On 23 February the Adelaide Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Paolo Cherchi Usai’s film Passio. The film is a compilation of silent found footage from a century of visual culture, taken from archives around the world, put to a score by Arvo Pärt. Cherchi Usai, director of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, says that the film must only be seen as a live experience in a theatre. To this end he has apparently destroyed all the masters and vowed never to release the film on video. According to the festival blurb, it is “a masterwork of the first order, a stunning and revelatory film of surprising emotional and narrative power, that explores the impending crisis of visual culture and its reflection in politics and society. Its unsettling images, drawn from a century of filmmaking, are woven into a tapestry of mysterious beauty and violence.”

The camera as historian

More on Louis Stanley Jast and the proto-film archive at Croydon Public Library (see yesterday’s post). I dug out a copy of The Camera as Historian, by H.D. Gower, L. Stanley Jast and W.W. Topley (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co. Ltd., 1916) in the British Library. The book is predominantly about the use of photography as a civic and social record, but it makes some comments about cinematography which reinforce what Jast told The Bioscope in 1914. There is further detail on the system for viewing films without projection, designed by Thomas H. Windibank, manager of the London Electric Hall cinema in Croydon, with diagrams and photographs. The text is most concerned with practical matters of taking, storing and making accessible photographic collections, but it has some fascinating general arguments. It asserts that photography’s power to record actuality “implies a corresponding responsibility” i.e. that local authorities had a duty to form photographic collections, by which the authors mean cinematographic records as well. The opening quotation boldly asserts the importance of the image for the study of history:

The means whereby the past, particularly in its elation to human activities and their results, may be reconstructed and visualized, can be roughly grouped under the four headings of material objects, oral tradition, written record, and lastly, graphic record, whether pictorial or sculptural. It is no part of our purpose to belittle the value of any of the first-named tools of the historian or scientist; but it will probably be conceded that in many respects the last named has a value greatly outweighing the others. It is obvious, moreover, that the lure of the graphic as of all other record rests entirely upon its accuracy. Now, not only is absolute fidelity to the original beyond attainment in the case of the artist, but the work even of the most painstaking draughtsman is often coloured by his individuality to such an extent that the detailed characteristics of the original he is reproducing assume in his work aspects quite foreign to their real nature.

Then comes the insistence that local authorities should be collecting film:

Hitherto little or no attention appears to have been paid to the enormous value of preserving, in such a way as to ensure their availability for the public of the future, the splendid photographic records of our national life contained in the cinematographic films daily taken for exhibition at “moving picture” theatres. This subject will be treated in a later chapter; but its importance warrants a reference to it here. Here the municipality – or whatever be the local governing body – surely has some interest, nay, the authors would urge, has a clear duty.

Jast does appear to suggest in this next extract that the value of film is as a series of photographs (though he does note elsewhere the importance of seeing films either as still images or in motion), but he explains how easy it should be to start up such a collection:

We have left to the last reference to what is perhaps the most valuable source of photographic records, at all events among those illustrating past events. We refer to the kinematograph films taken for display at the many “Picture Palaces” which have sprung up in such profusion amongst us during the last few years. Many of the noteworthy local happenings (at all events in towns of any size) are recorded in this manner. A few days after exhibition their commercial value has sunk to nothing, and they represent to the picture showman merely so many feet of waste celluloid. The value of a film containing over 4000 technically excellent photographic transparencies would, in this form, be about 3d.! It has been found that requests, by a suitable body (e.g. a Public Library) for the gift of these records are usually met by a most courteous acquiescence; while if a strictly commercial view of the matter be taken, the cost of acquiring the records – by way of purchase – need be so slight as to be negligible in comparison with their real value … That this source of material has been hitherto almost unrecognized is unfortunate. It would be deplorable if, henceforward, through apathy or lack of foresight, any opportunity should be missed of securing such invaluable records.

Jast would have been pleased to know about the regional film archive movement in Britain, but dismayed to learn that it was not instituted until the 1970s. How much local film was lost in the interim? I will now try and find out what happened to the Croydon film collection.