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The Forgotten: Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

Nero fiddles while Rome burns in Nero: or, The Fall of Rome, a mini-epic from 1909.

Above: Rome burns, whereas Nero merely suffers a bit of nitrate decomposition.

Arturo Ambrosio, prolific producer (1313 titles on the IMDb) and specialist in early twentieth century epics of the ancient world (his career climaxed with a 1925 Quo Vadis? but also included the 1913 Last Days of Pompeii (I've seen it: a corker!) pulled out all the stops when releasing his 1909 Nerone (Nero; or The Fall of Rome). Almost three hundred and fifty prints were struck (I believe that's around the same number as accompanied the US release of the Roland Emmerich Godzilla, to give you an idea) and the movie was accompanied by a sixteen page promotional booklet. That's more than one page per shot in the actual movie, which, being from 1909, is a bit skimpy by the standards of our modern super-films, weighing in at fourteen minutes and averaging one shot per minute.

Above: Home cinema, ancient Roman style.

The most interesting moment, for me, is the scene post-fiery apocalypse when Nero loses his mind and is tormented by visions of what he's done. This is presented in the form of an image that appears on his wall, just like a movie being projected there (though the effect is achieved not by projection but by double exposure). It's an effect Méliès had used, and which was still being deployed by Murnau as late as Sunrise (1927), where vamp Margaret Livingston tempts hick George O'Brien with a vision of the big city, which appears as if projected on a translucent screen stretched across the landscape.

(Sunrise, though a dazzling technical display full of innovations and elaborations, also partakes of the spirit of an earlier age: US critics sneered at George O'Brien's lead-footed plod, calling him a "junior Golem." As silent movies were becoming more like the talkies to come, Murnau's expressivity and use of the archetypal and mythic could be seen by some as retrograde.)

So it seems that from a very early stage, the idea of hallucinations appearing on a kind of screen within the screen, to the astonishment of the characters, was an accepted piece of film grammar understood by audiences and accepted by them. When did this cease to be the case, and why?

In a way, we see a return to this kind of single-shot approach to hallucination in films like the new Trance: where once, in classic continuity cutting, we might expect a hallucination to be confined to a POV shot, with wider views remaining faithful to reality, today we again see the character and his disturbed vision within the same frame. But today's dreamers are not safely separated from the illusion, viewing it as if on a screen: they are immersed in a virtual reality exactly as convincing as their normal surroundings.

Nero got off lightly.

Above:The Emperor (right) expires in a wood.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Excellent point about this immersive illusionism! This Nero vision is reminding of medium Gillian in De Palma’s The Fury, which is just beyond audience participation, but is also not quite as far a vision as Nero’s. Fascinatingly nebulous moments of audience proxemics (that might have some amazing incarnations in 3D, the likes of P.W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil 3D intros)! Thanks for the thoughts David!
Thank you! The visions in The Dead Zone are an early-ish example of the immersive illusion, but arguably it goes all the wyz back to Wild Strawberries, where Sjostrom not only inhabits the world of his past, but interacts with the people there.

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