The 846th opinion

Roundhay Garden Scene

Years ago, when I first discovered films, and I started to absorb all the information that I could from guides and reference books, I came across the Sight and Sound ten-yearly lists of the greatest films ever made, as voted for by an august group of film critics. There was a sense of awe at titles I had yet to see, such as Citizen Kane, Bicycles Thieves, Ugetsu Monogatari or Battleship Potemkin, and fascination as how changing tastes brought new films into favour and old certainities fall away with each decade’s new choices.

In 1982 I eagerly devoured what was the fourth to be held, where Citizen Kane retained its top place (I had seen it by then and respected it deeply), followed by La Règle du jeu, Seven Samurai, Singin’ in the Rain, and so on. I naturally thought of what my own top ten would be and wondered if anyone would ever seek out my opinion – unlikely since I had neither the ambition or ability to be a film critic.

But time moves on in strange ways, and Sight and Sound has tried to widen its net to get away from the choices of an elite, til by 2012 they invited a thousand people who write about or work with film, not just in books, the newspapers and film journals but on blogs and other online outlets. And so it was that the email came through, with these words:

I would like to invite you to take part in the 2012 poll. We realise that this is not the easiest of tasks, but we want you to know that this is a major worldwide endeavour that will help us all to remind people of film’s rich history and to refine what we mean by the best of cinema.

Please draw up a list of ten films only, in order of preference or, if you’d rather, alphabetically. The order does not matter to the voting system – we will allot one vote only to each of your ten films. We also invite you to add a short commentary after the list explaining why you have chosen the films in your top ten.

As for what we mean by ‘Greatest’, we leave that open to your
interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.

But how sad, because after thirty odd years of following films closely, I no longer had much belief on interest in ‘best’ films nor that much interest in film as art. But I wasn’t going to say no. So I wrote back with my ‘top ten’ (in chronological order) with an afterword that said what I thought about the whole process. Here’s what I wrote:

  • Roundhay Garden Scene (Louis Augustin Aimé Le Prince, 1888)
  • Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs (Gabriel Veyre, 1900)
  • The Big Swallow (James Williamson, 1901)
  • L’aveugle de Jérusalem (Louis Feuillade, 1909)
  • The Battle of the Somme (J.B. McDowell, Geoffrey Malins, 1916)
  • The Lady of the Dugout (W.S. Van Dyke, 1918)
  • Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939)
  • Free Radicals (Len Lye, 1958)
  • Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)
  • Me at the Zoo (Yakov Lapitsky, 2005)

I no longer know what makes a great film, nor how a film can stay great, since so many that I once revered have dulled through familiarity, while others previously spurned when seen again startle with unexpected brilliance. The films I have chosen are not so much the ‘best’ as films that I could not imagine being done any better. Each is innovatory in its own way, which may explain the bias towards early films – all the good ideas were fresh then. The earliest title in my selection is a motion picture older than film itself, ushering in a new way of seeing the world. The newest is the first title to appear on YouTube, the symbolic moment when the medium reinvented itself beyond ‘film’.

Le Prince’s 1888 record of his family playing around in their garden does indeed precede the medium of film (it was shot on photo-sensitised paper). It seems to me to do what the moving image does best, at the very beginnings of what came to be called film. The film by Lumière cameraman Gabriel Veyre is a breathtaking reverse tracking shot taken in a Vietnamese village in 1900 (you can see in on the Gabriel Veyre website) – a superb demonstration of documentary imagination. The Big Swallow is film’s wittiest comment on itself, in which the irate subject of a film swallows the cameraman. L’aveugle de Jérusalem, an imaginary parable, is an obscure choice, though Feuillade is a celebrated enough name. But for me it is the perfectly constructed one-reeler, which I have praised here before now.

The documentary The Battle of the Somme made a greater social impact in its day than probably any film since (in Britain at least) and though more shocking films of war have been made since, as I wrote in my review of its DVD release, “it is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.” The unaffectedly authentic western The Lady of the Dugout has also been lauded here before now – in its modest way it is the model of what a silent feature film (or any feature film) can be.

Spare Time is an artful yet genuine record of people at leisure, profoundly sympathetic towards people of all kinds, delighting in scenes of ordinary living in a way that film does best (but not nearly enough). Free Radicals is pure avant garde, from the exuberant Len Lye, the most free of all filmmakers. Topsy-Turvy is a token film from today, but its marriage of precise historical recreation with truth about human loves and follies seems to me to be perfectly done. And then Me at the Zoo (which I write about on my Moving Image blog) takes us back to Le Prince in a way, demonstrating how the moving image medium delights in almost nothing at all, just movement itself. And it is the point where film ends, and something else takes over.

Me at the Zoo

You can find my choices along with the 845 others on the BFI’s Sight and Sound poll pages. But seeing what I wrote, and thinking why I wrote it, has made me decide that it’s time to call a halt to writing about film, at least for the time being, and in this form. I’ve been writing for the Bioscope for just over five years, and I’ve probably said all I want to say about silent films. It’s become a chore, and I want to be doing other things.

So as of now there will be no more new writing on The Bioscope. It will stay online, because the intention was for it to be an archive of lasting value, and the links will stay on the right-hand side, but over the next couple of days I’ll be removing news of festivals and conferences and shutting down the Scoop-it news service and Twitter account. I’ll also be shutting down comments.

Thank you all old friends and new for having read the blog over these past five years, and for often having said such kind thing about it. But it’s time to move on to the next venture, whatever that might be.

Cheerio.

Luke

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:

La Reclam Cine

An edition of La Reclam Cine from 1926

We have another silent film journal freely available online for you. It’s only the second journal from Spain for our period that we’ve come across, Le Reclam Cine, which was a bi-monthly supplement of a Valencia newspaper La Reclam, and first issued in January 1926. It contains news and commentary on film and theatre in Spain (centred on Valencia), with European and American film news as well, written in Spanish of course. To browse the issues, click on the Issues box at the foot of the page linked above – this taks you to the individal issues, which can be viewed as individual PDF page or else the entire issue can be downloaded. There is word-searching, and you can view thumbnails of each page (handy for locating in on photographs and advertisements).

It’s not clear how long the supplement was published, but five issues from January to May 1926 are available from the Biblioteca Nationale de Espana’s Hemeroteca Digital digitsed newspapers site, part of the larger Hispanic Digital Library. This is a national digital collection I’d not encountered before, and for Spanish speakers it looks to be an exceptional resource. It contains a huge range of digitised journals and newspapers dating 1683-1993, all of them word-, country- and date-searchable, and though all of the documents are of course in Spanish there are search guidelines in English, and the site is easy to navigate. Cinema subjects appear with great frequency among the general journals and newspapers on the site. Our standard test search term ‘kinetoscope’ yields 6 hits, ‘bioscope’ 108, ‘charlie chaplin’ 676, and ‘cinematográfica’ 18,389. Each search results brings up a record for the relevant issues and that section of the uncorrected OCR text containing the search term. Couldn’t be easier, and plenty to discover.

The Bioscope’s full list of silent film journals available online is at http://thebioscope.net/library/journals.

Ir a explorar.

The greatest

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), scientifically proven to be the fifth best film ever made

As possibly the entire world now knows (and maybe a few cinephile Martians as well), the great film in the world ever made is Vertigo. No, I don’t believe it, either, but that’s what 846 of the world’s estemeed film critics have collectively decided should come top of the venerable ten-yearly Sight and Sound poll (first held in 1952) of the greatest films ever made.

Now it so happens that yours truly was one of those 846, but what I voted for will be the subject of another post, when the voting records of all 846 get published online later this month. Suffice to say that none of my choices appeared in the top fifty, nor I suspect will they be found in the top 1,000 – but then I didn’t pick a ten ‘best’ in any case. When young and keen and still discovering film I thought top tens and such like were a terrific idea. Now they seem to be an antiquated and irrelevant folly. However, we can at least be pleased at the recognition silent films still receive among film critics, with three silents in the top ten and a goodly representation among the top fifty. Indeed, silent films would appear to be commanding increasing respect, with films such as Sunrise and Man with a Movie Camera leaping up from where they charted in 2002. Silent film looks enocuragingly healthy in 2012.

Anyway, here is the list, for your delectation. Argue with the choices you may well do, but that will only demonstrate that you feel that there is such a thing as a best film ever, or a top ten films ever. Do you really believe that?

1. Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 (191 votes)

2. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, 1941 (157 votes)

3. Tokyo Story
Ozu Yasujiro, 1953 (107 votes)

4. La Règle du jeu
Jean Renoir, 1939 (100 votes)

5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
FW Murnau, 1927 (93 votes)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick, 1968 (90 votes)

7. The Searchers
John Ford, 1956 (78 votes)

8. Man with a Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov, 1939 (68 votes)

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Dreyer, 1927 (65 votes)

10. 8½
Federico Fellini, 1963 (64 votes)

11. Battleship Potemkin
Sergei Eisenstein, 1925 (63 votes)

12. L’Atalante
Jean Vigo, 1934 (58 votes)

13. Breathless
Jean-Luc Godard, 1960 (57 votes)

14. Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 (53 votes)

15. Late Spring
Ozu Yasujiro, 1949 (50 votes)

16. Au hasard Balthazar
Robert Bresson, 1966 (49 votes)

17= Seven Samurai
Kurosawa Akira, 1954 (48 votes)

17= Persona
Ingmar Bergman, 1966 (48 votes)

19. Mirror
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974 (47 votes)

20. Singin’ in the Rain
Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951 (46 votes)

21= L’avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 (43 votes)

21= Le Mépris
Jean-Luc Godard, 1963 (43 votes)

21= The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 (43 votes)

24= Ordet
Carl Dreyer, 1955 (42 votes)

24= In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai, 2000 (42 votes)

26= Rashomon
Kurosawa Akira, 1950 (41 votes)

26= Andrei Rublev
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966 (41 votes)

28. Mulholland Dr.
David Lynch, 2001 (40 votes)

29= Stalker
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979 (39 votes)

29= Shoah
Claude Lanzmann, 1985 (39 votes)

31= The Godfather Part II
Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 (38 votes)

31= Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976 (38 votes)

33. Bicycle Thieves
Vittoria De Sica, 1948 (37 votes)

34. The General
Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926 (35 votes)

35= Metropolis
Fritz Lang, 1927 (34 votes)

35= Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock, 1960 (34 votes)

35= Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles
Chantal Akerman, 1975 (34 votes)

35= Sátántangó
Béla Tarr, 1994 (34 votes)

39= The 400 Blows
François Truffaut, 1959 (33 votes)

39= La dolce vita
Federico Fellini, 1960 (33 votes)

41. Journey to Italy
Roberto Rossellini, 1954 (32 votes)

42= Pather Panchali
Satyajit Ray, 1955 (31 votes)

42= Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder, 1959 (31 votes)

42= Gertrud
Carl Dreyer, 1964 (31 votes)

42= Pierrot le fou
Jean-Luc Godard, 1965 (31 votes)

42= Play Time
Jacques Tati, 1967 (31 votes)

42= Close-Up
Abbas Kiarostami, 1990 (31 votes)

48= The Battle of Algiers
Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966 (30 votes)

48= Histoire(s) du cinéma
Jean-Luc Godard, 1998 (30 votes)

50= City Lights
Charlie Chaplin, 1931 (29 votes)

50= Ugetsu monogatari
Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953 (29 votes)

50= La Jetée
Chris Marker, 1962 (29 votes)

Olympic pause

Rowan Atkinson joins Chariots of Fire, from bbc.co.uk

Things are a little quiet at the moment here at Bioscope Towers as all at the scriptorium down their quill pens to follow the London Olympic Games. If we’re not transfixed by our TV screen, then we will be at the Games themselves, and so silent films will probably take a back seat for a while. If you saw the extraordinary ‘Isles of Wonder’ opening ceremony extravaganza devised by filmmaker Danny Boyle you may have spotted its two silent films references: a couple of clips from City Lights during a British film history montage, and (tangentially) Rowan Atkinson in Mr Bean mode playing keyboards for the Chariots of Fire music and winning the race on the sands from Hugh Hudson’s film.

I’ve written some thoughts on the inspiration for the opening ceremony provided by documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings over on the Moving Image blog that I write all too occasionally for the British Library: Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder.

As for silent films and the Olympic Games, do check out the Bioscope’s updated survey of Olympic film 1900-1928: Let the Games begin.

Silent cinema

The Bioscope has just played host to its 1,000,000th visitor. It’s strange – I don’t feel quite as thrilled as I did when the site first passed the 10,000 barrier, but those were different days. Anyway, thank you to all those who have played their part in boosting the statistics. We aim to please.

By way of marking the milestone, we have a poem. Every now and then the Bioscope likes to bring you examples of poems inspired in one way or another by silent cinema, but here is the first poem that I’ve come across that is actually entitled ‘Silent Cinema’. It was written (date uncertain) by A.S.J. Tessimond (1902-1962), a minor British poet whose reputation has grown somewhat of late, and whose wry poem on Charlie Chaplin we reproduced here a few years ago. He wrote in particular of life in the city (chiefly London) and of the moments of illumination that touch humdrum lives.

‘Silent Cinema’ is a mysterious work. It’s not about film in the expected sense at all. Instead it seems to be trying to capture the impression of light on the screen, on the faces of the audience, and in the mind’s eye. It marries light with ideas of flora and music, and what the poet actually meant by calling the poem ‘Silent Cinema’ I don’t know (see his poem ‘Cinema Screen‘ for its similar use of imagery and ideas). But he has seen things differently, and we’re always going to champion that.

Light you have sung:
light
opalescent, iridescent, wineclouded,
shadowlaced, hyaline,
barred and fenced with darkness,
furred with darkness (velvet
dust-bloom-delicate), light
prismed, imprisoned,
plumed, inwoven

Brittle arpeggios of light,
light long wave upon wave,
pressing our eyelids backwards,
liht slow-opening a flower
(fire-rose), light unpetalling,
dusting with flakes of pollen
our upturned faces

Rondo of light on waves,
scherzo of light on leaves,
light webbed by wings to a wild toccata,
counterpoint – fugue – of light

Birth of light
slight white
breath
blurring dark’s mirror

Death of light
flight
as night’s
broad slow fans
close

The art of timing

http://www.cinemetrics.lv

Measurement is fundamental to film. In the early days of the medium, films were priced by the foot, with the content of little consequence unless it was coloured or featured a subject of particular importance, in which case the price per foot went up. The business was measured in how many feet of film were sold, competition was fiercest where cuts were made by one company in the price per foot of film, and as films grew longer they would still be measured in so many reels. Quantity overrode quality. Hold up a strip of film and you could use it as a tape measure – equidistant frames arranged in a straight line.

Films may be all digital now (or virtually so), but that has only increased their propensity towards measurement. There is duration, frame speed, file size, bit rate, and still that succession of frames that are fundamental to the nature of the time-based medium.

Then things get more complicated, because films comprise multiple shots. This was a puzzle for the earliest film producers, who started off believing that a different shot became a different film, to be catalogued, priced and sold separately. But art and the market started to demand that these shots be brought together. Films might now be measured in reels, but within those reels a complexity emerged, as the number of shots, and their length, started to vary according to the type of film or producer. This was not an issue as such for the producers of the period, but decades later it has become a matter of great interest to film scholars who would like to assess the art of film not just qualitatively but quantitively. Which is where cinemetrics comes in.

Cinemetrics graph for Battleship Potemkin, produced by Yuri Tsivian

Cinemetrics is the creation of Professor Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago. A renowned historian of early cinema (if his Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception isn’t on your bookshelf as yet, it should be), probably best known for introducing film scholarship to the marvels of pre-revolutionary Russian dramatic film, notably the work of Yevgenii Bauer. It was when Tsivian started doing an average shot analysis on the films of Bauer and his pupil Lev Kuleshov that Tsivian found evidence to show that “between 1917 and 1918 the cutting tempo of Russian films had jumped from the slowest to the fastest in the world”. What might previously have been intuited could, with patience, be demonstrated empiricially.

With patience, and some software, that is. Because Tsivian then did two extraordinary things. The first was (with computer scientist Gunars Civjans) in 2005 to build a software programme for measuring films; the second was to invite anyone in the world to take part and submit their data to a website – a model example of crowdsourcing in action.

Timing I think was my key thing. I was able to figure out the timing to close the gap between my opponent and myself and move back, and that was I think the key.

It is symptomatic of the imagination, as well as the playfulness, of Tsivian, that he should provide this quote from Chuck Norris on how he won six karate world titles. As Tsivian says, “much like martial arts, or like poetry and music, cinema is the art of timing”. Other scholars, notably David Bordwell and Barry Salt, has shown interest in average shot lengths as a means to measure film style, and Tsivian’s endeavour has demonstrated many scholars worldwide are similarly interested, and sufficiently dedicated to the cause to view and measure films (from any era, and of any kind) and submit the data online for all to study and share.

The Cinemetrics tool can be downloaded onto your PC or used online. The idea is that you then run your video and mark each change in shot with the click of a mouse on by hitting a keyboard button. This will then give you your data on the film’s length, number of shots and average shot length. You then upload the data to the Cinemetrics database, which produces graphs and publishes the data online for all to see. It’s that simple (an advanced option invites you to identify types of shot, such as close-up or medium shot). A more sophisticated tool, the Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool has recently been made available, for which you must rip a copy of the film you wish to analyse onto your hard drive (a tad contentious under some copyright regimes).

Video explaining how to use the new Frame Accurate Cinemetrics Tool (FACT)

Many have taken part, and there are many silent films that have been analyses. The database currently contains just over 10,000 titles, which can be sorted by date, country, director, submitter, average shot length (unsurprisingly the single shot Russian Ark comes out top), media shot length, and so forth. Many silent films are along them.

The Cinemetrics site hosts the database, software programme, articles (check out in particular Tsivian’s classic analysis of Intolerance), examples of Cinemetrics studies, a discussion board, and a lab section for comparing data. Most recently (and the reason for posting this now), a ‘conversations’ section has been added on film and statistics in which film scholars and statistical scientists come together to discuss their shared field arranged around particular themes.

The language of statistics is not one that appeals to most film viewers, and some of the debate may seem wilfully recherché. Talk of medians, means, datasets and outliers may seem to have little to do with the appreciation of film, reducing an art into a quantifiable commodity, just as those early film producers who only saw their product in terms of feet and reels.

But we cannot judge films by emotions alone, no matter how acutely attuned to artistic worth we may feel them to be. Data can quanitify what the eye may only sense or the heart feel. Of course there is more to film art than shot lengths, and new kinds of film analysis tools are starting to emerge which analyse action within and beyond the frame or shot (see, for example, the Gestus Project, which employs vector analysis; or Tim J. Smith’s acclaimed work on visual cognition, which maps where our eyes actually rove over the screen as opposed to where you think they might be looking). The important things in any sort of data analysis are relevance, consistency and range. The work of the cinemetricists is firmly relevant to how films are constructed, it is rigorously consistent in application, and the range of scholars worldwide who have conributed to this remarkable work enriches the data with every new contribution. Even if statistics leaves you cold, the ingenuity and dedication merit your admiration.

Acknowledgments to Nick Redfern of the Research into Film blog, a Cinemetrics contributor and film empiricist, whose blog alerted me to the new ‘conversations’ feature.

(Unfortunately the name ‘Cinemetrics’ has recently been adopted by graphic designer Frederic Brodbeck to create visualisations of films derived from their data. The results look beautiful, but do not quantify or analyse in the same way, and have no connection with Tsivian and Civjans’ Cinemetrics.)

Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections

Letter from Alexander Korda to Adoph Zukor, 16 June 1920, letter in the Margaret Herrick Library

… I am twenty nine years of age and am ten years in the prospection moving picture. Of this period I spent 3 years as an advertisement manager with the Projectograph Co. Ltd. in Budapest, for one year I was in Paris and since the last 6 years I am a stage manager. For the last five years and a half I was the administrative and stage manager of the Corvin film factory of Budapest. It was I who founded the said factory and it was under my management when it was taken over by an Hungarian bank with a capital of 8 millions of crowns, which subsequently got increased to 10 respectively to 20 millions of crowns. Budapest however offers by far no scope enough for an ambitious man to settle down there for a lifetime …

It’s a standard letter seeking employment written to a man in a position of power from a man in a humble siutation. The man of power is Adolph Zukor; what makes this such a compelling document is that the man doing the begging is his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda, then only just establishing himself in Austrian film after having left the narrow (and politically hazardous) confines of the Hungarian film business. In a few years’ time Korda would be the man of power, though not in America but rather Britain.

The letter is just one example of the extraordinary riches to be found in the digital collections of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. You would expect the Margaret Herrick Library – one of the world’s leading film study centres – to put on a good show when it came to presenting its collections digitally, and how well they have done so.

Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections is an online database of digitised materials from the Margaret Herrick Library (named after the Academy’s first librarian – how rare it is for libraries to be named after those who care for them). It represents only a tiny proportion of the Library’s holdings, but the 2,500 or so items on offer are richly varied and presented in quite exemplary fashion. They include correspondence, photographs, periodicals, sheet music and star ephemera, along with complete copies of more than 250 Academy publications, dating back to its founding in 1927.

The site is broken down into these individual collections:

  • Academy Awards Collection
    Selected Academy Awards photographs, rule books, programs and ephemera from the Library’s extensive holdings.
  • Academy Publications
    Full text issues of member newsletters, annual reports, technical articles and other publications produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
  • Tom B’hend and Preston Kaufmann Collection
    Tom B’hend and Preston Kaufmann were collectors of material related to motion picture theaters and theater organs.
  • Cecil B. DeMille Photographs
    Selection of items from the Cecil B. DeMille photographs.
  • Alfred Hitchcock Papers
    Selected items from the Alfred Hitchcock papers. The collection mostly comprises photographs, including several from Hitchcock’s silent film period.
  • Motion Picture Periodicals
    Complete issues of various publications from the library’s collections. The library’s periodical holdings include industry trade publications, fan magazines, technical and scholarly journals, and studio house organs.
  • Movie Star Ephemera
    Examples of movie star and fan ephemera and collectibles from across the library’s collections. Items include fan magazine covers, fan club publications and movie star memorabilia, as well as products endorsed by or featuring images of movie stars. The earliest materials date back to the silent era.
  • William Selig Papers
    Selection of release fliers and correspondence from the William Selig papers. “Colonel” William N. Selig (1864-1948) was an American producer active in film from 1896 to 1938. He founded the Selig Polyscope Company and co-founded the Motion Picture Patents Company.
  • Sheet Music Collection
    Selection of items from the Robert Cushman collection of sheet music. Robert Cushman was an American photograph curator. He was on the staff of the Margaret Herrick Library from 1972 until his death in 2009. He was an avid collector of silent film sheet music, which he mostly obtained from East Coast sheet music dealers.
  • Fred Zinnemann Papers
    Selection of photographs from the Fred Zinnemann papers.
  • Adolph Zukor Correspondence
    Selected letters and other items from the man who founded Famous Players Film Company and became head of Paramount Pictures.

The documents are presented superbly, with full descriptions, transcripts, assorted display options, download and print options, even the facility to view text and image alongside on another from transcribed documents. It’s a model presentation in every way.

Of particular note, given our interest in documenting digitised journals of the silent era wherever they can be found, is the collection of motion picture periodicals. Those available are Cinema Chat (1919-1920) (74 issues), Movies (1930-1934) (8 issues), Movie Monthly (1925) (3 issues) and Silver Sheet (1920-1925) (18 issues). An example of the latter series, with a mind-boggling image promotiong the 1924 film The Galloping Fish, is illustrated to the left. So far as I am aware, none is available anywhere else online, and all have been added to our ever-growing list of silent film journals available online. The journals are presented as single PDF pages (in some cases double-pages), rather than as full PDFs of the complete issue (correction – you can download a full issue), with thumbnails images arranged in a column alongside any one digitised page to aid browsing. There is full text uncorrected OCR, with word-searching within the single page, though the main site offering word-searching across all documents in any case.

The collection will no doubt grow, and certainly has opened up an important collection to those of us who are not able to visit Beverly Hills quite as often as we might like.

My thanks to David Pierce for alerting me to the site.

BFI old and new

BFI old (to the right) and new

There is a section of the Bioscope Library devoted to online catalogues and databases. One major database missing from the list that of the British Film Institute, because we knew that the BFI was planning to upgrade the database quite significantly, and so it was best to wait for the new rather than produce any sort of disquisition on the old.

Well, they’ve started introducing the new, but we’re not quite there yet. The BFI is in the process of changing its online presence quite radically, onto a more unified and simplified platform. Many familiar and useful pages have disappeared, such as the guide to distributors, the list of researchers working in film studies, and the PDFs of digitised film reference guides. One hopes that such losses are temporary. [Update: They’re still there, on the old version of the site being maintained for the time being – see comments]

You will also look in vain for somewhere on the new site that says database. That’s because it is now called Explore film (interestingly Explore is the British Library now uses for its unified catalogue – we’re all so keen to be user friendly and not scare off the timid with words like catalogue or database). It’s a link on the main menu, and the front page makes striking use of film images which are links to catalogue records.

Once the website has settled down we will review it properly. There is much there that is new and of great interest, including stills, extensive hyperlinking, see also suggestions, and filtering by country, genre, subject and date, which open up the records to all manner of new kinds of enquiry and discovery. Like the old database, it still doesn’t distinguish between films that the BFI has and films about which it merely holds information, but the bringing together of filmographic and technical information has ben a major goal of the database development plans, so presumably we’ll see this in time (such unified data is avalable in the version of the database accessible in the BFI’s new library at its Southbank complex).

Some things are missing however, most significantly the shotlists or longer synopses which accompanied many archive records, particularly for older films – meaning predominantly silent – which are invaluable for the serious researcher. The synopses haven’t disappeared – they are on the version of the database in the BFI library) but they are not available online on the new database, as yet.

But the BFI continues to make the old version of its database available, though the link for this in not published anywhere on the new site. However, you can find it at http://old.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/ftvdb, and there you can search all of its records as before, and find the fuller synopses where available. All of the links to BFI database records on the Bioscope (and there are many) still link through to these database records. The old version also has an Advanced Search option which the new one has jetisoned in favour of filtering. Both have their virtues – and as a researcher I’d rather have both.

How long the old database will remain available has not been said. Presumably once everything has been transferred across to the new site, then the old will be shut down – and all of the old links will become dead overnight, which is just a tad annoying. It’s also worth checking carefully between the two databases while we still have them, because they are bringing up different research results, which appears to be on account of some fields not having been copied across as yet (for instance, I searched for ‘Henville’, the donor of an important collection of early films whose name had appeared on several alternative titles, and found two records on the new database, sixteen on the old – which is not to say that those records are missing, simply that I can’t currently find them under the search term I was able to use previously).

So, to recap – the old BFI database can be found at http://old.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/ftvdb. The new BFI database will be found at http://explore.bfi.org.uk. The new one has lots of exciting new features, but appears to be a work in progress. Meanwhile it’s strongly recommended that you keep referring to the old one, while you can.

The missing link

King Edward VII meeting the aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright at Pau in France, Tyler’s Topical Slides series 11 (March 1909), from the LUCERNA database

A while ago we told you about the LUCERNA database, a directory of information on the magic lantern and home to digitised copies of lantern slides held in public and private collections. The site – a joint project by Universität Trier, Screen Archive South East, the Magic Lantern Society, UK; and Indiana University, but chiefly a labour of love by media historian Richard Crangle – demonstrates the range and depth of the magic lantern, not only in terms of subjects covered (fictional and non-fictional) but in the period of time it covers. The magic lantern continued well into the twentieth century (one of the leading British film trade papers was known as the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly up to 1919) and arguably has never gone away, going through such incarnations as the slide carousel for family photos of a couple of generations ago through to the PowerPoint presentations of today.

New slides continue to be added to the site, and recently a set was added which is of huge interest to this enthusiast for historical news media, because it provides evidence of something I had felt certain had to have existed somewhere but had never seen, a sort of missing link between news photography and newsreels – the topical lantern slide.

Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 5, showing the visit of Basuto Chiefs to London in February 1909, where they were challenging the decision of the British government to include their land Lesotho within the Union of South Africa

The collection is Tyler’s Topical Slides, a set of lantern slides reporting on current events put out by Walter Tyler, a renowed lantern manufacturer whose business subsequently (after his death in 1909) diversified into motion picture equipment and film distribution as the Tyler Film Company. There are some 370 slides, arranged in 40 sets that date 1909-10. Each set is numbered, the highest number being series no. 87, from which it can be extraopolated that the slides were issued weekly. The number of slides ranges from 1 to 20 per set, but that is a reflection of what survives. Each slides has a photograph, supplied by the Topical Press Agency, a well-known photograph agency of the period (no connection with the Topical Film Company, which produced the Topical Budget newsreel). Each has a one-line caption describing the story. They would have been shown in sequence, long enough for an audience to take in the news item before the next slide would follow. They are exactly like newsreels – before there were newsreels.

The first newsreel in Britain, Pathé’s Animated Gazette, was first issued in June 1910. Newsreels had existed earlier in France, and of course films of news events were as old as film itself, but a newsreel as a collection of topical news stories gathered on a single reel was something new. What has been understood until now is that the inspiration for newsreels was photo-illustrated newspapers (such as The Daily Mirror and The Daily Sketch) which were interested in the visual impact of stories (other newspapers, such as The Times, did not carry photographs until some years later). What was not known, at least by me, was that there was another, direct precursor, the news or topical slide.

Tyler’s Topical Slides appear to have been issued from January 1909 – so a year and a half before the first newsreel was shown in Britain. They ran until at least September 1910, when the growing popularity of newsreels probably rendered them unviable commercially. We don’t know for certain, but it seems highly like that the slides were shown in cinemas, as well as variety theatres and town halls putting on mixed public entertainments (including films). In subject matter, style and adress, the topical slides are effectively identical to the first newsreels, which would open with a title and simple description of the action, followed by 30 seconds or so of film (withour further intertitles cut into the film), followed then by the next news story.


Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 11, showing Lieutenant Shackleton’s ship The Nimrod (Shackleton’s party arrived in New Zealand following their failed attempt to reach the South Pole on 23 March 1909 – this is therefore a photograph of the Nimrod before it sailed south)

The subject matter is the same as well – the popular news stories of the day, with an emphasis on personalities, especially royalty, sport, tradition and diverting incidents of the day, light-heartedly expressed with little overt political comment. In audience impact the slides would have worked in the same way as newsreels, because newsreels depended on the audience’s prior knowledge of the news story. They would have read about these topical subjects in their daily newspapers – now the weekly topical slides, or the weekly newsreel (newsreels started out weekly in the UK before becoming bi-weekly), showed them the pictures to supplement what they already knew, what had become common knowledge. The pictures completed the picture.

Winston Churchill (when President of the Board of Trade) as featured in Tyler’s Topical Slides, series 9 (February 1909)

How widely were such news or topical slides shown? Did any other company produce them apart from Tyler? It would be important to know, because either we are looking at a one-off freakish anticipation of the newsreel, or it is evidence of a significant news medium not hitherto written about in news media histories (to the best of my knowledge). The importance could lie not just in the ‘missing link’, but because it would be supporting evidence for the thesis that with the rise of the different news media at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries came a vital element of what makes up the news – consumer choice. The news does not exist in any one medium. It lies in the mind of each and everyone one of us who goes out looking for news, and finds it relayed through a variety of media, from which we pick and choose what we understand the news to be. It’s a part of what it is to be modern. Tyler’s Topical Slides show that the choice on offer in 1909-10 was that much greater than previously thought.

Tyler’s Topical Slides can be found on the LUCERNA database, simply by typing in “tyler” into the search box, then by ticking the box marked “show” next to the text that reads “88 sets with title containing ‘tyler’”. Being in series order they are in chronological order, and it would not take too much research to identify dates for many of the events depicted, and from that to extrapolate on what day of the week the series was released (assuming it was always the same day of the week) and what gap there was being an event occuring and Tyler being able to include this on the slides that it distributed.

How did such a business work when news subjects go so rapidly out of date? How extensive would the distribution have to have been to make it economical? How did distribution work, and how widespread was it? So many questions worth researching.

If anyone knows of any other examples of topical lantern slides which were released in series form, please do get in touch. There’s more to be found out – there has to be.

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