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Mervyn Heard. Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern. Hastings: The Projection Box, 2006. ISBN: 978-1903000120. Price: US$75.00.

  • Joss Marsh

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“Cinema is born” in 1895 (or so we used to say)—and all other forms of visual entertainment suddenly are dead: the new replaces the old; and the new distinguishes itself as new by not being like the old. Indeed, the old now approaches the new: all those forms that came before are labeled and understood as “pre-cinema.”

But forms of entertainment don’t begin and end: they evolve, change, and merge with one another. And when we look at cinema in light of the long history of what might best be called the “screen experience,” it reveals itself very much not as a “new” invention, different to everything that came before: it is cousin to the diorama, the panorama, the eidophusikon, etc., etc. Above all, it is the direct descendent of the magic lantern, the single most important visual entertainment in Western culture from c. 1659 to the early years of the twentieth century (for the lantern competed with cinema—courtesy of colour, music, and the human voice—well into the silent film era). The lantern’s luminous imagery, “dissolving views,” mechanical tricks, and optical transformations, gave inspiration and master-metaphors to Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Thomas Hardy; to Stevenson and Stoker; to Carlyle, Strauss, and Froude; it is important to nineteenth-century studies, to the histories of entertainment, popular culture, visuality, and the imagination. Yet the magic lantern has rarely been a subject for sustained academic research, and there is a dearth of readily-available, serious information on the subject.

Two problems have inhibited such study. Film history may no longer dictate that cinema was born in 1895. But film history books still relegate the lantern to a few (inevitably inadequate) prefatory printed pages on “pre-cinema.” DVD, CD-ROM, and online resources are limited.

The second problem is more fundamental: lack of access to primary materials. There are few significant collections of slides, lanterns, and the paper materials and ephemera that are critical to research (posters, hand bills, dramatic readings, catalogues, etc.) in universities, museums, archives, or libraries; and when such material, exists, it often sits in the basement, uncatalogued. There is only one substantial collection in Britain; the best collection in the United States (in San Antonio, Texas) is accessible by invitation only. This is a research field in which progress will depend for some time on private collections, personal passion, and the extra-academic volunteer efforts of organizations like the British Magic Lantern Society; it will also depend on performance and collaborative creativity—experimental film-maker Ernie Gehr’s wonderful installation in fall 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art (“Panoramas of the Moving Image”), for example, or Belgian film-maker Pierre Levie’s reconstruction of Étienne Gaspard Robertson’s fantasmagorie at the Convent des Capuchines in January 1799, and his miniaturized working 3-D model phantasmagoria for the now-closed and much-lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London. (Here, the reviewer discloses a personal interest, since she married one of MOMI’s creators last year, and now lives with, if not in, his magic lantern collection.)

Mervyn Heard has the passion, the collection (the source for this book’s superbly generous illustrations, including colour illustrations), long experience as a lantern showman and media adviser, and a long history of Lantern Society work (including years as chairman and co-editorship of the Society’s very useful Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern). He is both a soi-disant “Professor” (in the style of nineteenth–century exhibitors) and a “Doctor” and trained scholar. His Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern, then, is an important and an unusual book. It is flawed and somewhat misconceived in tone, but it is above all a research boon and a quarry of information.

Heard's focus is "theatrical ghost-raising”—the apparitions and terrors of the phantasmagoria, whereby an invisible lanternist, in thick and disorientating darkness, projected spectral images of bleeding nuns, grim reapers, vengeful demons, Medusa heads, and dead people from behind a transparent screen screen. Sometimes, for additional “pseudo-necromantic” effect (in Terry Castle’s wonderful phrase), images were projected on to smoke; very often, their impact was enhanced by narration and sound effects (theatrical thunder, the tingling tones of the glass harmonica); and always, they depended on the rationalizations of human perception, which read images that became larger or smaller (as the invisible lantern, behind the screen, and mounted on tracks or wheels, moved away from it or towards it) as onrushing or retreating spectres (an effect enhanced, of course, by painting the images on a black background): in the phantasmagoria, one "saw" ghosts one knew not to exist. Chapter 1 is a brisk history of pre-eighteenth-century "face-to-face meetings with phantoms and spirits" (15); Chapter 2 details the "outrageous performances” of Johann Georg Schröpfer in a Vienna coffee-house-turned-séance-chamber (42); Chapter 3 outlines the career of the magician and physicist “Philidor,” to 1793; Chapter 4 covers pre-eminent phantasmagore Robertson’s spectacular Paris career, 1798-1803; Chapter 5 transfers us to London, where “Philidor” resurfaces under the name of Paul de Philipstahl; Chapters 6 and 7 chart the spread of "phantasmagoria-mania" (title of Chapter 6); Chapter 8 discusses "dissolving views” (a favourite Victorian entertainment, shorn of the disreputability of the phantasmagoria) and lantern-slide temperance propaganda (stemming from lantern appropriation of Cruikshank's The Bottle); Chapter 10 traces the persistence of the phantasmagoria-phenomenon through the Cabaret de Néant, the trick films of Méliès, fairground sideshows, and Hollywood film. (One wishes Heard had tackled holographic installation and the prestidigitations of David Blaine—especially since he is himself also a magician: but a book has to stop somewhere.)

This is a rich story: the technical precision and clarity throughout are impressive, the final chapter is wide-ranging and suggestive, and Heard's argument for the phantasmagorical qualities of the temperance lantern is persuasive (save for a paragraph on “Gabriel Grub,” one of the inset tales in Pickwick Papers—and no more an argument against social drinking than A Christmas Carol, which ends with the jovial toast, “God bless us, every one!”). Moreover, his identification of Philidor with de Philipstahl is important.

But Heard’s very fascination with Philidor/de Philipstahl also tempts him into a detective bravado of structure and a gratingly populist tone (unfortunately ubiquitous): the "darned elusive” phantasmagore becomes a Scarlet Pimpernel-ish "hero” (84)—“we seek him here, we seek him there” (title to Chapter 3) and find him almost everywhere—whose importance is magnified (especially as against Robertson, "the rival who found fame” [85]), and almost ends by distorting the book’s argument.

There are other lacks. Phantasmagoria is alert to twentieth–century survivals, but not to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cultural materials: the phenomenon’s Gothic context is scanted—despite, for example, the repeated phantasmagoria-screen appearances of “Monk” Lewis’s "bleeding nun.” Frankenstein features only in order to introduce the real-life “obscure Scottish physicist" James Lind, Percy Shelley's science teacher at Eton College (184), although its “Image” and “Phantasm” of a man is explicitly “manufactured” exactly in terms employed by phantasgmagoria commentators (“Philipstahl’s Phantasmaragoria,” Portfolio 19 February 1825; first page repr. 137). Heard has apparently had to rely on others’ translations of material from French and German (notably, by film historian Deac Rossell); an Italian poster is misidentified as Spanish. This monolingualism is a serious problem in a field where the scholarship that does exist is resoundingly international: Robertson’s Mémoires are not available in English (except for some sections translated by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, for the Magic Lantern Journal), nor Françoise Levie’s Étienne Gaspard Robertson: la vie d’un fantasmagore (1900); Laurent Mannoni’s The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema (1995, trans. 2000) is one of the few foreign-language critical works fully available to English-speakers (and that, again, due to the efforts of a Magic Lantern Society member, Richard Crangle).

But it would be invidious to extend this latter criticism: better cultivate our own garden, and raise a more energetic cry against the erosion of foreign-language requirements for the Ph.D. And give scholarly thanks for what we have received—an act of grace we practice with increasing infrequency.

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