So, how has the digital revolution been for you?

Domitor conference taking place at the University of Brighton

I’m taking part in a panel at the Domitor conference (Domitor being the international body for the study of early cinema, whose biennial conference is taking place in Brighton). The theme is ‘Digital Technologies and Early Cinema’ and four speakers have been asked to address the subject of the digital revolution’s impact on the study of early cinema. Each of us has been asked to kick things off by speaking for ten minutes on “how the digital revolution has changed your practice”. For me, it seems appropriate to write my response in the form of a blog post. So here it is.


Hello. I was intrigued to see in the conference programme that the affiliation given with my name was not my institution but my website. My day job is curator for moving images at the British Library, where I am mostly concerned with television, news programmes and born digital media; so, the moving images of today. My hobby is early cinema, with its chief expression being a website, The Bioscope, which I maintain as an information source on those areas of early and silent cinema that interest me – and presumably others, since it enjoys a reasonably good readership for what is – let’s face it – quite an obscure subject, even within film studies.

I have been writing The Bioscope for just over five years, during which time I have produced 1,364 posts (that is, individual pieces of writing), amounting to some 600,000 words. That’s seven or eight books’ worth, had I been so inclined to write books instead, but why put the measure in books? As I often say to people when talking about the site, more people read the Bioscope in a single day than probably have read any of the articles or books that I have written or co-edited have received in years. I’m not tied down by a need to achieve a quota of academic publication for any research assessment exercise. I simply like communicating things to people. And it gets read.

The Bioscope allows me to choose whatever subject interests me, to write in a light yet informative style which suits the online medium and certainly suits me as a writer, and it gives me responses to what I am doing. Posts receives comments, the blog’s software tells me how many people have visited each piece of writing, individual posts get cited in any online (and offline) writings, and I am in contact with people from around the world, both early film scholars and those merely curious. The Bioscope is in a constant state of communication. Write poorly, or infrequently, and the viewing figures start to fall. The price paid for the attention is constant vigiliance.

I’m not interested in reviewing films, nor in giving opinions as such. The aim of the Bioscope is to communicate information, encouraging others to explore the growing range of online research opportunities for themselves. So the site has come to specialise in information on digitised journals, newspaper sources, assessments of databases and other resources, as well as promoting conferences, festivals, publications and so on, broadly relating to early and silent cinema around the world. The emphasis is on early cinema in its different contexts – film as art holds little interest for me – and on the relevance of early cinema today. If it were purely an exercise in revisiting the past, it would be pointless. Early cinema must be of interest because it is relevant, because through its study we can learn more of the world. This, for me, is what the digital revolution is doing, showing how early cinema connects with the worlds that surround it.

So, I’m particularly interested in early cinema in its various contexts – that is, the ways in which it connects with other forms of social, political, economic or cultural activity. This has been, of course, a major feature of early cinema studies in recent years, and something which Domitor itself has helped encourage through conferences such as these, with their impressive diversity of speakers and perspectives. It also connects my hobby with my work, because at the British Library I am chiefly concerned with the moving image medium as it supports other subjects, and how the digital world is providing opportunities not simply to increase access, but to facilitate the integration of diverse resources and to encourage new forms of discovery. I want researchers to pursue a particular theme and find the book, the newspaper article, the image, the sound recording and the film on that theme all in the one place, and to make exciting discoveries through these associations. And that’s what we must want for early cinema too.

Having said all this enthusiastic stuff, there are aspects to this sort of writing that bother me. Firstly, that constant vigiliance can be wearing. One feels the need always to be finding new material, to be publishing with some degree of frequency, to stay fresh, to keep up those readership figures. These maybe entirely self-imposed pressures, but they exist all the same.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the possible impermanance of some many of these web resources on which we increasingly depend. I wrote a recent post about websites on early and silent cinema that have disappeared recently. They included such important sites as the Ariel Cinematographica Register and The Silent Cinema Bookshelf. Most websites, even after they have been taken down, can be found archived on the Internet Archive, and national libraries are increasingly moving into web archiving – the British Library hopes soon to start archiving the UK web space, for example.

But web archives take only occasional snapshots of a site – perhaps four a year – and often they do not include associated media such as video files, while databases and other such complex underlying systems are beyond web archiving. Databases cost money to support, and more money to keep them up to date (a static database is a dead database), and we can’t depend on them to remain online forever. I have worked on a number of research databases, happily all still going, but each at the whim of uncertain funding, or change in the host institution’s priorities. Crucially, links to files and pages change when sites are changed, making citation hazardous. Fundamentally the web does not stand still, for as much as it adds such huge amounts, it also loses vast amounts, as old information is overlaid by the new.

The British Library

There are significant shifts in information power relations which may affect what we can access, and from whom. At the moment, we identify most research collections with the institutions that hold the physical originals. This makes the research web very much a reflection of the physical research environment. The website and associated resources of a body such as the British Library become an extension of its physical reality.

But what happens when everything becomes digital? Who are the owners then, when anyone might manage, host or otherwise point to digital resources if they have the means to do so? What is the purpose of a physical library in a digital world? Who will need libraries or archives at all, in the long run, if Google can do it all for us? And if the private sector largely takes over that which traditionally we have expected to be delivered by the public sector, what will the access be like, what will be the price we pay for it, what will we have lost?

Media History Digital Library

I don’t think our national libraries and archives are going to disappear, and I think access is only going to increase and to be fabulous, though we will have to pay more for it than has been the case up until now. I do think that new kinds of institutional-like sites will emerge, however, which could supplant the work of some of the traditional institutions. The Media History Digital Library, for example, a non-profit initiative which is digitising extensive numbers of classic media periodicals that are in the public domain; or even the humble Bioscope, if it wants to become a focal point for the discovery of early film research resources. But how long will the Media History Digital Library last? Will I get bored of The Bioscope tomorrow and go off and do something else instead? The web world feels so impermanent, like it has been built on a whim. The web world feels so impermanent, like it has been built on a whim. The web is not going to disappear. It is where we now discover, interpret, re-use and share our researches. It is where early cinema belongs. But we’ll never be able to be completely confident that what we find online today will still be there tomorrow. And it is hard to build scholarship on such uncertainty.

I said that the value for me in early cinema is its connection with other subjects. This is what has been so good about the digital revolution, showing how early film fits in, not only with the world that created it, but with our world today. Indeed, at times I’m surprised we still have early cinema studies and it hasn’t evolved into something else, giving the associations and connections the digital environment provides. It’s why I so enjoyed Josh Yumibe‘s paper yesterday, which talked of the use of colour in our field, but threaded together an argument that brought in Hunger Games, Harry Smith, Loie Fuller, Scriabin, Kandinsky and D.W. Griffith, making early film concerns timeless and relevant.

As an expression of this, and as sort of tribute to Yumibe’s paper, I’ll finish off with a video which I posted on The Bioscope last Christmas, when not many people saw it, so here’s a chance to do so again. It brings together our world and their world in a witty and thought-provoking fashion, and demonstrates for me that the digital revolution has been, more than anything else, such fun.

Compliments of the season

It’s Christmas, folks, as you may have noticed, and the Bioscope is closing its doors for a few days while it spends time with the nearest and dearest, trying very hard to be Bob Cratchit and not Ebeneezer Scrooge. I hope you all have a merry Christmas yourselves, and the happiest of new years.

To mark the season, sort of, and by way of tribute to the man whose accomplishments have been so rightly championed all year, here’s Conquest of my Poles, Jean Lambert-wild and Jeremiah McDonald’s droll interpretation/interpolation of Georges Méliès’s À la conquête du pôle (1912). A film with all the visual wit and ingenuity of a Méliès original.

The duo have made other examples of what they call ‘screen calentures‘ in which a bewildered modern figure (McDonald) intrudes upon a silent film landscape, as in the pleasingly clever Keaton and I in which McDonald travels through assorted classic sequences from Keaton’s films.

Or try out My Serpentine, where he joins in with a 1890s hand-coloured serpentine dancer in a joyous fin de siècle knees-up.

Here’s hoping we all have as much fun over the holidays.

The Bioscope on Vimeo

Posting on the modern silent Momentos a few days ago made me think that it was high time there was a Vimeo channel on the Bioscope. There is already a Bioscope YouTube channel, where every YouTube video which features on this blog is gathered together in one handy section, accessible via link on the right-hand column (under Other Bioscope Sites). But though we have been posting videos from Vimeo for some while, there hasn’t been a channel to bring them all together.

Well now there is, and if you look under Other Bioscope Sites you will now see The Bioscope on Vimeo. The link will take you to every Vimeo we’ve featured so far: modern silents, documentaries, pastiches, mashups etc; and as each new Vimeo is added here it will go on the channel. Vimeo, if you don’t know, is YouTube with class. It is the favourite site of up-and-coming filmmakers (film school graduates and the like), who use the site to test of ideas, and as a showcase for work which normally would only get seen on the festival circuit. Comments and likes tend to strees technical and aesthetic achievement, and generally the quality is very high. Moreover, there is a significant body of work within the silent film genre, in its broadest sense.

To celebrate our new channel, I’ve posted some videos to demonstrate the range that exists. At the top of the post we have Michael Fisher’s To a Flame, a visually striking example of an historical subject treated in a modern silent style.

A different approach to silents is taken by Chandler McWilliams for Silent, which the filmmaker describes thus:

Silent is a two minute video created by combining frames from five classic silent films: Metropolis, Faust, Nosferatu, Holy Mountain, and The Dragon Painter and put to the music of Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en. The frames are chosen by custom software that compares data from each of the film’s soundtracks with the data from Ives’ music.

The result is very different to the average mashup of a silent film to a music track, creating something compellingly abstract. (Those sensitive to such things should note that the video features insistent flashing imagery).

Another take on silent films is this six-minute comedy by You Look Nice Today, in which a trio of foley artists discuss the challenges of contributing sounds to silent films. It takes a while to go anywhere and then doesn’t really get there in any case, but if celery jokes are your sort of thing, you’re in luck.

And, finally, a short film. A very short film.

There and then

Market Street, San Francisco in 2010 with inset of Market Street, 1905, http://homepage.ntlworld.com/keir.clarke/web/marketst.htm

My acknowledgments go to the excellent ReadWriteWeb for a piece on websites that mash-up mapping, photos, street views, video and documentary photographs from the past. Among the interesting projects the piece describes where uses can map historical photographs to maps using geo-tags is There and Then, a site created by Kier Clarke which takes historical videos from YouTube and overlays them on a Google Street View of the location today.

There’s not a huge number on the site as yet, but among the examples are a number of the BFI’s Friese-Greene colour travel films from the 1920s mapped to their present day British locations, and some American examples of the Library of Congress, including a 1905 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, illustrated above (though I don’t think it’s from the LoC copy – note the rolling frame line). The effect is a little odd for this particular example, because the Google image is static while the 1905 film is a travelling shot, but in general it’s a delightful conceit.

It’s not a new idea, however. British film artist Patrick Keiller installed a piece at the BFI Southbank in 2007 which inset archive films within modern-day photographs of the same location, as reported in this Bioscope post.

Patrick Keiller’s combination Carrington Street, Nottingham in 2003, with inset from Tram Ride Through Nottingham, Carrington Street (Mitchell & Kenyon, 1902), from The City of the Future exhibition (2007)

I also recall an exhibition at Brighton museum a while back which showed moving images rom Brighton past and present taken from the same position exhibited next door to one another. The results are invariably haunting and thought-provoking, and it would be good to see a lot more of this sort of imaginative juxtaposition of yesterday and today.

The Market Street example was picked for Bioscope regular Joe Thompson, San Francisco resident and cable car enthusiast, whose own fascinating blog piece on A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire was reported on by the Bioscope here.

Mashing Edison

Let us return to our occasional mash-up series, where we look at how some creative people have taken silent footage and blended it with modern music or other found sounds. Each of the examples here demonstrates creative use of Edison films made freely available for download and personal use by the Library of Congress through American Memory and the Open Video Project. This first example, Grandpa Can Dance!, created by pixiecherries (a.k.a. Bernie Lee), is a model piece of work, as it mashes up open content from American Memory and for the music from the Internet Archive. The two films used are Foxy Grandpa and Polly in a Little Hilarity (1902) and The Boys Think They Have One Over on Foxy Grandpa but he Fools Them (1902), while the music comes from zefrank. Firstly, it is a fine piece of creative work, with the unlikely heavy beat music fitting in well with the old-time dancing to create something delightfully strange. Added to this, he provides background information as intertitles throughout, showing interest in and respect for the performers. An education, in every sense.

More of Bernie Lee’s mashup work can be found at http://wj4u.com.

Girl on Fire takes the 1898 Edison film, Turkish Dance, Ella Lola, from American Memory, filmed in the Black Maria studio. mediapetros has treated with visual effects, fire noises and indeterminate live sounds and snatches of what seem to be airport announcements, ending with a church organ and singing. The result is hypnotic and enigmatic. Ella Lola, though billed at the time as “a sensational dancer from the East”, in fact hailed from Boston.

Our third example is Love in an Elevator, which I take to be the name of the song by Aerosmith which has been laid over the Edison film Charity Ball (1897) (available from American Memory), featuring James T. Kelly and Dorothy Kent of the Waite’s Comedy Company, performing in the Black Maria studio. As in so many examples of films being placed alongside music which was not composed with it in mind, our brains seek out common points of reference, points of action matching points in the music. (Note that the film, which was probably shot at 30fps, has been transferred at too slow a speed). But the music, grim as it may be to my sensitive ears, does fit peculiarly well. And look out for that wild leap at the end. Let’s be seeing those moves at the dance halls soon.

And finally, thiscompost takes things a little further in this multi-screen presentation of a Serpentine Dance. There are two dancers shown. The first is not identifiable, though it is an Edison Kinetoscope film of a serpentine dance. The second is Annabelle, who is wearing butterfly wings, which is Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894 or 1895 – there were multiple versions made). The film ends with the return of the first dancer. The music is a Nick Drake B-side played backwards and then forwards. Annabelle Whitford was the most filmed of the variety performers who appeared before the Edison Kinetograph in these earliest years. She was a follower of Loïe Fuller, and went on to join the Ziegfeld Follies. Here her presence (and that of the unidentified dancer) is reduced to mysterious icon, echoing the multiple presences she enjoyed on film peepshows and screens across the world as the motion picture first spread across the world.

Mashing it with the fab four

Let us continue with our examination of those creative meetings of silent films with modern music. Today’s selection takes us that much closer to the borderline of copyright tolerance, and it’s a surprise to find Beatles music still so prevalent on YouTube. So, upholding the spirit of validity in creative re-invention, and before they all get taken down by the strong, protecting arm of Apple Corps, here’s a selection of silent montages imaginatively put to the music of the Beatles (or vice versa). Because the Beatles turn out to have inspired the masher-uppers in a number of imaginative ways.

We start with a relatively conventional fan video, but one very pleasingly done. YouTuber zuebee (who has a taste for adding pop songs to classic film clips) here gives us tribute to Clara Bow by matching clips from It to the Beatles”Honey Pie’: “Oh honey pie my position is tragic / Come and show me the magic / Of your Hollywood song”. It’s an obvious choice of song really, and the lapse into the use of stills is not to my taste, but words, music and image are skilfully blended, and it captures the spirit of the It girl.

So, you have decided to create a mash-up of scenes from Metropolis and the Beatles – which song will you choose? Quite possibly you may not have thought of ‘Birthday’, but Rob Karg did, and the result is a joyous confection, though it’s a shame the image quality is so very poor. It’s a crazy mix that turns the film into a wild celebration for the sake of celebrating wildly.

Metropolis seems to be a popular choice for Beatles fans with a silent film fixation. Try sampling it with ‘I’ve just seen a face’, or this quite peculiar use of ‘Lady Madonna’ with the video creator’s own, intertitled agenda.

Not every silent chosen for such treatment is a familiar one. KeyAliceSun has taken Hans Richter’s 1928 avant garde work Vormittagsspuk and found the ideal accompaniment for it in ‘Happiness is a warm gun’. The song was presumably first chosen because of the film’s central gun imagery, but the song’s fragmented structure and radical style suit the film’s playful experimentation. Lennon would have approved.

KeyAliceSun has also given us The Great Dictator meets ‘Because’. OK, it’s not a silent film, but it is Chaplin and the sequence is shown without dialogue and is purely silent in spirit. It’s the scene where Hynkel plays with the globe (“Because the world is round it turns me on”), and the song matches the scene’s dreamy atmosphere perfectly, so that they seem made for each other.

There are other such examples to discover. ‘I’ve just seen a face’ turns up again, sweetly put to Buster Keaton and Margaret Leahy in The Three Ages, Harold Lloyd’s boy-next-door persona fits well with ‘Act naturally’, while Chaplin eating his boots is put to the somewhat obvious choice of ‘Old Brown Shoe’. And so on.

Back to serious stuff eventually, I promise.

Mashing it up once again

Third in what looks increasingly like a series of posts on the creative coming together of silent films and music tracks on YouTube takes us to the wilder edge of things. We’re still following the placing of sequences or montages of silent films with pre-existing music, but playing around with the concept rather more.

To start with, here we have Radiohead meets Buster Keaton, courtesy of YouTuber hoverground. It’s a collection clips (mostly very familiar) put to music, but now we have extracts from several songs, interspersed with pauses for a train passing, wind blowing, bridge collapsing etc. It gives us multiple interpretations of Keaton’s art, while the great stoneface shows himself yet again to be an Everyman figure whose eternal crises can be replayed to ideal effect in almost any form. Not so sure about the use of stills at the end, but a memorable tribute for all that.

Now for something rich and strange – strange at any rate. Here we have a clip from Dimitri Buchowetzki’s 1922 Othello, with Emil Jannings as the Moor and Ica von Lenkeffy as Desdemona. Accompanying it we have loops of music from an unnamed ‘garage band’, plus sounds from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – whether the original or the remake it does not say, and I am not expert enough to judge. The result is peculiar, to say the least, particularly when the chickens start clucking. Its creator, Joe Boyce Burgess, called the video Me vs You, and he has created a number of bizarre juxtapositions of film and alien sound.

Experimental films of the silent era are a favourite subject for adding music tracks. Here Walter Ruttman’s Opus I, II, III and IV are set to music by electronica outfit Digitonal, courtesy of totaldistortion. The marriage (inevitably?) works perfectly, and you can find Ruttman’s works similarly set to the experimental music (of one kind or another) of John Zorn and The Chemical Brothers.

This, however, starts to take us into the field of applying original soundtracks to silents on YouTube, and that will be the subject of another post or two, as inevitably it’s a rich seam to be mined (albeit with a large amount of dross along the way). As before, I’m keen to learn of other examples you may have come across. In particular, I’ve yet to find an example where two different silent films have been mashed up (Eric Campbell ends up chasing Buster Keaton, the Ku Klux Klan from Birth of a Nation end up galloping along the Circus Maximus in Ben Hur, that sort of thing). Anyone come across such a creation?

Mashing up some more

Well, it was fun picking out those YouTube clips where silents had been creatively mashed up with modern music tracks, so here are three more examples. These aren’t the same as silents to which modern composers (or would-be composers) have added new tracks – that’s an interesting subject for another time. Instead these are examples of re-edits or montages to modern music tracks which illuminate or heighten the films in interesting ways. To impose some sort of thematic reasoning to all this, the three videos below all derive from classic German 1920s silents.

Louise Brooks is one of the most popular search terms used on this blog, but such researchers have been going away disappointed. Well, no more, because here’s a dynamic and assured mix of scenes from Pandora’s Box (1929), skilfully edited by Adam Armand to the tune of The Killers’ ‘Mr Brightside’. It doesn’t tell us anything more about the film or the image of Brooks than we already know, but what else might the film have to say? The video expresses the quintessence of the iconography of Pabst’s film with a song that resonates with sexual torment and urgency. It may vulgarise Pabst’s artistry by reducing it to MTV-style editing, but it also expresses Brooks’ modernity and lasting appeal.

Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1920), the classic proto-horror film telling of the creation of a clay creature, the Golem, brought to life to protect the Jews of 16th-century Prague, is accompanied by the death metal music of Fantomas, a band who sound like they know a silent film or two. In this case the band wrote a song inspired either by the legend or the film itself, and a fan (‘Monster Island Media‘) decided to do the decent think and match song to clips – which is why lyrics and imagery go together so well. Not exactly most people’s musical cup of tea, but it undoubtedly places the film within a modern, if crude, sensibility. What pop video director could ever have conjured up so convincing a vision of medieval magic?

Others have had the same idea: see here for a more frantically-edited homage.

After all that sex and musical violence, here’s some a little more surprising, and graceful. Scenes from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) are accompanied by Françoise Hardy singing ‘La Terre’, seemingly for no other reason than the chanson is a pretty one and it brings out the mystery of Robert Weine’s film. Note how well it fits in with Conrad Veidt’s Cesare slowly opening his eyes, and how delicately it accompanies the way the characters move.

The clip’s creator, Clay, has treated other silents to new scores, including Christus (1914), The Abyss (1910), Alice in Wonderland (1915) and Evgenii Bauer’s After Death (1915).

More examples to follow, as the mood takes me.

Mashing things up

I’m completely against ripping silent films from DVDs and posting them for free online – it’s not just illegal but mean and thoughtless. But taking silent content and doing something with it to create a new work is more of a borderline case. It may all depend what legal system you exist under, but creativity is more of a justification for appropriation.

YouTube and its ilk are full of silent film clips, montages or sequences of stills where fans have added favourite music tracks over the top. The results are usually indifferent, if not glutinous, but just occasionally you get examples done with great skill. Such creative works don’t just make great juxtapositions of film and music, but can illuminate the films in refreshing ways. There are numerous examples, but here are three personal favourites to demonstrate what I mean.

Here were have scenes of black and ‘black’ characters from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation set to Public Enemy’s ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’. No ambiguity here, or excuses from the defence about the film’s importance to the history of film form. The film is exposed for all its grotesque racism, all the more loathsome for the way the film still has its place in the pantheon. The music and rap lyrics hammer it. The film becomes the perfect vehicle for rage. It’s sharply edited, and the opening and closing titles are a nice touch. Its creator goes under the YouTube name of jewofmalta.

It takes a certain amount of creative inspiration to think of bringing together Buster Keaton and The Pixies. Here the creator (weepingprophet) complained of only ever coming across Keaton clips “set to contemporary music” and wanted to see a tribute to his favourite comedian set to music that made more sense to him. Choosing The Pixies’ ‘Down to the Well’ is a surprise, but how well it works. The montage itself, skilfully put together, is a collection of all the most familiar Keaton gags. With the music you get two different kinds of Americana brought together in strange harmony.

This is inspired. Charlie Chaplin (a favourite subject for the masher-uppers) does his dance of the bread rolls from The Gold Rush to the theme tune from the Spiderman TV series. It starts off feeling silly, then becomes just right. Chaplin as superhero. It comes over as cunningly synchronised, though the brain does a lot to help matters, as placing any film to a piece of music makes us instinctively look out for points of contact between the two. The video was created by Bob Loblaw.

I’ll publish more such examples from time to time, and do let me know if you have any favourites.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 300 other followers