Brighton beach memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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