Chang, a Paramount film, was nominated for the Academy Award in 1927. Its producers, Merion C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, spent two years in the jungle country of Northern Siam, finally creating a film that was the first to combine wildlife documentary footage with a script of melodramatic human interest, and to astound viewers by use of a new invention, the magnascope. To audiences in theaters equipped with this device, the action of a stampeding herd of elephants (the number varies in reports from 90 to 300), filmed from a pit underneath the animals by Schoedsack with a hand-held camera, suddenly flooded the theater by means of a screen thrice-enlarged, as though by magic.(3) At the time of the film's release, Richard Watts, Jr., reported the stampede to be "the most thrilling scene in photoplay history."(4) The reviewer in Close Up calls the effect of the enlarged screen "magnificent and awe-inspiring." Variety also praised the intrepid cinematographers: "Every kind of wild animal is here. Most of them come head on to the camera, many at close range."(5) Sixty years later, it is important to remember that present-day sophisticated telescopic and zoom lenses did not exist.
The reviewer in Close-Up appreciates "the hours or days or weeks of waiting that must have gone to secure some of the close-ups of jungle beasts.... One was made to be aware of the whole jungle, not of mere episodes from the jungle...and that moment when the curtains roll back, and suddenly the whole end of the theatre is one seething mass of stampeding elephants and destruction, is the answer of cinematography to those who profess to despise it."(6) The style of the prose in this review resembles that of H.D. And no other reviewer of Chang has described the little four-year-old girl who plays a leading role as "that exquisite, incredible fragment known as 'O very small daughter.'"(7)
A few months earlier, the first issue of Close Up had published H.D.'s poem titled "Projector."(8) The two "Projector" poems appeared, therefore, in the first and fourth issues of the new monthly magazine; H.D. and her friends at Territet, Switzerland, were at the height of their enthusiasm for the film medium and the artistic possibilities it afforded. At that time, many intellectuals "despised" the cinema as a form intended for low-brow mass entertainment. In contrast, H.D.'s voice in "Projector" is reverent; her imagery recalls the classical allusions of her previous writings: "the Pythian / lifts up a fair head / ...in a little room" (H.D.: Collected Poems 1912-1944.Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1983. p.351; hereafter, CP). The projector's light becomes a return in new form of "the Pythian," Apollo, god of poetry and beauty "in new attribute" (CP 349).
In "Projector II (Chang)" the tone is equally reverent, but the imagery is filled with new detail. One can trace within H.D.'s poem actual shots of landscape and animals from the film Chang. In the following quotation from "Projector II (Chang)," line and stanza breaks have been ignored in order to emphasize content: "no bird gazes more avidly at Pythian snake than we at this vision of streams and path-ways...cataracts and valleys and great forests....we tread a shadow-rock, we lie along ghost grass...with marvelous creatures rise from shadow-stream...with wondrous creatures leap from tree to tree or creep sinuous along the river-bed and freshet...we bound aloft rapturously, or rest beside the river-head and lap waters of holiness....light renders us spell-bound, enchants us and astounds...delight strikes at dark portals, opens gates; the dark breeds mortal and mortal-child, bird, insect and rare serpent; it gives shape upon numberless shape to spring and bear upon us, writhe and rear with anger or surprise; light from his bounty proffers exquisite things, quivering of day-light, rush of delicate wings, exotic flower and reed and underbrush, tenuous fern and bush" (CP 353-55).
At the Museum of Modern Art Film Study Center, a copy of the film Chang is available for viewing by scholars. Unfortunately, deterioration has required the excision of some sections.(9) The "cataracts" and "forests" are still there, and leaping gibbon, a python sliding on a branch, a natural composition of fern leaves with tiger stripes as the animal comes through underbrush to drink water among reeds of the river-bed, and a head-on closeup of a tiger opening its jaws; but the underbelly view of the elephant stampede is gone. In 1977, the film I was able to view at the Film Study Center was in more complete condition, and the stampede did, indeed, thunder (albeit silently) over one's head. Even on the "home-size" screen in the tiny projection room, without color, sound, or tricks of enlargement, the scene was exciting and remarkable.(10)
The poem "Projector II (Chang)" changes voice during the third of its five sequences, shifting from an unidentified persona to the voice of the god, an "I" who addresses "you."(11) This voice offers apotheosis to the viewer of the god-light: "your being is my grace / (he says) / ...you are not any more, / being one with snake and bear, / with leopard / and with panther / ... with bear and lynx" (CP 356). One of H.D.'s nicknames was, in fact, "lynx." The god's voice takes "you" into divine substance: "You are myself being free / as bird / or humming-bee" (CP 357). In Chang the freedom of moving images upon the screen blends with the projector's light to stir H.D.'s poetic imagination. In "Projector II (Chang)," H.D. enacts her characteristic yearning for states of spiritual unity. Names, identities, fragments are juxtaposed, superimposed, and, consequently, transformed. In the words of the poem, "Your souls upon the screen / live lives that might have been, / live lives that ever are" as "old forms dispersed / take fresh / shapes / out of nothingness" (CP 358, 355).
1. "Films of the Month: Chang," Close Up 1.4 (October 1927): 82-84. Close Up is the pioneering magazine devoted to appreciation of cinema as art, founded in 1927 by Kenneth Macpherson and Bryher. It was edited by Macpherson and Bryher, with H.D.'s active participation.
2. "Projector II (Chang)," Close Up 1.4 (October 1927): 34-44. The poems titled "Projector" and "Projector II (Chang)" are reprinted in CP 349-59. A note by Martz (CP 619) suggests that the word "Chang" in the title may be a dedication to Bryher, since this was one of the names used for her in their circle. H.D. and her friends frequently used animal nicknames for each other. The titles of the film translate "Chang" as the Thai word for "elephant." This animal nickname for Bryher would fit into the customary pattern, and it likely followed the group's viewing of the film.
3. For a contemporary view of the place of Chang in film history, as well as a discussion of the magnascope, see Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, with an additional section by Richard Griffith (London: Spring Books, 1930: rev. and rpt. 1967): 206-7, 384-85. Schoedsack and Cooper worked together on the classic film King Kong in the early 1930's.
4. "'Chang' Brings Life of Jungle Right Up Before Your Eyes" (review), New York Herald Tribune, April 30, 1927.
5. Sime, Variety (review), May 4, 1927.
6. "Films of the Month: Chang" 84.
7. "Films of the Month: Chang" 83.
8. "Projector," Close Up 1.1 (July 1927): 46-51.
9. The Library of Congress owns three copies of Chang: two 16 mm. master positives in the Schoedsack collection, and one Paramount reel in 35 mm. These may be in more complete condition, but I have not viewed them at date of writing these notes.
10. The weakest element of the silent film, however, is the inclusion of inane titles, rightly criticized by the reviewer of Close Up as "bad" and "unworthy." Indeed, the titles, expressing a hodgepodge of Kipling, Walt Disney, and nursery nonsense, must be ignored.
11. For an interesting discussion of the psychology of this voice as patriarchal "brother" to H.D., see Anne Friedberg, "H.D., Woman, History, Recognition," Wide Angle: A Film Quarterly of Theory, Criticism, and Practice5, 2 (1982): 26-31.
For their gracious assistance which enabled me to use the materials at the Museum of Modern Art Film Study Center, I am very grateful to Emily Sieger, Charles Silver, and Ron Magliozzi.