Empire

By

In December 2010, The Museum of the City of New York made available over 100,000 digitized images, many of which had never been seen publicly before. The search phrase “Empire Film Company”—one of the many short-lived film production/exchange companies from the early twentieth century—yielded nine photographs. Fred J. Balshover—a pioneer of early cinema—offered this account of the Empire Film Exchange, also known as the Empire Film Company:

Film exchange row was on Fourteenth Street in New York City, and with the reels under my arm, that’s where I headed. First I called on Empire Film Exchange. . . . The exchange was owned by Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman. There was the usual counter where the operators from the nickelodeons brought back the reels of the program they had shown to exchange for other reels to make up their next program. Empire had a small office for the bosses and a still smaller screening room where they looked at pictures they might buy. –From One Reel a Week, University of California Press, 1967.

Here is one of those nine photographs, and its possible, secret story.

She exists, now, in sepia. She is taking notes in the offices of the Empire Film Company in New York in a photograph from 1910, her hair done up in the style of the day in the years before the “war to end all wars” which, beginning just four years after this photograph, will claim over 15 million lives. His suit is too big. The sole of one of his shoes is exposed beneath the chair. He looks weary.

They are in the offices of Empire Film at a moment in time when there is not yet any such thing as a motion picture industry, but rather a diverse assortment of scrappy film productions companies—some very short lived—including The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (which D. W. Griffith joined in 1908), Majestic Films, The Edison Manufacturing Company, The Duquesne Amusement Supply Company, The Selig Polyscope Company, The American Vitograph Company, and others.

There are so many details in the picture, but which ones are important? Neither of them are looking directly at each other. He might be dictating; she might be taking notes. Or perhaps she is simply recording information, tallies of how many reel rentals there were this week, etc. Or there is nothing written at all on her pad of paper; she is posing, acting for the camera, just like the actresses in the films of the offices of the Empire Film Company. There is the carved face on the wall above her head. There is his seat cushion. There is the overexposed window behind him, which is open. There are many objects on the desk whose meaning can only be guessed at. It’s not fair that we don’t know.

Their story could take the guise of any of the film genres that guided thought in the 1910s and 20s. In the western he is the new sheriff and she his young wife, and when she sees a man’s throat slit behind a barn and the way he tries to hold his life in as it bleeds through his fingers something in her mind will become dislodged and even the act of acting happy will be impossible for her. In the train robbery version her husband will act the hero, stupidly, to the bandits (including a boy no older than ten) who are about to burst into the photograph from off-screen right and demand the cash from the day in the hidden drawer next to the man’s left knee. In the Civil War nostalgia film version she will treat the house slave with unexpected compassion, subtly reinforcing the fact that she, the mistress of the house, has the power to confer such compassion. In the domestic melodrama version she will be the mistress, seated in the very chair where he first fell in love with her, the light coming in from the window at frame left illuminating her face in such a way that makes us wonder even now, over one-hundred years later, what she is thinking about.

There are the moments after this photo was taken, moments that while lost to documented reality exist nonetheless. In these, after the photographer is satisfied and wipes the sweat from his brow, the woman will throw her hands to her mouth in laughter. Her brother (his name, let’s say, is Edward), seated opposite her, will laugh also, because this is what they have always done; this is their way. She laughs and then he laughs. Sometimes they don’t even know why. No, wait: he knows why. When she (her name is Evelyn) was a girl, she nearly died of scarlet fever, the rash slowly spreading from her neck to arms to back as if she were being consumed by her very own body. He stayed with her for those two weeks (he was ten; she was seven), sleeping on the wooden floor beside her bed, and listen to her labored breathing and the mysterious, incoherent phrases she would sometimes call out during her fevered nightmares. And sometimes, now, years later, when her face flushes in embarrassment, he calls her Scarlet, and she smiles and laughs. And then he laughs. It is these small, private exchanges that—in a way that even he himself does not fully understand—give order to his life.

But there is also a darker version of events, one in which Evelyn never wakes up from the scarlet fever, and Edward, perhaps too sensitive to the tragedies of this world, as if even the sight of broken-winged sparrow fluttering in the street gutter would tinge his day with sadness, never recovers from the loss. Oh, he appears to. And in this version of the story the woman in the photograph is not his sister at all, but rather some other person, hurried in from the outer offices of The Empire Film Company to fill the seat. And even at the moment this picture is made, Edward can feel himself being torn between two possibilities: the so-called real world and the world of magic cast by the very movies he has helped to produce.

The only book he has ever truly loved is Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, which he first read several years prior to this photograph, when it was still James’s latest book. And in that novel (whose words to him are like steel cage bars that either protect him from something terrible or else trap him away from something wonderful) one phrase especially has stuck with him: the darkening shadow of a false position. That’s how he feels now, looking at this photograph: that ever since his sister’s death (for she died, not “nearly died”) he has lived more and more comfortably beneath the darkening shadow of a false position. The false position of hope.

The most horrendous—but also the truest—version of what happens in the moments after this image was taken is that there will be a knife fight between them, whoever they are, and fuck Henry James, because this will be the real thing. She will strike first, out of lustful revenge (“You promised. I was the only one!”) and he will be wounded in the arm and leap out of his chair, scattering papers. He has no knife per se, so he reaches for the silver letter opener as she takes another jab at him, puncturing his leg. He falls back against the wall. A framed picture falls. She will shake her hair loose and for a moment it’s possible that, rather than kill each other, they’ll have sex right then and there. But then he lunges at her with the letter opener and punctures the soft flesh beneath her ribs. Her white blouse is stained in crimson blood (scarlet you might say were this the different version of the story) and she lunges right back at him and gets him in the same spot, beneath his ribs, and life leaks out of both of them now. And then, unexpectedly, she jabs him again, and again, in the same spot. It’s as if she has prepared all of her life for this very moment. In desperation he lunges for her in agonized fury and bites her arm so hard he breaks a tooth.

Just over a month before this picture was taken, a bomb destroyed the Los Angeles Times Building, killing over 20 people, and when he hears gunshots outside the window his mind is seized with the images of the mangled dead in Los Angeles, their severed parts in the dust only to be re-animated in the second coming (“He will come again to judge the living in the dead”) and this epiphanic moment of his gives her time to finish him off, to gut him like she gutted deer so many times as a young girl with her full-bearded uncle in Oneonta, New York.

There is so much blood now on the wall and the window and the desk and the floor that she slips. Somewhere, not far away, a camera is rolling and Edwin S. Porter is directing a scene from the short film The Greater Love. The earth passes through the tail of Halley’s Comet, and a woman in Philadelphia is said to die from the resulting cyanogen gas. President William Howard Taft has a nightmare in which the sheets of his bed metamorphosize into sheets of black quicksand that suck him into outer space. H. G. Wells republishes his story “When the Sleeper Awakes” which contains the lines “We have our troubles . . . this is a time of unrest.” There is so much blood now, even the sepia can’t disguise the color.

But the story doesn’t have to end this way. Why should it? It could end, instead, in the very instant it began: the precise moment of the photograph. There is no before. There is no after. There is just the forever now of this frozen moment, full of possibilities, when their eyes are always-already on the verge of meeting.


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →