(This article incorporates pieces of Charles Johnson’s essay “Moving Pictures”, which are denoted by italics in the text. It’s a very interesting read and well worth checking out.) As you approach the theater, you are watched from above. A crane shot soars overhead, like the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, tracking your movement. The camera eye descends and glides closer, closer, as from the perspective of a swift and graceful bird. Maybe there is a soundtrack, or maybe it will be added later. Hard lighting creates bold shadows and sharp edges as you purchase your ticket, but softens as you are followed into the heart of the theater. Here, the borders of darkness and light are blurred, the line between reality and fiction made uncertain. You take your seat amidst the scent of popcorn and human perspiration. The lights fade. You have entered a place of magic and possibility, a place Charles Johnson called the new cathedral. In the dark, among a crowd of strangers, your eyes are fixed on the wall ahead of you. It’s not so far from the cave paintings of your ancient ancestors. Previews, like prophecy, show you a vision of the future, even while you are thinking of the past. The best filmmakers (like the best writers) address you directly, creating and recreating parts of themselves in a variety of worlds and situations, thrusting them at you as if the experiences were your own. Sometimes it’s like the early days of cinema when Bronco Billy turned to fire his pistol into the audience of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Like them, you move defensively in your seat but are secretly thrilled by such a blatant assault from the screen. This new cathedral Johnson spoke of is the seat of your spirituality in a world where, to many, God has become curiously absent. Entertainment is your religion now. Here, with the theatrical lights flashing across your face, you find stories better remembered than legends, totems, or mythologies, and directors more popular than novelists, more influential than saints. The art of cinema, even the popular art of mainstream blockbusters, has become sacred. Everyone asks if you’ve seen the new Wonder Woman movie, or the latest chapter of the Star Wars saga like they are asking if you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal savior. ‘Yes,’ you tell them, ‘I’ve seen it twice.’ Then, and only then, are you one of them, having experienced the same communal revelation. You witnessed it like they did, as a seeker groping in the darkness for light, hoping to find your life changed by something magical shining from above. But now, as before we found our current church, there is no common interpretation of the images we behold. In 1834, William George Horner created a spinning, lamp-like drum into which one could look to see moving images. He called his time-passing toy the Zoetrope, from the Greek, meaning “life turning”. However, like the words of every amateur critic lurking online, the exchangeable paper strips which fit into the drum could invoke different memories and feelings in everyone who looked upon them. Someone else might see horses galloping in a circle and be reminded of the farm where they spend their summers. You would see dancing stallions and think of the wooden rocking-horse of your childhood, which was not an otherwise happy time. Still, you would continue to look, as you continue to look at the images racing across the screen now. Someone might say that you leave your life outside the theater doors, but you know that’s not true. Life is messy and nothing like art. The words of the writer, like the images that beam from the film projector, are someone’s attempt to clean up the mess, to package it for mass consumption and instill some order to the insanity of life. Here’s where everything begins, he says, and this is where it inevitably ends, and aren’t you satisfied with it all? Wasn’t it a beautifully choreographed pile of shit? But the writer, like the creator of pictures and sound, or a film poorly conceived and edited, can only escape reality for so long. Fade in to 1872, when the governor of California makes a bet that a horse in full stride has all four feet off the ground. He hires Eadweard Muybridge, a local photographer, to mount a line of cameras along the racetrack. Muybridge’s series of twenty photos prove that the governor was right . . . and eventually leads to the invention of motion pictures. In the meantime, however, the photographer kills his wife’s lover and is judged innocent by reason of temporary insanity. Cut to the writer, deep in his tedious work of creating. As someone who reaches inside himself, assembling and editing pieces of his mind, heart, and soul in hopes of publication – in hopes that anyone anywhere is actually going to care – is it ever possible for you to leave it all outside? The faces on the screen dissolve, briefly superimposing over your own image in the temple of the movie theater. You are an artist too, and this is your dream. But the reality is that you are divorced, with two children you barely see anymore, more debt than you can ever reasonably escape, and, most of the time, everything you dream of seems further away than your seat at the back of the theater. But you lose yourself in the hands of the dream-merchants, feeling some stability in the lines of rising action and clear denouement. You escape, maybe too often, in this faith in the stories. You sit each night, not sleeping but not writing either, the small screen lighting up your face with TV shows and old horror movies. You reach for another book, from shelves that are overflowing with other people’s words, and read about the beginnings of cinema. You read about how Georges Melies discovered special effects – discovered, not created, because he was filming a Parisian street when his camera jammed. Playing it back later revealed a bus that suddenly transformed into a hearse. You read about this and hope for such a happy accident – such discovery – in your own life. What you sometimes forget is that works of art don’t just magically appear in front of most people like that, a gift from some elusive god. No, they must be made. Everything in your life, you know, must be created. So, every day, you create just a little bit more. The history of your precious movies reveals a litany of such creation. A Parisian painter, fascinated by Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion, converted them into moving images for a projecting Zoetrope. Thomas Edison, inventor (some might say stealer) of the microphone, phonograph, and incandescent lamp, assigned William Dickson to the task of designing a similar projector. The resulting Kinetoscope was a kind of simple peep show, costing a mere penny, leading to the Nickelodeon parlors of the early 1900s. Here, for the first time, moving pictures became a communal experience. The earliest motion pictures were shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York on April 23, 1896, consisting of one-minute vignettes screened between vaudeville acts. They were produced by Edison, who had raced to patent the motion-picture camera actually invented by Dickson. The first audiences were content with little more than everyday scenes from real life, the mystical conjuring of motion against a backstage wall. Then Edwin S. Porter changed all of that in 1903 with THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Another protégé of Edison, Porter crafted a simple cinematic narrative which liberated movies from thirty-second scenes. He told a story that everyone could understand – with a beginning, middle, and an end – and audiences leapt from their seats as a train seemed to race right at them through the very walls. A new language of storytelling had been born, and with it another opiate in which you could escape reality. But the stories aren’t yours. They exist only as a spectator sport, keeping you company as you drift off to sleep each night. The critic in your mind points his finger and begins to scold you. The words you write are seen by too few people, and the sweat that is sucked from your pores as you stock shelves is for nothing nobler than a paycheck. You can hear the words of the critic: the books you want to write, and all of your dreams, don’t stand a chance in the face of reality. Might as well give up and hope no higher than just paying the bills. Who the hell do you think you are anyway, wanting more from life than all the people you see around you every day? But even in reading these words, in repeating them aloud to yourself, you are returning to your dubious faith. You are conjuring the history of D.W. Griffith. He wasn’t going anywhere either, practically dead at the age of thirty-two. A failure as a writer and a stage actor, barely a cent to his name. You can certainly understand that, can’t you? Then he sold a story to a film company called Biograph, and then another. Overwhelmed by the growing demand for movies, they asked him to direct his stories. They weren’t anything spectacular at first. But he was profoundly romantic, inspired by the novels of Charles Dickens, and just a little bit rebellious. He saw the world differently than everyone around him, and that would eventually make all the difference. Movies of the time were little more than recorded stage plays, static and immobile as if from the front row. They were not alive. Griffith had no formal training, but he knew instinctively what worked on film. He knew how to bring it all to life. Charging into uncharted territory, against his employer’s wishes, he tried new things. He became a pioneer in the use of close-ups, cross-cutting between scenes, and in creating a sense of reality that had not existed before in the movies. Sure, THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) was told from a racist perspective, but it was told beautifully and in a way that no one had attempted before. By the time he made INTOLERANCE (1916) and BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), he was more than just successful. He was a legend. That is what you want, isn’t it? That’s what we all want, to be a legend in our own miniature world. Each of us, including you, fighting for life, because it does mean life or death, doesn’t it? So you keep writing your pieces, submitting work to magazines and publishers, knowing your words are at least as good as what they print. Being told that you – not your work, but you – aren’t what they are looking for. You never are. Reality starts to break through the illusion flickering on the screen, dancing on the page. Faces burst and fade in your head like a silent movie. They didn’t want you, of course, but some popular football player who was only going to end up an overweight office worker, bragging about his glory days. If he didn’t beat her up, he would probably cheat on her. You didn’t have the looks, or the money, and you certainly didn’t have a name that everyone knew. Still, you were hoping that your glory days would come when you were old enough to enjoy them. But even God seemed to have turned a deaf ear to your every question and your every plea. So you created your own mythology: you would be something – be someone – and someday they would all regret walking past. You would be the creator. You would be the star. The images on the screen show you, and the words on the page remind you, that each frozen image really has no connection to the others. It’s all what they call persistence of vision. It’s the illusion of cinema, where an image lingers in the eyes long enough for the next one to spark to life. It’s the tendency of the human mind to see movement where there is none. When several lights are flashed side by side at just the right interval, we see a single light moving in one continuous direction. As if everything is destined to be one thing and nothing else. The camera closes in on you for a medium shot, subtly lit from above, in the darkened cathedral of the theater. Movement and light reflect in your eyes as you ponder the carefully-directed events in front of you. The tagline from the movies echoes through your head: it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie. And you know that the characters on the screen are only actors. The amazing sights are merely special effects. The things you have seen are just words on a script, written by someone who could be you, but is not. The drama disappearing again into frames . . . Every moment that has hurt you, haunted you, was but a moment. . . . the film has no capacity to fool you anymore. You see yourself clearly, with no illusions. All that you see, with godlike detachment, are your own decisions . . . You are responsible for your own life. . . . the lines that were dropped . . . There are things you have not said yet, but you will. . . . and the microphone, just visible, in a corner of one scene. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is perfect. In film projection, if a beam of light is broken more than fifty times per second, the viewer no longer sees bursts of light. What you see is the illusion of continuous light. During a film that lasts just over an hour and a half, you’re actually sitting in total darkness for almost 40 minutes, but that’s not what you remember. What you remember – and what you need to remember – is a complete story full of beautiful sound and color, the realization of all your fears and dreams written large upon the screen for everyone to see. From a distance, Jimmy Stewart looks at a beautiful blonde, who is also looking at a painting on the wall. Staring into Van Gogh’s scene of crows, a man realizes that he can walk right into the painting, becoming a part of the art that he loves. Denzel Washington endures the cruel lash of the whip across his back, thinking of the day he will be free, allowing no more than a single tear to fall for his pain. A little girl puts her hand against the honeycomb sections of a window, pondering a world she does not yet understand, as amber light pours over her face. A young woman named Diana is told that beyond the trenches is No Man’s Land, but there are people who must be helped on the other side, so, step by step, she slowly climbs the ladder onto the battlefield. A teacher urges his students closer to the portrait on the wall, telling them what all those young men of the past are whispering: seize the day, they say, make your lives extraordinary. The lights come up. Charles Johnson, a successfully published writer, empties his audience into the street. Here, he finds that his car has been broken into. The glove compartment is smashed open and looks like a part of your body, a wound. But here you diverge from the words on the page. A saving pessimism tells you that you would have been unhappy to be a family man, unhappy even to have been a success too early, that there is nobility in suffering and that all this poverty will only lead to greater appreciation when your moment finally comes. Your hopes may rest between the jaundiced pages of withering books and in the silver halide of film emulsion, but at least you know where to find them. You are not as unsatisfied now as you could have been. Whereas Johnson would have you bring your fists down, again and again, on the Fiat’s roof, it is in desperation over a moment that has failed. You bring your fists down on the table in anger that is also determination. You are not beaten yet. You have the history of all the artists, writers, and filmmakers of the world behind you to shine a light upon the path. You are, after all, producer, star, and director in the longest, most fabulous show of all. It’s your life, and your story is not yet told. – j. meredith Charles Johnson is an artist, cartoonist, scholar, and author of novels, short stories, screenplays, and essays, often philosophical in nature. He won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, only the second African-American to receive that prize since Ralph Ellison in 1953. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (appropriately known as “the Genius Grant”), the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim fellowships, and a 2002 Academy Award in Literature. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and won a humanities award as recently as 2013. He’s kept writer’s journals since 1972, filling them up with ideas, thoughts, and images to return to in the future. Writing itself, he says, is the best teacher of writing. He is also a Buddhist. Writing is not like working construction, but it can still be hard work. There’s a lot of time, thought, and sometimes even research that goes into every article appearing here, whether it’s written by me or by someone else. If you are reading this, then it was written for you. Please take a moment to “like” it, or any other piece, and feel encouraged to leave a comment (even if it’s to disagree with what you’ve read). Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related John E. Meredith Feel free to seek me out in the lonely Twitterverse as well (scribe6901), where no one can hear us scream. Once in a while I say something worth hearing there amongst the deafest of ears.