A sociology of the cinema

Mannheim, c.1914

One of the very first scholarly theses to be written about the cinema, Emilie Altenloh’s Zur Soziologie des Kino: Die Kino-Unternehmung und die Sozialen Schichten Ihrer Besucher (A Sociology of the Cinema) (1914) has proven to be of lasting worth. Altenloh’s study of the habits of cinemagoers in Mannheim, Germany has greatly grown in reputation in recent years, partly because her interest in the social drivers behind the popularity of cinema anticipate modern interests and concerns, and partly because of the increase in studies of cinema as social space generally.

So it is welcome that the German publishing initiative KINtop (which produces both volumes of essays and single volume studies) has republished Zur Soziologie des Kino together with background articles on Altenloh, the influence on her of sociologist Alfred Weber, cinema in Mannheim in 1912/13 (the period of her study), and the rediscovery of her study since the 1970s and the great influence that it has had since. The study and accompanying articles are in German, but for English readers you can find part of the essay published as ‘A Sociology of the Cinema: the Audience,’ in Screen, vol. 42 no. 3, Autumn 2001. The original German text can also be found online via the Massenmedien.de site. It is in two parts: part 1 on production; part 2 on audiences and reception.

Emilie-Kiep Altenloh (1888-1985) was a politician and economist with strong social welfare interests, who served in the Bundestag 1961-1965. She conducted her famous study for her doctoral dissertation (University of Heidelberg), inviting 2,400 cinema-goers in Mannheim to fill in questionnaires as to their gender, age, social standing, marital status, employment, religious persuasion, politics and filmgoing habits. It is not an extensive questionnaire, and its preoccupation with class (specifically trying to understand the behaviour of the working classes) is typical of the time. But Altenloh has a sharp economist’s eye for the industrial structures and the profound relationship between producer and consumer that underpinned cinema, while dispaying great interest in (and sympathy for) the audiences themselves. She frets over evidence of a lack of political engagement, and worries over how much the cinema may or may nor contribute to an increase in musical taste – typical concerns of her class and trade – but the picture her text supplies of society responding to cinema, and reflected through cinema, is a powerful one.

There were other studies of the cinema by sociologists at this time, though few have the depth of understanding Altenloh shows, and too many reveal strong prejudice against a working class wasting time which could be more profitably spent in art galleries or public parks. Examples covered in these pages before now (and the original texts of which can be found for online) are:

Portrait of an invisible man

Dai Vaughan, from Vertigo magazine

There have been many warm tributes recently to the late Andrew Sarris, the great film critic. Sarris was renowned for his advocacy of the auteur theory, in which the director of a film is judged to be its primary author when considering a film’s status as a work of art. Not all film directors can be auteurs, however, or so the argument goes – it is predominantly an elite whose distinctive stamp marks out those films that are truly great.

Well, may be so, but if there are film auteurs out there I do not think that they have always to be directors, or creators of fiction films, or indeed exclusively filmmakers. A case in point is the late Dai Vaughan, who died last month, to somewhat less recognition from the film world. Vaughan was a film artist – or perhaps more properly an artist who worked within film – whose commitment to that art was every bit as notable as a Hitchcock, a Ford or a Hawks. But Vaughan was a documentary film editor, and consequently an invisible man, to use the phrase that employed for his outstanding study of the editor behind Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries, Stewart McAllister, Portrait of an Invisible Man (1983).

Dai Vaughan (1933-2012) worked in the heart of film for over thirty years. He discovered the medium at the National Film Theatre in London in the 1950s, and joined the London Film of School Technique, going on to make films for the Labour Party, including the documentary Gala Day (1963) and a number of party political broadcasts. Establishing himself as a documentary film editor, he worked on some of the most notable British television series of the 60s and 70s: Granada’s social affairs World in Action and the great anthropological Disappearing World, the BBC’s arts series Omnibus and Roger Graef’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall series The Space Between Words (1972) and Decision (1975-76).

Vaughan’s social and political commitment, and his deep interest in how film can document, came out equally in his films and in his writings. His study of Stewart McAllister (practically his alter ego) is an inspired recovery of a lost life and a buried art, demonstrating as it does with what subtle artistry McAllister turned the wartime documentary inspirations of Humphrey Jennings into such exceptional works of arts as Listen to Britain and Fires were Started. However his greatest work is a collection of essays, For Documentary (1999). Were I to be restricted to just ten books on film in my library, then For Documentary would be one of them; and were I then only allowed to keep one, For Documentary might be it. For ideas that grip you and stay with you, fine style, knowledge based on practical experience and depth of undertanding, there is little in the field that surpasses it.

The book covers such subjects as ethnographic film, films of the Olympic Games, fabriciation in documentary and a prescient essay from 1994 on the digital image bringing about the death of cinema. But my favourite piece, and the reason for writing about Vaughan in a blog concerned with silent cinema is the opening essay, ‘Let there be Lumière’.

This exquisite piece of writing is concerned about the beginnings of cinema, specficially that extraordinary moment at which point cinema came into being, something which for Vaughan is equivalent to “what happened to the universe in the first microseconds after the big bang”. Vaughan analyses one film in particular, the Lumières’ Barque sortant du port (A Boat Leaving Harbour) (1895), a film whose mysterious beauty Vaughan unpicks by reference to its absolute spontaneity, a moment on film before film understood itself to be an art, before the arts of fiction (and of editing) intruded, before rules are introduced that make the mysteries of film comprehensible. He writes (also referring to the fascination leaves moving in the background had for audiences of the the first Lumière films):

As audiences settle for appearances, according film’s images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex. True, the movement of leaves remains unpredictable; but we know that, with the endless possibility of retakes open to the filmmaker, what was unplanned is nevertheless what has been chosen: and the spontaneous is subsumed into the enunciated. Even in documentary, which seeks to respect the provenance of its images, they are bent inexorably to foreign purpose. The “big bang” leaves only a murmur of background radiation, detectable whenever someone decides that a film will gain in realism by being shot on “real” locations or where the verisimilitude of a Western is enhanced, momentarily, by the unscripted whinny of a horse.

A Boat Leaving Harbour begins without purpose and ends without conclusion, its actors drawn into the contingency of events. Successive viewings serve only to stress its pathetic brevity as a fragment of human experience. It survives as a reminder of that moment when the question of spontaneity was posed and not yet found to be insoluble: when cinema seemed free, not only of its proper connotations, but of the threat of its absorption into meanings beyond it. Here is the secret of its beauty. The promise of this film remains untarnished because it is a promise which can never be kept: a promise whose every fulfilment is also its betrayal.

‘Let there be Lumière’ is a standard text on some film studies courses, and it has been much quoted down the years since it was first written in 1991. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever, and its analysis of the workings of the first films as hypnotically entrancing as the endlessly watchable Barque sortant du port.

You can find the full essay reproduced on World Cat, but I warmly recommed the complete book. Vaughan knew his silent films, and throws in references to E.J. Marey, Laurel and Hardy, The Battle of the Somme and Charles Urban, alongside such diverse artists (film and non-film) as Federico Fellini, Adrian Cowell, David Hockney and Dorothy Richardson. Film for Vaughan is related to everything else in our culture, and all that we are may be illuminated through film.

Vaughan was also a poet and an experimental novelist, who with works such as Cloud Chamber, Moritur and Totes Meer, explored the mysteries of recovering the past in a form profoundly analogous with that of the filmmaker (the protagonist of Moritur is a film editor). As filmmaker, editor, essayist, reviewer, critic, novelist and poet, Vaughan’s work was consistent, interconnected, profound, auteurist.

(Examples of Dai Vaughan’s writings for Vertigo Magazine can be found online at http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/dossiers/dai-vaughan.)

Filming war, changing war

The Warwick Trading Company’s Joseph Rosenthal, with his Bioscope camera, at the time of the Anglo-Boer War

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a dissertation whose publication online is the most considerable, and perhaps the most significant, work yet from one of most important – though overlooked – writers on early cinema. Dr Stephen Bottomore’s dissertation Filming, faking and propaganda: The origins of the war film, 1897-1902 (2007) has been published online as a PDF by the University of Utrecht. Here is the abstract, describing its theme and intent:

In this thesis I present the first detailed treatment of war and early cinema, describing the representation of conflicts in film from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 through the Spanish-American War, Boer War, and others up to about 1902. I show that in attempting to cover these events, early filmmakers faced a difficult task, for warfare at the end of the nineteenth century was changing, relying more on defence and concealment and less on highly visible offensives; there was also increasing regulation and censorship of reporting. With the new tactics making battle less visible, and with increasing official controls, how could wars be represented on film? Surprisingly, in just half a decade, filmmakers found ways to cope, by developing new ‘genres’ of films such as acted fakes, and new exhibition strategies, and in these ways managed to present wars to the public of the time fairly effectively.

This is a prodigious work. It runs to 565 pages, reaching to almost 300,000 words, suggesting that the University of Utrecht is fairly relaxed when it comes to word limits. Histories of the rise and fall of major civilizations have been written using fewer words, and Bottomore’s subject is not simply filming war, but restricts itself to only the very first films of war, and then only up to 1902, not daring to contemplate tackling the later Russo-Japanese War, Balkan Wars or the First World War. Instead what might have been a mere footnote in other histories expands into a major study of the impact of a new medium at a time when warfare itself was changing. It is a triumphant assertion of the footnote as the stuff of empirical history.

Indeed there are an amazing 1,804 footnotes, many of them not simply bibliographic citations but instead an overflowing of ideas with indications of avenues of great interest down which others might profitably travel. The sheer breadth of the references is awe-inspiring. Bottomore is an internationalist, whose work as a researcher and filmmaker has taken him to many countries, each of whose archives and libraries he has scoured and scoured again, putting to shame all of us who might think that a few trips to the British Library or the Library of Congress count as exhaustive research.

So, does the theme match the endeavour? Bottomore is interested in getting to the truth of how and why the first films of war were produced, and through this to demonstrate the richness of the early cinema period as a subject for study. At the time when motion pictures arrived and started to find their way in the world, the age of empires was coming to an end, with a host of conflicts that each in their way pointed to the great conflagration that was to be the First World War. Bottomore covers the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the Battle of Omdurman (1898), the Spanish American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900). None of these was documented on film in the way that we might now expect. The technology was too limited – short film length, limited lenses, immobile cameras etc. – military censorship limited what could be filmed, audience expectations and sensitivies provided further constraints, as did the plain economic considerations of production in lands often far from the homes of film production in Europe and America.

Bottomore usefully defines the different types of early war film, showing how filmmakers adopted different strategies for documenting conflict – strategies which to a large extent exist still, even if moving image technologies have moved on vastly since 1897-1902. He identifies two main types of films: actuality and staged, then subdivides them as follows (paraphrased from pp. xxvi-xxvii):

A. Actuality war film: a film of real people and events, shot at an actual war-related location, i.e. a non-fiction recording of reality (not with actors, nor filmed in substitute locations nor a studio).

  • 1) Conflict-zone actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone showing military activity.
  • 2) Arranged actuality: a film shot in the conflict zone with genuine troops, but in which the action has been ‘set-up’ to be filmed.
  • 3) War-related actuality: a film which, while not shot in the conflict zone at the time of war, is somehow related to the war and shows military activity.

B. Staged war film: a film about the conflict, shot with actors or scale-models away from the war zone.

  • 1) Fake war film: a staged film which re-enacts an incident or event from the current conflict, and was not made at the real location nor with the real participants.
  • 2) Staged allegorical war film: this type, rather than reproducing specific military incidents, portrays wider allegorical or emblematic themes.
  • 3) Dramatised film about the conflict: a film made during or soon after the conflict which is more elaborate than a mere re-enacted battlefield incident.

There are qualifications and sub-classifications that Bottomore adds to this taxonomy, but the essential categories are useful enough. The early cinema approached the documenting of conflict in different ways, variously determined by technology, taste, opportunity, prior example (including ‘pre-cinema’ image technology such as the magic lantern), economics and censorship. One does not simply film war – one makes a significant choice in how the war should be filmed, and how such films should be shown. Audience understanding of what it was being shown – in particular the issue of so-called ‘fake’ films which recreated war scenes away from the battlefield in a form that would appeal to audience expectations of what should look like – therefore becomes crucial to understanding what these first war films were.

The difference between war imagined and war in reality is key to the argument. Motion pictures arrived at a point when war itself was changing. The era of hand-to-hand combat and romantic cavalry charges was over. Long-range artillery meant that opposing armies were positioned further apart and often the one side could not even see the other. Battlefields expanded, and the long-range rifle and the sniper took over from the close fighting which was many people’s picture of how war was fought. Camouflage and the use of smokeless powder further conpsired to make war less visible. Bottomore quotes Fredric Villers, war correspondent and the first person to attempt to document a war as film actuality (for the Greco-Turkish War in 1897), who was further disillusioned by the change in war’s display:

… there was no blare of bugals [sic] or roll of drums; no display of flags or of martial music of any sort… It was most uncanny to me after my previous experiences of war in which massed bands cheered the flagging spirits of the attackers and bugals rang out their orders through the day. All had changed in this modern warfare: it seemed to me a very cold-blooded, uninspiring way of fighting, and I was mightily depressed for many weeks till I had grown accustomed to the change.

On top of all this, increased regulation and censorship controlling the movement of reporters from a military which distrusted the media and sought to control the flow of information (including visual) about its activities, added further limits what could be filmed.

Georges Méliès’ Combat Naval en Grèce (1897), a dramatised incident from the Greco-Turkish War

A war where there was little to see was quite a challenge for motion pictures, still more when there was such audience thirst to see something exciting. Small wonder that producers turned to dramatisation (Villiers found that his limited records of the Greco-Turkish conflict lost out in audience favour to the dramatisations of the same war produced by Georges Méliès), collaboration with the military (filmmakers such as W.K-L. Dickson and Joseph Rosenthal staged ‘actualities’ with the co-operation of British forces during the Anglo-Boer War), and downright fakery (Edward Amet’s use of models to depict naval battles from the Spanish-American War).

In these initial strategies and their outcomes we can see themes that have remained constant throughout the filming of war. What do we ever see of war? It is omnipresent on our television screens, but the stuff of war itself we seldom see. We see its build up, and some of its effects, but not the heart of war. No matter how much it may try, the camera cannot replace the gun. Instead we have talking heads, embedded reporters, incidents created for the purposes of propaganda, incidents reported but not shown, scenes selected, withheld or distorted. We may thrill at footage where a reporter seems to be in the thick of fighting, but they are caught at just one point, whereas the truth of war – if such a thing lies somewhere – lies at many points, reflecting multiple perspectives. As D.W. Griffith said of the impossibility of filming the First World War:

It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.

Instead we often require drama to explain the actuality. Selectivity and creativity (and personable actors) bring across to audiences the lessons of war, transmuting its huge complexities into something that we can understand, something that entertains us. From which have we learned most about the wars of today – the television news, or Three Kings, Battle for Haditha and The Hurt Locker? It all depends on what you are looking for. Film can never be an open window on war’s reality. Instead it is a narrow and distorting mirror, and it is the job for us as the audience to understand that distortion.

But has film changed war? Bottomore references Paul Virilo’s argument, in War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, that the evolution of war over the twentieth century has been bound up with a change in human perception, itself profoundly linked to developments in photographic and cinematic technique. How war is seen impacts on what war is. This then begs the question what exactly war is. Are we still looking for hand-to-hand combat and those romantic cavalry charges? Is that really war? Or does the real fighting take place across desks, terminals, screens, and offices? The propaganda war is as powerful as the war itself, as we all know now. And that, ultimately, is what film has shown us. The real fighting has gone on elsewhere, and from 1897 all the way to 2012, the cinematic image has probably had no influence on that at all.

W.K-L. Dickson (centre) with Biograph camera and crew in South Africa in 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War, from Filming, Faking and Propaganda

Stephen Bottomore is a prodigious collector of information on early film from primary sources, but he is interested in ideas as well. He has read the theoriticans, and understands their work well enough to position early cinema within a broader world of ideas, while regularly expressing his disappointment at conclusions drawn by thinkers who have insufficiently examined the primary evidence. And it is the primary evidence to which he will always return: the quotation, the newspaper reference, the contemporary illustration, the catalogue – anything and everything that points not so much to the actuality of war as to the actuality of the films themselves. These films were made once; now we must understand them. That’s the simple message.

Will Filming, faking and propaganda contribute to ideas on how we understand war and how we understand the moving image? Bottomore’s ultimate goal is to champion early cinema in all its rich variousness, and this limitation, together with the work’s immense length, may restrict its influence. But its impeccable research and its appreciation of socio-political contexts will pay off in the long term. This is a work on which it will become essential to rely from now on. One hopes, of course, that it will make it into hard-copy format eventually, though it will have to be greatly reduced if that happens. In this form, at least, Bottomore’s work is uncontrained by the harsh demands of an editor.

Bottomore’s published books include I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph: Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies (1995), an innovative study of early film through the cartoons of the period; and The Titanic and Silent Cinema (2000), a work much cited this year and increasingly admired (by Titanic-ists). His most influential work has been in articles, however, including ‘Shots in the Dark: The Real Origins of Film Editing’ (1988), ‘Out of This World: Theory, Fact and Film History’ (1994), ‘The Collection of Rubbish.’Animatographs, Archives and Arguments: London, 1896-97′ and most notably ‘The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect’ (1999), on how people reacted to the first films. A collection of Bottomore’s best pieces would be most welcome, if some enterprising publisher were to take it on. It would certainly help cement the non-fiction film not just in early cinema studies but among the wider audience of historians working on this period who need a better understanding of just what film means to those times.

Bottomore was one of the founders of Domitor, the international body for the study of early cinema, and has been a frequent editor of Film History. Unlike most film writers he has a strong background in filmmaking (North South Productions, producers of many documentaries on environmental and development issues). He has been everywhere, his passion for the subject undimmed. Now we have his magnum opus. Do download it, and read it.

Hot off the presses

It’s time for one of our occasional round-ups of recent publications on silent film, though one or two have been around for a few months now, and not all are directly about silent films – but that’s what makes them interesting.

Rin Tin Tin – The Life and the Legacy, by Susan Orlean, has already made quite an impact in the USA, with its acute mixture of nostalgia and cultural history. It tells the story of Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd dog rescued from the trenches of WWI by Lee Duncan, whose innovative training methods led the dog to Hollywood stardom in the 1920s. Rin Tin Tin’s star waned in the 1930s, but a succession of junior Rin Tin Tins either sired or inspired by the original kept the aura going into the age of television. Orlean makes some elementary blunders about silent film history, and Lee Duncan doesn’t make for much of a hero (unlike his dog) but it is readable, wry and occasionally wise.

The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, by David Waller, brings back to popular awareness one of the most remarkable, and certainly most famous, figures of the Late Victorian/Edwardian era, Eugen Sandow. Boddybuilder, strongman and adovcate of healthy living, he became the model of manly accomplishment for a generation. He also featured significantly in film history, being one of the very first subjects to go before the Edison Kinetoscope. He was also filmed by Biograph and even had a early film technology patent to his name. A terrific biography of someone whose life story illuminates the age in which he lived.

Silent Films! The Performers, by Paul Rothwell-Smith, is a self-published biographical guide to 3,700 performers from the silent era. This heroic undertaking was inspired by the author’s attendance at the British Silent Film Festival when it was held at the Broadway cinema in Nottingham. Rothwell-Smith is as interested in lesser-known names from the nether reaches of British film history as he is in those familiar to us all, and the book makes a bold statement of intent by having Clara Bow and Fred ‘Pimple’ Evans, knockabout British comedian of the 1910s, share equal billing on the front cover. I’ve not seen it, but the sheer scale of the endeavour commands respect.

Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley’s Synchronized Lecture Entertainments, by Robert Dixon, adds significantly to our understanding of how motion pictures were presented that weren’t conventional cinema fare. As historians are increasingly uncovering, as as the Bioscope has tried to document, the multimedia show which brought together photography, films, music and live lecturer was widespread throughout the silent era, being used in particular for recouting true tales of adventure and exploration. Frank Hurley was cinematographer for the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton, and the book documents the ‘synchronised lectures entertainments’ (Hurley’s words) made out of these adventures, as well as the later Sir Ross Smith’s Flight and Hurley’s dramatised documentary of life in Papua New Guinea, Pearls and Savages. The book is aimed at the scholars, but there are lessons for all of us, because we still haven’t got our film history right – we keep focussing too much upon the films.

Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, by Andrew A. Erish, published later this month, is a biography of a producer strangely neglected by film history. Selig was a magician and minstrel show operator, who encountered the Kinetoscope in 1896 and realised that motion pictures were for him. He was a notorious duper of other companies’ films in the early years, but moced to Hollywood, produced pioneering westerns and serials (The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913) and specialised in animal pictures, with recourse to his own studio zoo. He was one of the most enterprising and colourful characters in early cinema, and this book’s bold and not wholly bogus subtitle ought to get people talking about him again.

Lives in film no. 5 – Niranjan Pal

Niranjan Pal

The chances are that few people even with a good knowledge of silent films will have heard of Niranjan Pal, though you may have started to hear about his films. The release on DVD of the film A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929) has brought to our attention the three silent films on Indian themes directed by Franz Osten: The Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas) (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice, whose production history and whose very existence strike a fascinating, almost jarring note in film history. Where and how did these non-Indian Indian films get made, and who was behind them? Well, the person behind them was, to large degree, Niranjan Pal.

Niranjan Pal (1889-1959) had a more than usually interesting life story for a filmmaker. His name has previously been best known to scholars of Indian nationalism and revolutionary politics in Britain. Born in Calcutta (Kolkata), he was the son of Indian nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal (right), and was brought up in culture dedicated to Indian self-determination and the overthrow of British imperial rule. Father and son came to London around 1908 when the father was invited by Pandit Shyamji Krishna Varma to help conduct pro-Indian freedom propaganda in Britain. Krishna Varma was the founder of the Indian Home Rule Society and the celebrated India House, a home for Indian students which became a hotbed of nationalist thinking, something which got it closely monitored by the British police. Bipin Chandra Pal was on the moderate side of the nationalist arguments, but his son was fired with revolutionary thinking, and was soon drawn into dangerous activity, as his autobiography recounts:

I was initiated into the work of preparing cyclostyled copies of formulae for manufacturing bombs. These were sent out to India by the hundreds, to addresses found in street directories. I learned that the formula had been secured, with great difficulty, from certain Spanish and Russian sources.

Pal’s father was alarmed by the route down which his son was going, particularly the admiration he had for freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar with his advocacy of violent revoution. Pal’s Irish girlfriend of the time had close links with Irish republicanism and was violently opposed to all forms of British rule. Things became particularly dangerous following the 1909 assassination at the Imperial Institute in London of Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie by Madan Lal Dhingra, with whom Niranjan was familiar. Ironically, it was not so much the attempts by his father to moderate his son’s passions as British culture itself that started to mollify Niranjan Pal’s thinking. As his great-grandson Joyojeet Pal writes:

Pal and his Indian friends were deeply torn between their sense of loyalty to an Indian homeland, and a conflicted relationship with their colonial masters. The same Indians who were subjected to second-hand citizenship back in India, were treated as equals under British law … They would grow to view the Englishman in England very differently from how they saw the Englishman back in India.

Pal was introduced to London’s literary/intellectual elite, meeting Bernard Shaw and the Countess of Warwick, befriending the writer David Garnett, and being supported by the journalist W.T. Stead after his father was arrested back in India. He made the key discovery for him of the London theatre, delighting in the colourful productions of the West End stage, bridling at its occasional representation of Indian life, and wondering how he might bring about a change in perceptions through his pen.

Pal abandoned his medical studies and took to writing for the stage. He joined up with Kedar Nath Das Gupta’s Indian Art and Dramatic Society, which put on recitals and dramatic productions designed to promote Anglo-Indian relations. One of these was an adaptation by Pal of Sir Edwin Arnold’s celebrated narrative poem, The Light of Asia, on the life of the Buddha. Entitled Buddha, it ran at the Royal Court Theatre for a few days in February 1912. Pal also acted, in the small role of Devadatta. Pal then offered the script to a couple of British film studios. The Hepworth Manufacturing Company gave him the courtesy of a hearing, but said it was not for them. Barker Motion Photography merely laughed at him.

Such work was unpaid, and to keep body and soul together Pal undertook assorted menial posts in London stores while looking to make money, and reach a wider audience, by tackling motion pictures more assiduously. He undertook a correspondence course which guaranteed, for the some of one pound, to turn the young man into a screenwriter. He starting writing to all the British film studios, he was met by a growing pile of formulaic rejection letters. Finally, someone wrote back. It was Charles Urban (left), who wrote to say that Pal’s script was completely unfilmable and that he needed the experience of seeing how a film was made. So it was that Niranjan Pal was invited to the south London studios of the Natural Color Kinematograph Company, helping out with scene shifting while learning what he could of the film production process.

While there Pal befriended director Floyd Martin Thornton. He showed Thornton his script for The Light of Asia, Thornton took it to Urban, and Urban decided it would make a handsome subject for a major Kinemacolor production. Urban was at the height of his fame at this time, having triumphed with the Kinemacolor record of the Delhi Durbar celebrations held to mark the coronation of King George V, and an exotic, Indian-themed story must have seemed a natural choice for a Kinemacolor fiction film production. Pal continued at the studio, uncertain that Urban would be as good as his word, only to be stunned by the huge payment of £500 for his script from the handsomely generous Urban.

It would be interesting to consider how Anglo-Indian film history might have developed had the Kinemacolor version of The Light of Asia ever seen the light of day. Sadly the production never reachd even the early stages of production, as Urban’s Kinemacolor business collapsed in 1914 following a court case brought by rival colour film inventor William Friese-Greene, which decided that the patent on which Kinemacolor was based was invalid.

Floyd Martin Thornton however remained keen to work with Pal, and tried continually to raise the finance to film The Light of Asia. Thornton was able to film two Pal scripts, both with stories set in India. The feature-length The Faith of A Child (1915) was made for the obscure Lotus Feature Films, and The Vengeance of Allah (1915) for the Windsor Film Company in Catford (Pal’s memoirs talk about filming for the Kent Film Company, which must have been associated with Windsor in some way). Pal also made a documentary, the title of which he recalls was A Day in an Indian Military Depot (1916), filmed at Milford-on-Sea, which he successfully sold to distributor William Jury (possibly on behalf of the War Office Cinematograph Committee with which Jury was involved), though I have not been able to trace any information about it.

Post-war, Pal remained in Britain, determined to succeed with his pen. He was still associated with Thornton, and began work on an adaption of Ethel M. Dell’s novel The Lamp of the Desert for Stoll Picture Productions. It is evidence of the conflicting impulses with Pal that this person so ardent in his wish for Indian independence and anxious for understanding of Indian culture should keep turning to sources that pandered to what we now refer to as Orientalism (the depiction of the East by the West, essentially), in the case of Dell by someone who had never even been to India. Pal was taken on as scriptwiter and technical adviser, but it seems that his suggestion that palm trees were not to be found on the North West Frontier did not tally with Stoll’s ideas of how India ought to look, and he was dropped from the production (Stoll eventually released it in 1922, directed by Thornton).

Pal attempted to go into production for himself, with a film entitled The Tricks of Fate, but he seems to have been duped by some con-men. The film that was to have been directed by, written by and starring Niranjan Pal was unscreenable, and he lost a lot of money. Instead he found success on the stage, with his play The Goddess (1922), which was put on with an all-Indian cast, first at the Duke of York’s Theatre, then the Ambassador’s Theatre and then the Aldwych, running for sixty-six performances over six months in London before touring the provinces.

Tourists being introduced to India at the start of The Light of Asia, from http://memsaabstory.wordpress.com

Most significant for Pal’s future career was one of the perfomers in the cast of The Goddess, Himansu Rai. Rai formed an acting troupe, the Indian Players, and when efforts to stage The Goddess in India proved fruitless. Rai and Pal turned to the film industry, once again with the script for The Light of Asia. This time, with Rai’s greater drive and guile, they met with success, though not with a British studio but instead with German producer Peter Ostermayer, who agreed on a production at Berlin’s Emelka Studios, with location filming at Jaipur. Financing came from the Delhi-based Great Eastern Film Corporation. The director was Ostermayer’s brother, Franz Osten.

The Light of Asia, or Prem Sanyas, finally made it to the cinema screen as an Indo-German production in 1925. It told the story of Gautama (played by Himansu Rai), son of King Suddodhana, who leaves his sheltered existence to learn of the sorrows of the world, becoming a wandering teacher who brings Buddhism to the world. The cast was all Indian, and in keeping with Pal’s dedication towards educating a Western audiences in the ways of his country, it begins with a group of Western tourists in present-day India encountering an old man who then proceeds to tell them the story of the Buddha. The Light of Asia enjoyed modest success in Europe though it failed to find gain any bookings in Britain until Pal and Rai finally gained some attention for the film with a screening given before the royal family at Windsor Castle (King George V reportedly slept through it). The film also failed as an attraction in India.

Seeta Devi (Anglo-Indian actress Renée Smith) in A Throw of Dice

The film’s favourable reception in Europe led to two further productions, though owing to the lack of success in India the previous production finance source was no longer available to them. However, British companies were now showing interest, and British Instructional Films picked up the distribution rights for Shiraz (1928) and co-produced A Throw of Dice (1929) with UFA in Germany, both films therefore qualifying as Anglo-German productions. Both films were once again scripted by Pal and directed by Franz Osten, with Himansu Rai as lead performer among the all-Indian casts.

The Light of Asia, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice are each historical dramas set in India that stress exoticism (“halfway orientalist” is how Joyojeet Pal describes them), pandering as they do to a taste for a romantic India that was reflected in popular literature of the time. None is exceptional, but they are pleasing, well-constructed and attractively mounted productions which have found ready acceptance with audiences today, especially A Throw of Dice, which has enjoyed high profile through the score provided by Indian-British musician Nitin Sawhney, capped by a screening in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2007.

Pal perserved with British films for a while, writing further scenarios and seeing his story, His Honour the Judge, turned into the early talkie A Gentleman of Paris (1931), with Sinclair Hill directing and Sidney Gilliat the scriptwriter. It has no discernible Indian theme. Pal then returned to India, tried and failed to set up a film, Khyber Pass, to be filmed in Raycol colour and starring Clive Brook; had mixed fortunes making some films in India for his own Niranjan Pal Productions; then renewed his involvement with Himansu Rai and Franz Osten to become chief scenarist for the renowned Bombay Talkies. He stayed there until 1937, when he fell out with his fellow filmmakers (something of a recurring trait in Pal’s career, it has to be said), and concluded his career in film as a producer of advertising, documentary and newsreel films (he founded Aurora Screen News, 1938-42). He was also a pioneer of children’s films in India (with Hatey Khori, made in 1939).

Trailer for the documentary Niranjan Pal – A Forgotten Legend

Pal had been larely forgotten by the film industry and film historians when he died in 1959, but his son Colin went on to be an actor, technician and publicist for Hindi films (Pal had an English wife, née Lily Bell); his grandson Deep Pal is a cameraman; and his great grandson Joyojeet Pal is Assistant Professor of Information at the University of Michigan. He wrote his memoirs, entitled Such is Life, towards the end of his life, but they did not find a publisher, in Kolkata, until 1997.

Last year a project was launched by the South Asian Cinema Foundation in London to research Pal’s legacy, Lifting the Curtain: Niranjan Pal & Indo-British Collaboration in Cinema. With Heritage Lottery Fund support, the SACF has produced a documentary on Pal and published the memoirs for the first time in English, in a volume of essays, filmography and memoir, edited by Kusum Pant Joshi and Lalit Mohan Joshi, entitled Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend & Such is Life: An Autobiography by Niranjan Pal. I was honoured to be asked to contribute a chapter, on Pal and the British film studios of the silent era. The evidence of Charles Urban, someone I have researched for many years, being so supportive on an impoverished and obscure Indian student when the rest of the film industry rebuffed him, was particularly heartening to learn. The volume’s wise introduction by Joyojeet Pal is particularly recommended.

Such is Life will have great value for anyone interested in the history of Indian nationalism or Anglo-British relations at the start of the twentieth century. It is also going to be of great interest to anyone interested in silent film history, from its eye-witness account of the Kinemacolor studios, to Pal’s sharp memory for the financial details of the deals won and lost when trying to get his films of the 1920s made. His memory is not always so sharp. Some dates are clearly wildly out – for example, he recalls being inspired to produce films from an Indian perspective after protesting outside a Lowell Thomas lecture-with-film on India. But Pal began his film career in 1912/13, five years before Thomas turned to the cinematograph, and ten years before Thomas made his travelogue Through Romantic India and into Forbidden Afghanistan, which was indeed the subject of Indian protests when presented at Covent Garden in London in 1922.

Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend & Such is Life is available from the South Asian Cinema Foundation. A DVD is available of the accompanying 30mins documentary, though I don’t have details of how to obtain a copy except by contacting the SACF direct. Book and DVD were launched recently at the BFI Soutbank, and there is to be a launch event at the National Film Archive of India in Pune on 20 February 2012. A Throw of Dice, with the Nitin Sawhney scre, is available on DVD from the BFI in the UK and Kino in the USA. For those interested in Pal’s political background and that of the Indians in Britain around the time of India House and the burgeoning nationalist movement, I recommend the Open University’s Making Britain site, which has information on all the key individuals, locations, organisations and events. David Garnett’s autobiographical work, The Golden Echo (1953), recalls his friendship with Pal, known to him as Nanu, and other Indian nationalists in Britain (an extract is available here).

Niranjan Pal appears to have been hot-headed, a little gullible and tirelessly dedicated to his causes throughout his life. His life story was indeed his most dramatic production. It is certainly a story rich in incident and in the social, cultural and political themes of the times. That an Indian in the Britain of the 1910s and 20s should succeed in the way that he did, despite the racism that he clearly experienced on a continual basis, seems astonishing, though perhaps it was simply that he saw opportunities where others only saw hurdles. Hopefully the chance to read his life story will lead to further investigation of his life and times, and to DVD releases one day of The Light of Asia and Shiraz.

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.

Reading matters

Well, it’s coming to that time of year again, and to help you get through the rigours of Christmas, we thought we come up with a selection of the books published this year on silent film which might be the sort of presents you’d rather like to get for yourselves as opposed to those you can expect from the nearest and dearest. So here’s an idiosyncractic selection of some of the publishing highlights of 2011:

Andrew Shail (ed.), Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 (University of Exeter Press). One of the most novel and interesting silent film books of the year is this mixture of anthology and critical history, which brings together eight short stories about early cinema, published at the time, paired with scholarly essays in each. Pieces such as Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathhurst’, George R. Sims’ ‘Our Detective Story’ and Mrs H.J. Bickle’s ‘Love and the Bioscope’ are introduced by Tom Gunning, Stephen Bottomore, Andrew Higson and others. The stories are facsimile reprints with the original illustrations, and the essays are illuminating, cogent and enthusiastic.

Bryony Dixon, 100 Silent Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan). The book surely no silent fan can resist is this knowledgeable, slightly polemical account of 100 representative silent films. Not the 100 best, but 100 that cover the great range of silent films, so encompassing not just the best-known feature films, but equally early cinema, documentary, newsreels, animation, natural history, actuality, advertising films and the avant garde. A book full of discoveries, with great knowledge expressed in an easy style.

Matthew Solomon, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (State University of New York Press). It really has been Georges Méliès’ year, and two of the year’s most notable publications concern his iconic 1902 film, Le voyage dans la lune. Fantastic Voyages is a collection of essays that cover the many different aspects of the film, from its production history, to its contemporary contexts, to its meanings today. It also comes with a critical edition DVD. It’s a whole scientific adventure in itself.

La couleur retrouvée du Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon Back in color (Capricci Editions / Technicolor Foundation). This 192-page book was produced by the Technicolor Foundation to accompany the sensational colour restoration of Le voyage dans la lune. Written in English and French, it is gorgeously illustrated and jam-packed with essential information on the film’s history, Georges Méliès himself, and the restoration. It is available for free as a PDF from the Groupama Gan Foundation website; hard copies can be purchased in France, but I got mine just by writing to Technicolor and asking.

Martin Loiperdinger (ed.), Early Cinema Today: The Art of Programming and Live Performance (John Libbey). One of the themes of silent film publication this year, at least as far as this selection is concerned, is pushing the subject out into new territories. I don’t recall seeing before now a whole book devoted to the presentation and performance of early cinema today. This fascinating selection brings together essays by academics, programmers and archivists who are discovering new meanings in the films of a century ago in the act of thinking how best to put them before the audiences of today.

Charles Drazin, The Faber Book of French Cinema (Faber). This, as the title indicates, is not solely devoted to silent films, but rather takes in the whole of French cinema. Single volumes recounting the history of a national cinema for a general audience rather than specialist academic have become something of a rarity, so an acessible and useful overview like this is particularly welcome. Drazin shows due and knowledgeable attention to French silent cinema, even the complexities of the earliest period when Pathé and Gaumont first set up their multinational empires, connecting it all to the latter years of Renior, Pagnol, Duvivier, Godard, Truffaut and Audaird.

John Bengston, Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd (Santa Monica Press). John Bengston’s photographic volumes illustrating the real locations used in the great silent comedies are innovative classics. Following on from his much acclaimed volumes on Chaplin and Keaton, here he illuminates the artistry of Harold Lloyd through an understanding of the locations used in Safety Last, Girl Shy, The Freshman, Speedy and others. A delight both for the film historian and any enthusiast for social or urban history.

Aubrey Solomon, The Fox Film Corporation 1915-1935 (McFarland). A solid, really useful acount of Fox before it was Twentieth Century-Fox, this studio history covers its foundation by archetypal mogul William Fox, the man who turned a “$1600 investment into a globe-spanning $300 million empire”, the production of such classics as The Iron Horse and Sunrise, and contains a comprehensive filmography. A film book publication of the traditional and entirely reliable kind.

Caroline Frick, Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation (Oxford University Press). As is becoming increasingly clear, cinema history is at a crossroads, as celluloid comes to the end of its natural life and digital takes over. This makes archiving riven with practical, aesthetic and politicial choices to be made, which are the subject of huge debate. This thoughtful and well-researched book shows the dilemmas but also the great opportunities that digital brings to film archives, especially in opening up previously invisible corners of our moving image heritage. Are we saving cinema, or are we saving something else?

These are just my suggestions. If you have favourites of your own from 2011, do let us all know.

Wonderstruck

http://www.wonderstruckthebook.com

Wonderstruck is the new children’s book by Brian Selznick, whose previous novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Georges Méliès features as a central character, has been filmed as Hugo by Martin Scorsese. In the new novel Selznick (a distant relative of film producers Lewis and David O. Selznick) again brings silent films into his distinctive mix of textual and illustrated narrative.

The new novel tells of two children, fifty years apart. One lives in 1977: Ben, a boy from Minnesota missing his dead mother, whose story is told in words. One lives in 1927: Rose, a New York girl fixated on a silent film star, whose story is told entirely in pictures. Silent films play a crucial part in the story, which in part documents the period when films turned to sound, with what looks to be a fascinating emphasis on the impact this had on the deaf community (both Ben and Rose are deaf, or partially deaf). This is a theme that the Bioscope has posted on before now, and it is something with which Selznick empathizes greatly, as this interview with CNN indicates:

It really began when I was working on “Hugo.” I saw a documentary film called “Through Deaf Eyes” and there were a couple things in it I found particularly interesting.

One was an interview with a young deaf man who had been raised in a hearing household and he talked about how it wasn’t until he went away to college and met other deaf people that he realized he was part of this larger community, this larger culture that he had been born into, that was really fascinating to me.

There was also a section about the transition from silent movies to sound and how this was a tragedy for the deaf community because with silent movies deaf audiences and hearing audiences could understand the same movies but after the transition to sound, the deaf audiences couldn’t follow the stories anymore.

When I finished “Hugo,” I wanted to take what I had learned in terms of telling a story with words and pictures and try to do something new with it.

I had the idea to tell two different stories, one with words, one with pictures. In trying to figure out what story would make sense just with pictures, I remembered “Through Deaf Eyes,” and I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of a deaf person in a way that echoes how they experience their own life, so you would get their entire story visually.

The plot just kind of grew from there.

Through Deaf Eyes is a 2007 PBS documentary, features details of which (including videos clips), can be found on the PBS website.

From the illustrations available on the Wonderstruck website it looks to be in the same compelling hand-drawn style as The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Interestingly, the site’s promotional video makes great play with action on different planes, suggesting the 3D influence of Scorsese’s Hugo – they’ll be thinking of the film version already, no doubt.

Wonderstruck has just been published, and Hugo is released in cinemas next week. Advance notices have been enthusiastic, and cinemas seem likely to be filled with an unlikely mix of families with children, modern film buffs checking out why Scorsese has gone down such a route, and early film enthusiasts seeing their world recreated with as much historical authenticity as producers Disney may allow. At any rate, Georges Méliès is due to become a name known and his art appreciated by millions of children across the world. How happy he would be.

There are clips, downloads, images, background information and much more on the official Hugo site.

Kino and the woman question

Bed and Sofa

The latest volume to be added to the straining virtual shelves of the Bioscope Library is Judith Mayne’s Kino and the woman question: feminism and Soviet silent film, first published in 1989, and now made freely available ponline by Ohio State University Libraries’ Knowledge Bank. The book is a study of Soviet silent films in terms of their understanding of the position of women within socialist culture. The argument is made that the representation of women in such films subverted their ostensibly straightforward ideological and cinematic goals. The films given particular analysis are Strike, Mother, Fragments of an Empire, Bed and Sofa and Man with a Movie Camera. The book is available as a downloadable and word-searchable PDF, and is another welcome example of a university press making some of its back number freely available to all now that their commercial life is over. Nobody loses, and plenty will gain.

Publisher’s blurb

http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~s-herbert/ProjectionBox.htm

Small publishers producing works on film and film-related subjects are a rare breed, and it is good to be able to report the return of The Projection Box, the enterprising Hastings business run by Stephen Herbert and Mo Heard. After “a period of slumber”, as their site puts it, they have returned with a new title, The Dickens Daguerreotype Portraits, by Herbert himself, and a new publishing strategy. They are using Blurb, the online print-on-demand service which is attracting a lot of interest from self-publishers and those just looking for alternative publishing options.

The first three titles to be available in this way are The Dickens Daguerreotype Portraits, a history of the very few daguerreotype portraits of Charles Dickens, and the single known daguerreotype portrait of his wife Catherine, well-timed for the bicentenary celebrations next year; the previously published The Kinora: motion pictures for the home, 1896-1914, by Barry Anthony, in a new extended version which includes a reprint of the Bond’s Ltd. 1911 Catalogue of Living Pictures that your may show in your own home; and also previously published, a facsimile of 1890 account of a famous Victorian optical illusion, The True History of the Ghost by ‘Professor’ John Henry Pepper, with an introduction by Mervyn Heard.

Other titles from The Projection Box back catalogue will be made available in this way in due course. These can still be ordered direct from The Projection Box in the traditional away, along with their CD publications and The Magic Lantern Society (UK) titles. The full list is (with prices):

  • Eadweard Muybridge: the Kingston Museum Bequest, eds. Ann McCormack and Stephen Herbert
    GB Pounds: 30.00 p&p 4.50
    US dollars: 48.00, shipping US dollars 19.00
  • The Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, eds: Richard Crangle, Stephen Herbert, David Robinson
    GB Pounds: 45.00 p&p 9.50
    US dollars: 70.00, shipping US dollars 40.00
  • For Ladies Only? Eve’s Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33, by Jenny Hammerton
    GB Pounds: 9.00 p&p 2.50
    US dollars: 14.00, shipping US dollars 10.00
  • From Frontiersman to Film-maker. The Biography of Film Pioneer Birt Acres, by Alan Birt Acres
    [details of CD-ROM to follow]
  • The Illustrated Bamforth Slide Catalogue – DVD-ROM
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 1.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • The Incomparable Testot! Selections from a 19th Century Magician’s Paragraph Boo – Introduced by Edwin A. Dawes
    GB Pounds: 9.00 p&p 2.00
    US dollars: 14.00, shipping US dollars 6.00
  • Industry, Liberty and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s Kinesigraph, by Stephen Herbert
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 1.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • The Lantern Image: Supplement No. 1, compiled by David Robinson
    GB Pounds: 4.00 p&p 2.50
    US dollars: 7.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • New Magic Lantern Journal – Volume 6
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 1.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • New Magic Lantern Journal – Volume 7
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 1.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • Phantasmagoria: the secret life of the magic lantern, by Mervyn Heard
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 4.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • Realms of Light: Uses and Perceptions of the Magic Lantern from the 17th to the 21st Century, edited by Richard Crangle, Mervyn Heard and Ine van Dooren
    GB Pounds: 35.00 p&p 9.50
    US dollars: 62.00, shipping US dollars 28.00
  • Servants of Light, ed. Richard Franklin and Stephen Herbert
    GB Pounds: 20.00 p&p 3.50
    US dollars: 30.00, shipping US dollars 16.00
  • Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures: the art and inventions of a multi-media pioneer, by Stephen Herbert
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 1.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • The Titanic and Silent Cinema, by Stephen Bottomore
    GB Pounds: 11.00 p&p 3.00
    US dollars: 18.00, shipping US dollars 10.00
  • Victorian Film Catalogues, ed. Stephen Herbert
    GB Pounds: 5.00 p&p 2.00
    US dollars: 8.00, shipping US dollars 6.00
  • When the Movies Began: a chronology of the world’s first film shows, by Stephen Herbert
    GB Pounds: 3.00 p&p 1.00
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00
  • A Yank in Britain: The Lost Memoirs of Charles Urban, Film Pioneer, ed. by Luke McKernan
    GB Pounds: 25.00 p&p 1.50
    US dollars: 40.00, shipping US dollars 7.00

Further details of all titles are available on The Projection Box website. And welcome back.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 308 other followers