fragments of obsolete cinema
A few years ago I spent a strangely enjoyable summer looking up dog-eared newspapers and badly deteriorated magazines from the 1950s and 1960s at the National Library in Bangkok, just to see what sort of things about cinema I would find. Not that there was much to look at, the library being a kind of desolate shrine to the idea of a national archive rather than anything approaching an institution of past and present knowledge and a site of future discoveries – meaning, a site of hopefulness about the future.
But, as is often the case with these things, hours of boredom and frustration, silently cursing yet another example of a failing national institution, would suddenly be broken by a curious detail.
In an October 1954 issue of the film magazine Khao Phapphayon [Movie News], I came across a fantastic – I’m almost tempted to say fantastical – report about an inventor no one’s ever heard of. The headline Thai Made CinemaScope Lens caught my eyes. In this report, I found out about a certain man called Boonchuay Loonphai, who lived around Wat Ratchaborphit in the old inner part of Bangkok. In 1954, he managed to invent his own version of the ‘Scope lens, only a year after 20th Century Fox released The Robe, which premiered in New York in September 1953 as the first CinemaScope film.
What I found very moving was the detail in the report about the materials that Boonchuay had used for his invention, which he called MovieScope so as to differentiate it from the technology patented by Fox. The magazine reported that, when they went to visit him, he had been experimenting with his shooting and projector lens for about two months. “He hadn’t had time to construct the lens barrel to the standard of beauty and finish of the imported ones. For now he’s using scraps of wood… As for the curved screen that he had built in order to be able to give us a test screening, it was made out of ordinary white sheet with a frame constructed from bamboo, built to the specification of the standard CinemaScope screen.”
The great film writer Andre Bazin once described the true inventors of cinema as “the fanatics, the maniacs, the disinterested pioneers… men with imaginations.” He took issue with the notion that industrial interests and economic concerns were the driving force of cinema’s technological change, proposing instead that it was those mad inventors’ dreams of creating “the complete illusion of life” that determined each stage of change, while the industrial figures in the pioneering age of cinema had, in fact, little faith in its future. I couldn’t say whether the fantastically imaginative Mr. Boonchuay was one of those men gripped by the “myth of total cinema,” or whether, in this case, his was a dream more typical of the one that so characterised the history of modernity in Siam, and peripheral places elsewhere. This is the dream of using the resources at hand to speed up local time and expand local space, to feel as if you, too, are part of the modern world “over there.”
In any case, for that alone I would want to bring an exquisitely redundant inventor like Boonchuay back from obscurity, because a story like his is an opening onto another kind of history writing. What alternative trajectories into the past of cinema in Siam could be mapped, I wonder, by tracing a history of failed inventions and crazy creations of novelty. How would this path of digging unsettle the story we already have, about the birthing of cinema in the country via the consumption, amateur production, and entrepreneurial activities of kings and princes and the bourgeois elites. A sophisticated version of this story can be found in Scot Barme’s great book Woman, Man, Bangkok: Love, Sex and Popular Culture in Thailand. Another version, more mythical than historical in many ways, emphasises the agency of those who happened to be the first people who had the spending power to purchase the new toys of the camera, film and projector at the turn of the twentieth century: royals who went on European tours. The myth of total patriarchy aside, this is only a history of decadent consumption and dilettantism. So maybe there’s another way to write the history of cinema in Siam, through the inventions of the fanatics, the maniacs, the dreamers – the ordinary men, and (surely) women, who were gripped by the idea that, through the cinema, they too would belong in the modern world.
May Adadol Ingawanij