Arts & Culture

From “The Dreyfus Book”

"The Dreyfus Book follows a group of characters indirectly involved in the Dreyfus trial and espionage case: petty forgers, photographers, cross-dressing generals, actors in early silent films, and film restorers who tried to save crumbling movies about the trial one … Read More

By / November 6, 2008

"The Dreyfus Book follows a group of characters indirectly involved in the Dreyfus trial and espionage case: petty forgers, photographers, cross-dressing generals, actors in early silent films, and film restorers who tried to save crumbling movies about the trial one hundred years after they were made. Even the satellite players who participated far from the main stage were deeply affected by the circumstances of a trial that was to split the French public sphere as no other event of the nineteenth century. The effects of its divisiveness would continue to be felt into the next. This excerpt is about a woman with little initial knowledge of the affair whose job it was to try to preserve Melies’ film about the trial–a film that caused riots when it was shown in 1899, and was banned in France until 1973."–Susan Daitch Inside were long shreds of film, glutinous and flaked. Single reels looked like hockey pucks, gummy sweat exuding along the edges.These were rare films whose footage was almost obliterated, yet they continued to cling to life. Old silent films are the most difficult to preserve or restore. They are brittle, shrunken; images are distorted as if burned, or figures appear drowned under a bubbled, warped surface. The films’ perforations, round or straight-edged with chamfered comers, won’t fit on theSteenbeck editing table whose teeth are designed to accommodate only film withthe standard square sprocket holes. Unless the teeth are filed down, the machine will only shred the film. Prints have to be matched to the original, if possible, but in the case of some very old prints, no original has survived.

"Be careful with these. Remove the film slowly, as if you’re moving through Jell­o." JuliusShute, director of Alphabet Film Conservation, took the can out of my hands and replaced the lid.

"In 1907 fifty negatives were stolen from the New York office of Star Films. They were never heard of again." Julius paused, bent his knees then straightened them quickly, in what seemed like a gesture copied from an introduction to a martial arts class, as if he were saying: beginners, stand like this. He often looked as if he were saluting another officer the way Erichvon Stroheim did in Grand Illusion. "What would thieves want with films of unassigned value?" He posed a question to which I had no answer.

"It’s easier to strip copper wires than to extract silver from film emulsion." I didn’t really know what I was saying, but I wanted to give the impression of participating in the conversation. Not unique paintings, Greek icons, or antiquities from the Aegean which could be held for ransom,these bits were considered the medium of cheap thrills, worthless multiples,and in 1907 no international black market existed for pirated silent films. Why would anyone bother?

"When the lock was picked, and the door to Star Films gave,the thief must have been surprised to find little more than chintzy office furniture."

"How do you know what was in there?"

"I’m guessing, Frances."

Like the thief who put a lot of effort into breaking into a bus locker only to find a chewed pencil, he must have wanted some kind of compensation for his work, and, just as the pencil was pocketed, so too, the films were probably stolen for the sake of taking something. Even negatives whose whereabouts are documented often disintegrate into chips of celluloid,shreds of landscapes, and chopped up figures, pratfalls and botched rescues.

I glanced at the newspaper Julius had tossed on my desk,comparing the language used to describe crude images fleeing across screens of security cameras to film molecules, particles of nothing eddying into the corners of drawers. Julius cleared his throat. I’m listening, I said. When a job arrived Julius often felt he needed to give the staff some history, some background tracing the provenance of the films. He had grown up in Los Angeles where his mother worked inthe costume department of Universal Studios. He stole costumes from time to time and once appeared at work in the suit worn by a stunt man who was doubling for Clint Eastwood in Hang’Em High. Julius had saved it all these years. It was a great cowboy suit with these Technicolor yellow suede chaps with green fringe, and he wore it all on the subway and walked around the city for a day like he was in the high chaparral. I can’t say my boss didn’t have a sense of humor.

"Leon Schlesinger, producer of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, managed to acquire many of Melies’ prints, believing they would some day be worth a fortune."

"When did he acquire them?"

"Probably in the late 1930s, after Melies himself died."

I imagined Schlesinger standing in a room with a view of the Pacific Ocean on a day so bright he pretends he can see Easter Island, the Bikini Atoll, Honolulu, but not Pearl Harbor, not quite yet. He has his back to Europe, but a flood of refugees are working for him, so many that he occasionally feels he’s working, not in Los Angeles, but strolling though the Babelberg studios just outside Berlin. Even the newly acquired Looney Tunes venture, even their comic castles were built on the pratfalls of the Melies’ canon so there’s no getting away from it, no one can have his feet as firmly planted in the New World as he thinks.

"When Schlesinger died, his widow kept these films locked up. For years she sat on the Dead Sea Scrolls of Cinema, allowing only limited access to Marionites in sunglasses, but finally the archive of prints was released." Julius waved at stacks of cans and boxes labeled in French and English. I’d seen Voyage to the Moon,but the others were new to me. He pointed to one box as if it contained a bomb.He held up a film labeled The Dreyfus Trial.

"The owners, Looney Tunes, were known as curators of the remains of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, not of Alfred Dreyfus, or the spy, Esterhazy. They made films in which ducks and cats fall off cliffs, are smashed against doors, and bounce back completely." I imagined these cans of nineteenth century film stored in a safe, next to diamonds wrapped in flannel sleeves,securities, the deed to the house, and a will tucked in a manila envelope accumulating dust and controversy.

"They wouldn’t have been interested, but they had this," he spun the Dreyfus can on my editing table, and even I, uncertain of its value, flinched. "This film, I think, was the one the thief had been after," Juliussaid. "After the first showing of it there were riots in the streets; people were trampled to death. The film was banned until 1971."

I knew something of the story behind The Dreyfus Trial but didn’t really understand how this subject could turn what had previously been a form of cheap popular entertainment into something so incendiary. It was as if an invention associated with gumballs, pinballs, barkers, and shills traveled to the province of cluster bombs and Molotov cocktails and did so in little more than a wink.

Julius looked at his watch, but before he returned to his office he reminded me that the Melies archive needed to be cleaned and repaired quickly, shipped out, and the next job ushered in if we were to stay in business. Then he disappeared to meet with his accountant and the creditors who threatened to shut Alphabet down.

In the dark, huddled over a light box holding a magnifying loupe, looking over a strip of film, I talk to myself. What happened to these actors? You’re supposed to be dead, I tell them, you came within an inch of being taken out with the trash years after being lost, stolen and forgotten, lying around in a warehouse or a Looney Tune archive. They were filmed in a glass house, a building whose interior I imagine as frozen yet full of potential for movement, a structure like the Visible Man who could be assembled and studied, organs glued together or snapped apart. Open jars of paint are blood cells, and Georges Melies himself is iris, retina, and cataract. Under his critical surveillance set designers who fabricated volcanoes, lunar surfaces, underwater wrecks react to criticism like nerve endings about to explode. I’ve had it, Georges!Piss off! The Oedipus of early cinema, Me1ies destroyed many of his films himself, behaving like those long flexible pencils you see in joke shops that can be bent around so you can leave a trail of erasure rather than a line of words.

I unwound carefully, set up the film: on the Steenbeck. Dreyfus has just been arrested. He is taken into a room which resembles an office. He writes as a man with a faintly obscene sounding name, General Patydu Clam, dictates. I know that the paper Clam holds in his hand is the letterthat Esterhazy, the real spy, actually wrote. It was delivered to him via the "Ordinary Track," a night cleaner at the German embassy. When the two letters are compared he will indicate that the handwriting is identical although the invisible lines weren’t the same at all. Dreyfus is handed a pistol. Go ahead,do it, kill yourself. He refuses and is taken away at gunpoint.

Sitting in the dark watching Dreyfus stand in a prison yard,I felt as if I were at the bottom of a tunnel, and somewhere at its end lay black and white figures, mute, moving stiffly, who didn’t know mustard gas, dynamite, and the airplane were about to be invented, then touching the negative by the edges I held the brittle film up to a light. Dreyfus’ face was faded to an almost featureless disk. The film, though once considered too explosive to be shown in France, was as sturdy as cigarette ash. I had nightmares about film breaking down here at a crucial scene, the rest of it disintegrating in the can. At the moment my hands weren’t the most steady they had ever been.

The Trial tugged at my shirtsleeves. I was afraid to spool too much of the film, yet while it was eating me up with curiosity, I ate up the idea of The Trial. What I remembered was the saying that some people, had they not been born what they were, might not be on their own side. The trial said, among other things, that you can try to hide a Shulevitz inside a Shute, but it might not work out. My parents didn’t really talk about other cities they’d lived, and I didn’t talk much about them either, but all those unspoken histories were packed away, little signifiers of identity ready to burst out uncontrollably, more embarrassing or painful for the fact that they had been hidden than for what they were. What if the end of the film was so badly damaged, and suppose there are no other copies extant, that this truncated version there can be no court martial, no scene of snapped swords, no degradation, no Devil’s Island? Dreyfus goes free, returns to his family, life goes on as if no fragments of letters pulled from the garbage by an illiterate char woman ever made their way to the French Section of Statistics.

By evening I needed to rest my eyes and took a walk down the hall. When work is slow Alphabet rents out some of the extra editing rooms.There are ten of them lined up on either side of a short corridor, each one behind a numbered door. They are rented out like any other kind of office space, but none of the doors are completely soundproof. Finding one’s way down the hall, listening as each soundtrack runs into the next, is like walking past a series of apartments whose doors have all been left open so that arguments, conversations, polemics, and shouting matches can be heard, one after the next.I used to walk to school past one house and then the next, and even if they were dark and locked up, as I walked past I knew what went on in a few of them.In this house a bully slept, a girl who picked her victims at random but with the finality of a court sentence. With the sound of gravel underfoot, breath misting in a cold early morning, I ran past hoping she wouldn’t be sitting on her screen porch or playing with her dog, an oversize highly strung Airedale named Teency. She didn’t use her fists like scrappy or tough girls, but was a master of the taunt delivered in private when no one else was listening; each one was something you could take home with you and worry about like a time bomb that would go off in bursts over and over.

You and your family are always right there where the money is.

I’m going to do an experiment. If I drop a quarter will you pick it up?

Next door was a man who shot deer and brought them home, strapped to the top of his car. We watched from across the lawn while he smiled and called out to us to take a look at this or that beauty. I imagined they bled all over his garage.

There is a basic confusion concerning the newsreel film. They said that Lumiere invented the newsreel – it was Melies.

I stopped and listened. The soundtrack was in French, but someone was translating the dialogue aloud into English.

Lumiere photographed train stations, horse races, families in the garden–the stuff of Impressionist painting. Melies filmed atrip to the moon, President Fallieres visiting Yugoslavia, the eruption of Mount Pelee, Dreyfus.

I knocked and opened the door. Someone froze the frame. On the screen a woman’s face peered out from behind stacks of Mao’s little red books. Two annoyed faces turned in my direction.

"We were told we’d have complete privacy and quiet here. This is the third time we’ve been disturbed," a woman in black glasses snapped at me. "I paid good money to rent this space. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry seems to have a question to ask or something to announce as soon as they get to this door."

"I was walking by, and I wondered who was talking about newsreels and Lumiere."

"Jean-Pierre Leaud in Godard’s La Chinoise." She pushed her glasses up on her head in exasperation at my stupidity and pointed to the screen.

Before I could thank her for the information and apologize for the interruption, I was pushed aside by a delivery boy from the Chinese restaurant down the street. He expressed frustration and in his agitation had nothing but blind disinterest in the image on the screen which held us transfixed. He had gotten lost and was sure food in the bags he carried had gone cold.

"We ordered Mexican!" The Godard people rolled their eyes in disgust at collective ignorance then slammed the door in our faces.

We stood side by side in the hall. He was silent, holding the cold food by the edges of the bag as if it contained a dinner he would spend the rest of the night trying to deliver. I walked back down the hall with him, noticing he’d left his bicycle leaning against the front desk and showed him the phone where he could call the restaurant. It turned out the delivery was for Alphabet City Typeface. We looked it up, and I directed him a few blocks away. I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to work and watched him until the elevator came.

Walking back down the hall the soundtrack of La Chinoise was followed by sounds of gunshots in dry air — a western, I think, and then from the next door came rainfall and English accent simplying a jungle or a London street, it was hard to tell what the situation was. A faucet dripped somewhere, a real drip, not a recorded one, and out a comer window, as I turned down the hall I could see lights begin to come on as night fell. Again I was reminded of walking down the middle of a silent, empty road when it began to grow dark early and just when there seemed to be no one in any of the houses for miles in any direction, I would hear a dog bark and a girl’s voice ring out.

 

 

 

Susan Daitch is the author of two novels, L.C. (Lannan Foundation Selection and NEA Heritage Award) and The Colorist; and a collection of short stories, Storytown. Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, The Brooklyn Rail, Bomb, Ploughshares, Failbetter.com, Tinhouse,McSweeney’s, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction. Her work, along with that of William Vollman and David Foster Wallace, was featured in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. She teaches at Hunter College.