Méliès at the crossroads


As noted in our interview with Matthew Solomon, later this month there is to be a conference on Georges Méliès, news of which I hadn’t picked up on before now. It is to take place 25 July-August 2011 at Cerisy-la-Salle in France. Méliès, carrefour des attractions has been organised by André Gaudreault and Laurent le Forestier, with the support of the Méliès family. It seeks to re-examine Georges Méliès’ position in early cinema history, whether as a precursor of subsequent developments in narrative cinema, spectacle, science fiction etc, or whether he is better understood as a product of the social, economic and legal practices of his time.

The conference will comprise a mixture of academic papers and screenings. The only information available on its contents is in French, which will be the dominant language at the conference, but here is the line-up of speakers and papers:

Lundi 25 juillet

Présentation du Centre, du colloque et des participants

Mardi 26 juillet
André GAUDREAULT: La cinématographie-attraction chez Méliès: une conception durable
Laurent LE FORESTIER: Le point de vue du monsieur de L’Orchestre: la place des “films” de Méliès dans les programmes de spectacles

Patrick DÉSILE: Trucs de théâtre et trucs de cinéma. Essai d’inventaire et d’interprétation
Réjane HAMUS-VALLÉE: La sauce et le poisson: pour une esthétique de l’effet mélièsien

Lectures de lettres, par Elisabeth SERMAN et Sylvain SOLUSTRI, présentées par Jacques MALTHÊTE

Projection de films

Mercredi 27 juillet
Jacques MALTHÊTE: L’appentis sorcier de Montreuil-sous-Bois
Jean-Pierre SIROIS-TRAHAN: La scène réfractée au travers de la lentille de Georges Méliès

Jean-Pierre BERTHOMÉ: Les décors de Méliès
Martin BARNIER: Le son féerique de Méliès

Présentation des publications récentes

Projection de films

Jeudi 28 juillet
Matthew SOLOMON: Méliès, Incohérent
Frédéric TABET: Méliès, le magicien et les magiciens


Vendredi 29 juillet
Laurent GUIDO: Entre performance scénique et ciné-chorégraphie, les avatars de la danse chez Méliès
Priska MORRISSEY: Femmes-papillons et diables en collants: les costumes des vues de Georges Méliès

Giusy PISANO & Caroline RENOUARD: Méliès et la lanterne magique
Rae Beth GORDON: Voir double: le fondu enchaîné et le regard sidéré du spectateur

Lectures de lettres, par Elisabeth SERMAN et Sylvain SOLUSTRI, présentées par Jacques MALTHÊTE
Spectacle de magie, par Frédéric TABET

Samedi 30 juillet
Frank KESSLER & Sabine LENK: Méliès et la série culturelle de la féerie
Stéphane TRALONGO: Georges Méliès et les faiseurs de féeries. Pour une histoire des échanges entre théâtre et cinématographe

Caroline CHIK: Arrêt de caméra et photographie animée
Pierre CHEMARTIN & Dominique NOUJEIM: Méliès et Cohl: transformations, métamorphoses et disparitions

Spectacle de magie, par Sylvain SOLUSTRI

Dimanche 31 juillet
Elena DAGRADA: Entre astronomie et astrologie, ou de l’anthropomorphisation des astres
Nicolas DULAC: Méliès et les fictions de la science

Viva PACI: Les visions d’un scientifique récalcitrant
Wanda STRAUVEN: Une lecture média-archéologique de l’œuvre de Georges Méliès (ou: Méliès, un praticien SM?)

Projection de films

Lundi 1er août
Philippe GAUTHIER & Santiago HIDALGO: Georges Méliès dans l’historiographie des premiers temps
François ALBERA: Synthèse du colloque


The conference site has abstracts for each of the papers (in French).

There is further information, also in French, at something else that is new to me – what is billing itself as the official Georges Méliès site (www.melies.eu). On quick inspection it contains a biography, a rudimentary filmography (without catalogue numbers), a family tree (handy), links and entertaining associated information (including a listing of the remarkable number of French streets named after Méliès – can any other filmmaker have been so recognised?), bibliography, news and images.

The site has been put together by Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès, who (the family tree tells us) is Méliès’ great-great-granddaughter. It isn’t anywhere near the great, comprehensive and useful website that an artist of Méliès’ standing ought to have by now, but it’s maybe a little better than what has gone before. If only there was as much attention paid to Méliès by our website builders as there has been by France’s road builders.

The Bioscope interviews … Matthew Solomon

Matthew Solomon

We’re going introduce a new feature here at the Bioscope. It’s our first interview, and it’s intended to be the start of series of interviews with people involved in one way or another with silent film and related areas.

Our debut interviewee is Matthew Solomon. Solomon is Associate Professor in the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He is the author of the award-winning Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and the editor of the recent Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (SUNY Press, 2011), which focusses on that single film from 1903. The interview covers Fantastic Voyages, Le voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon itself, magic in cinema, and man of the moment Georges Méliès.

TB: How did the book Fantastic Voyages come about?

MS: About the time I was finishing the first draft of the manuscript of Disappearing Tricks, I realized there was a lot to say about Méliès that had nothing to do with magic. Editing an anthology seemed like a good way to explore that further while also keeping busy during the long stretches of time when the process of publishing Disappearing Tricks was out of my hands. I also wanted to see if a single early film could be a viable subject for a book-length treatment. I like reading and teaching books that look closely at one specific film, but I had never seen such a book written about a film made before 1914. I knew I’d need a lot of help and luckily a number of people whose work I admire were willing to be part of the book and make it what it is.

TB: Please describe the book for the readers of the Bioscope.

MS: The contributors to Fantastic Voyages closely analyze A Trip to the Moon from a number of different perspectives while exploring its connections to countless other works in many different media. While the book relates the film to Méliès’s oeuvre and firmly anchors it within the historical contexts of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, it also tries to open it up to other kinds of relationships and contexts that might suggest why A Trip to the Moon has had such a long and varied ‘afterlife’, one that continues right up to the present day. It is a highly international volume, with contributors from some eight different countries. The appendix includes a dossier of primary-source documents, including two previously un-translated essays by Méliès, and the book is published with a critical edition DVD.

TB: How did the DVD extra come about?

MS: Two of the big issues that emerged for me in researching the book were the ways that truncated prints and projection speed have shaped our understanding of A Trip to the Moon. What I found was that the film has been seen throughout much of its history in versions that were missing part or all of the last two scenes. And even though Méliès’s catalogs specify a running time of sixteen minutes, which comes out to about 14 frames per second, all available versions of the film had been transferred at a much higher frame rate, which speeds the action up by close to 100% in some cases and results in a frenetic pace that was likely never intended. I wanted to make a complete version of A Trip to the Moon available at the specified speed and I got that opportunity when the book was being prepared to go to press. Charlie Johnston, a film editor with Lost Planet New York, got interested in the project and made creation of the DVD possible. We began by scanning a reconstructed 35mm print generously loaned from the collections of Film Preservation Associates by David Shepard. Simultaneously, Nico de Klerk discovered a previously unknown color-tinted and German-titled version of A Trip to the Moon in Amsterdam. The Eye Film Institute scanned the print and consented to have it included. Musical accompaniment was by Martin Marks, who recorded a 1903 score he had discovered in London, and Donald Sosin, whose original music for the tinted version ended up being one of the highlights of the disc.

TB: There are many different interpretations of A Trip to the Moon in Fantastic Voyages. Which one surprised you most?

MS: I was surprised by at least one thing in each of the essays — an overlooked detail, a new understanding, a previously unmentioned connection, or a relevant contemporary work. Those surprises were one of the pleasures of working with such a knowledgeable and smart group of collaborators, whose contributions demonstrate that maybe we didn’t know A Trip to the Moon as well as we thought we did.

The iconic moment when the lunar capsule lands in the Moon’s eye, from A Trip to the Moon/Le voyage dans la lune

TB: Why was A Trip to the Moon so popular in 1903?

MS: One defining feature of A Trip to the Moon which made it so popular was the way it drew upon so many things circulating in the culture around 1902-1903 that would have been familiar to audiences: the Jules Verne book, of course, the Offenbach operetta, a ride that was the hit of the 1901 Buffalo World’s Fair, as well as countless other works discussed in the book. It was also a compelling storyline and a virtuoso display of the most current visual effects by the undisputed master of the trick film. Méliès was a gifted synthesizer and this film is evidence of his ability to combine diverse elements into a coherent and engaging spectacle.

TB: Why is A Trip to the Moon so important today? Why has it lasted?

MS: On one hand, A Trip to the Moon is important today because it is part of the canon — a film that gets viewed and taught as a historically important work. This is itself the result of a process that began with its rediscovery at the end of the 1920s, one which I explore in my introduction to the book. On the other hand, A Trip to the Moon continues to be an important film because it resists singular interpretation and instead lends itself to constant reinvention. When it was first rediscovered, it retroactively became a surrealist film, just as it retroactively became an early work of science fiction when that genre proliferated a few decades later. More recently, as Viva Paci points out in the last chapter of the book, Méliès’s aesthetic has been readily appropriated in music videos that give new life to A Trip to the Moon. It is a film that seems to have aged well, becoming fresh and relevant in different ways over the years.

TB: Why was there such a strong relationship between magic and illusion and early cinema?

MS: Magicians were one of the first professional groups to really recognize the potential of the cinematograph and to begin to exploit some of its possibilities. Méliès was among these turn-of-the-century magicians, of course, and he remained committed to the core principles of magic, as I discuss in Disappearing Tricks. Viewers as well as filmmakers understood film as an illusion partly since moving pictures were often screened as part of magic shows. This is just how A Trip to the Moon was first presented to viewers in Paris in September 1902 at Méliès’s magic theatre. A major draw of the film would have been its trick shots—the moon’s approach, the dream sequence, the exploding Selenites, the underwater shots—all of which were cutting-edge visual effects at the time.

TB: Are the films of Georges Méliès still ‘magical’ today?

MS: I contend they are. Méliès’s films still have the capacity to deceive us: we know that what we’re seeing is an illusion, that we’re being tricked, but we may not know just how it was done — which is not all that different from how the films were received in 1902. For many years, one of Méliès’s primary tricks went by the name of the ‘stop-camera effect’, even though Jacques Malthête pointed out thirty years ago that all these tricks involved editing as well as simply stopping and restarting of the camera. Méliès actually cut, or edited, his films to create the appearances, disappearances, and immediate transformations we see. Yet, this crucial part of the operation, the ‘substitution splice’ as it is sometimes called, often seems to have gone undetected. Likewise, by looking closely at A Trip to the Moon, one discovers that several scenes that appear to be simple straightforward long takes are actually made up of separate shots that were very carefully choreographed and seamlessly matched together. The magician of Montreuil can still trick us, more than a hundred years later.

A captive Selenite on earth, from the final scene of A Trip to the Moon

TB: Is A Trip to the Moon really a satire on imperialism, as is argued in the book? Aren’t we a little guilty of imposing our idea of how films work onto a film which audiences would have read very differently in 1903?

MS: A Trip to the Moon is a lot of things, and a satire is one of them. The last two scenes, which are missing from so many prints (including most now circulating on the Internet) really make this clear. The medal ceremony with all of the posturing by the explorers, who have been so inept and violent; the captured Selenite on a leash that is beaten with a stick until it dances for the cheering crowd; and the statue of the conqueror Barbenfouillis with his foot firmly planted on the head of an unhappy vanquished moon: all that points to a highly ironic take on exploration and, with it, imperialism. We have to remember that Méliès was a political cartoonist as well as an illusionist before he started making films. The ‘magician of Montreuil’ was not nearly as innocuous as he has been made out to be in retrospect. I certainly wouldn’t claim that movies are viewed in the same way today as they were in 1902 or 1903, but contemporary audiences may in fact be less attentive to detail than the viewers of Méliès’s time, who were in the habit of reading and interpreting images dense with meaning like political caricatures much more carefully than most of us do today. During the 1890s, for example, commentators on Lumière films drew attention to leaves fluttering in the wind in the background, but this detail passes unnoticed today. If you slow down A Trip to the Moon to 14 frames per second, as we did on the DVD, and really look carefully at what is happening onscreen, you notice there’s a whole lot more to it than a compelling story and a clever series of visual effects.

TB: 2011 is turning out to be a remarkable year for Georges Méliès, with the colour restoration, the Hugo Cabret film to come – and of course your book. And we have had exhibitions and the Flicker Alley DVD releases. Why is there so much interest in Méliès just now?

MS: Yes, Méliès is getting a lot of attention right now — just in time for the 150th anniversary of his birth. The cluster of Méliès events in 2011 may be partly coincidence. I know that restoration of the hand-colored print of A Trip to the Moon discovered in Spain has been in the works for more than a decade and might well have appeared sooner, just as the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s wonderful book perhaps could have been produced earlier. In addition to Fantastic Voyages, you might also note the Méliès conference taking place later this month in Cerisy-la-Salle. But most importantly, the level of interest in Méliès would not be what it is now if not for the long-awaited entry of his work into the public domain a year-and-a-half ago, which more or less coincided with the release of the Flicker Alley DVDs. The timing has worked in favor of Méliès’s legacy: given his preference for the short form and his skill in staging virtual onscreen environments, Méliès’s work seems more prescient than ever right now.

TB: Fantastic Voyages seems to suggest that film studies is no longer enough if we are to appreciate such a film as A Trip to the Moon? Is film studies changing, or does it need to change?

MS: I hope the book demonstrates the value of treating cinema as a part of a much broader set of cultural practices while remaining attentive to the specifics of individual films. This is something that historians of early cinema have become accustomed to doing because so much contextual and intertextual knowledge is sometimes needed simply to make sense of the films. Film studies has become more inclusive and interdisciplinary, I think, and we can see some of the ways the field has changed by comparing the essays in Fantastic Voyages to accounts of A Trip to the Moon in earlier books, where it was often mentioned only as a forerunner of narrative cinema. Although I certainly wouldn’t deny this, such a narrow view centered on storytelling seems rather impoverished when one considers the true richness of the film and the diverse contexts that helped to generate it.

TB: What is your next project going to be?

MS: I’m working on a study of Méliès that examines his work as it cut across the various media in which he worked during his career, including (but not limited to) caricature, cinema and theater. While Méliès was undoubtedly a multi-media auteur, I’m ultimately less interested in his singular genius and vision than in using archival research and close examinations of his work to explore the ways that images and performances were staged, politicized, manipulated, commodified, circulated and exchanged in particularly modern ways during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

TB: Thank you.

Media and cultural memory – day three

I have two definitions of history which I keep coming back to in my mind.

1. History is what was known once but has been forgotten.

2. History is the present’s interpretation of the past.

Time and again historical questions, interpretations and hypotheses involve trying to recover something that was common knowledge. Equally, history can only be seen through our ever-changing eyes. The history we understand now is not what those tomorrow will understand.

All of which makes the idea of history and cultural memory a bit nebulous. If history is about forgetfulness and re-interpretation, then remembrance has little to with it, and the memories of others are theirs alone.

But we press on.

Day three of the Iamhist conference on the above theme, and the last day for me, though conference and events continue to Sunday. Nothing among the 9am parallel sessions immediately grabs me, but I think I’ll go for New Media, New Memory – three papers piquantly bringing together pirate radio, the Bible, and the Tea Party.

10.20 – Efficient paper from David Dault on ideologically-biased Bible commentaries (e.g. explaining that the invitation to share all your goods is not an invitation to communism) which seemed to belong to a different conference entirely.

Chirpy paper by A.W. Badenoch on pirate radio, mostly a critique of The Boat that Rocked for misremembering Radio Caroline. Do films ever remember anything correctly? What is a correct memory anyway?

Katy Scrogin on the Tea Party’s use of new media to disremember. Depressing account of ideology run riot. History as the past reinterpreted by the present in extremis. Or a denial of any sort of history at all. I guess their belief in interpretation overriding historical fact makes them cultural theorists of a kind.

You fear that the media have failed, because fundamentally they cannot communicate truth. But rather they ably reflect human fallibility.

I need to escape into the past. I need a paper on newsreels.

12.25 – Somewhat disappointing paper on Swedish newsreels which announced work to come rather than work done. Lively paper by Scott Anthony on iconography of Imperial Airways, though not quite sure how it connects with memory.

Jo Fox gave authoritative, clear paper on the self-myth making of the British documentary movement, revisiting their 1930s’ work as an ideal for engaging with the working man and helping to change society. They were driven to myth and overstatement because they were arguing their case in the face of a sceptical comissioning body (Ministry of Information) which was probably more interested in results. Did they really believe documentary would be fundamental to building post-war Britain? Such vanity.

13.15 – Now this is going to be fun – keynote from Richard Howells on the Titanic and modern memory. Just what’s needed at this stage of things – a star turn.

17.50 – An entertaining deconstruction of all things Titanic, pointing out that in historical terms its sinking is little more than a footnote, but in mythological terms it retains huge importance. The myth-building began almost as soon as it sank (witness the fakery in newsreel from the time), and has changed according to need, from early patriotic interpretation, to nationalist (the Nazi film version), to liberated Rose in James Cameron’s avowedly historically accurate version.

We learned lots about Titanic merchandise, including teatowels, sinking bathpugs, and cheese. Our ‘memories’ (there are no surviving survivors) are all so post-modern, it’s too easy to forget that there was a real tragedy, with real people dying.

From multimedia myth to memories of cinemagoing, using evidence from the time or derived after the event though interviews. I chaired a session with microhistories from Guy Barefoot (Leicester), Lies Van de Vijver (Ghent) and Kathleen Lotze (Antwerp), all fine examples of what sometimes gets called the new cinema history – empirical evidence, databases, sociological questions, films as something seen by people. Right up the Bioscope’s street.

17.20 – I’m now journeying back to find that street once more. Maybe more thoughts later.

20.20 (UK time) – Back home (Gatwick is starting to feel like home). Do I have any more thoughts? Cultural memory is a con, at least where history of the usual sort is concerned. Like personal memory, it’s about what a society wants to have happened rather than what did. Of course history is all about interpretation in any case, but not the interpretation by society. History is made by historians – by people who know what they are doing. That’s why bodies like Iamhist are important and why conferences such as this are important. They are essential means for discovering the truth. It is good to explore cultural myths and memories, but the truth is our anchor.

And now I’m going settle down with my newspaper and read all about the sorry end of The News of the World.

Good night.

Media and cultural memory – day two

And here we are on day two of the Iamhist conference, on the theme of Media and cultural memory. First up is a parallel session on Memory and World War I, right up my street and I’m chairing it. Best to put down the Blackberry – it won’t look so good.

10.55 – Three interesting papers on memory and World War I, each in its way looking at how the visual archive has served as commemorative evidence. Sheena Scott on fleeting images of disabled soldiers in French cinema of 1920s/30s. Are there so few because the French repressed it or because it didn’t appeal to a filmgoing public? There is nothing like Lucky Star in the US.

Roel vande Winkel on With Our Troops on the Yser (1928/29), war footage repurposed by Flemish nationalists for propagandist ends, with emphasis of gruesome death that you wouldn’t get in commercial cinema.

Leen Engelen on the interesting theme of picture postcards of Edith Cavell and Belgian-born heroine, also executed by the Germans, Gabrielle Page. Statues as one form of visual commemoration turned into another, postcards.

11.20 – Another session, another war – now it’s WW2. Brian Petersen on Danish resistance movies – made after the war, fairly obviously. Particularly Three Years After (1948) on a disillusioned former resistance fighter. A commercial flop for telling audiences what they did not wish to hear.

Wendy Burke on heroes and villains in Dutch war-themed films 1962-1986. Refreshing to have someone from one country speaking about another. It would be interesting to have a rule for film conferences saying that no one can give a paper about their home nation. What new things we might learn.

Here film moves from ideas of goed (good, noble) and fout (bad, collaborationist) to the grey area where many actually lived. Yet there were no Dutch films about the war 1951-61 and only two in the 1960s. The Silent Raid (1962) has all Dutch working collaboratively for the resistance. Long wait til Soldier of Orange (1977) which shows a more complex picture of resistance and collaboration. Some have to collaborate to avoid worse for themselves or loved ones. It took over 30 years for Dutch film to face up to such truths. We can accept more the further we are away from it, in place and time. Inevitably.

Ilse Raaijmakers on commemoration of the war in Dutch newspapers. Dutch had no recent experience of war so had to learn for new the art of commemoration. They established a national liberation day which no one much followed, so they stopped it being a public holiday in 1954, at which point everyone (insofar as newspapers can mean everyone) protested. So newspapers drove it to become a national holiday again in 1955.

13.05 – Things going well so far. So many pitfalls with the theme of memory, let alone the yawning vagueness of cultural memory, but Iamhist types know how to steer through such territory.

13.20 – Now for keynote from Christine Becker, winner of Iamhist book prize for It’s the Pictures that Got Small, a really excellent work on film stars keeping their careers going on US 1950s TV. Yours truly was one of the judges so I know. Do read it. Wise, revelatory, comprehensively researched and a pleasure to read.

Gee, she talks even more quickly than I do when giving papers. And she’s speeding up …

Entertaining account of the research process focussing on the perils and pleasures of using interview material. Eternal watchfulness needed, but sometimes people do actually speak the verifiable truth. Also the challenges of dealing with those who didn’t want to remember.

A good talk. Sort of a masterclass on conducting research and turning it into publication. I think it will have inspired an audience member or two.

14.30 – Now three papers on new media history. First up, Berber Hagedoorn on Dutch multi-platform TV and history. Focus on rescreening of archival TV – catch-up, online archives, open media platforms (YouTube) etc.

Example of In Europehttp://ineuropa.nl – TV series, website, virtual atlas, blog, radio broadcasts, user contributions. TV keeps the memories alive, archives on their own don’t. Discuss.

Nice, optimistic paper.

14.50 – Krisitan Handberg offers us the phrase “digital yesterland”. Who will thank him?

Agh, Yesterland exists – it’s a virtual theme park.

The retro boom of today. An obsession with the past beyond the domain of history. Is there more to the past than history? I must ponder this.

Retro is always a gesture, never total recall. It’s us playing with the past.

Perhaps we look so much to the past because we no longer look to the future.

15.15 – Sian Barber on EU Screen, the TV equivalent to European Film Gateway reported on last week. Aims to offer 35,000 open access items from European TV. That’s what 5M euros buys you. I’m greatly impressed by these ambitious, idealistic, rigorous projects, but I don’t know who they are for. Has anyone asked for a selective portal to European archival TV? Is this creating a shared heritage that doesn’t exist, or does it exist only we haven’t thought about it much, or will it now have to exist because we have created a platform for it?

16.20 – How politely the Danes are addressing us all in English. At the end of paper sessions they ask questions of one another in a foreign tongue when in their own land.

16.25 – Danish filmmaker Neils Vest introduces his documentary about Copenhagen’s squatters’ ‘free city’ Christiania.

To live outside the law you must be honest, as the great man sang.

18.55 – Hmm, the free life looks like it has about as much hassle as the unfree one, and they sing such terrible songs. Now by a canal listening to Danish trad jazz band play ‘It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing’. And now it’s time for supper and society.


Media and cultural memory – day one

So here we are on day one of the Iamhist conference, being held at the University of Copenhagen, on the theme of ‘media and cultural memory’. It’s so broad a theme that practically anything could be made to fit somehow, so long as it covers the media and history – for what is history but cultural memory in any case?

09.45 – Sitting on a bench on the immaculately clean and clean-cut university campus, glorious weather abounding. Have breakfasted with fellow inmates at the comically plain hotel (rooms just above prison cell status, but not much). Now for a Iamhist council meeting, once I have grasped the cryptic directions given to me.

14.10 – The council was what council meetings have a tendency to be. Now after lunch in the sunshine we are looking to kick off the conference with formal introductions, just as soon as the chaos in the registration queue is sorted out … and we’re ready.

14.15 – The dean of faculty of humanities hasn’t heard of Nordisk. So much for Danish cultural memory …

14.25 – Roundtable on memory and museums with Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Raye Farr (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), Suzanne Bardgett (Imperial War Museum).

15.25 – Christensen economically gives same presentation as he did in Bologna. The mechanics of sustaining film archives in a digital age. What is a digital object/original? “History can only be truly trusted if the primary documents survive unaltered”. That’s subtle – you can write history with digital surrogates, but our archives and museums must preserve the originals, or we have no history worth writing.

That’s sort of right. But film archiving is all about copying. I guess it’s that we must always be able to determine provenance – the memory of what the object (now digital) once was.

15.45 – Much discussion of importance of capturing first person testimony, but I wonder if our compulsion for collecting oral history is greater than the actual wish we have to consult this. Ultimately the only memories we have are our own.

16.45 – Parallel session on radio and sound history, and Foucault gets his first mention. It won’t be the last.

16.20 – And now Derrida. The speaker asks Whither spectrality? Whither transindividualtion? Search me. I have Archive Fever on my bookshelves but I don’t know of any archivist who has read it.

16.40 – LARM audiovisual research project, which is generating one million hours of Danish radio. Wow. Might there be a case for having too much memory? Recordings from 1931 onwards. Aims to stream sounds to researchers to their own computers and mobiles. 3.35M euros project grant.

Power of radio to give illusion of proximity to an event. How are they overcoming the copyright issues? (It’s for HE users only, and covered by licence) And how extensively do they expect it to be used?

17.05 – Third speaker from this same project on how to deal methodologically with radio recordings that no longer exist. When secondary sources (scripts etc) become primary sources.

Intriguing observation – analogue archives offer potentially infinite information, digital archives are closer to a finite amount of information.

Fascinating project. I hope it gets the use to match its potential. Researchers struggle so much with audio archives – more so than film. It’s the curse of the time-based medium, it takes time to listen to it.

17.45 – Looking forward to this – Stephen Badsey on Media, Memory, and the Transformation of First World War History. Keynote given in memory of the late Phil Taylor, a great historian of media and propaganda.

20.55 – It was a terrific talk from Steve Badsey (ex IWM and Sandhurst, now at Wolverhampton). On military history v cultural history, and pretty withering about the latter. Essentially military historians have revised all the sentimental ideas about WWI (the pity of war, lions led by donkeys etc), but until recently cultural historians have been more interested in the myth than the reality, while the popular idea remains rooted in poets and O What a Lovely War.

It’s rare to hear a talk which would go down as effectively with a general audience as with an academic one. Some gems I noted down:

  • Think of all those who did well out of the war: Hollywood producers, Irish nationalists, British women over 30 (who got the vote)
  • There were two Western Fronts – the one of literary/cultural theory, and the one of military history
  • Not everyone appreciates the fact as yet that you can be interested in military history and yet not be a murderous psychopath
  • For many soldiers their frontline experience was better than they knew at home, and with the risk of violent death possibly less

Also he spoke about the increased appreciation of visual media (including film) as evidence, a heartening trend that has grown as access has grown. We archivists just have to keep on making more available.

Good chats over dinner about access to scholarly journals online, repairs to the Little Mermaid, Foyle’s War, the necessity of having Journey’s End on DVD, and the possibility of newsreel footage proving that the Titanic never sank …

More on the morrow in another post.

Iamhist in Copenhagen

If it’s Tuesday it must be Copenhagen. Yes, your jet-setting scribe had no sooner returned from Bologna then he was off on his professional travels once again, this time to attend the Iamhist conference (Iamhist being the International Association for Media and History), on the engrossing theme of ‘media and cultural memory’. Some of it will touch on silent film subjects, some of it will relate to general film history, and other bits probably won’t have all that much relevance at all but, heck, we’ll report on them anyway. It’s all knowledge.

So, as before, I’ll be doing live blogging on the conference with my trusty Blackberry, updating what will be daily posts with relevant stuff as it happens. So expect posts on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Information on the conference, with the provisional programme, is here.

I hope you’ll enjoy following it all.

100 silent films

Who can resist a list? Everyone loves to take part in top ten lists of this or top 100s of that, pitting personal preference against the canon. Debates on which are the top silent films, be they box office (a contentious areas given the unreliability of data from the silent era), most popular or most esteemed. The Silent Era website maintains a top 100 silent films based on votes supplied by visitors to the site. It comes across as a mixture of popularity and critical esteem, and the top ten (as of today, but they haven’t changed much in ages) has a stale familiarity about it:

1. The General (USA 1926), d. Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
2. Metropolis (Germany 1927), d. Fritz Lang
3. Sunrise (USA 1927), d. F.W. Murnau
4. City Lights (USA 1931), d. Charles Chaplin
5. Nosferatu (Germany 1922), d. F.W. Murnau
6. The Gold Rush (USA 1925), d. Charles Chaplin
7. La passion et la mort de Jeanne d’Arc (France 1928), d. Carl Theodor Dreyer
8. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920), d. Robert Wiene
9. Bronenosets ‘Potyomkin’ (USSR 1925), d. Sergei M. Eisenstein
10. Greed (USA 1924), d. Erich von Stroheim

All great films, and all films that you would recommend to anyone first getting interested in silent films and wanting to know what to see. But there is no surprise.

Very different is 100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon, just published by Palgrave Macmillan/BFI, and one of a series of books recommending 100 moving image titles in a variety of genres. Dixon points out in her introduction that silent film is not a genre – it is the first thirty or so years of cinema and embraces almost all genres – and also makes it clear that her 100 films and not the 100 best, but rather 100 titles which represent the breadth as well as the greatness of the type.

It’s certainly an idiosyncratic list of films, each of which is described across a couple of pages, and arranged alphabetically by title to avoid any sense of a top 100. These are silent films to see because it will be an adventure to do so. There are the familiar warhorses, of course – all bar one of the top ten above are represented (City Lights is the casualty) – but what one notices far more are the choices that delight or intrigue: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (Germany 1919), William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (USA 1928), Sun Yu’s Daybreak (China 1933), Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley’s Suspense (USA 1913), Yakov Protazanov’s The Queen of Spades (Russia 1916), Tomu Uchida’s Policeman (Japan 1933), Joris Ivens’ Rain (Netherlands 1929), or Henri Frescourt’s Monte Cristo (France 1929).

Dixon is a strong advocate of British silent film, and fifteen of the titles were produced in Britain, which might raise an eyebrow or two. But it’s hard to disagree much with the choices, from James Williamson’s iconic The Big Swallow (1901), to Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Arthur Robison’s The Informer (1929), Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) or Walter Summer’s overlooked masterpiece of drama-documentary The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Alfred Butterworth & Sons, leaving the works, Glebe Mills, Hollinwood (Mitchell & Kenyon 1901)

Dixon is keen to demonstrate the full breadth of of silent film, so there is a lot more here than the traditional feature film. She includes advertising films (The Spirit of his Forefathers, c. 1900), newsreels (Topical Budget 93-1 The Derby, 1913 – the ‘suffragette’ derby), and actualities, such as Mitchell & Kenyon’s Alfred Butterworth & Sons, leaving the works, Glebe Mills, Hollinwood (1901). There are assorted magical early cinema titles from Gaston Velle, Albert Capellani and Georges Méliès (Voyage à travers l’impossible rather than Voyages dans la lune). And there are examples of the avant garde (Manhatta), documentary (Drifters), propaganda (The Battle of the Somme), animation (Winsor McCay’s How a Mosqutio Operates) and even natural history (Oliver Pike’s Les hôtes de l’air). There’s even one token modern silent, Guy Maddin’s delirious The Heart of the World (Canada 2000).

And so on. What makes the book successful, however, is not really its eclecticism and disdain for established classics (though one senses one or two titles have been included because the publishers insisted upon it). Rather it is the unpretentious, informal style of writing. Dixon knows her subject deeply, but writes as much for the person just starting to explore the field as the afficionado. Jargon is largely banned. It almost reads like a blog. The emphasis is on availability (there are few titles here that aren’t to be found on DVD or online somewhere) and the reader is soon totting up a list of must-see-soon or must-buy-soon titles (I know I have).

In short we have as good an introductory guide to silent film as you might hope to find, one calculated to please the newcomer and the expert. No one will agree with all of Dixon’s choices, but no one will be the poorer for seeking out each one of them. It’s just the pocket-book guide needed to accompany the resurgence of interest in silent film we’ve witnessed in the past few years.

Now if you’d asked me to name 100 silent films, well…

European Film Gateway

Carl Dreyer’s Der Var Engang (1922), available in extract form via the European Film Gateway

And so, after reporting for the past two days on a symposium on film archives in the digital age held to mark the launch of the European Film Gateway, it’s time to introduce the Gateway itself.

The European Film Gateway, or EFG, is a European Union-funded intiative which aims to provide a gateway to European film heritage in digital form. The EFG doesn’t hold any such digital content itself, nor has it paid for for any films or other artefacts to be digitised to serve the EFG. It simply points to content that is already out there, on the websites of individual archives, bringing scattered information into one place for the benefit of you and me.

There are sixteen contributing archives (along with other partners), though fourteen are currently listed on the site: Cinecittà Luce (Rome), Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema (Lisbon), Det Danske Filminstitut (Copenhagen), Deutsches Filminstitut – DIF e.V. (Frankfurt), EYE Film Instituut Nederland (Amsterdam), Filmarchiv Austria (Vienna), Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen arkisto (Helsinki), La Cinémathèque française (Paris), Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern (Berne), Lietuvos Centrinis Valstybės Archyvas (Vilnius), Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum (Budapest), Národní filmový archiv (Prague), Nasjonalbiblioteket (Oslo), Tainiothiki tis Ellados (Athens). Not quite every member state of the European Union is represented, and the UK is conspicuous by its absence, though I understand that the Imperial War Museum will be contributing at a further stage in the EFG’s development. The leading contributors so far are Italy’s Archivio Luce, the Danish Film Archive, and the Deutsches Filminstitut.

What you get is, as of this moment, access to 391,229 digital objects, compising 23,390 videos, 357,452 images and 10,387 texts. Films are primarily non-fiction (newsreels, documentaries etc), but some fiction films can be found; the extensive range of images covers a extensive range of cinema history (most names that I typed in brought up something); and the documents include newspaper cuttings, scripts, censorship records, digitised books and so on.

Searching is a bit on the basic side. There is no advance search option, so there is no way that I’ve been able to discover that lets you search every film dating before 1930, for example, or all the documents from one particular archive. However, once you have searched for something, there are opportunities to refine your search by archive, medium, date period, or language, so it’s best to search for something, then explore the records thereafter. Frustratingly there is no option to refine searches by genre (say if you wanted to find fiction films only).

However, you can play a trick on the Gateway by searching for “a”, which brings up just about every record. Refining this by film as medium and dates 1900-1929 reveals that there are at least 687 films from the silent period available to view. These include 524 from Det Danske Filminstitut, 91 from Luce, 38 from Tainiothiki tis Ellados, 20 from Filmarchiv Austria, 12 from Národní filmový archiv, and 2 from Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern. All of these films can be found on their respective archives’ websites, some in extract form only. Do note that, though most of the site in English, you will be confronted with Greek, Czech or other foreign language only sections of the site.

Search results on the EFG for ‘Asta Nielsen’

Many of the films and other digital objects are gathered in to collections, which usefully you are allowed to browse. Here are the descriptions from the EFG of some of the collections that relate to our area of silent film:

Cinecittà Luce: Documentary and Short Film Collection 1920-1990
3,000 items from a unique collection of cinematographic non-fiction and fiction works, since the silent film era to our days, black and white and colored, short and long, featuring titles of different topics from history to culture, by a myriad of directors, including, among them the first works of great masters like Rossellini, Antonioni, Comencini, De Seta, and other famous names of Italian filmmaking.

Det Danske Filminstitut: Early Documentary and Fiction Films and Trailers
The collection of the Danish Film Institute available on EFG contains a number of early documentary films, which display the life and look of the Danish society in the period of 1906 to 1940. Among the 300 films are straight depictions of modern production equipment and trade, as well as more propagandistic titles and news items. The over 50 early fiction films available are a raw collection of short films that give an impression of what early audiences were entertained by. In addition, around 700 teaser previews of the films available in the Danish Film Institute’s educational distribution can be found on EFG. The latter collection contains current films that are chosen mainly for their value in education and general audience informative qualities.

Det Danske Filminstitut: The Films by Cinema Pioneer Peter Elfelt
The 77 films by Danish cinema pioneer Peter Elfelt (1866-1931) are not only interesting from a cinematic point of view but they are also unique contemporary documents. As royal court photographer, Elfelt had access to the most important people and events at his time, which is reflected by his films, focusing on Denmark’s high society.

Deutsches Filminstitut: Costume and Set Designers’ Collections
More than 200 set designs and 900 film costume designs, sketches and notes by distinguished German (film) architects Otto Hunte, Walter Reimann and Hans Poelzig and costume designers such as Ali Hubert, Helga Kischkat-Reuter and Irms Pauli can now be accessed via the EFG. Many of the design sketches represent milestones in their field, e.g. the set designs for “Metropolis” (1925/26) or “Der Golem wie er in die Welt kam” (1920).

La Cinémathèque française: Magic Lantern Slides Collection
The Cinémathèque française’s collection of magic lantern slides illustrates the pre-cinema era and contains some of the finest and most well-preserved slides still in existence. A selection of around 1,500 of these hand-painted and photographic unique artworks from France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA covering the 18th century until the 1920s is available on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: Photos of the Triangle Film Corporation
The Triangle Film Corporation existed from 1915 to 1918. Employing directors such as D.W. Griffiths, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet it was on of the largest American production companies at its time. By means of around 1,400 photos of the John E. Allen – Triangle Collection, the history of the company can be retraced.

La Cinémathèque française: The Digital Library Collection
La Cinémathèque française has a precious book collection which retraces the long adventure of the prehistory of the cinema and photographic and film techniques. The approximately 280 books of this collection date back to the 17th century and can be found on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Étienne-Jules Marey Collection
The scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 – 1904) used photographic methods to study the movement of human and animal throughout his life. La cinémathèque offers access to around 400 photos from the estate of Étienne-Jules Marey via EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Muybridge Collection
With the serialisation of photos Eadward Muybridge was one of the first who created the impression of moving images. EFG gives access to about 700 images that emanate from the estate of Muybridge.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Photo Collection
The selection of around 1,000 film stills covers the period from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema to 1947 and includes early films of world famous directors such as Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Poster Collection
Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum contributes aprox. 1,200 film posters, which provide an overview of the Hungarian poster art from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema in 1900 to the 1990s.

Národní filmový archiv: Documentary and Feature Films
The National Czech Film Archive makes eight feature films from the Czech silent film era from 1898 to 1920 available via EFG. An overview of the history of the Czech documentary film provides the collection “Czech Documentary Films”. Up to 200 films from 1898 to 1928 can be viewed on EFG.

Nasjonalbiblioteket: Selected Films
For EFG the Nasjonalbiblioteket gives access to a selection of approx. 350 film works, many of them representing Norwegian cinema from 1900 to 1935. The collection also includes historic advertising films from the 1920s to the 1950s as well as documentary films about Oslo.

Not every film included on the EFG falls into one of these collections (for example, the coy early sex films of Austrian production company Saturn), and as is so often the case with these sorts of resources it helps if you know what you are looking for is going to be there somewhere, because the searching tools don’t always help you completely. But it must be pointed out that the EFG is in a beta phase, with plenty of bugs let to be ironed out. Better functionality, and more content (including some arriving in August) are promised.

The EFG is essentially a feeder site for the European digital library concept, Europeana, previously written about on the Bioscope. There the films and film-related content will be searchable alongside many other kinds of digital objects (the EFG content does not appear to be on Europeana as yet). The EFG has a sister project, EU Screen, which is doing the same job for European television content (no UK content again – are we trying to tell them something?).

The European Film Gateway represents only a tiny fraction of European moving image content, digital or otherwise, and no one can say how it will develop. But it has established a structure for encompassing moving image data from very varied film archive catalogues, through which they hope to be able to point to more and more content, if more archives will take up its all to contribute. And Europeana will certainly continue, gradually biding its time, persuading more and more libraries and archives that it is their European duty to supply ever more content to the giant digital soup. Lucky us.

There is, by the way, a separate European Film Gateway project site, which has more background information on the project itself.