I tried to step into the past recently. The scene was UCL. I had rushed over there in the rain and had just talked my way past the suspicious security guard who had rather reluctantly let me through the gate into the Darwin Museum. I wandered through and was about to walk inside when a brown haired older woman jumped into the door frame. She peered at me then gave me the directions to go into the theatre. I was rather early so sat down and started reading my book on the early feminists.
I heard the door open and a balding old guy came down to sit in the row in front of me. He lowered himself into the hard chairs, the uncomfortable desk and opened up some works on philosophy. Every so often, in the empty and massive space, his stomach groaned out loud for my hearing. He had a digestion that announced itself.
More and more people trickled in. Next was an American couple who whispered loudly to each other – I could hear everything they said so they might as well have talked out loud. The cinema slowly filled up. I sat in the best row all by myself, the only British Asian guy in the place. In front of me were a group of academics discussing British History. One of the men was a remarkable speaker and everything he said was simply fascinating. He was making a kind of Biblical exegesis of some topic. Only at the last minute did someone come to disturb my solitude. It was a couple. The girl sat two seats away from me. But it was an uncomfortable spot for the man. Or perhaps for the woman. He was really quite massive and now he began to crawl across the desk on all fours like some sort of bizarre animal or overgrown infant towards me. He stared at me fixedly as he did so. He was to do so, I noticed, throughout the whole first half of the movie.
It was at this uncomfortable moment that Dr. Joe Cain from the Science and Technology department made his appearance on stage. He was an energetic and obese man with a booming American accent, tanned, with a high forehead, black hair which greyed around the temples. He started off talking about how bored he was with Darwin’s birthday celebrations and about a good English translation for Jules Vernes’ work. Then he told us that there had been a 1905 version of the same movie we were about to see. It had been just eighteen minutes long. None of the actors were very famous in what we are about to see. They had had three-film careers and then other events had taken over. He clasped his hands together and put them both underneath his lips. However, the child actor, amazingly enough, had had 93 film appearances in a year (if I had been listening properly, that’s what I think he said).
Dr. Joe told us that the movie was like watching man first walk on the moon. The movie was technologically innovative and took human vision to new territories. After this inspiring moment, he told us to watch out for the giant man-eating octopus and then he took out a garish yellow and orange scuba diving mask out of a red and white carrier bag and put it on over his face. He carried on talking. He made a ludicrous spectacle. In 1916, he said, the feature length film idea was new. The guys we were about to see were experimenting with the format. They were theatre-trained actors that were trying to figure out the new visual conventions of film. Dr. Joe finished off with a laugh and handed us over to ‘Mark the expert projectionist’. We watched in silence as the screen sputtered out, restarted and then sputtered out again. And then the movie.
On the screen, it proudly stated that the movie was the first submarine photo-film. I scribbled it down in the dark. The Williamson brothers had discovered the secret of under-the-ocean photography to bring us it. And now some short passages introducing the scenario, since we were to begin in media res. Already, the cinema audience around me was talking and laughing at the old-fashioned nature of the thing, the jerky movements and the missed frames – Dr. Joe had encouraged us to talk since it was a silent movie. As the movie progressed, they would make a series of ignorant comments. They would try to pre-empt the actions of the actors, guess at what they were thinking in their heads, mock their imagined accents, act out the dialogue for them. These were all defensive strategies meant to mask their lack of any emotion or feeling with the people of the past, any self-reflective consideration as to the conventional nature of today’s cinema and our own day to day acting. One particularly malicious and ignorant individual mocked the grandeur of Captain Nemo with an over-the-top Indian accent during one of the great sentimental scenes, much to my chagrin. And these commentators, they never reflected on how they bought banality and stupidity and cliché to a beautiful and innovative work of art.
The movie was one of the most engaging I had ever seen. But it also made one think of the ways that one could redo the work, make it contemporary, bring it to the present again, while still retaining its integrity, outdo the conception. The cinematography by Eugene Gaudio and J. Ernest Williamson was amazing. A beautiful piano rippled throughout all the scenes and the cinema hall was entranced by the underwater scenes which we watched through Nemo’s magic window. There really was something magical about that moment we looked through the magic window – we were all shocked into silence when it happened.
Nemo, for all of his exaggerated grandiosity, for his painted black face and over-emotionality, Nemo’s revenge, his justice – his heart and his magnanimous nature – these were the greatest parts of the film. Although the entire story fit into the colonial context of the British Empire and it was an exercise in exorcising colonial guilt, Nemo carried the entire show. I watched his final funeral underneath the sea with emotion as the fools in the audience cracked their laughable jokes at his expense. Even though they tried to stop themselves and us all from entering into the past, they had failed. Because I had remembered Akhbar the Great. And I had remembered one other man who had been the same. My late grandfather.
I had seen the past again. I had entered into it again. A league, as Dr. Joe had told us at the beginning, is something mysterious now, an obsolete measurement. The Romans had used it and us contemporaries did not know what it was. We did not understand the concept of the league. Yet I knew – beyond mathematical certainty and beyond cold reason – that I had travelled those 2000 leagues under the sea. I knew the place that was there. I was in that league. But this was the tragedy of that silent and outdated piece of film in the Darwin theatre which had provoked those stupid comments and ignorant laughs. Not everyone had been able to go there.