’s Reading Glass
When the Brits made their way into cinema, they did it in a big way. George Albert Smith contributed this film, said to contain the first closeups. The conceit is that a boy is looking through his grandma’s magnifying glass, then we cut to see what the magnifying glass sees – in closeup. A bird in a cage, Grandma’s eye, etc. Because of the cut to closeup, it’s also one of the earliest films that contains editing! Things like this are why this Chrono Watch has been so rewarding. You don’t notice things like this being so innovative if you see them out of context.
The Enchanted Drawing
J. Stuart Blackton was something like the American version of MÃ©liÃ¨s, experimenting with trick films and also animation before most people. An illustrator draws a large man’s face and some wine, and the illustrated face changes in reaction to the illustrator’s actions. A lot of very early animation foregrounded the illustrator like this, as in many of cartoonist Windsor McKay’s early shorts.
“The demand for ‘originality’ – with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work – is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed. This view is adopted, and perhaps carried to excess, by writers like T.S. Eliot, some of whose poems are a close web of quotations and adaptations, chosen for their associative value; or like James Joyce, who makes great use of the associative value of sounds and syllables. The criterion is, not whether the associations are called up, but whether the spirits invoked by this kind of verbal incantation are charged with personal power by the magician who speeds them about their new business.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
Just to get back up to speed, here’s a quick rundown of the first couple of decades of cinema, with a few thoughts about some highlights.
Cameras that could take multiple shots in quick succession were just being developed, and the earliest films are more snippets of experiments than anything else. Thomas Edison’s lab was a leader here, though if you delve into the details, he developed almost nothing related to movies – he bought innovations other inventors made and his associates (especially W.K.L. Dickson) worked to improve them.
Roundhay Garden Scene
Considered to be possibly the oldest moving picture, just a few seconds of people meandering around a garden.
There were three of these, experiments done in the Edison lab, of a lone figure. The first is very out of focus and ghostly, the second a bit more defined, and the third one has been lost (be suspicious of videos on YouTube claiming to be Monkeyshines #3). I find these have a magnetic quality, though, perhaps because of the ghostliness of them.
An anomaly for 1892, a stop-motion film at a narrative level which wouldn’t be seen again for several years.
The beginning of the actualities that would be the bread and butter for Edison’s studio, most of them actually made by W.K.L. Dickson – he gets a start on them in 1893 with this one, but there are oh so many more to come.
The Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s)
Actual boxing movies were very popular, a way for people to watch fights they couldn’t dream of attending in person. Their popularity is perhaps the reason for this humorous parody.
Imperial Japanese Dance
Some of Dickson’s actualities were of normal everyday scenes, but many were exotic things like this, showing a snapshot of a world most Americans would never see. I mean, most of them were staged and not authentic at all, but that was the intention anyway.
Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Sound may not have taken over until the late 1920s, but Edison’s lab was experimenting with it as early as 1896! Edison, in fact, thought moving pictures were a novelty, intending to use them merely as supplements for his main product, the phonograph.
Employees Leaving the LumiÃ¨re Factory
Edison had competition early on from the LumiÃ¨re brothers in France, whose actualities have a naturalistic quality to them as opposed to Edison/Dickson’s studio/controlled feel.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
It’s an urban legend that moviegoers jumped up and ran in fear that the train would hit them, but this is still a very pleasing film due to the LumiÃ¨re’s sense of composition and angle.
Tables Turned on the Gardener
The LumiÃ¨res try their hand at comedy, an unusual mode for them, but a delightful one. Many films from this era were copied by others since copyright law was not well-defined in terms of moving pictures, so there is also a version of this directed by Alice Guy. Dueling copycat films continued into the 1910s, and in some cases it’s almost impossible to tell for sure which version is which!
1896-1899: MÃ©liÃ¨s Ascendant
There are still a lot of solid actualities in this time period, and I’ve included a couple, but 1896 marks the year Georges MÃ©liÃ¨s sprang onto the scene. MÃ©liÃ¨s was a stage magician who realized he could stop the camera, change something, and start it again and it would look like magic. He’s justly honored for the invention of camera tricks, and the first several years of his career are tough to beat.
The House of the Devil
This is like a “greatest hits” of MÃ©liÃ¨s, or at least a precursor to several strands of his future career. Costumes? Check. Conjuring and transformation tricks? Check. A devilish character playing tricks on people? Check. It’s a lot of fun, and a really great introduction to MÃ©liÃ¨s.
I find actualities like this pretty dang charming – just the LumiÃ¨re children having a little spat, but it’s cute and realistic and somehow really refreshing. Like home movies from the dawn of (cinematic) time.
The Bewitched Inn
Among the earliest “haunted inn” films, a genre that would serve MÃ©liÃ¨s very well for many years, and remains my personal favorite type of film he did. The setup is simple – a weary traveler arrives at an inn and settles in for some much-needed rest, only to have his clothes and all the furniture in his room develop minds of their own and move about the room unbidden. This one particularly amuses me because even though he’s mad, he doesn’t seem scared or weirded out by all these things moving of their own volition. It makes it even funnier.
The Dancing Skeleton
Disney would make a major thing of animated dancing skeletons thirty years later, but they weren’t the first – this unusual film for the LumiÃ¨res experimented with stop-motion very early.
The Four Troublesome Heads
A fairly typical but high-level MÃ©liÃ¨s trick film, with a magician main character pulling off his head repeatedly and putting it on a table until he has four heads (plus the one still on his body). It’s impressive trickery, and quite funny as well; maybe the best example of what MÃ©liÃ¨s the Magician envisioned for expanding magic onto the screen.
When MÃ©liÃ¨s wasn’t doing magician tricks or stranding hapless travelers in haunted inns, he was most likely doing a longer (and often long-winded) costume drama, with lavish sets, costumes, and hand-coloring. These get pretty tedious later on, but this one is kind of amazing – no one else at this time was even attempting narratives at this level.
Now, this is far from all I watched from 1888-1899. Here’s my Flickchart list of the top 30 or so I watched. I picked ones for this recap that I felt were particularly notable, not necessarily the ones I liked the best, so they don’t match the top of this exactly. I ended up having seen 76 films from the 1880s and 1890s.