Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish Filmarkivet.se, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ’1911′ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

On first looking into Chaplin’s humour

Gilbert Adair, from Time Out

The death was announced last week of Gilbert Adair, the essayist, critic, screenwriter and novelist. He was aged 66. Adair’s talent was wide-ranging, with much of it touching on cinema. He was a cinéaste to his fingertips. He wrote the critical history Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, wrote the novels Love and Death on Long Island and The Holy Innocents which were turned into films (the latter as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), wrote film scripts for Raoul Ruiz, and wrote many essays, reviews and thought pieces on film.

It is his essays, collected in volumes with mocking titles such as Surfing the Zeitgeist and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, that have long been favourites of mine. Though he never quite attained the originality or depth of insight shown by the French writers (Barthes, Derrida and co) whose work he deeply admired, his essays touch omnivorously on so many aspects of modern life, with never a dull sentence and many a true observation. He weaves in films, and that includes silent films, in his survey of our times with knowing enthusiasm, and by way of a tribute I’m going to reproduce part of his 1985 essay ‘On first looking into Chaplin’s humour’ (a typically knowing and punning Adair title). This takes on the Chaplin vs Keaton debate with imaginative style. Keaton, for Adair, was ‘an aristocrat’ (you will have to read the full essay to judge why he thinks so); Chaplin stood for something else.

Charlies Chaplin remains, in his posterity, what he never ceased to be in his lifetime: a maverick, a dissident, a mischief-maker. Persecuted for almost six decades by the self-appointed arbiters of moral, political and ideological orthodoxies, he now finds himself posthumously assailed in the one category in which one had always supposed him to be impregnable: the aesthetic. For his detractors, apparently, Chaplin usurped the rank once universally accorded him as the century’s supreme clown. Not only are his films politically naive, flawed by an excess of pathos and not all that funny (sic), he himself was a boorish, mean-minded man, ungenerous ‘to a fault’ and consumed by jealousy of his co-performers … There even exists a suitable candidate for the pedestal from which Chaplin will be ejected when the dismantling of his reputation is complete: Buster Keaton … Yet Chaplin’s achievement seems to me a living model for our impoverished contemporary cinema; so that I would like to propose, not a theory (I am far too partial and subjective for a theorist’s severities), but, at least, an accessible back door or tradesman’s entrance into his deceptively transparent oeuvre …

The Immigrant, … one of his earliest masterpieces, is as good a point as any for my modest thesis. Chaplin, it should be recalled, himself had entered the United States as an immigrant Englishman; and, in his autobiography, he would savour the poverty he had suffered as an infant with an almost parodially Dickensian relish. On the other hand, he was soon to become the cinema’s single most prominent luminary, and as such was assuredly familiar with Soviet propaganda classics and the warped and jagged creations of German Expressionism. What he absorbed from the latter movement, however, was not the signifier – weird perspectives, evilly brewing shadows and all – but the signified, the thing filmed: the ghetto. Chaplin was, and stayed, the film-maker of the ghetto experience; of, in a word, dirt.

‘Dirt’, as a suffusive visual odour, so to speak – the scurfy piggishness of Stroheim, of Buñuel in his Mexican period, of the French directors Clouzot and Duvivier on occasions – is a filmic configuration for which the cinema would seem to have lost the formula. The ‘sordid’ it knows how to film (Raging Bull, La Lune dans le caniveau), if by that we understand either flamboyant putrefaction or a rafish, idealized, strobe-lit squalor … But, in Chaplin’s films, certainly up to Limelight, the sets are (or impress one as) grimy, the very light is filtered through the clinging, festering haze of the slums – and in a sense unintended by his critics, they stink. And Charlie himself? Naturally, he stinks. How could the paradigmatic ‘little man’ not do so? Crudely phrased, one’s apprehension of gamey underclothes is often quite overwhelming; and a reader tempted to dismiss such a contention as altogether uncouth and trivial might be reminded that, technically, underclothes constitute an immanent kind of off-screen space and may therefore be regarded as a minor aesthetic parameter (as indeed was the case with Stroheim’s fabled and finicky vestimentary perfectionism).

… It was from this total identification with the lumpenproletariat, with the material and physical realities of its quotidian existence, that Chaplin’s admittedly sometimes off-putting sainthood derives. Keaton was a great artist, to be sure, and his niche in the history of cinema is an elevated one; but Chaplin belongs to history itself.

The essay is reproduced in his 1986 collection, Myths & Memories, which I warmly recommend.

Time Out has a touching tribute to Gilbert Adair, written by Geoff Andrew.

Sunbeam variations

Kristin Thompson has written a fine post on the blog she shares with David Bordwell about a singularly inventive video by a Spanish student, Aitor Gametxo. He has taken D.W. Griffith’s little-known film Sunbeam (1912), which takes place in a tenement building on multiple floors and rooms, and arranged the scenes that take place in each room in a grid format, so that what takes place in the upstairs room on the left occurs on the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and so on. The performers then move in and out of the spaces, respecting Griffith’s editing ploys.

The result is as delightful as it is informative. I’m not going to go into the fine details of Griffith’s handling of simultaneous action or his intuitive understanding of naturalistic film cutting, because others – such Thompson or video essay enthusiast Kevin B. Lee – can do so very much better than I. I’m just doing what Thompson asks, which is to help spread the word about an imaginative piece of film analysis and a rather beautiful piece of work in itself, reminiscent in its way of Mike Figgis’ four-screen Timecode or the celebrated multi-roomed HBO promo video Voyeur.

Aitor Gametxo’s visual exposition of Griffith’s artistry is an object lesson in understanding how some silent films (indeed other films) work. It is one of a growing number of video essays to be found online, particularly on the Vimeo site, which film scholar Catherine Grant, of the Film Studies for Free blog, has been gathering together under the Audiovisualcy channel. Such essays analyse film texts in video form, making their arguments by illustrations from the films themselves, in a variety of often highly creative ways. What is noticeable is that none of the essays she has uncovered so far, with the one exception of Variation: The Sunbeam, David W. Griffith, 1912, is devoted to a silent film. I’ve gone looking for examples and not found them. Why is this? Are silent films insufficiently understood as being a part of film studies? Do the films not interest students and lecturers as much as they might? Do they lack the sense of cool that may come from deconstructing the cinema of today?

Or will the reimagining of Sunbeam help inspire further such investigations into early film form and strategies?

Cine-tourism

Google Map showing locations of films made in the early 1900s by R.W. Paul in the Muswell Hill and New Southgate area, produced by the Cine-Tourist

My favourite website of the moment is the Cine-Tourist. The site has been created by Roland-François Lack of University College London as a home for his studies into cinema and place. It’s a model example of how to use the Web as a home for research in forms to which the Web is best suited.

The Cine-Tourist, as Lack bills himself, is interested how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically. He demonstrates the interrelationships in a number of engrossing ways. For example, his site has sections on cities: that on Paris has 63 frame grabs from Jacques Rivette’s Paris s’en va (1981), identifying the specific locations; that on London has a series of frame grabs rather playfully showing maps that appear in films depicting police stations. That all sounds rather little bit trainspotter-ish, but in practice pinpointing the specifics of place somehow deepens the sense of depth in a film, in the way that it always leads our imagination away from the literal.

This is made clearer in the Cine-Tourist’s blog, The Daily Map, which posts daily frame grabs from a wide range of films, each showing a map significantly positioned in the background, often with an engrossing quotation underneath, from studies of image, place and cultural history. Several of the examples so far are from silent films, as in this frame still from Jean Epstein’s La chute de la Maison Usher (1928):

‘The face is a map’: frame still from La chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

There are other elements to the site, including thoughts on methodologies, a biographical account of his local cinemas, links and a helpful bibliography of “books and essays that read maps in films or films through maps or films as maps …” But I want to draw particular attention to the section Local filmmaker: local film subjects. The Cine-Tourist lives in the Muswell Hill area of London, and one hundred years ago the area was home and workspace for British pioneer filmmaker Robert W. Paul.

Paul lived and maintained a studio and film laboratories in the Muwsell Hill and New Southgate areas. The Cine-Tourist has photographed the intriguingly mundane buildings that were Paul’s homes in the area, but then has studied Paul’s films closely (both those extant and lost films nevertheless indentifiable to a degree through catalogues) and matched locations to film scenes. So far, this is much like the work done by John Bengtson at his Silent Locations blog (recently reported on by the Bioscope). The Cine-Tourist however goes further by subjecting the images to greater topographical and filmographical analysis, and by mapping the locations of some of Paul’s films of the 1900s onto Google Maps, as demonstrated at the top of this post. From this map you can go to the locations specific films, which you can additionally view on Street View or as a satellite view. Additional links take you to detailed information on Paul’s domestic and professional addresses, with further links to the London Project database on pre-First World War film businesses in London.

Robert Paul’s 1903 home ‘Malvern’, now the ‘Muswell Hill Food & Wine’,”the shop to which I go for last-minute, late-night supplies of wine and sundries” (the Cine-Tourist)

This isn’t just a piece of diverting local history. It links up the personal to the professional to the geographical to the Web. Lack begins with himself as London resident, or London traveller; traces his personal history of filmgoing and filmwatching in London (and other cities); documents this through the films in which people are themselves mapped in various ways; then brings all this together into a website which links out again to the greater world of film studies, area studies, and the co-ordinates of place in general. What it may all signify in the end, I couldn’t tell you exactly – but the journey is engrossing.

The Cine-Tourist is an example of an increasing trend in the scholarly study of the mysteries of place. Its inspiration goes back to the flâneur of 19th century Paris, the man in the crowd who was a part of the city yet by perambulating through it was somehow distanced from it, as Baudelaire described:

To be away from home and yet to find oneself everywhere at home, to be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.

The flâneur is a reader of the city through which he passes. Other inspirations for what has become a modern movement are Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and the ‘situationist’ Guy Debord, who came up with the somewhat loose term ‘psychogeography’ often used to describe such preoccupations. Most recently there is the London writer Iain Sinclair, author of such richly allusive works as London Orbital (a tour of the M25 which circumnavigates London) and Lights out for the Territory, works to be found placed prominently in the London section of many a bookshop, doubtless bewildering the unsuspecting tourists who purchase them. Sinclair, like Debord, is also a filmmaker, and another member of the same ‘school’ is documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller, whose 2007 exhibition placing images from early films onto the same locations today was covered by the Bioscope.

What is interesting is how such ramblings (literally so) have found their natural home on the Web; indeed are being encouraged by the Web, which by its very nature brings together that association of ideas that psychogeography seeks to achieve. Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, OpenStreetMap (a free, editable world map), HistoryPin (mapping of people’s historical photos) and Geograph (a project inviting anyone to help document every square kilometre of the UK and Ireland with photographs) each encourage us to explore and share what we have explored.

London Sound Survey‘s mapping of sounds (the orange squares) from the London of today to the Booth maps of 1898, colour-coded to show levels of welath and poverty

Interestingly, many psychogeographical or semi-pyschogeographical sites are rather bad at using the Web. Among some of the better examples, check out Classic Cafes (London and seaside cafes), Derelict London (the strange poetry of abandoned corners of London), Urban Squares (city squares around the world), Mythogeography (“for walkers, artists who use walking in their art, students who are discovering and studying a world of resistant and aesthetic walking, anyone who is troubled by official guides to anywhere …”) and the excellent London Sound Survey (systematically mapping the city though its sounds).

For silent films, we are fortunate in having two outstanding examples of the use of mapping tools, though neither is strictly psychogeographical in intent. Going to the Show documents the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina to the end of the silent film era, bringing together Sanborn fire insurance maps of the period and Google Maps; while Cinema Context documents cinema-going and films seen in the Netherlands, linking its database records to Google Maps and the Internet Movie Database. Both have been highly praised on these pages before now (see here and here). I shall be writing about Cinema Context again soon. For other such empirical studies of cinemas and their place, see the HOMER project website (though some of the links no longer work).

Roland-François Lack has another blog, The BlowUp moment, dedicated to frame stills showing the use of cameras in films, with a new image daily.

Go explore. Literally so.

Second birth

I hope I have not allowed it to be inferred that the developments I have mentioned are a mere epitome of the occurrences of a single year. On the contrary they represent a crescendo of change which began in or around 1911 and continued for a long time – continued in some respects indeed right up to the year of the Great War.

Registration is now open for the Second Birth of Cinema conference. The conference is taking place at Percy Building, Newcastle University, UK, 1-2 July 2011, and takes as its somewhat contentious theme the idea that cinema really only got its act together in 1911, so that we should be celebrating its centenary now, and all of those who got the bunting out in 1895 were jumping the gun. The thesis is argued thus:

This conference commemorates cinema’s ‘second birth’, the historical developments and departures that broke film’s subordination to other media to give us the medium, the industry and the building that we know as ‘the cinema’.

If, as André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion have recently insisted, cinema was born once as a technology and then again as a medium, just when and how did this occur? What caused film practice, the film business and film discourse all to generate a media identity for cinema? How did we get from ‘animated photography’ to ‘the pictures’?

Interesting questions, and silent filmmmaker Cecil Hepworth, quoted at the top of this post and used by the conference as an epigraph, clearly thought there was something in it. So do quite a few other people now, because they have a handsome list of topics as the subject of some of the papers now accepted:

  • Film Architecture in Southern California, 1909-1915
  • The Victorian Novel and Early Narrative Film
  • The Second Birth of Cinema in Belgium, 1904-1913
  • The Reinvention of Colour in the Single-Reel Era
  • Animated Films and Negotiated Intermediality
  • The Second Birth of Cinema in Quebec, 1906-1916
  • Measuring the ‘Double Birth’ Model Against the Digital Age
  • The Lightning Cartoon Film
  • André Bazin’s Second Birth of Cinema
  • The Emergence of By-Programme Genres in Germany
  • The Serial and the Institutionalization of the Film Industry
  • The Local Picture Show and the Second Birth in Canada
  • The British Film Industry’s Transition from the Local to the National
  • The Futurists’ New Era of Cinema
  • The Emergence of Film Celebrity in Britain
  • The Newsreel and the Variety Format
  • The Autorenfilm Movement and Cinema’s Second Birth in Germany
  • The Production Crisis and the Formation of the British Film Industry

Keynote speakers are André Gaudreault (Université de Montréal),
Philippe Marion (Université catholique du Louvain), Ian Christie (Birkbeck College) and Joe Kember (Exeter University). The conference website has details of bookings, travel and accommodation.

Is the new film history or the old film history with a slightly different hat? I’ll guess you’ll have to attend to find out. Or wait til someone decides that 1915/2015 will be the third birth of cinema. And so on.

The Seven Lively Arts

‘The Custodians of the Keystone’ by Ralph Barton, frontispiece illustration to Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts

In a recent post on the cinema novel, I mentioned Gilbert Seldes’ advocacy of this hybrid cultural form, and said that a follow-up post was needed, because his book The Seven Lively Arts was available online. Indeed it is, and here is the promised post.

Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was an American cultural critic, one the pioneering champions of the popular arts in the age of mass media. His made his name, and established his life-long theme, with his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. The seven are the movies, musical comedy, vaudeville, radio, comic strips, popular music and dance. Seldes championed what was excellent in what was popular. As his biographer Michael Kammen puts it:

Seldes … is conspicuous among his contemporaries because of his abiding commitment to the democratization of culture … Seldes genuinely believed that the taste level of ordinary Americans was not inevtably contemptible, and that, in any case, taste levels could be elevated.

Several decades’ worth of cultural criticism since the 1920s have rather dulled the revolutionary nature of Seldes’ stance. Elitism has become an ugly word; there is no high art or low art; and we seek to understand the components of a culture and how artefacts embody these rather than to say that one work of ‘art’ is better than another. Seldes didn’t think like a present-day cultural critic, but he did work to overturn preconceptions about supposedly low cultural forms. Of these the form that interested him the most, and to which he devoted most attention in his book, was film.

The opening chapter, ‘The Keystone the Builders Rejected’, sets out his agenda:

For fifteen years there has existed in the United States, and in the United States alone, a form of entertainment which, seemingly without sources in the past, restored to us a kind of laughter almost unheard in modern times. It came into being by accident – it had no pretensions to art. For ten years or more it added an element of cheerful madness to the lives of millions and was despised and rejected by people of culture and intelligence. Suddenly – suddenly as it appeared to them – a great genius arose and the people of culture conceded that in his case, but in his case alone, art existed in slap-stick comedy; they did not remove their non expedit from the form itself.

The great genius is of course Chaplin, but while some critics acknowledged that genius (particularly after The Kid, about which he is ambiguous), Seldes argues for the importance of not separating the man from the form in which his greatness was made manifest. The art was not in the man was in slapstick itself. For Seldes, ‘everything in slap-stick is cinematographic’: the slapstick comedy of Mack Sennett and Keystone was pure cinema because it was achieving results which could be acomplished by no other medium, and which were perfectly suited to that medium,; whereas D.W. Griffith, despite all the ways in which he advanced the art of the motion picture, still had half a mind in another medium (the stage, or the novel).

Seldes goes on the champion the slapstick form, taking pot-shots at his fellow critics for dismissing it without reasons. He writes illuminatingly about Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and lesser lights such as Chester Conklin. He cherishes slapstick for its absence of pretension and consequently its lack of vulgarity:

I consider vulgar the thing which offends against the canons of taste accepted by honest people, not by imitative people, not by snobs. It is equally bad taste, presumably, to throw custard pies and to commit adultery; but it is not bad taste to speak of these things. What is intolerable only is the pretense, and it was against pretentiousness that the slap-stick comedy had its hardest fight. It showed a man sitting down on a lighted gas stove, and it did not hesitate to disclose the underwear charred at the buttocks which were the logical consequence of the action.

There is a touch of paradox for paradox’s sake, but it is an engrossing set of arguments for all that. Every line makes you think again about what you have seen. Seldes goes on to tackle different aspects of his seven lively arts, with an entertaining variety of approaches to the different chapters. A chapter on D.W. Griffith is in the form of a duologue outside an Ancient Greek theatre. There is a mocking open letter to movie magnates (‘I am trying to trace for you the development of the serious moving picture as a bogus art, and I can’t do better than assure you that it was best before it was an “art” at all’). His chapter on Chaplin reveals a deep appreciation of the ebbs and flows of his work which reads like a critic commenting on a display of paintings in gallery. He is alert to the aesthetic experience of Chaplin’s overall output: ‘The flow of his line always corresponds to the character and tempo; there is a definite relation between the melody and the orchestration he gives it’. As noted, he also champions the cinema novel (it is almost the only section of the book not devoted to American culture), because it shows literary people thinking cinematically rather than people of the cinema losing faith in the essential value of their medium and weakly copying literature or the theatre. Other chapters cover jazz, comic strips, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, Krazy Kat, clowns, Pablo Picasso and more.

The Seven Lively Arts is available in online as one of the hypertext series from American Studies at the University of Virginia. The online version incudes all appendices and illustrations. The digitisation isn’t perfect, with some slips in the OCR (there are problems with split words, accents and some punctuation). In places words are missing. But it is helpfully divided up into chapters and shows page breaks and page numbers. Into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 12

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)

Killruddery Film Festival
Ireland’s Killruddery Film Festival, with its strong emphasis on silent film, returns 10-13 March 2011 and the programme has just been announced. Highlights include The O’Kalems in Ireland, La Roue, White Shadows in the South Seas, 7th Heaven, Early Masterpieces of the Avant Garde, The Garden of Eden, Regeneration, People on Sunday and Ireland’s Other Silent Film Heritage (the Irish in Early Hollywood), an illustrated lecture by Kevin Brownlow. Read more.

Kansas Silent Film Festival
The annual Kansas Silent Film Festival takes place 25-27 February 2011. Highlights include David Shepard speaking on Chaplin at Keystone, Speedy, Chang, The Circus, The Last Command, A Thief Catcher, 7th Heaven and Wings. Special guest will be Harold lloyd expert Annette D’Agonstino Llloyd. Read more.

Q&A with film scholar Frank Kessler
On Cinespect, there’s a thoughtful interview with Frank Kessler, early film historian, sometime Bioscope contributor, and all round good chap, discussing issues in media historiography and the trick film by way of Christian Metz and Georges Méliès. Read more.

How to be a motion picture director
Dan North’s rather fine Spectacular Attractions blog offers unusual advice from Marshall Neilan in 1925 on how to be a motion picture director. “How should a director act in public?” “Like a nut or like an owl. Both methods have proved successful. By no means act normal”. Read more.

BBC permanent
It hasn’t much to do with silent films, but the BBC’s quiet announcement of a change in the Service Licence for its TV channel BBC4 and radio channels Radio 3 and Radio 4 is highly significant for access to audio-visual archives online. All three will now all have the the ability to offer programming on-demand for an unlimited period after broadcast, instead of the limited period at present. This is the start of something big – the permanent online archive for broadcast content. Keep watching. Read more.

‘Til next time.

Miriam Hansen RIP

News has come through of the death of Professor Miriam Hansen (1949-2011) of the University of Chicago. Hansen was one of the outstanding scholars investigating the silent film period, whose book Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) bids fair to be the most influential and most cited work in the field. Hansen’s subject was spectatorship and the public sphere: she investigated early film in pursuit of that mysterious point at which film becomes aware of its viewers. Her book introduces the challenge involved by reference to the Corbett-Fitzimmons boxing film of 1897 and Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik three decades later. Both had strong appeal for women audiences, but while the latter consciously anticipated the gaze of a female spectator, the former only encouraged such viewers by accident. At what point did the change come?

When, how, and to what effect does the cinema conceive of the spectator as a textual term, as the hypothetical point of address of filmic discourse? And once such strategies have been codified, what happens to the viewer as a member of a plural, social audience?

These questions go to the heart of what makes early cinema such a fascinating subject, because in attempting to answer them we see how central cinema was to a change in consciousness – specificially change in the balance between what scholars like to refer to as the private and the public sphere.

Illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanies an article by Mary Heaton Vorse, ‘Some Moving Picture Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911

Miriam Hansen was a great deal more than a one-book woman. Her first book was on Ezra Pound, and she wrote variously on German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese cinema, on popular culture, film theory, and social theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas. However it was Babel and Babylon that established her huge reputation, and it has to be the academic dream, to write the one book that changes the way people think.

It’s not a book for the general film enthusiast; indeed there has been many a general enthusiast who has been quite alarmed by it. But read it closely and you’ll find a book of great humanity underneath the dense argument. Hansen’s great achievement was to take the subject of spectatorship, and to show that behind that abstract notion of an idealised viewer, seemingly at the mercy of the ideological predilections of the cinema, there were far more complex forces at work. She showed how important it was to have an understanding of the social history of the early cinema period, allowing for a richer, more various understanding characterised by gender, class, ethnicity and locality. It was her great knowledge of early American cinema in all its forms that made her work so persuasive, and so lasting. She has died too young, and the loss felt will be great. But her ideas have helped ensure that early cinema remains a vital subject for intellectual discovery for many years to come.

First film dogs

beggar

The Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog

David Bordwell recently posted yet another jaw-droppingly good piece on his Observations on film art and Film Art blog, whose consistently high quality makes the rest of us look like mere gossip-mongers. This post, entitled Gradations of emphasis, starring Glenn Ford, examines widescreen cinema (you’ll have to read it to find out what the title means). But there was one aspect of it that caught my eye, something captured drifting across the screen, that reminded me of one of the odder corners of early film down which I like to wander sometimes.

In his survey of lateral staging in film (i.e. action happening within the frame, literally coming in from the sides), Bordwell looks at early film strategies, and reproduces frames from the Lumières’ Le Faux cul-de-jatte (1897), in which a fake amputee begs in the street. He describes the action, until one frame (on the right, above), where a stray dog enters the action from the right. He writes, “The cop comes to the beggar, partially blocking the dog, who takes care of other business. (Not everything in this movie is staged.)” What interests Bordwell is the staged action. What interests me is the dog. Let me explain…

Cinema’s first dog, appearing in Edison’s Athlete with Wand (filmed February 1894) is noticeably at a remove from action and camera (though obedient enough to keep within the frame)

It was when I was presenting a series of programmes at the National Film Theatre on Victorian cinema (i.e. films made before 1901), in 1994, that I first noticed a peculiar phenomenon. As I introduced each short film in the compilation, and pointed out those points of central interest which I had recorded in my notes, I started to notice that the audience’s attention was being frequently been drawn away from the supposed subject and centre of the film’s attention, and instead they were detecting action to the edge of the frame, or crossing the frame, interrupting the action or courageously ignoring it, creating a vital counter-narrative. In short, their attention was irresistibly drawn to stray dogs.

This was a surprising phenomenon, which I exploited at the time for some simple humour, but on mature reflection it seemed that here was a hitherto wholly ignored yet clearly important facet of early cinema, a theme overlooked yet superabundantly obvious once pointed out to the idle observer. The number of stray dogs in early films is considerable, as anyone familiar with the period will readily acknowledge, and their distracting and engrossing qualities seemed to be in urgent need of analysis. Why were stray dogs accepted in early film dramas? What were they doing there? Where did they come from? Were there more such dogs in British films than others? What could their presence tell us about early film practice? How could one construct an overarching vision of early cinema that encompasses the animal and the accidental? Why are there no stray cats? Why, ultimately, were the audience looking in the wrong direction? Were the original audiences similarly distracted? In what sense could it said that such canine interruptions were directed, and by what agency? I resolved to write a paper that would answer these nagging enquiries. It would be called ‘First Film Dogs’.

washingthesweep

I began first by collating the necessary data, and working on a critical theory which would most usefully and succinctly describe the phenomenon. The examples were easy to find: the exuberant Jack Russell which joins in the punishing of a sweep who wanders into a garden and dirties the laundry in James Williamson’s Washing the Sweep (1898, left); the stray dogs wandering over the parade ground amid the marching soldiers in the Boer War actuality Lord Roberts Hoisting the Union Jack at Pretoria (Warwick, 1900), upsetting the solemnity of the situation; dogs wandering casually onto the studio set of early Pathé films; the dog that takes position centre frame in film of a genuine mining tragedy funeral in the middle of the Pathé mining drama Au Pays Noir (1905); actualities such as Funeral of the World’s Greatest Monarch (1910), where King Edward VII’s own dog takes part in the procession, and is then accompanied by a passing stray (such thematic complexity!); the efforts of ‘Monarch’ the Lifeboat Dog to contribute to a life-saving re-enactment performed on the beach in Launch of the Worthing Lifeboat (Biograph, 1899).

comstock

Monarch’s contribution to an actuality which in fact incorporates a dramatic element illustrated the next stage of the theme, where the cinema progressively encroached upon the freedom of the dog, containing the dog within the frame, from Edison’s Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog (1901, right, though watch the film and see how the dog, Mannie, keeps trying to leap out of the frame only to be drawn back into it); to the passing dogs that enthusiatically take part in early chase films; to the triumph/defeat of Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover (1905), where the dog’s natural motion is contained entirely within the cinematic narrative. Did the sequel to that film, The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper (1905), where Rover gets to drive a car, indicate canine empowerment or slavery? What price the freedom of early cinematic form, when all that results from it in the end is Rin Tin Tin and Lassie?

The critical theory at this stage consisted mostly of a series of such questions, without a key, but I began to work on the concept of ‘canine space’. There was more going on in these early films than first appeared. There was a central performance, or news event, which the original catalogues declared to be the subject matter, but this could not necessarily be what the audience saw, nor was such a dictate bound to be obeyed by those appearing in these films. Anyone familiar with early films will know of the puzzled glances from passers-by that characterise street scenes, of the distracting matter which suggests that the camera operator was not in full command of the subject. In such circumstances, dogs run free. What adds to the fascination, reinforcing one’s belief in the essentially liberated nature of early films, is that stray dogs can be found in studio films of the period. The drama is enacted, the comedy routine performed, and in the background a dog watches, or wanders past, or joins in if it so desires, and this is accepted as part of the total action. ‘Canine space’ is therefore that other space, that world onto which the camera has intruded.

rescuedbyrover

Rover (played by Blair) and Cecil Hepworth in Rescued by Rover (1905)

I never did write the paper. It was intended as a spoof of early film studies, but I couldn’t quite get the humour right. I was scheduled to give the paper at a British silent film festival some years ago, but in the end got up and apologised to the audience and said that the paper was beyond me. But I gave them enough of the argument that it probably affected the rest of the festival, as people starting spotting stray animals in every film, and ever since I’ve had people send me images or information on roving animals which they’ve spotted in some silent or other. A chord was touched.

It’s not a phenomenon entirely restricted to the early cinema (there a renowned stray dog in Joseph Losey’s Accident for instance), but it is a noticeable characteristic of early film which could make one think about the special free nature of film at that time. A cinema where dogs run free is a cinema that has not yet been pinned down, one that lets us look at the edges. You could call it the cinema of distractions. You could theorise about it seriously – there is perhaps some parallel with Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘punctum’, the oddity in a photograph that shouldn’t really be there but which draws your attention away from what the photograph is ostensibly trying to convey.

Maybe I’ll write the paper one day. Maybe it’s the sort of paper that’s not meant to be written. Maybe we’re always going to be looking at the centre, while at the edges, or wandering across the frame, another kind of story passes by, always eluding us even though it may for a moment catch our eye. I don’t know. Try asking a dog.

Brighton beach memoirs

G.A. Smith’s Brighton studio in 1902, with the rooftop set for Mary’s Jane’s Mishap

It is probably not possible to pick up a book on early film studies and not find mention of the symposium ‘Cinema 1900-1906′ held at 1978 FIAF congress in Brighton. This formative, and now practically legendary event, took place thirty years ago, and the Giornate del Cinema Muto at Pordenone is going to mark the anniversary by having a special programme at this October’s festival where some of those who participated in 1978 each choose a couple of films that were shown at the original symposium.

The programme notes are on the Pordenone site, and John Barnes, Eileen Bowser, Michael Chanan, Tjitte de Vries, Jon Gartenberg, André Gaudreault, Tom Gunning, David Levy, Charles Musser, Barry Salt, Martin Sopocy and Paul Spehr each choose the two titles, provide their explanations and sometimes their misty memories of thirty years ago. Each demonstrates the extraordinary rich field that early cinema represents for those with the eyes to see, and the undimmed enthusiasm among those who have been working on this territory for three decades and more.

The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) holds annual congresses, and in 1978 in was Britain’s turn. David Francis, the Curator of the National Film Archive, decided to hold a symposium on film 1900-1906, reflecting both the active academic and archival interests in this area, and the role of Brighton (where the congress was held) as a hot-bed of creative filmmaking at this period (the so-called ‘Brighton School’ of filmmakers such as G.A. Smith, James Williamson and Esme Collings). 548 films were shown in Brighton, either during pre-screenings or at the symposium itself. These were contributed by film archives around the world, many of which, as David Francis notes in his memoir of the event, had not been preserved, so two negatives and two prints were produced of each title (one set for the donating archive, one set to stay at the NFA). The two-volume proceedings of the symposium (above), with papers and filmography, were edited by Roger Holman and published in 1982, and are still available from FIAF.

Huge efforts were therefore made to bring together practically every available film for the period (fiction film, that is – non-fiction film, ever the bridesmaid, was not included). 1900 to 1906 was chosen so as to avoid the contentious 1890s (which could have ended up as a ‘we-invented-the-cinema’ exercise in futile national boasting) while examining film form and style before the era of cinemas brought about its changes. The experience of seeing so many films for a well-defined period, allowing scholars to make reasoned assessments for film at this time based on unmatched access to the projected films themselves, had considerable repercussions. As said, hardly any writer on early film can avoid noting 1978 as a major milestone, if not starting point, for the whole field. Out of that gathering of academics eventually came the organisation, Domitor, which still represents scholarly interest in early film studies. Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault’s notion of the ‘cinema of attractions’ (another essential reference point for practically any writing on early cinema) was undoubtedly formed to some degree by the experience.

It could be argued that FIAF 1978 had its detrimental side, given that bias towards the fiction film, film form and the elevation of some films whose crudities, to the general observer, tend to outweigh their stylistic innovations. But it’s all part of a process, and if a gathering together of films 1900 to 1906 today would give rise to many different kinds of questions (particularly, I would like to think, on their social and contextual functions), that just shows the vitality of the medium and its continued relevance in the light of new kinds of questions and new theories.

But will we get other such gatherings of early films? David Francis makes it clear what a gargantuan effort effort it was to bring together, preserve, make accessible and exhibit 548 films in one place at one time. There hasn’t really been anything quite like it since (though David notes the slapstick symposium at the 1985 FIAF Congress in New York). One of the most memorable early film events I ever attended was the pre-screenings of pre-1914 films on religious themes, organised at the National Film Theatre in advance of the first Domitor conference in 1990 (in Québec). I’ve no idea how many films were shown, but it took up the whole of a weekend, and we were on our knees by the end of it. But what an experience – and what was so interesting was to encounter the papers that came out it, and to see how enriching it has been for those scholars who attended.

There should be renewed efforts to put on such epic surveys. Of course, the DVD box set can now bring us such astonishing treats as the entire (almost) extant works of Georges Méliès, but there are still vast number of early films that remain unseen by most, and of course many more films have been discovered for the period since 1978. Moreover, it is the experience of seeing such films projected, with an interested audience, that is so important. David Francis calls for year-by-year analyses of fiction and non-fiction films, which would be welcome – and not impractical – though I would still hope different kinds of arrangement, so that we don’t just get a lesson in emerging kinds of film form. The impact of FIAF 1978 has resounded for thirty years, surely a sound return for the investment in time, money and effort. Someone should try do something similar in the light of the critical perceptions we have today. It would be more than worth it.

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