The Cobalt and Citrine of B&W Film: Poetry, Silent Film and Pinhole Photography
American Aristocracy, Triangle Film Corporation, 1916
by Heather Lang
The other world is ours, yours and mine, this hazy kingdom of silent film and forgotten Polaroids.
– Gregory Robinson
The quiet associations between silent movies and prose poems within Gregory Robinson’s unique book, All Movies Love the Moon, are indefinable. The connections are palpable yet difficult to describe. Robinson whispers about individual silent films in a precious poetic voice, yet he’s all but saccharine.
Each of the poems within the collection is titled after a silent movie. One that I find most striking is “American Aristocracy (1916).” This piece is aptly named after producer Lloyd Ingraham and storywriter Anita Loos’ black and white silent film, American Aristocracy, but their connection goes beyond titles. For example, the Ingraham and Loos film showcases a young man’s attempts to woo his beloved while the fourth and final stanza of Robinson’s prose poem begins, “Marry me.”
Robinson’s poem opens, “The corner lamp glows cobalt and citrine.” The colors draw me to this opening line. For one, silent film predated the invention of color photography. Moreover, in the context of a poem about a silent movie, the attention to visual sound is noteworthy; there’s a sort of pictorial alliteration. While the words “cobalt and citrine” don’t begin with the same sounds, they do both begin with the same letter, ‘c.’ If these words were present within a silent film, the reader could have read “cobalt and citrine” from a title card, but the silent film would not have allowed for the voicing. Interestingly, the page adjacent to the poem features an American Aristocracy silent-film title card that reads:
(To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.)
Like silent film storywriter Anita Loos’ title card, “cobalt and citrine” are not quite accessible, or perhaps they are more accessible but in a different way, when they are read silently only to oneself. As the audience, we are left to some mystery, to some imagination, to something exquisite but not quite tangible. We are invited in and welcomed to participate. In many ways, this reminds me of love.
This past summer, months before reading All Movies Love the Moon, I became infatuated with another type of film. I discovered pinhole photography, the taking of photos with a rudimentary film camera composed of a light-tight container and, in lieu of a lens, a tiny hole. Due to the nature of the device, the exposure times can range from one second to over an hour; this depends on the amount of light present and the type of film being used. The time commitment, the attention to detail necessary to calculate exposure times, and the mysteries born from the camera’s lack of a viewfinder eyepiece make the process particularly precious to me, and I want to be as near to it as possible. Therefore, although a person can purchase an already-made pinhole camera, I made my own from a cracker box, and I develop my own film, too. Over the past few months, I’ve taken and developed black and white photos of books, nesting dolls, root vegetables, landscapes, and more. For me, each 6cm by 6cm frame tells a story.
Although I’ve never been much of a cinephile, I was immediately drawn to Gregory Robinson’s All Movies Love the Moon (Rose Metal Press, 2014). I adore poetry, but I also saw a connection between the rough black and white pictures of the early 1900s silent films and the results of my recent experience with pinhole photography. There are the shared qualities of the less-than-sharp images and the gray scale. These, however, are only the beginnings.
Because of the long exposure times, pinhole photography isn’t good for capturing subjects in motion; it all becomes a blur. Still lifes, for example, are ideal. Therefore, any narrative is truly an implied narrative. In silent films, the rolling must cease in order for a stationary title card to fill the screen and to present names, dialogue, or any other information to the reader. Also, the pacing of silent films is exceptionally slow according to more contemporary standards. Although different in many ways, the stillness of both pinhole photography and silent film captivate me.
While my experience with pinhole photography has allowed me to further connect with silent film, it would not have happened without first witnessing Robinson’s poetic connections to these movies. Robinson’s work demonstrates distinctive imagery and offers captivating narrative threads. He closes “American Aristocracy (1916)” with “The other world is ours, yours and mine, this hazy kingdom of silent film and forgotten Polaroids.” Robinson’s writing embodies the patience and passion of film photography and cinematography. It demonstrates a love for his readers, too. So, in the stillness of the moment, in response to the poem’s question, “Marry me,” I find myself wanting to say, “Yes.”
American Aristocracy (1916)
The corner lamp glows cobalt and citrine, lighting the bedroom like Las Meninas. The far corner, now eclipsed, is no longer space at all, no longer tame and practical.
On screen, it’s layer under layer, a secret conference with a mysterious porter, scratched and impossible to discern. Something happens in that darkness. Notes are exchanged, plans are made. It is nefarious no doubt, but a lily in a crystal nonetheless.
A bleached photo of an unlabeled home, tea green with a gray birch in front, tucked in with the family artifacts of weddings and vacations. No one recognizes it, but I wake sometimes, stepping out to the porch and greeting the sun.
Marry me. Let clarity and precision live with kings and queens who cannot let go, who command the world with wall-mounted landscapes and trompe l’oeil. The other world is yours and mine, this hazy kingdom of silent film and forgotten Polaroids.
“American Aristocracy (1916)” by Gregory Robinson appears in All Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film (Rose Metal Press, 2014).
About the Author:
Heather Lang is a professor, literary critic and poet.