Sydney-born author DOMINIC SMITH is the author of The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos, which won the Literary Fiction Book of the Year at the 2017 Australian Book Industry Awards. He returns with The Electric Hotel, a dazzling story from the era of early cinema inspired by a rediscovered silent film. ANGUS DALTON writes.
Before Jack released Rose’s hand and slid off that door into the icy grips of the Atlantic, before a love-struck King Kong clambered to the top of the Empire State and swiped furiously at fighter jets, before aliens blasted the White House to smithereens and Harry met Sally and Forrest started running and the Terminator came back, baby, a suitcase in the corner of a hotel lobby twitched.
Of its own volition, the suitcase skated along the floor, caught a lift upstairs and spat out its contents into a chest of drawers. The owners of the suitcase arrived in their room and watched in wonder as a table laden with refreshments glided over to serve them, a magically moving brush arrived to polish the man’s shoes and a comb flew through the air to style the woman’s hair into an elegant bun.
These are the events of El hotel eléctrico, a silent film made over a century ago by the visionary Spanish director Segundo de Chomón. As one of the earliest examples of stop motion, the technique used to create the illusion of objects moving by themselves, the 1908 film is a significant part of cinematic history – but it was almost lost. Cellulose nitrate, the light-sensitive chemical used to coat film strips used by early filmmakers, is flammable and prone to decay.
‘Seventy-five per cent of all silent films are gone forever,’ says author Dominic Smith from his home in Seattle. ‘Thousands of films went up in smoke in studio fires or quietly dissolved under the wrong conditions in attics. I just kept thinking about this 75 per cent of our storytelling stock. What would it be like if 75 per cent of all the books written in a 30-year period were just gone?’
This statistic propelled Dominic to write his new novel, The Electric Hotel, named to pay homage to Chomón’s wacky fantasia and set in the era of early cinema as humanity discovers the wonder of capturing life on reels of film. The first silent films left viewers slack-jawed, crying or, after watching an infamous clip of an omnibus careering towards the camera, running and screaming. But to a viewer used to CGI-saturated blockbusters, the jerky aesthetic of silent films can make these once-venerated pieces of cinema seem frumpy and twee.
‘In my mind, they were all slapstick and melodrama and it appeared as if everyone walked 20 per cent faster,’ Dominic laughs. ‘They had that kind of jittered, slightly accelerated look that doesn’t feel like realism.’
But after Dominic bunkered down in the archives of Washington’s Library of Congress for a days-long silent film screening spree, he began to see the films in a whole new light.
‘Most of what we’ve seen is the result of technical faults – you had hand-cranked cameras and hand-cranked projector, so the chances of getting the frame rate perfectly right was slim. A lot of them are reproduced from those distorted reels. What we’ve mostly seen are bad representations, like a photocopy of a photocopy.’
When properly restored, the artistry of these early films is clear to see, says Dominic. And, by 1908, directors had deduced that melodramatic Victorian stage acting wasn’t necessary for film.
‘That’s when naturalism and realism begin to ascend, and you see some really interesting films. It kind of paved the way for more nuanced and subtle storylines and acting styles. That was when I felt like I got over the dag-factor and started to see these films as works of art.’
To find the people who shared his newfound appreciation for silent film, Dominic travelled to a silent film festival in Northern Italy (a research trip he had no choice but to take, he assures). The cinephiles at the festival were most excited when there was a screening of a film that has been lost, often for over a hundred years, and rediscovered.
Dominic ‘got a little giddy’ watching these unearthed artifacts of cinema. ‘As someone who’s really interested in history, there is no more vital, immediate contact with a previous time than film. So you get to see through a window this little slice of time, and you see what it felt like to walk around in 1910. That, for me, offset some of the sadness of this vanishing world.’
Watching these salvaged silent films gave Dominic the idea of a story about a pioneering director who created a lost masterpiece.
‘Somewhere in all the missing silent films there had to have been a masterpiece, a film that we’ll never get to see that in some ways was truly groundbreaking, either technically or in terms of the kind of story it told. And that was the kind of germ for the idea of The Electric Hotel,’ says Dominic.
The novel begins in December 1962 at LA’s Knickerbocker Hotel, a real place entwined with film history. Marilyn Munroe often went on dates with Joe DiMaggio at the hotel bar, Elvis Presley stayed there while filming his acting debut in Love Me Tender, pioneering director D W Griffith suffered a fatal hemorrhage in its lobby and Harry Houdini’s widow attempted to contact the escape artist beyond the grave in a séance she held on the hotel’s roof on the Halloween of 1936.
But the hotel in the novel is a run-down affair populated by ‘refugees from the silent film era’. One of those refugees is octogenarian Claude Ballard, a once-famed director. A keen film student tracks Claude down to ask him about his acclaimed silent film, The Electric Hotel, and we travel back to the beginnings of film’s history to find out how a young Claude created his now-lost masterpiece.
In 1895 Paris, Claude is 20 years old and a photographic apprentice. He is sent by his superior to the unveiling of a new device created by the pioneering Lumiere Brothers. Inspired by Edison’s kinetoscope – which allowed one person at a time to peer through a hole and view moving images – the brothers had created the cinématographe, a device that could capture and project moving images. (Interestingly, the Lumieres thought their invention would be a passing fad – Louis Lumiere apparently once said, ‘The cinema is an invention without a future,’ which seems particularly ironic given this interview is taking place as The Avengers: Endgame becomes the fastest ever film to gross $2 billion.)
As Claude sits in the basement of a Paris hotel and watches footage of workers emerging from a factory, a baby eating breakfast, and a mother and four sons belting down a wharf and plunging in to the ocean, he feels the world change: ‘In the span of ten minutes, in a hotel basement, the still image and the projected slide had become the slow-witted cousins to this shimmering colossus.’
Bewitched, Claude applies to become a concession agent for the Lumiere Brothers. He obtains a cinématographe and spends days obsessively capturing life on the streets of Paris – ‘lovers in doorways, a juggler in the Tuileries Garden, a woman selling bread and hothouse roses from the basket of her bicycle’ – in clips designed to convince the brothers of his passion for their invention. But what convinces the Lumieres to hire Claude is a capturing of death; he films the last moments of his sister, in the throes of tuberculosis. She becomes the first person to die on film.
As he tours the world promoting the wonders of the cinématographe, Claude assembles a team in the hopes of creating a film like no-one has ever seen. He travels with the cinématographe to Australia, where he recruits a daring stuntman who sets himself alight and plunges into the surf of Bondi. His lover is Sabine Montrose, a famed stage actress who will star in the film, and a down-at-heel impresario, Hal Bender, becomes their producer.
Claude builds a film studio on the cliffs of New Jersey’s Fort Lee (the place that inspired the term ‘cliff-hanger’). But although a masterpiece is produced, something goes wrong. Sabine and Claude will never work again.
The Electric Hotel is an ode to a form of storytelling that has beguiled the masses ever since its invention over a century ago. Dominic’s characters are so bewitched by film that they often feel footage is more evocative than real life. Walking out from his first experience viewing a cinématographe’s magic, Hal thinks, ‘Everything seemed crude, slow and hard-edged compared to that silver-skinned river of light.’
‘Moviegoers have always had an experience, whether it was in 1910 or 2019, of being altered and transformed by what they’ve watched. People at the end of a great movie sometimes just sit there,’ Dominic chuckles. ‘They don’t want to go back and walk out on the street because it’s gonna break the spell. That’s what I love about movies and why it’s always been a key form of storytelling with that immersive quality.’ There’s a brief pause, then Dominic adds quickly: ‘But novels do it too.’