Life as a Silent Movie
The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company
Texas Tech University Press
2013, $24.95, pp. 176
We all want to be in the movies. But not always because we want to be famous. We all want to see ourselves on screen. But not always because we’re narcissists. There’s just something fascinating in becoming an image, a play of light and shadow, a shimmering surface as well as a real person. At least that’s the impression we get from Jay Neugeboren’s new book about a Jewish family that owns and operates a motion picture company in the silent movie era. Joey, the young boy and the lens through which we experience the magic of movie-making from 1915 to 1930, knows there is also a change we undergo when we’re put up on the big screen. Seeing ourselves projected there as images, we realize that film offers us the opportunity to be quite literally what we imagine ourselves to be. The right framing of a shot, the right juxtaposition of scenes, allows us to look a certain way even as we remain who we are—no acting, no fakery necessary, just another angle of vision on reality. It’s no wonder we like this change; it’s no wonder Joey lives for it. Living out your life as if everything imaginary were able to be made real would take some time, and Joey can see things in this way so very easily because he grows up in good company—The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company. His mother Hannah is the star, his uncle Izzie does the stunts, his brother Ben is the cameraman, his father Simon produces, his uncle Karl directs. We learn, through Joey’s point of view, that in this family reality can turn into something imaginary at any moment. Because no verbal story or dialogue is needed in their silent films, any gesture, any movement, any accident could prove meaningful if stitched together later. So they film everything, all the time. “We shoot our moving picture,” Karl says, “whether it rains or whether it snows or whether it storms or whether it stinks.” This is a family eager to seize on and play with moments when just being oneself is also being someone else, when an unintended action turns into what was just necessary for a story to make sense. Neugeboren relates an unforgettable tale of Joey’s upbringing, and his efforts to apply what he learns in his adventures alone in the real world.
Neugeboren’s many books—such as his volume of stories News From the New American Diaspora—are remarkable for their combination of clever, compelling plots and emotional depth. In this novel he also sustains a narrative from Joey and his family’s unique perspective through sheer force of style.
On that winter day in 1915, for example, Hannah is happy they are all together and filming (except Izzie, who isn’t there yet). She suddenly fires a pistol in the air, three times. Joey hears a scream from a hill in the distance and sees a man there. Ben keeps filming and Joey watches, seeing the man with his “hands pressed to his heart as if he’d been struck by a bullet” fall down the slope. It is Izzie, faking it. But also, perhaps, not: he continues to “carom off a rock, sail onto the ice and spin round, face down.” He is fine, but what is filmed and imagined here is narrated as if it plays a part in our real world too, and we don’t know the difference. We genuinely see that Izzie got shot, fell and hurt himself, and then we see that he also didn’t. Joey looks at everything from this perspective. Especially the question of who he is and who he will become. He embraces accidents, like meeting a soon-to-be close friend named Gloria in a graveyard. “I believe it’s such great good luck we found each other tonight,” she says. “But it wasn’t luck,” Joey replies. “It’s what happened—it’s what really was.” But it is still a question whether it really is or not. “Maybe,” Gloria replies, and we get the feeling as the years go by that reality doesn’t quite agree with Joey. One consequence of the book’s unique perspective is that we learn disasters often make wonderful movies. Hannah loses her nose to frostbite in the snow; Izzie, though he survives a plane crash, dies of influenza; Simon falls down an elevator shaft and loses his memory; and then Gloria kills her abusive boyfriend, and Joey escapes the law, fleeing with her kids to the Midwest, using his girlish appearance (before, he often played the part of his mother’s daughter) to actually become their mother. We come to feel that Joey can’t do much more than react to such events. His changing identity itself eventually seems more like an escape from reality, as he evades people who might find out who he really is. It is as if his life is a film his brother is making of him with his mother riding in a sleigh around a lake, a piece of which he filmed on a single roll of film, adding to it year by year:
In the first shot Ben ever took, I was ten days old, and I was asleep on my mother’s lap, wrapped in a blanket, the two of us riding toward the far end of the lake, where willows and silver maple crowded the bank. Then, as the sleigh turned and came back toward the camera, I was awake on her lap, and I was one year old, and as I went by the camera I was two years old and sitting upright, holding the horse’s reins.
“Each time the picture changed I was a year older,” and yet it seems “that my mother and I were making a single journey around a lake on a single winter afternoon.” This may be how it seems, but Joey never feels the changes in the film from year to year are up to him. They just happen, and he remains who he may be at any particular moment.
Maybe, then, Joey (or Joanna, or Joseph, as he eventually becomes), is simply “cockeyed,” “distracted,” a “dreamer,” as people in the novel often tell him, and isn’t quite doing anything at all when he transforms the world from his particularly cinematic viewpoint. “Ah, you’re wonderful, Joey, you and all the cockeyed stories you got inside that head of yours,” says Gloria, who returns from prison, to Joseph near the end of the book. “But what good are they?” he replies. “What I worry about is what, if I stop making moving pictures, I’m going to do with my life.” “We don’t have to do anything if we don’t want to,” Gloria reassures him. But Joseph is sure that “the only thing I’ve ever been good at is pretending I’m other people.” If reality catches up to Joseph, we wonder why it didn’t at first. This is where we realize Neugeboren has been showing us the profound change that came about with the beginning of the talkies, the beginnings of which we see at the end of the book. Life, when filmed with sound, has to be shaped into a narrative with words, dialogue, and order; its magic does not come simply from being changed into an image. This destroys a whole way of relating to life, a playful inventiveness in storytelling found among people like D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Erich von Stroheim—the silent film greats we also meet throughout the tale. And among people like the family we see at the opening of the novel. Karl says early in the book that “the slave… lives in silence, whereas free men are always eager to tell their stories to others.” “That is why,” he adds, “the Torah has made it our duty in every generation to tell our children the story of the going forth from Egypt.” But by 1930, when he begins trying to preserve silent films, buying them all up, he also says that even if sound in movies was not a passing fad, “people would still hunger for stories without words.” “Without words,” he says, “—without people hearing what people on the screen said—the most important things were still left to the imagination.” Neugeboren has succeeded in imagining this lost age and this lost medium, and by reading his story, we really do come to understand what silent movies were about. His novel is not only a magnificent tribute, but a fascinating tale, as well.
Michael Duffy is a literary critic pursuing his Ph.D. in English at Princeton University.