Taxidermist at Work on the Roosevelt Safari Specimens (1911, Smithsonian Institute Archives)
Posting has been slow and infrequent these last couple of weeks, mostly because I am lucky to be on research leave this semester and I have been trying to focus my writing energies elsewhere. At the moment, I am in the middle of revising a chapter that examines the intersection between ethnographic writing and cinema. It begins with the following excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt:
I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle pocket or in the cartridge-bag which one of my gun bearers carried to hold odds and ends. Often, my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I killed, or else waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washings. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle looks.”
Sent from someone’s iPhone (30 May 2011)
A couple of days ago, my colleague Paul Flaig brought a fascinating trend to my attention. In the wake of Hugo and The Artist, a wave of new media applications have emerged that transform (ho-hum) full color and sound video into hi-def mimics of the silent era. See here, here, and here. The “Silent Film Director” app reached a startling 300,000 uploads in April of this year. As Paul pointed out, the reviews and comments on these applications are perhaps strangest of all (esp. for those who have spent years trying to get students excited about silent cinema). Just one example here. “The effects are really cool. You have black and white…”
A fantastic new resource for researchers and teachers of early cinema has just appeared online. The first twelve years of Moving Picture World have been digitized and added to the Media History Digital Library’s “Early Cinema Collection.” From the MHDL:
Moving Picture World was one of the most influential trade papers of the early motion picture industry and the period film historians call cinema’s “transitional era” (lasting roughly from 1908 to 1917). During this era and inside the paper, you can watch the transition from short film programs to feature films and witness the transition from the dominance of Edison’s Trust to the rise of the “Independent” film companies that ultimately became the Hollywood studios.
The first issue includes some “novel uses for cinema,” instructions for making latern slides, a review of The Teddy Bears (Edison, 1907), and a full-page ad from the Miles Brothers (mentioned just last week): “Conversation gets you nothing. Real Johnny-on-the-spot service is what you want!”
The project was funded, in part, by Domitor and its members. For those who are interested in contributing, MHDL is still raising funds to digitize MPW through 1927, its last year of publication.
I just came across this compilation of Helen Hill films from NOLA’s 2010 Timecode festival. The reel includes Madame Winger Makes a Film: A Survival Guide for the 21st Century (around 3:50), as well as a handful of other shorts from the Harvard collection of Helen Hill’s work. I have written about Hill elsewhere and am happy to see some of her films circulating online. Madame Winger is one of my favorite Hill shorts; it encapsulates so much of her (playful, instructive, extraordinary) practice.
On April 21, 2011, a twenty-two-year-old Basque film student named Aitor Gametxo uploaded this remix of D.W. Griffith’s one-reel Sunbeam (1912) to Vimeo:
Variation on the Sunbeam (Aitor Gametxo, 2011)
By the end of August 2011, Variation on the Sunbeam had begun to attract the attention of cinéphiles, professional scholars, and film historians. On August 31, Kevin Lee celebrated the work as “remix video at its best.” On September 5, Kristin Thompson posted the film—in a “bid to help it go viral”—on the blog she shares with David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art. On September 6, Roger Ebert tweeted about Gametxo’s Variation with a hat-tip and link to Thompson and Bordwell. On September 8, Luke McKernan shared the “singularly inventive film” on Bioscope, a blog dedicated to silent cinema.
I just finished a week of amateur films and home movies for a new course I am co-teaching entitled “Cinema and Revolution.” We screened/discussed key films from the post-war American avant-garde (including Brakhage, Mekas, Levine, Menkin) alongside a set of home movies. I wanted students to think about the differences between these two amateur modes, their different expressions of contingency and history, and (perhaps most interesting) their very different conceptions of “home.”
The lectures were nevertheless overshadowed by an unexpected encounter with my own family history. About two weeks ago, a collection called “The Amateur as Auteur” arrived (ordered way back in January). I took a quick look and decided to add the “Stewart Family Home Movies” to the screening list for the week. The films were made between 1936 and 1939, by a film enthusiast named Archie Stewart. I knew the Stewarts were from upstate New York, but did not know anything else about the family or their provenance. As I prepared for lecture, I caught two names that I had missed during my first screening session: Newburgh and Orange Lake.
(Stewart Family Home Movies, 1936-1939)
It seems that I inadvertently assigned my own home movies. My mother was born and raised in Newburgh, New York. Her childhood home is on the shores of Orange Lake. I spent my summers swimming in that very lake and looking out towards Pine Point, the peninsula just behind the unhappy little girls (who must now be in their eighties).
The discovery forced a slight adjustment to the lecture plan. I spent a good deal of time discussing (via Susan Sontag) the affective “surplus” of home movies and those strange, personal histories inscribed, lost, refound upon their surface. The home movie, like the twilight, elegiac art of photography “testifies to time’s relentless melt.”
Adventures on the Upper Nile (American Museum of Natural History, 1927)
This short clip is excerpted from Adventures on the Upper Nile, “a pictorial record of the O’Donnell-Clark African Expedition into the Southern Sudan…for the purpose of securing specimens of the rare giant eland.” The film exemplifies the rhythms of ethnographic cinema: stretches of empty, unproductive duration (waiting, watching, etc.) punctuated by spectacular, but equally unproductive events. In Adventures, these events include animal death/dismemberment, ritual dance, and environmental contingencies. In this particular scene, the boat encounters a series of fires along the shore. But, here, too, the event extends, repeats, stretches out. It is an almost lyrical, meditative encounter, one which brings film material as such to the fore. Here, we are told, birds dive towards the flames for insects. We strain to see this interspecies interaction, but the birds and insects mingle with the deteriorated image, with its burns, scratches, and holes.
A little late to the moon party…
Lobster Films completed its restoration of a hand-colored Voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902) in 2011. The work took twenty years. It is the most expensive restoration in the history of cinema. The print premiered at Cannes with a new soundtrack by Air. It will screen elsewhere this month (and can be found embedded in Scorsese’s 3D homage to Méliès, Hugo). Here, one can see an interview with Serge Bromberg, the Director of Lobster Films, on the acquisition of the print (from Spain). In the interview, Bromberg interestingly claims that the aim of the project was “to promote…and to revive the experience of ‘Trip to the Moon’.” It would be interesting to put some pressure on the ellipses, to hear more about the promotional ends of this particular restoration and the experience promoters hoped to revive. More interesting perhaps, is the way in which the hyper-national restoration, promotion and re-release of the film (from Lobster to Air to Cannes) conceals the transnational circuits that the film travelled before finding its way back to origin stories and national mythologies.
Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska have gathered the remnants of socialist Poland’s amateur film clubs and made this material available under a creative commons license. From their site:
These licenses grant you the right to use, copy, sometimes modify and redistribute any film, text or image that you find of interest here. The most important operational clause within the license is that these rights -to copy, modify and redistribute- must be extended to others. The source material, and all derivative works will become in perpetuity, a legally protected creative resource. Artists and others will be able to use and re-use the material for future creative exchange, enriching rather than depleting the public domain.
It is rare for a virtual archive to be so open, accessible, and self-reflexive (an extension, perhaps, of the counter-forces that made these amateur films possible amid “the breathless flow” of State-sponsored media). The site is available in Polish, English, Spanish, and Basque. Films are streamable, downloadable, remixable. The archive includes extensive notes on the history of the project and Poland’s film clubs. Interviews with the amateur filmmakers and film club members available here, along with a handful of essays on the cultural, political, and art/film-historical questions that these images pose.
A follow-up to my last post on virtual conferences:
Over the last two to three years, the term “digital humanities” has displaced “interdisciplinarity” as a kind of new bureaucratic buzzword, a rallying cry for administrators under pressure to attract students, make an impact, and embrace the future, whatever that might be.
Anxieties are high among many of those who actually research and teach in the humanities. What will the digital do to us? And what can the digital actually do for the humanities? Does the “digital” have any substance? For film scholars, the digital poses a number of questions about the boundaries of our discipline, the future of our archives, and the ontology of our beloved objects.
In his most recent piece in the NYTimes, Stanley Fish takes up the term and offers his own skeptical position. He begins: