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Dead Actors

Surely there are more dead actors on film than live ones. If this is not yet true, it will be. How strange this is is hard to feel. Watching dead actors feels no different than watching live ones; watching old movies is no more demanding than watching new ones – yet there is something there, something worthy of awe.

These dead are not resurrected, they do not return as ghosts, yet they are more with us than the worshiped ancestors. We do not have the duty of commemorating them, we need not summon or disturb them, yet they return to us, appearing generously, in kind brief undemanding visits. Though their business is finished, they come when called.

While they move they live. They borrow life without need and return it without jealousy. While they have it, it is life more than life: in the sustained dreaming attention of a theater full of people is more life than each audient human beings has in themselves. Remembrance has always given life to the dead we knew; but film lets it give life to those we never knew – to those who never were.

Beside the public miracle is a private necromancy. Film always invites importunities of feeling. Wherever it pleases, it seduces with the form of a relationship. Whatever you feel, whatever shows on your face, whatever you are moved to profess, however much attention you pay, the characters are never offended, they never fail to appear, they are always blithe and comfortable. They do not reject. No stare discomforts them, no smile troubles them, no words repel them, and by such slight expressions, compounded over time, the sentiments of a relationship grow without the reality.

This is strange enough where the living are concerned; with the dead it is unprecedented. Time has always been transparent to the mind, but here it yields to the body. Faust needed a devil’s help to to bring dead Helen lively to his bed; one need only a computer to visit the embraces of dead generations, to visit with slow deliberate melancholy lust what was made for quick distraction as whorehouse lead-ins and nameless theater matinees – to know in the most intimate way a human being who, most likely, has been forgotten in name, thought, word and deed.

But lust is not the limit. You may hear of a young man (it would be a young man) who comes to know an actress, dead before he was born, old before she was dead, so well and in her youth that, lover-like, in a crowd he could recognize her by the way she stands still. You may hear of a young woman (it would be a young woman) who takes such an impression of an actor, portraying the ideal manliness of a generation long since unmanned by old age, that she would decide her life by judging living men, raised to other ideals and purposes, as unworthy of her in their very strengths, worthy only in their failings. (You may hear of other combinations, but these are harder for me to understand.)

Dead actors become their characters. Live actors can always surprise us; dead actors can never prove us wrong. Live actors fear being typecast; but all actors, in the end, are typecast as themselves, however various those selves may have been. To posterity even versatility and unpredictability become roles. To speak of dead actors is to speak of their characters; to speak of the characters is to speak of their dead. The IMDB and TCM pollute this phenomenon, but do not overcome it. Movies, it is true, were more potently self-standing when context and commentary were out of reach; but to watch them, if done properly, is still to be alone with them and at their mercy.

Dead singers, dead writers, dead artists, have their living consequences; but though their works are of themselves, though their works contain and preserve them, their works are abstractions, translations, traces. Only for actors is the person the art; only for actors does the art absorb and convey, not just the skill of the person, not just what is unique and potent in them, but the whole of the person, what is best, what is worst, what is common, weak, awkward, shared.

My great-grandmother was a silent film actress, under the name Eva Pavey. (I implore any silent film buff who recognizes the name to write to me; all I know of her career is that she was one of the young women whom Marie Dressler encouraged.) Most silent film, I know, is lost; but I cannot help hoping that somewhere one of her movies still exists. If I could see it I would meet her younger, stronger, and happier than her daughter my grandmother or her grand-daughter my mother ever knew her – meet her, and for the first time, as she was before any of the decisions and compromises to which I owe my existence. Time travel is that easy.

Would that Keats had seen a movie! An urn was only the best object he could find for a thought whose true object had yet to be invented, where lovers reach and kiss, want and have, yet never fade and never doubt – a human motion made cool, distant, certain and serene as the cycles of the planets, here before us, here after us.