Cine-tourism

Google Map showing locations of films made in the early 1900s by R.W. Paul in the Muswell Hill and New Southgate area, produced by the Cine-Tourist

My favourite website of the moment is the Cine-Tourist. The site has been created by Roland-François Lack of University College London as a home for his studies into cinema and place. It’s a model example of how to use the Web as a home for research in forms to which the Web is best suited.

The Cine-Tourist, as Lack bills himself, is interested how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically. He demonstrates the interrelationships in a number of engrossing ways. For example, his site has sections on cities: that on Paris has 63 frame grabs from Jacques Rivette’s Paris s’en va (1981), identifying the specific locations; that on London has a series of frame grabs rather playfully showing maps that appear in films depicting police stations. That all sounds rather little bit trainspotter-ish, but in practice pinpointing the specifics of place somehow deepens the sense of depth in a film, in the way that it always leads our imagination away from the literal.

This is made clearer in the Cine-Tourist’s blog, The Daily Map, which posts daily frame grabs from a wide range of films, each showing a map significantly positioned in the background, often with an engrossing quotation underneath, from studies of image, place and cultural history. Several of the examples so far are from silent films, as in this frame still from Jean Epstein’s La chute de la Maison Usher (1928):

‘The face is a map’: frame still from La chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

There are other elements to the site, including thoughts on methodologies, a biographical account of his local cinemas, links and a helpful bibliography of “books and essays that read maps in films or films through maps or films as maps …” But I want to draw particular attention to the section Local filmmaker: local film subjects. The Cine-Tourist lives in the Muswell Hill area of London, and one hundred years ago the area was home and workspace for British pioneer filmmaker Robert W. Paul.

Paul lived and maintained a studio and film laboratories in the Muwsell Hill and New Southgate areas. The Cine-Tourist has photographed the intriguingly mundane buildings that were Paul’s homes in the area, but then has studied Paul’s films closely (both those extant and lost films nevertheless indentifiable to a degree through catalogues) and matched locations to film scenes. So far, this is much like the work done by John Bengtson at his Silent Locations blog (recently reported on by the Bioscope). The Cine-Tourist however goes further by subjecting the images to greater topographical and filmographical analysis, and by mapping the locations of some of Paul’s films of the 1900s onto Google Maps, as demonstrated at the top of this post. From this map you can go to the locations specific films, which you can additionally view on Street View or as a satellite view. Additional links take you to detailed information on Paul’s domestic and professional addresses, with further links to the London Project database on pre-First World War film businesses in London.

Robert Paul’s 1903 home ‘Malvern’, now the ‘Muswell Hill Food & Wine’,”the shop to which I go for last-minute, late-night supplies of wine and sundries” (the Cine-Tourist)

This isn’t just a piece of diverting local history. It links up the personal to the professional to the geographical to the Web. Lack begins with himself as London resident, or London traveller; traces his personal history of filmgoing and filmwatching in London (and other cities); documents this through the films in which people are themselves mapped in various ways; then brings all this together into a website which links out again to the greater world of film studies, area studies, and the co-ordinates of place in general. What it may all signify in the end, I couldn’t tell you exactly – but the journey is engrossing.

The Cine-Tourist is an example of an increasing trend in the scholarly study of the mysteries of place. Its inspiration goes back to the flâneur of 19th century Paris, the man in the crowd who was a part of the city yet by perambulating through it was somehow distanced from it, as Baudelaire described:

To be away from home and yet to find oneself everywhere at home, to be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.

The flâneur is a reader of the city through which he passes. Other inspirations for what has become a modern movement are Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and the ‘situationist’ Guy Debord, who came up with the somewhat loose term ‘psychogeography’ often used to describe such preoccupations. Most recently there is the London writer Iain Sinclair, author of such richly allusive works as London Orbital (a tour of the M25 which circumnavigates London) and Lights out for the Territory, works to be found placed prominently in the London section of many a bookshop, doubtless bewildering the unsuspecting tourists who purchase them. Sinclair, like Debord, is also a filmmaker, and another member of the same ‘school’ is documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller, whose 2007 exhibition placing images from early films onto the same locations today was covered by the Bioscope.

What is interesting is how such ramblings (literally so) have found their natural home on the Web; indeed are being encouraged by the Web, which by its very nature brings together that association of ideas that psychogeography seeks to achieve. Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, OpenStreetMap (a free, editable world map), HistoryPin (mapping of people’s historical photos) and Geograph (a project inviting anyone to help document every square kilometre of the UK and Ireland with photographs) each encourage us to explore and share what we have explored.

London Sound Survey‘s mapping of sounds (the orange squares) from the London of today to the Booth maps of 1898, colour-coded to show levels of welath and poverty

Interestingly, many psychogeographical or semi-pyschogeographical sites are rather bad at using the Web. Among some of the better examples, check out Classic Cafes (London and seaside cafes), Derelict London (the strange poetry of abandoned corners of London), Urban Squares (city squares around the world), Mythogeography (“for walkers, artists who use walking in their art, students who are discovering and studying a world of resistant and aesthetic walking, anyone who is troubled by official guides to anywhere …”) and the excellent London Sound Survey (systematically mapping the city though its sounds).

For silent films, we are fortunate in having two outstanding examples of the use of mapping tools, though neither is strictly psychogeographical in intent. Going to the Show documents the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina to the end of the silent film era, bringing together Sanborn fire insurance maps of the period and Google Maps; while Cinema Context documents cinema-going and films seen in the Netherlands, linking its database records to Google Maps and the Internet Movie Database. Both have been highly praised on these pages before now (see here and here). I shall be writing about Cinema Context again soon. For other such empirical studies of cinemas and their place, see the HOMER project website (though some of the links no longer work).

Roland-François Lack has another blog, The BlowUp moment, dedicated to frame stills showing the use of cameras in films, with a new image daily.

Go explore. Literally so.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 22

United States Food Administration cinema slide from World War One, from Starts Thursday!

Jackie Cooper
Another child star of the silent era has died. Jackie Cooper, who made his first film in 1925 aged three, did not suffer the fate of many child stars in having a an adulthood of disappointing anonymity. Instead after success in the Our Gang series, he continued as a top performer throughout the 1930s, moved on to acting with success on stage and TV, then turned TV executive, won a couple of Emmys for directing, and returned to the screen as the newspaper editor in the Superman films. He died aged 88. Read more.

In competition
A late addition to the films in competition in Cannes has been announced – and it’s a silent film. The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is described as a ‘silent black-and-white period piece about the rise of a young actress and simultaneous fall from grace of a silent movie star around the time that “talking pictures” started being made’. It stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman. Read more (and see clips with interviews – in French – here).

Class, silents and the public sphere
Acknowledgments to the Illuminations blog for this link to a lengthy and engrossing article by Stephen J. Ross (author of Working-Class Hollywood) on class and politics in silent film, first published in 2003. Ross notes: “Between 1905 and April 1917, when American entry into World War I altered the movie industry and the politics of its films in dramatic ways, producers released at least 274 labor-capital productions. Of the 244 films whose political perspectives could be accurately determined, 112 (46 %) were liberal, 82 (34 %) conservative, 22 (9 %) anti-authoritarian, 17 (7 %) populist, and 11 (4 %) radical”. Read more.

Propaganda between reels
A favourite blog of the Bioscope is Starts Thursday!, in which Rob Byrne covers the glass lantern slides that promoted coming attractions in cinemas from the silent era (and beyond). His latest post is a very informative guest piece by PhD candidate Krystina Benson on the American government’s propaganda campagin during WWI one, including its use of film, all handsomely and illuminatingly illustrated by Byrne’s slides. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.