On the Vitaphone: Show Girl in Hollywood

Can we talk about a fundamental division in film-going?

Most of us look at movies and see stories and actors—shifting pleasures for which the highest praise is timelessness. A performance that endures, dialogue that remains quotable, storytelling that ‘holds up’ on repeat viewing, whether in a theater or on television or streaming over Netflix. (The virtues can be consumed and appreciated in any medium.) It’s common to overhear laments that a film ‘doesn’t stand the test of time’—implying that a film can be a great emotional experience in one moment and merely an antique in another, creaky and tinny precisely because it gives dramatic form to an outmoded concern or a topical obsession. Such does not a classic make.

But there’s another kind of film-going, rooted in things rather than professionally timeless. The good folks at the Vitaphone Project are interested in early talkies for their specificity (in time and in technology), but in an expansive way. Emphasizing the recording and playback method, not necessarily the thing being heard, sounds odd at first—a cart without a horse.