Last Christmas, my wife presented me with a copy of Dominic Smith’s historical fiction about the origins of the motion picture, The Electric Hotel. The New York Times calls this novel a “highly entertaining work about the act of creation” though by the time the word reached me, she, my wife, claimed it had been called the greatest book on the act of creation, which is to say ever, and that I found hard to believe.
As I have opined previously this summer, I do like works about the art of creation, but only when they are about other media; I like movies about painting, painting about dancing, dance about television, TV about theater, plays about writing, books about movies. But plays about theater are usually self-congratulatory and rife with inside jokes. Movies about movie-making can be awfully sentimental and hagiographic. Television programs about TV, don’t get me started.
There are exceptions, of course, and we all know what those are. But for every Sports Night there is a Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. For every The Player there is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (don’t get me started on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)
The greatest film about the art of creation is, of course, Big Night. This small, period film by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott film is a beautiful tribute to the immigrant American experience and all the dreams and disappointments that it engenders. But it is first and foremost an epic tale about the creation of food, what it signifies, why what we cook and how we cook it is important, never more poignantly exhibited than the single, five-minute closing shot, virtually wordless, which involves the preparation of a simple breakfast of eggs.
|Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub|
"Big Night" (1996)
The fact that we have not found any new uses for motion pictures in the hundred years since is actually quite demoralizing.
Each tale is presented as prelude to the narrative thread, the rediscovery of these ancient works by a young film historian in the early 1960s. This man is a cipher, it’s not his story and just as well little time is given to him. His presence is a constant reassurance that the films so elegantly described in Smith’s text will not actually be lost to fire, flood, or the natural decomposition of plastic nitrate.
But is it the greatest rumination on the act of creation ever set to paper? Actually, it may be. At least, it excellently represents the chaos of creation. So many biopics or “great man” histories create a familiar origin tale of those who were destined by the universe to become what they eventually, inevitably became. Against all odds! They rise and fall and rise again!
These fictional film makers, impresarios, side show and classical stage performers; they added their piece to the puzzle of how motion pictures work and what they could do with them. But there was no plan, no grand vision for what it would be. Lives are messy, and art is messy, it is only in hindsight that someone else decides whether any of it was worth doing.