In The Phantom Empire, his dizzying reverie on how we consume movies and how they in turn consume us, Geoffrey O’Brien explains why we dream in Technicolor and CinemaScope: “A spectator can avoid certain movies, but not The Movies. You have been part of a captive audience all your life.” If the silver screen is our gilded prison, you couldn’t ask for a better cell mate than O’Brien, critic, poet, and editor in chief of the Library of America. Fluent in the private rituals and synesthetic associations of a lifetime spent at the movies, he knows equally well the toll of enslavement and the thrill of surrender.
Castaways of the Image Planet, a collection of O’Brien’s journalistic essays, embarks on fewer lyrical detours than The Phantom Empire, but it approximates the same condition of enraptured thrall. An exquisitely designed narrative is described as a “beautiful trap”; others are lauded for their hermetic qualities (“The door slams and there’s no way out”). More than once, he equates VCRs with control, a lamentable advantage in the power struggle between viewer and image. It’s no surprise that O’Brien is at his most hypnotic when tunneling into the heads of fellow obsessives: Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, John Wayne in The Searchers, even Dana Andrews’s impassive detective in Preminger’s Laura. (He seals his case for Andrews’s poignant stolidity with a single sentence, irrefutable in its modesty: “Shadows fall well on him.”)
In the movie-buff equivalent of a DSM classification, he offers what might be the definitive diagnosis of Vertigo addiction, which causes the sufferer to return repeatedly to the illusory spirals of Hitchcock’s “diagram of chronic corrosive sadness,” helplessly pursuing the film’s “real subject—when that subject is nothing other than his own carefully programmed response, his state of entranced alertness.” A tonic admixture of wonder and regret saturates these pages: A piece on the early Lumière one-shots defines the birth of the medium as the death of all previous eras (forever lost to “our newfound capability for resurrection”) even as it speculates on an alternate evolution (what if movies had stayed short, dense, and utterly focused?). O’Brien understands, of course, that the parade’s gone by: Like so many of its subjects, this radiant anthology amounts to an elegy for vanished worlds and lost time.