Was fascinated by this image in the indescribably handsome and massive book
Silent Magic of unknown title, on loan from my local library (bolster your coffee tables if you want to buy this one). A row of “What the Butler Saw” machines… but what is that strange fluid trickling across the floor? Has one of the smartly-dressed patrons mistaken a Mutoscope for a novelty urinal?
I reject that hypothesis, and the even more disgusting one about the pornographic film and the stream of over-excited movie-lovers hand-cranking themselves into a state of climax, which wouldn’t happen since all Mutopornoscopes came fitted with crotch-nozzles for the tumescent cineaste to vent into. The byproduct was collected in pails and used to make papier mache breeze-blocks, from which were eventually constructed the sets for INTOLERANCE.
Se, eliminating the impossible, I arrive at the one remaining explanation: ectoplasm.
You see, it’s no coincidence that a film showing in France is known as a “seance”. It’s not by chance that cinema is known as a “medium”. We know of course that movies contain dead people, more of them with every passing moment. They are a way for us to commune with the Other World.
In the early days of the nickelodeon, when film was less photochemically stable, some of these phantoms would occasionally leak from the films, permeating into our sphere and eventually coalescing into pools of ectoplasm trickling across the floors of the screening galleries. Intent on the images visible through the Mutoscope’s visor, the customers rarely noticed these silent, colourless intruders, who flickered briefly into life before melting like so much decayed nitrate stock. Even when an unwitting viewer glanced up to be greeted by the shade of a ciné-spectre, the impression was fleeting, for ghosts know the side-doors into amnesia through which they can flit, dragging all conscious memory of their manifestation behind them like tattered veils.
These phenomena were well-known to the exhibitors of their day, but those worthies well knew how to keep a professional secret. Soon, advances in film processing would seal the apparitions within their filmy worlds — you will note that, outside of the movie screen, ghosts of famous film players are never reported.