Newman House, Dublin
I was recently on my travels, attending a couple of conferences and a summer school, and this is my report. The first half of July was remarkably crowded with moving image-related conferences and other such events in the UK (and environs). Because of the jam-packed schedule, sadly I had to say no to the Visual Delights conference at Sheffield, on the theme of Visual Empires. This had an intriguing selection of papers surveying assorted lost empires and the media they sought to bend to their needs, with an encouraging number of new speakers (new to me, that is). Perhaps someone could say something about how they found the conference.
I also had to give a miss to Researching Cinema History: Perspectives and Practices, a symposium at Burlington House in London, which normally would have been right up my street, discussing as did the changes that seem to be happening to the historiography of cinema. For I was by then in Dublin, to speak to the Dublin James Joyce Summer School on Joyce and his fleeting management of the Volta cinema in Dublin in 1909 (centenary year, you see). This took place in the delightful Georgian building of Newman House, where they nervertheless managed to drum up a decent digital projector. The gathering of students looked a little bemused at times as I piled on the detail of how one went about managing (or mis-managing) a cinema in 1909, but they loved the film clips. A Cretinetti comedy (Come Cretinetti paga di debiti / An Easy Way to Pay Bills) and a scatalogical Pathé film C’est Papa qui à pris la purge, but could have been a film shown at the Volta entitled Beware of Castor Oil!, went down particularly well. The chances are now that it isn’t the film shown at the Volta, but it was certainly something like it (a man drinks his son’s castor oil medicine by mistake and gets caught short in assorted public places). In the end it was concluded that it was probably best that Joyce turned out to be such a poor cinema manager, because otherwise he’d have become a minor, prosperous businessman who never quite got round to writing that novel he’d been dreaming about, and none of them would have been there at such a summer school at all.
An uncredited Max Linder appearing in C’est Papa qui à pris la purge (1906)
And then it was off by plane to Birmingham followed by the epic train journey through Wales (anxiously following the first Test through text messages on the mobile phone) to get to the University of Aberystwyth for the Iamhist, or International Association for Media and History, conference, on the theme Social Fears and Moral Panics. Well, hard to go wrong with a theme like that, and there was a fine array of papers covering the multifarious ways in which the media acreates, reflects, perpetuates or addresses social fears – as well as being the subject of such fears itself. This was a particularly well-managed event, where for once I could find no complaint with any of the speakers that I heard (though surprisingly I encountered only one brave enough to try showing film clips) and all topics contributed usefully to the greater theme.
There wasn’t much on silent cinema, curiously enough, because the silent era had more than its fair share of moral panics – Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid etc – indeed early cinema in general was ubiquitously viewed as a social threat of the first order. But for the record I heard papers on the ‘quality’ press and its adversion to commercial radio (Richard Rudin), the battles to preserve the Welsh language through film (Kate Woodward), how Limerick newspapers helped and hindered the fight against the 1832 cholera epidemic (Michelle Mangan), the very topical print history of influenza (Penelope Ironstone-Catterall), local reporting on the Ottoman bankruptcy crisis of 1875 (Gul Karagoz-Kizilca), the fears aroused by the arrival of the telephone (Gabriele Balbi), the image of Marconi operators given in the pages of Wireless World (David Hendy), the ‘Lady Chatterly’ trial and its press coverage (Nick Thomas), the use of fear in British government public information films (Linda Kaye, the speaker with the film clips) and the 1950s obscentity campaign against British seaside postcards (Nick Hiley).
In fact, the only silent cinema subjects I encountered were James Burns speaking on early cinema and moral panic in various parts of the British Empire, amusingly pointing out how different countries ended up worried about different things (in South Africa they feared racial mixing, in Southern Rhodesia it was sexuality, in the West Indies it was images that diminshed British prestige that concerned them, in India they worried about the threat of motorised crime); and me. I spoke on How Working Men Spend their Spare Time, a social survey conducted by George Esdras Bevans in New York in 1912, which I’ve written about on the Bioscope before now. You can find a copy of the talk on my personal website, should you be interested.
An impassioned moment from the debate on regulation and the media, with (L-R) Nick Cull (chair), Martin Barker, Julian Petley and Sir Quentin Thomas
There was a silent film screening, however. We were in the heart of Wales, with the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales just down the road, so it was more than appropriate that we were treated to Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), previously described here in detail. The film was shown in NSSAW’s distinctively cylindrical Drwm cinema, and had Neil Brand playing the piano. A somewhat prolonged introduction over-sold the film, and it was a rather flat atmosphere that was created by an audience of worldy-wise media historians unaccustomed to adjusting their perceptions to the demands of silent film. In February when I saw the film at the British Library it was fresh and thrilling; here it seemed to drag, and its highlights seemed perfunctory. It’s the audience that makes the film, every time.
With the practice such conferences have of parallel sessions I missed many papers, while others I had to skip while putting together mine (a last-minute job, alas as usual with me). There were also plenary sessions: one on Government, Panics and Media Crisis (Virginia Berridge eloquent on AIDS, Merfyn Jones – former BBC governor – choosing his words with care but equally with feeling in recounting the fresh history of the Hutton enquiry into the Iraq war), and a thought-provoking session on Regulation and the Media, with Martin Barker on ‘disguised politics’, Julian Petley on the failure of the 1977 Williams committee which sought to change laws on obscenity, and an urbane turn from Sir Quentin Thomas of the British Board of Film Classification, who didn’t saying anything much but said it with authority.
My travels should then have taken me to Colour and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive at Bristol, but weariness overcame me. A shame, because this looked like an agenda-setting conference, with a remarkable range of papers mostly focussing on the aesthetic side of things. The publication of the papers would be very welcome.
The women’s 800 metres from De Olympische Spelen, the official film of the 1928 Olympic Games (a notorious event because one competitor – according to the evidence of the film – collapsed at the end of it, leading the event to be withdrawn from the Games until 1960 because it was thought to be too strenuous for women)
Instead, a few days later, I dragged myself to Pembroke College, Cambridge, for a conference held by the Sport in Modern Europe academic network. This was a select gathering of some of the leading sports historians, and I was somewhat dazzled to be in the same room as Richard (Sport and the British) Holt, Wray (Pay up and Pay the Game) Vamplew, and Kasia (Boxing: A Cultural History) Boddy. But no matter how wise in the ways of the world sports historians are generally, they welcome a bit of guidance when it comes to film, so that was my cue to speak to them about the films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games (again, as previously covered here at the Bioscope), with emphasis on the use of slow versus natural motion and whether the sports filmmakers of the silent era were more interested in athletic records or idealised athletic motion (a bit of both, really).
So there you are – a couple of weeks in the life of the roving academic, and illustration of just where film can take you because it has this marvellous facility to reflect – and illuminate – all subjects. Which is perhaps why James Joyce was drawn to it, why the workingmen of New York in 1912 preferred it far above any competing leisure attraction, and why the seemingly plain records of the Olympic Games of the 1920s grow all the more fascinating the more you try to unpick them.