In 2004, Dominic Smith published a short story called “The Projectionist,” about a young man who heads to Australia in 1897 to screen movies by the pioneering filmmakers the Lumiere brothers. In the 15 years since the story was published, Smith has become an acclaimed historical novelist with a specialty in art, writing about 19th century photography (2006’s The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre) and 17th century Dutch art (2016’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos). But he kept returning to the idea of writing a bigger story about the early days of silent film, and its vanishing legacy.
“Edison was very interested in buying up the commercial side of early cinema, while the French were a little more interested in propagating and evangelizing the medium. I was really interested in that story,” he says. About five years ago, when the Library of Congress released a report stating that 75 percent of early American silent film reels have been lost forever, Smith detected the seed of a novel. “That really got my attention,” he says. “The analogy I thought of is, What if three quarters of all the books published in a 30-year time period disappeared? What would that mean for storytelling?”
The Electric Hotel, Smith’s richly imagined tale of early moviemaking, imagines the kind of film that might have fallen through the cracks in the early 1900s, when silent film was largely defined by short and simple verite, slapstick fare, and fantasias like the Melies’ A Voyage to the Moon. Claude, an agent of the Lumieres, travels from France to New York to sell audiences on the new medium, persuading a Shakespearean actress, Sabine, to serve as his muse for the Gothic film he wants to direct, The Electric Hotel. (Sabine is skeptical: “Who would sit in darkness for an hour?” she asks.)
Smith is well-versed in filmmaking early days’ as an art and a business. (Thomas Edison proves to be Claude’s arch-enemy.) But Smith was also interested in the psychological impact of the medium, the way movies become proxies for the private needs that consume the lives of Claude and Sabine. “The idea I had with Claude and Sabine was that they all have, in their own ways, a need to be noticed and a need to be making their own story,” Smith says. “There's a throughline in the book about consumption and consuming, and Claude has this need to consume the world through his own gaze and through the gaze of the camera.”
That urge has serious consequences for Claude, as his auteurist ambitions are challenged by Edison, and World War I introduces him to the worst human acts a camera can capture. “[Claude had been] the one who's controlling the gaze and the framing, but when the war comes, that's disrupted and now he's the one who's been pulled around by larger historical forces,” Smith says.
The Electric Hotel, like much of Smith’s work, bounces across time, from the early days of the silents to the early 60s, when Claude is rediscovered by a film scholar in LA’s Knickerbocker Hotel. The drama emerges not just from the threats to Claude and Sabine’s romance, but the near loss of Claude’s opus to time and neglect. Smith is continuing to pursue that theme with his next project, about abandoned towns in Italy. “My trajectory as a writer seems to be wanting to find ways to blend history with the current moment, and find interesting ways to make them fuse and connect,” he says.
Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Kirkus Reviews and author of The New Midwest.