Cinema Spec: Tales of Hollywood and Fantasy
Screening of a Silent Film
by J.S. Bangs
We trundle to the matinee, hatted men and bob-haired women in fur coats and flapper dresses. Red-suited ushers seat and shush us with white-gloved hands. The third row in front of us holds the woman, plain, brown-haired, gray-eyed. She isn't one of us. We finger flasks of bootlegged liquor in our pockets. Her dress pockets are filled with arsenic, which she means to swallow when the film has ended. She doesn't know that the film is for her. Neither do we.
The curtain parts; the lights dim. We grow quiet, and watch three, two, one crackling on the screen.
The title card says The Shattered Mirror. Grim music plays, a groan of organs and cellos. The villain appears first: a hump-backed sorcerer. He adds toads and chicken blood to a steaming cauldron. Lightning flashes in the window. The cauldron bubbles, burps, and spills. The organ's gnarled chord underlines our hisses.
The scene changes to the heroine, a virginal beauty in a long dress. She lies in a field, picks flowers, weaves a circlet. We draw our breath: she has a face we will remember for years, angelic, elegant and severe. The plain woman sighs and leans against her hand.
The heroine returns to her home. Her father is there. The first card appears: "Where have you been?" He is an angry man with thick eyebrows and a fat chin. He strikes her across the face when he sees the circlet of daisies in her hand. We wince and hiss. The plain woman brushes the edge of a faded bruise on her face. On screen, the heroine returns to the kitchen and begins to prepare the food.
The scene returns to the sorcerer, hunched over his cauldron. He ladles out the bubbling substance and shuffles to an upright mirror near his bench. He sloshes the liquid on the glass. The image changes, bleeds, fades, and in its place we catch a glimpse of the heroine in the field. The sorcerer cackles. The screen is filled with his face, warted and misshapen, his rotten teeth rocking with his laugh.
The heroine serves her father. He grumbles and shouts at her and strikes her again. The violin plays a wilting, dulcet theme. The heroine cries in the corner. Then, a young man knocks at the door. Well-dressed, noble, kind-faced. We relax, recognizing one of our own as the hero. The woman tenses with recognition and suspicion.
They court, they kiss, the hero kneels and asks. The wedding day comes. We coo at the heroine in white, but the woman knots her hands in the fabric of her dress. Vows bind, bells ring, and the couple disappears into the husband's home.
The disguise falls away, and the home's interior is revealed as the sorcerer's cobwebbed workshop. We gasp. Another card: "What are you doing to me?" The sorcerer laughs and points to the mirror. The heroine sees her image in the silvered glass where the sorcerer will keep her, forever young, forever prisoner.
The perspective changes. We see as if through the mirror, the heroine backing away from the sorcerer's lewd grin. The gray-eyed woman stands, because she remembers, now. We shout for her to sit down. She does not. The heroine turns to the mirror and begins to plead with us who sit beyond it. A card with a single word: "Please!" We gasp and mutter.
The gray-eyed woman knows that the film is a tragedy, and remembers that she did not escape. But her pocket holds a silver dollar, what remains after buying poison and a matinee. She flings it at the screen. Silver meets silver. The mirror shatters.
The heroine falls into the theater, and the sorcerer follows. We scream, stand, retreat. The gray-eyed woman alone strides towards the curtains and the heroine. Her other self has fallen on the chairs of the front row. The sorcerer reaches for her, but the woman takes the heroine into her arms. He seizes her wrist. He threatens wizard's flame and torture, but the woman does not falter. She has relented too many times already. He speaks the arcane word, but it falls powerless from his tongue. On this side of the mirror he has no power. The woman shakes him off, and he falls like a toppled scarecrow.
The projector falls silent. There is light, but it comes from the shattered screen itself, leaking gray hues into the dim theater. We no longer flee, but look to the front to see the end of the miracle.
There is only one woman now, and her face is neither angelic nor plain, but at last her own. As she steps towards the screen the color bleeds from her, but her dress lengthens and adorns itself with ribbons and pearls. She passes through the mirror, through the sorcerer's house, and into the world. The curtain falls and the screen goes dim.