When films go astray

John McCourt introducing me (not there – I’m taking the picture) for the ‘At the Volta with James Joyce’ show, Glasgow Film Theatre, 10 December 2010

I’m back from my latest film adventure, which this time took me to Glasgow to present ‘At the Volta with James Joyce’, a programme of films programmed by Joyce at the Volta cinema in Dublin at the end of 1909/early 1910. I’ve written on a number of occasions on this story (here, here, here, and here, not to mention here. Oh, and here too), so no need to add any more, except to say that this was presented as part of the December 1910 Centenary Conference – the centenary being that of modernism (which Viriginia Woolf decided began 100 years ago – specifically she prononouned that “on or about December 1910 human character changed”). So it was full of modernists, who are full of brains and hifalutin jargon yet great people to go out for a drink afterwards.

But what made the event memorable for me is what went on behind the scenes. Owing to the snow that has hit the UK over the past week or so (though thankfully there was a thaw in Glasgow when I was there) there has been a big delay in deliveries of all kinds and – to keep the story simple – we discovered on the afternoon before the show that the films were sitting in a vault awaiting collection by DHL who were still dealing with a 7-day backlog. Much panic and frantic phone calls ensued. I thought briefly of carrying the films with me on the plane (not really practical, and likely to cause comment in airport security). However we found some of the Volta films on a DigiBeta tape which was copied onto DVD, though most of them had German intertitles and we had no translation. But a second DVD that had been lent to the pianist (the excellent Forrester Pyke) had further films with English titles, albeit with timecode at the top of the image. With five films on one DVD arrriving by car from Stirling and me flying up to Glasgow with three films on a second DVD (with a Google Translate approximation into English for the longest German-intertitled film, which I then read out while it was screened), and with two hours to spare, we had a show.

It’s always hazardous programming films, especially early films, where the more things you have to show the more things there are to go wrong. You can get the wrong film sent to you, you can be sent the right film can but find a different film inside, you can get a different film with the same title as the one you want to show (two films from the 1900s called Cheese Mites and two from the 1940s called Dressed to Kill at the BFI have always caused confusion). You can get films with a reel missing. On one occasion, which has passed into legend, the BFI’s print of A Night to Remember was sent for a screening at MOMA as part of a major British cinema retrospective, only for MOMA to discover that the last reel wasn’t there. Undaunted, BFI staff on hand went on stage and acted out the final reel – to what degree I’m not sure, since the final reel does feature the sinking of the Titanic, of course.

I had a similar experience myself at a conference in Bristol, when I was talking about the first ever Shakespeare film, King John (1899), which had recently been re-discovered. Owing to a series of errors, which I fear were my fault, the film hadn’t turned up. So I put up a still image, got up in front of the audience, and acted out the entire film. This wasn’t quite as much of a challenge as it might seem, since the film is just minute long and chiefly features King John in his death agonies, and though I’m no actor I can do death agonies. Anyway, it brought the house down.

On another occasion, at the Museum of the Moving Image in London, we were putting on a show of Chaplin rarities, and had announced beforehand that we would be showing the super-rare The Life Story of Charles Chaplin (1926), a British-made semi-documentary, semi-biography which Chaplin’s lawyers got banned. Unfortunately at the last minute the rights-owner refused us permission to screen the film, which was ironic. So all we could do was hold the tape copy that we had before the audience and say that, we promised to show it to you and here it is. They were remarkably good about it in the circumstances.

Anyway, the show must always go on, and my thanks go to everyone behind the scenes in Glasgow and London who turned what looked like being a disaster into a particularly successful screening. You just never know how things are going to turn out.

There’s a 1910 Conference blog report on the Volta show here. For the record (because no film list could be given out on the evening), here are the films that were shown:

  • La Course au Mouchoir (France 1909 d. Adrien Vély p.c. Pathé/S.C.A.G.L.)
  • Come Cretinetti paga i debiti (Italy 1909 d. André Deed p.c. Itala)
  • A Glass of Goat’s Milk (UK 1909 d. Percy Stow p.c. Clarendon)
  • Une Conquête (France 1909 d. Georges Monca p.c. Pathé)
  • Saffo (Italy 1909 d. Oreste Gherardini p.c. Societa Anonima Pineschi)
  • Une Pouponnière à Paris (France 1909 p.c. Éclair)
  • Bianca Capello (Italy 1909 d. Mario Caserini p.c. Cines)
  • Il signor Testardo (Italy 1909 p.c. Itala)

Update: I neglected when writing this post to say something about the conference itself. I only heard a few papers, and overall the conference was covering modernism across all the arts and culture. Nevertheless there were a number of papers that addressed film or film-related subjects. I heard Katy Mullin speak about H.G. Wells’ 1909 novel Ann Veronica, comparing his propulsive heroine to the heroines of screen railroad dramas. John McCourt spoke on ‘Joyce, Ulysses and the Corruptions of Cinema’ with remarkable extracts from the unpublished diaries of Stanislaus Joyce (James’ brother) on filmgoing in Trieste in 1909-10 (including seeing pornographic films akin to those made by Saturn Films of Austria, samples of which can be found on the Europa Film Treasures site). It’s a huge shame permission has not been granted to publish the diaries. Cleo Hanaway spoke on ‘Joyce’s Ulysses and Early Films as Phenomenological Texts’ which was tough stuff to take in after a late night but made me want to read Maurice Merleau-Ponty and to consider whether we now (or then) view films as subjects or objects.

I would also like to have heard Keith Williams speak on Wells, Joyce and Object Animation (looking at literary parallels between literature and trick films); Rosalind Leveridge on the ‘kaleidoscopic change’ for cinema in 1910; Anthony Paraskeva on Joyce and the actress Eleonora Duse (the Italian stage great who made just the one film, Cenere); and Maria Antonia Velez Serna, who is doing excellent work on early cinema and Scotland, looking at exhibition and distribution patterns. There is so much interesting work going on in our field outside the confines of film studies – and the more it goes on outside those confines, the better.

4 responses

  1. I remember that Chaplin event. I was responsible for the technical presentation and was handed the “permission revoked” letter very late in the day. Pity someone couldn’t have just left it on my desk for me to open the next morning. Thinking about it now, maybe Programme Planning (knowing I was a bit of a maverik) thought I’d show it anyway. I seem to remember Kevin Brownlow (?) urging me to do just that. If it happened now, I’d probably “show and be damned”. Which is probably why I don’t have a job. And I know modesty prevents you from mentioning it, but I think the world should be told that there were those in the audience for your King John performance (who were familiar with the film) and thought that you were better than H Beerbohm Tree. Oh, to have been there!

  2. Welcome to the fascinating world of the film programmer, Luke. Chasing stuff like this was about 20 per cent of my work in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t remember the film, but I’ll never forget the secretary at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who took a call at 5.30 on Friday from our customs brokers saying that the film had arrived and would be through Customs on Saturday morning, just in time to miss its Friday night public showing. She convinced the brokers to get it right away, convinced Customs to have a man work overtime, and convinced a shipper to get it to the Museum before 7.00 for a 7.30 showing. Then there was the “35mm” print of Yojimbo: the distributors had sent a weak 16mm print of this widescreen classic by Akira Kurosawa, and I argued heatedly that they had promised a 35mm print. On the day of the showing, a 35mm print showed up. When inspected, the projectionists called me to take a look: there was a splice on every single shot of the film, from beginning to end. In a film of that length, and in that style, something like 1600 physical splices. We finally figured that the distributor had scrounged around and found the widescreen master print from which 16mm and Academy 35 prints were made: a print for scanning in the laboratory to reduce the width of the frame, shot by shot. Lots of prayers ran with that film in the Remis Auditorium that night. For programmers, in the old days, there were one or two, in a bad time three or four, of these stories a month. The world of DVDs, even more than videotapes, has changed the search for and the physical handling of films dramatically. Not everything is there, by far, but so much IS there, in good or excellent prints, and so easy to reference as historians or writers.

  3. Thanks for the stories Deac, and I hope other might be able to chip in with their own. I should add tales when the film reels have been put in the wrong order, which is fascinating to witness as an audience because you try and rationalise what it is that you are seeing and puzzle how someone who walked out of the picture thirty minutes ago is alive and kicking once more.

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