The Volcanic Future of Cinema History

Stewart Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Stewart Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

It is 11:00 PM on my twenty-eighth birthday and the sun is just now setting in the small resort town of Drumnadrochit. I am drinking some very nice Chilean wine and taking a moment to figure out exactly how I ended up here. For me the 2014-2015 academic year was revelatory. I fulfilled the requirements for the first year of my Ph.D. program, as well as successfully completed my first full year as a college professor. Yet with these accomplishments in mind, I am left with a strange awareness of the void of information I have left to fill in regards to film history. I have become devastatingly aware of the long path to knowledge I have in front of me. Much like the twenty-eight year old Professor George Webber, the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, I’ve yet to reconcile my achievements with my ultimate goals. Wolfe’s description of Webber is oddly resonant, “He was still only an obscure instructor at one of the universities in the city, his book was not yet published, he was not by any standard which his native town could know – ‘successful,’ a ‘success’” (Wolfe, 76).

The purpose of describing my dual state of insecurity and accomplishment is that I strongly sense that many of my fellow young academics often struggle to reconcile these feelings in much the same way I have. Therefore this very long winded reflection will examine a few of the realizations I came to during my two weeks in the United Kingdom, while also offering an overview of the insights I gained on the current developments within my chosen field of cinema history. As a historian, my research is often enslaved to Rankean historicism, which argues that the truth must always be objective. Yet in this particular post my realizations and the analysis of its findings are heavily subjective and poignant. The knowledge I have come to is mine alone, and therefore I can only accurately report my findings through blending the personal with the practicable.

Over a period of fifteen days I met an array of people from many different walks in life, presented on panels with scholars and authors I have idealized for years, and engaged in meaningful conversations with young film historians about their own hopes, fears, and concerns, about the uncertain future we are faced with in pursuing a career in the humanities on both sides of the Atlantic. These conversations often took unexpected directions and led to a degree of truth and understanding on the meaning what is cinema history, the special qualities it takes to pursue this question, and how our subject field will continue to fit in the western cultural canon as the twenty-first century progresses.

My reason for visiting the United Kingdom this June was to attend two conferences: The University of York’s Conference on Moving Pictures and Photoplays: New Perspectives in Silent Cinema, and the HoMER Network (History of Moviegoing Exhibition and Reception) at the University of Glasgow. In addition to exploring new and important topics and questions in motion picture history, both conferences also address the growing glut of funding and job availability within our particular research areas. This was my first bonafide experience presenting at an international conference, and beyond that, the first time I have legitimately been able to share the findings of my research with film scholars. That being said, I had two drastically different experiences at both conferences, and during my time in York and Glasgow, I came face to face with a number of harsh truths and exciting revelations pertaining to the area of study I have decided to devote my academic life to. Since this was my first visit to the United Kingdom, I of course had to indulge in the typical tacky tourist activities. Yet in the time between my first selfie in front of Big Ben and my moment of transcendence here in Drumnadrochit, I experienced a dramatic transformation in regards to my personal and professional outlook.

University of York – Moving Pictures and Photoplays: New Perspectives in Silent Cinema

cropped-header_titles

After spending several days in London, I suffered through an arduous eight hour, rain-soaked, traffic riddled, bus ride to York via the National Express. After navigating the town and enduring a mild scolding from my hotelkeeper for my late arrival, I settled in for the night and prepared for my presentation at the University of York the following morning. I was fortunate to meet a fellow conference goer at breakfast the following morning and together we had a lovely morning walk through the town which eventually led to a series of winding paths that passed through cow pastures and woodlands, and in turn brought us to an ultra-modern campus home to the university’s state of the art Film, Theatre, and Television Building (FTTV). What excited me most about this conference was that as a Postgraduate conference, with perhaps one or two exceptions, nearly every presenter there were pre-dissertation Ph.D. candidates, many of who like me, were presenting for the first time presenting on a substantial piece of research. The conference, held on June 18-19, attracted roughly twenty-five film scholars, all of whom were incredibly enthusiastic and excited to find kindred spirits interested in their work. Since the conference was formatted so that each panel was conducted one at a time (and with only one exception outside of the FTTV Building’s massive cinema), it allowed each of the conference goers to hear every participant’s contribution. I particularly enjoyed this arrangement, for the simple fact that I was not forced to make any heart wrenching choices between overlapping panels. I could sense that the more intimate scope and size of this conference helped create a more relaxed atmosphere, from which a number of very exciting discussions on the multifaceted perspectives on silent cinema could freely and openly be discussed.

Moving Pictures and Photoplays Programme 2015

In an effort to not balloon these already overlong musings any further, I will not list each and every presentation, though I must say that without exception, all of the topics presented in their own way offered exciting new challenges and rewards to incorporating new research methodologies in the field of early cinema studies. (If you are interested in learning more about the topics covered at this conference,  you can refer to the program above.) I instead want to focus on a few overarching trends and subjects addressed, the way they connect to one another, and how in some cases, these independent research projects were able to build off of one another

The first major pattern I picked up on was that the conference contained a number of very informative case studies in regards to the manner in which specific actors/actresses, filmmakers, and production companies were representative or (in some cases) antithetical to the prevailing cultural, social, religious, and sexual attitudes at various places and certain moments in time during the silent era. Agata Frymus delved into the complicated depictions of European women in American films during the 1920s, through looking at the career of the popular ingénue characters depicted by Vilma Banky. Frymus looks into the mythology surrounding her alleged connection to European royalty, the efforts made by filmmakers to “juvenilize” her persona by showcasing her difficulty to speak English, and depiction as the virginal “fair maid,” the antithesis of the flamboyant movie star. Pauline Cadell of Trinity College offers a sharp contrast of the characterization of silent women as explored by Frymus in exploring the role women played in the early oeuvre of Ernst Lubistch. In her presentation, “Framing Gender: Subtextual Provocations in the German Silent Films of Ernst Lubitsch,” Cadell showcases a number of examples of the blurring of gender roles within Lubitsch’s comedies, as well as self-determining agency of his female characters. Both case studies offer a fascinating and stark contradiction in the role women functioned on the screen in Europe and the United States, and is a topic that I truly hope is explored further in the future

Now it’s time for a shameless plug for my own research. I participated in a panel on “Film Reception in the Silent Era,” along with Shorna Pal of the University of St. Andrews, and Chris Grosvenor of the University of Warwick. Each of our discussions varied greatly in both the subject matter and place in which are research was set, yet was strangely tied together by a number of common threads. In Shorna Pal’s presentation, “Synchronicity of Silence: The Indian Film Industry in the Silent Era,” she argues that the Indian cinema of fiction has always had two very distinct fields – that of art films and of commercial films. According to this perspective, mass audiences at single theatres across the nation have been the primary patrons of commercial films and art films, outside film festivals, have found a small elitist audience at screenings at niche urban theatres. My presentation, “The Spirit of Midwood: Vitagraphville Studio and the Urban Development of Central Brooklyn, 1905-1925,” explores how the demographic changes in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood between the decade of 1900 and the mid-1920s directly influenced the output of the films produced by the Vitagraph Company of America’s main studio in Brooklyn. Chris Grosvenor’s look into “Cinema on the Front Line,” explored the exhibition practices of the British Army and reception of films by Royal soldiers during World War I. The disparate nature of each presentation can best be summarized into an observation into the opening of new fields in early cinema, whether it be the class consciousness apparent in the dichotomy between art house and commercial films, the impact changing urban demographics had on the progression of silent cinema and its audiences, or the soldier’s role as spectator during the silent era. Each of these new perspectives opens important new frontiers into the ever-expanding subject area of silent film spectatorship and reception.

The keynote address given by Jennifer Bean of the University of Washington titled, “Junking Modernity: Toward a Theory of Silent Cinema’s ‘Misuse Value,’” wonderfully examines the early moviegoer’s “phonological affair with the movies,” and the need for silent film scholarship to enter in a wide array of new topics and regional arenas. Most significantly she calls for a change in the scholarly habits of silent cinema scholars, particularly by moving away from the tendency previous decried as “the spotlight theory” in Richard Koszarski’s Hollywood on the Hudson, and instead examine “the meaning of value that resides outside the values of colonial dictates of use and exchange.” She applauds the field’s paradigm shift away from discussions on western modernity about itself and how it depends on the idea of the new, as well as the new lines of research currently being conducted by emerging scholars who are focusing on the Middle East and Asia. Her research into the role “junk prints” (recycled second-hand films that instead of being destroyed were repurposed into other films) is a revelatory example of the many exciting directions our field of study can potentially take. For me, the most resonant concept introduced in Dr. Bean’s presentation was her essential call to develop larger global and theoretical perspectives in order to formulate new perspective on silent era cinema.

Three very unique presentations were given on the conference’s second day provided perhaps one of the most significant challenges to the longest standing paradigm in the field of silent film history. The operative word being “silent.” Although Douglas Gomery, Rick Altman, Steven Baltimore and others have made fascinating contributions to the area of silent cinema sound, each of these new explorations into the subject, were in some way or another shaped by the question of how (or if) silent film sound performances could (or should) be recreated digitally. The second day’s keynote speaker, Stefiania Serafin described her work at the University of Copenhagen’s multisensory lab. Her application of Luigi Russolo’s “taxonomy of sound,” which sets out examine how various modes of sounds were received by audiences, represent an important step toward acknowledging the “unsilent silents.” Fiona Keenan of the University of York’s look into “Sonic Interaction Design from Silent Cinema Sound Performance,” also follows the exhibition and reception paradigm of silent sound by engaging with the audience’s participation in “enactive sound,” and attributes an increased agency to the sound operator’s role in influencing the audience’s overall moviegoing experience. Leslie McMurty of Swansea University follows up these discussions by introducing an exciting exploration into “Silent Film Settings in Audio Drama.” Beyond calling for additional research into areas that are not even explicitly film, she looks into the various strategies in which audio dramas were used in relation to silent films. The near ethereal quality of these early audio performances presents several fascinating parallels with audience response to the first film exhibitions. Each project in one form or another are in the process are involved with the prospect of digitally recreating the sounds of silent film design.

One of the most exciting for my own background in Texts and Technology came out of a conversation I later had with Pauline Cadell, who said, “The silents have suffered from generations of scholars not actually seeing or studying the silent films, but instead falling back on the criticism and scholarship of contemporary theorists. Digitization has helped to bring about new perspectives and ideas on silent cinema.” Recent trends emerging in digital scholarship have dramatically expanded the boundaries of what silent cinema scholarship is capable of. As I begin to carve my niche within this rapidly developing subject field, I am filled with a sense of awe and excitement over the seemingly endless possibilities studies on cinema history may take in the years and decades to come.

The enthusiasm and excitement of my fellow conference participants truly was infectious, and has made me increasingly excited to return to the archival stacks, review the Media History Digital Library’s Early Cinema Collection, and draft out proposals for Film and History and Cinema Journal. That being said, I found an odd combination of foreboding and reassurance in many of the one-on-one and small group conversations I had with my colleagues. These talks were mostly in regards to the uncertainty of our viability as future scholars in a global environment that has over the past decade cast a dark cloud over the humanities, which has led to concerns over them mounting struggle for film scholars to attain project funding and long-term university positions. These talks were not the same gratified discussions on the details of our research, teaching experiences, and future panel proposals that were discussed over multiple cups of coffee, tea, and finger sandwiches. Instead our shared sense of foreboding over whether or not we will become professional film scholars or turn into elsewhere-employed hobbyists, were discussed after hours, in hushed tones, and usually after several glasses of wine were consumed. Perhaps we were afraid that if we voiced these concerns too loudly during the light of day, our fears would be more likely to come to fruition. After these discussions I feel that I have formed an even greater sense of fraternity to my fellow film historians, and I for one intend to stick it out and continue to fight the good fight for as long as I can manage. The quality of our work is too great and passion for the subject is too deep to simply allow our subject field to disappear in a shuffle of bureaucratic budgetary cuts. My fears over future hire-ability may not have been entirely quelled, but after my time in York I am firmly reassured that our understanding of early cinema is on the cusp of a momentous period of transformation from which the introduction of the digital technologies developed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century will help to fundamentally reinterpret our understanding of the evolution of cinema during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

10438315_1119980328018816_1860748848403154762_n

Edinburgh International Film Festival (Interlude)

The University of York’s Moving Pictures and Photoplays conference concluded with a special screening of Peter Gidal’s Volcano (2002). The 16mm print of the landmark experimental film was the first time celluloid film was exhibited at the University of York’s Hollbeck Cinema, yet another subconscious inference to the pervading influence digitization has had on all areas of cinema and cinema studies. The frenetic images of hand held shots of cooled and fissured lava are intercut with arbitrary zooms in and out of the rock faces along with a continual shifting of the lens’ focal length, are juxtaposed over Mark Fell’s specially designed soundtrack for the film, which were filled with fragmented dystopic phrases. The film’s portentous atmosphere was a fitting allegory summarizing the current state of our field of study. The screening’s unplanned conclusion – the abrupt failure of the film projector – overlaid with the chilling continuation of the soundtrack loop over the pitch-black theater, inexplicably filled me with the terror of unsustainability.

Several days later I read Chris Kennedy’s 2010 essay in Early Monthly Segments to find out if there was a resolution to Gidal’s film. It turned out there wasn’t any definitive ending to the film, yet Kennedy’s summary is oddly fitting to the themes so far discussed in this review. “If we constantly question what we see—even if it is just a volcano—we can begin to question “seeing”, and the way that is structurally and culturally formulated. By finding ourselves in the dark, we are asked to question what illumination is, to look at other aesthetic possibilities beyond identification and narrative pleasure and to rethink what else there may be to an image” (Kennedy, 5). As the lights went up, we silently huddled together at the front of the screen for photographs and innocuous conversation, perhaps too anxious to acknowledge the menacing omen we had just witnessed. We then exchanged our business cards and twitter usernames, then said our good-byes.

An hour later I was on a train to Edinburgh, where I planned to spend the next two nights before heading to Glasgow for the HoMER Network Conference. I spent my first night in Scotland exploring the city, retracing the steps of several of my literary idols. Following the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is the best,” I decided to take a stroll along the city’s famous Hume Walk. From this breathtaking panorama I reflected on my time in York and pondered further about the image of Gidal’s volcano. On the far side of the hill I could see jutting from Holyrood Park, Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano also described by Stevenson as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain for virtue of its bold design.” Though neither hill nor mountain, the landmark’s impressive spectacle is accentuated by two extinct vents, “Lion’s Head” and “Lion’s Haunch.” The volcano’s reinvention as a place of legend and role as the birthplace of the modern study of geology is testament to the fluid nature of things and how even something long dead can find new purpose.

calton_adammon_det

Later that night I ducked into the Banshee Labyrinth, promoted as “Scotland’s most haunted pub.” After listening to a few off-putting stories of Edinburgh’s notorious underground, and the city’s unsavory denizens such as Burke and Hare from the bartender, I was then directed to the bar’s basement cinema. With a glass of Glenmorangie in hand I walked in halfway through Blade Runner and for the next hour listened to a series of Mystery Science Theater-esque commentary from a raucous group of film students from Edinburgh College. The film was an timely choice, and in watching the film’s famous climax, I was immediately reminded of the York conference and Niek Turner of the University of Liverpool’s presentation, “The Shock of the View: Sergei Eisenstein’s New Spatial Perspectives in Silent Cinema.” Turner’s talk focused on the resemblance between the etchings of imaginary prisons by eighteenth century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Sergei Eisenstein’s obsessive use of staircases in a number of his films. This fascinating discussion on the influence of design practices across generations immediately came to being in my ability to then draw a connection to Ridley Scott’s form as presented in Blade Runner. As I faded out the pseudo-pretentious ramblings of the Film Theory 101 students sitting two rows in front of me, I was able to enjoy the triumph of a film I had already thought of as a work of staggering genius. The multi-generational influences of silent masters such as Eisenstein and Lang were amplified to a degree I never before could imagine. I was only hours removed from the conference and I already had successfully applied one of the many new perspectives on silent film I was introduced to at the Moving Pictures and Photoplays Conference.

slideshow-2

The following day I attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I went to the Edinburgh Film House and reviewed the listing of events for the day. I was particularly compelled to attend a special screening of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which was set to play at 14:00. I had about an hour to kill before the screening, so I went into the Film House café to take advantage of the free wifi and fire off a few of my many backlogged emails. Serendipity would have it that I ended up taking a table next to a film professor from Edinburgh College, who I struck up a conversation with about Orson Welles and his lost film Too Much Johnson. It turned out that as a delegate, he had been asked at the last minute to introduce The Third Man, and had to forfeit his ticket to the sold-out In Person Event with Ewan McGregor at 15:00. The professor assured me that Ewan McGregor event would be far more rewarding, considering that I had in so many words already heard the same spiel on The Third Man he would make for the audience.

I headed over to the Lyceum Theater, for an enlightening ninety-minute question and answer session with one of Scotland’s most famous native sons. I ended up seated next to a young Dutch film student, who was in the process of organizing her own film organization very much in the same tradition of Richard Linklater’s Austin Film Society. We became fast friends and made a great deal of commentary on McGreggor’s responses and some of the more absurd questions asked by audiences. The other key takeaway I had from the McGreggor session, was his advocacy of the importance of his “knowing film history and studying classic films in assuring his success in the film industry. After the last questions were asked, my new friend expressed an interest in trying to get McGregor’s autograph, or better yet a selfie with him. I’ve never been one to be particularly star struck, and although I am undoubtedly a fan of much of Ewan McGregor’s work, this would not have been an activity I would have sought out on my own.

Regardless, I ended up waiting with about twenty other anxious fans for the better part of an hour outside of the Lyceum, tracking the passing cars and for signs of when McGregor would make his exit. Two large groups were assembled on opposite ends of the theatre, in an attempt to outflank McGregor and his entourage, members from each collective group agreed to signal if they saw him emerge. At last he came out on the side we were waiting on, and in a scene right out of Beatle-mania I watched as a crowd of forty to fifty additional fans funneled in from all ends of the street surrounding the theater to have their few moment of contact with the great actor. In the ensuing chaos, I was separated from my friend and pushed off to the side by the security detail. From about fifty feet away I watched as my new friend successfully managed to snap a compulsory selfie with McGregor, just seconds before he was ushered into a nearby vehicle and was rushed away.

What is Cinema History? HoMER Network Conference, University of Glasgow

homer-conference-glasgow-2015The next day I said goodbye to Edinburgh and boarded the train for Glasgow. After a few travel mishaps caused me to arrive late to the University of Glasgow, I sadly ended up missing the special workshop that was held on data sharing. I made it just in time for Richard Maltby’s plenary speech, which introduced the conference’s central question of “What is Cinema History?” Dr. Maltby’s reflection on the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery’s groundbreaking work Film History: Theory and Practice (1985) as a work that is as relevant to the subject field as it was thirty years ago was of particular interest. In a later shared panel session which included the book’s co-author Robert C. Allen, conference organizer Maria A. Velez Serna described in a shared panel session, how she was drawn to this work, as a first year college student, and felt compelled to absorb the many ideas exciting ideas on film history that this work introduced. The legendary influence that Film History, and along with the numerous social histories of the 1970s and 1980s awoke the historical imagination of a generation of film scholars. Velez Serna’s story of reading Film History one chapter at a time, and her compulsion to take notes on a book she sensed was important, but at the time could not yet determine why, is an incredible anecdote and testament to how the invaluable contributions of senior film scholars has carried over across the decades. Maltby’s observes that the most lasting influence of the social historians has bee a division within the subject field between film history (studies of films, auteurs, production companies, etc.) and what he describes as the new cinema history, “an emergent interdisciplinary field of study focusing on the history of cinema-going across a range of national, regional and historical contexts.”

Haidee Wasson’s keynote, “The Expansionist Apparatus: Histories of Film Projection in the American Military,” is an superb example of new cinema history, or another commonly circulated conference buzzword, “new new cinema history.” The striking sequence image of the evolution of portable projectors for home use in the United States between the 1950 and 1980, had a tremendous impact on the audience, and I could hear the collective gears of one hundred film historians start to grind. Her observations on the exhibition practices of the U.S. military, reinforce the call for additional scholarship on wartime motion picture spectatorship. Her lecture nicely complemented Chris Grovesnor’s earlier discussion on World War I spectatorship, and proves testament to the interconnected nature of our work as film historians. The HoMER Network event was the largest conference I ever attended. Unlike the Motion Pictures and Photoplays conference in York, I was forced to make a number of very difficult decisions in regards to which panels I could attend. Similar to my observations in regards to my time at the University of York, the summaries I will provide are only the tip of the iceberg of the many fascinating, exciting and revelatory discussions that took place over three days in Glasgow.

What-is-Cinema-History-Programme-Final

The following morning, after a great deal of deliberation, I decided to attend the Panel 1B session titled “Fragments of Evidence.” The first presentation by Annemone Ligensa of Brandenburgisches Zentrum für Medienwissenschaften, titled, “Audience Archives: Digital Tools for Studying Historical Audiences,” explained how digitization provides new and improved access to often overlook tertiary sources, “provided that scholars are willing and able to cast their nets widely.” She also described how “digital tools can be used to generate new kinds of data from old sources, which helps reveal patterns that the naked eye might overlook.” Her examination into the box office performance does provide a number of fascinating insights into the drawing power of certain films, yet as she also argues since films are “experience goods,” the nature of audience reception is infinitely harder to track. The second presentation by Ellen Wright of the University of London, “Hollywood Confidential: Tijuana Bibles, Audiences and Film Stars in Classical Era Hollywood,” was a compelling example of how the use of extant sources can construct a broader portrait of how audiences interact with the motion picture and its stars in ways that go beyond the simple moviegoing experience. Her discussion “posits ways that ‘Tijuana Bibles’ – pocket-sized, illegal, pornographic comics of the 1920s-1940s, many of which presented erotic narratives featuring recognizable film stars of that era might make historical (re)examinations of audience understandings of Hollywood stars and of film audience’s relationships to Hollywood stardom possible.” Her discussion was funny and engrossing, and an exciting example of the unexpected direction new cinema history can potentially take. Maria A. Velez Serna’s discussion Early Cinema in Scotland, 1896-1927 (also the HoMER event’s host) revealed the complexities of mapping Glasgow’s cinema history. GIS and digital mapping projects such as Robert C. Allen’s Going to the Show have set into place another important paradigm that has been prompted by the use of digital tools. Velez Serna’s search for “a more authoritative type of record,” takes us through the redefined application of keyword searches to track down the valuation roles of theaters, film exhibited, and the cinema’s influence on society. Yet she also warns of the increased scarcity in abundance that may come with additional sources, by cautioning that moving forward the “margin of uncertainty represents our own labor and the labor of those who preceded us.”

I next sat in on Panel session 2C “Early Cinema: Sources,” led to an animated conversation in regards to how, what, and why “ephemorology” should be digitized and catalogued via online archives. Chris O’Rouke of University College London’s microhistory, “Cinema-going and urban leisure networks in the diary of Archibald Walker,” examines the records of cinema-going contained in the unpublished 1915 diary of Archibald Walker, a young upper-middle-class ‘man about town’ living in wartime London.” O’Rouke sets out to consider “the value for cinema history of what, on the face of it, is a frustratingly uninformative source.” This perspective raises a number of important questions such as how is cinema’s position socially as well as spatially representative of the time? In turn the findings in Walker’s diary also causes us to reflect the cinema’s place in the contemporary entertainment industry. These sources offer insights into the nature of early cinema going, and that should not easily be discredited. Gary Rhodes of Queen’s University revisits William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson’s intervention into the Singer-Allen debate and their call for an increased emphasis within film history “on the use of ‘soft’ evidence to reach viable conclusions about American film audiences.” Rhodes sets out to find clues on early film audiences in the United States by studying popular songs from the period written for and by film audiences. He argues that from this perspective fictional commentary can reflect audiences as they are perceived altogether and that “while some of the lyrics present exaggerated portraits, can in some ways defragment the American moviegoing audience” avoiding the demographical and psychological aspects it implies.” Paul Moore next examined the practice of “Browsing as Method for New Cinema Histories.” In his presentation Dr. Moore called for “a cinematic atlas that would not be an encyclopedia of endless variety, but to utilize all ordered systems into an institutionalized chart. To create identities in terms of location to every other location.” His determination that mapping projects are in fact not the “conclusion of geological work, but instead are the beginning,” led to a fascinating discussion during the question and answer session in regards to why an almanac of ephemeral trivia can help build an essential database from which early film historians can draw from.

One unfortunate aspect of being one of the last speakers in a panel session is that you cannot entirely invest yourself in the outstanding scholarship of your co-panelists. Since for the better part of the hour you are left preoccupied with planning out what your are going say, retorts for the question and answer session, and the million and one other neurotic concerns you are inundated with, cause you to be not nearly as attentive as you would otherwise. It is ironic that the panel is most similar to your research interests and subject area turns out to be the one that you are likely to be the less involved with. That being said, I do not have much to write about in regards to my fellow panel members, and in an effort to provide a better reflection on the overarching themes of the conference as a whole, I will refrain from narcissistically rehashing my research. The one observation I will make, since we unfortunately ran past time and were unable to afford a proper question and answer session, was that was amazed at how four very specified microhistories: Nadi Tofigian’s “Let the American Show You: Early Film Screenings in Manilla,” expertly looks into how the motion picture served as an agent of imperialist social conditions. My presentation, “From the City of Homes and Churches to the Movie House Capital of America,” is surprising similar to Dr. Tofigian’s work in that I too look into the many ways in which Brooklyn film audiences attempted to hold out against cultural assimilation into the Greater City of New York during the silent era. Dilek Kaya’s “The Cinemas of Kordon: A Micro-History,” examines how changes in demographics in a specific urban area influenced moviegoing patterns of audiences over a series of generations. Lastly Robert James’ “Mapping Cinema Culture in Portsmouth’s Sailortown in the Early Twentieth Century,” is yet another fascinating convergence between new data methodologies and microhistorical analysis. Though from opposite sides of the globe and periods of motion picture history, still converged in a very similar methodological framework. I found it incredibly exciting to see how each of our reconstructions of cinematic memory were intentionally or unintentionally in line with the new cinema history paradigm, further reassurance that the collective momentum of our entire subject field has continued to strive toward specialized social histories within the context of a wider global dynamic. This macro and micro approach to cinema history represents yet another example of how we as cinema historians are subconsciously heading toward a significant hegemonic turn.

Over the next day and half I attended a number of incredibly fascinating discussions and presentations. In an effort not to turn this already overlong post into a monograph in its own right, I am simply going to recap a few of the other highlights from the remaining panels I attended. This will contain a listing of panel titles, authors, and key ideas that I feel are most representative of this collective turn our field of study is currently experiencing.

Panel 4C: “Of the Scholars, Nothing is to be Expected, I am afraid.”

-Scott Anthony, Bryony Dixon, Tom Rice, Patrick Russell

  • Bias of academics toward feature films.
  • What expectations should archivists make on scholars?
  • The afterlife of an online digital archive project. What happens after the creator is no longer there?
  • History departments, IR, Sociology, all explore film history beyond just the area of film studies.
  • The disparities between how the archive and academia see these projects, and how they’re used.
  • It’s not just What is Cinema History, but Where is Cinema History? 
  • The online histories are not considered as having the same sense of legitimacy as published books and journals.
  • “It’s the books that get cited, while the online material is more widely used and read.”
  • Looking beyond the individual film: the ways in which we try to fill in the gaps of our construction of early cinema.
  • As soon as the films are made available online, received emails from relatives with additional stories and materials.
  • “When publishing a lot quite quickly, it easily become overwhelming.” Other disinclines are able to write about similar topics on their own terms.”
  • “You can use your historical and analytical footing to adjust for the chaining terrain and changing corpus. The wider question of interest is that in a sense digitalization is perhaps a good thing, but the notion of completionism…”
  • Britain on Film Project – Launches in July. An online map of the UK, that can allow viewers to find on the BFI player. Plans to continue to expand the collection.
  • The public forms its own cannons, and is not cooperation with the citizens of the area. Goal is to “cut out the academic middleman.”
  • “All of us who care where and what film history is, will constantly be asking such question.”

Panel 6C: “Reconstructing Post-War Italian Audiences: New Perspectives and Methodological Challenges

“A World I Thought Was Impossible: Rural Audiences in Italy of the 1940s and 1950s” – Danielle Hipkins

  • The need exists to explore further the rural/urban distinction in demographic studies.
  • “The novelty of cinema in the countryside is in many cases over-exaggerated. There is a sense of reflection on the restrictions of what can be exhibited in an area.
  • Learning about Italy – How Roman Holiday opened up the city of Rome to Italians who visited.
  • Stars as models of aspiration instead of models of identification.
  • Gender restrictions were heavier in rural areas. American films offered an opportunity to overcome these restrictions for young women. Freedom relating to their gender identities.
  • Parish Cinemas: Rose from 450 in 1938 to around 7000 in 1953. Over 1 million viewers. How much power did they hold?
  • Individuals in rural areas moved to the city and in some cases had the city come to them.
  • Examining Italy’s transformation from a rural nation to an urbanized tourist attraction.

“Comparative Filmgoing Statistics in 1950s Italy” – John Sedgwick

  • Local Newspaper Information – Examining the Roman edition of the communist newspaper.
  • The programs present supply side decisions by the distributors and the exhibitors. They provide a very useful insight into the mechanics of film distribution.
  • Deflate all the price series down to a common year, and present the price into a common denominator.
  • A tremendous difference in the profile of the cinema in the programs presented within these extant sources.
  • These comparative rankings can provide scholars with an understanding of how films were received, can also indicate national taste.
  • What are the deviations? Popularity of films in different regions.
  • Tracking films from the center to periphery. Trace through advertisements the traveling of cinematic patterns. Difference in what was watched in the city center/suburbs/rural.

“Film’s Journeys Across the City: Distribution, Exhibition, and Film Nationalities in 1950s Rome” – Daniela Treveri Gennari and Silvia Dibeltulo

  • American films had their longest duration in the first through third runs.
  • Geo-visualization/mapping Italian films.
  • Maximizing first run releases, they were willing to exchange films that could produce a higher earning.
  • Programming data has allowed scholars to observe the practices in order to gain a broader perspective of the interconnected nature of cinemas who broadcast the same films in different places.
  • The films playing at the first and second run cinema at that same time, risked cannibalization.
  • Non-American films: A very limited geographic distribution, with a short theatrical run. Much more concentrated in the city center and shorter duration than the American films.
  • Changing the focus of cinema studies to GIS can create new insights into methods of study. This process has revealed some significant deviations in the film distribution patterns, the dissimilarities in their representative space.

“Embodying Stardom: Memories of Stars in Audio-Visual Interviews” – Catherine O’Rawe

  • AHRC PROJECT 2013-2016
  • Interested in the role of stars in both consolidating and problematizing the cinema.
  • By interpreting subject realities and medium realities, are not just a source of additional information. Not interested in accumulating additional details, but instead seek to convey the history and identity of the speakers and transcend meaning beyond their intentions.
  • Iconic memory taken out of cultural context and engage in individual meaning.
  • Differences between questionnaire answers and subjects that come up in interviews.
  • For older people: performance is a means that they can become visible. Move beyond the idea that we are gathering information on the star.
  • The translation of subjectively assembled events in to memory acts.

During the roundtable session at the end of the first day, Robert C. Allen ominously decried that the academic system for film scholars is “a broken ladder.” To have arguably one of the foremost and definitive scholars in exhibition studies state so blatantly that the current institutional framework is no longer sustainable, undoubtedly terrified many younger film scholars who are just at the beginning of their academic careers, and only now beginning to scratch the surface of what will become their particular oeuvre within film history. Yet I was also reassured by Allen that the new cinema methodologies be “zoomable” from individual to global systems, perhaps myself and the fellow members of the “Global Perspectives” panel may get past the broken steps after all. The current state of transition within our subject field, particularly when it comes to the application of big data, requires that new cinema history face the fact that we as a field are sitting atop a “volcano of data.” The image of Gidal’s volcano again came to mind when Allen brought up this concept. Yet this time I was not filled with the same multiphrenic terror that I encountered several days earlier. After participating in a day of incredible presentations on a wide variety of different perspectives on cinema history and what it means, I felt oddly reassured that we as film historians will in our own way be able to contribute to the seemingly endless array of directions new data sources available.

The conference finished with two closing keynote presentations from Judith Thissen and John Caughie. It should be known that an email correspondence with Dr. Thissen served as the impetus for me to find a topic for my Master’s Thesis. Since that time, thanks to Judith, I have been able to find a significant niche in my examination into intraurban motion picture spectatorship. In fact, I likely would not have even learned about the HoMER Network event, or had the confidence to submit my research, had it not been for our correspondence. That being said, I was awestruck by her presentation, “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: New Perspectives on the Jazz Singer.” Her application of demographic studies and the social construction of Jewish audiences who attended the early screenings of The Jazz Singer is a superb example of how the examination of reception of individual films can still serve as a tremendous source of information on the role the motion picture serves as an agent of cultural identity. John Caughie’s closing presentation, “Scotched: The Subject of History and the Clutter of Phenomena,” left me with a number of thoughts that will be easier to summarize in list form:

  • Rural and small town cinemas in Scotland differentiate themselves from urban centers in a number of ways. You would expect differences between small towns and big towns, but in fact there is a marked difference between smaller towns as well.
  • Concerns: The slow transition from variety performances to cinema. At least until 1928 theatre-only productions still took a degree of precedence over motion pictures.
  • Though we write with the knowledge that the motion performance during the silent era was a mixed mode production, we tend still to focus primarily on the cinema component of the performative experience, rather than a cinematic production.
  • “What determines the place in cinema is not the transport links, but the basis of local culture.”
  • Efforts in different towns to “uplift” the motion picture. In other towns it was seen as a sitting asset, as a representation of the town’s modernity.
  • “The ‘nationalist’ referring to a sense of cultural belonging.”
  • “The ‘nation-ness’ referring to a recognizable, visualized image of ‘nation.’”
  • How Scottish film history can be mapped and be representative of the historic trends during the same time.
  • Characters themes and places reprinted in films during the period are far more traditional than the advertisements promoting modernity, and new technologies.
  • “Distant reading is not remote reading. Remoteness is a condition of knowledge.”
  • Early Cinema in Scotland, 1896-1927: Three year funded project. Filling the gap in the history of world cinema, which Scotland does not figure majority. Implicit assumption to find five researchers to work together on their projects. Instead each of the researchers have found their own niche.
  • Geospatial mapping can be a useful source, but are representative of a new language that older academics may or may not be fluent.
  • What is Cinema History? It is not a singular act of scholarship. It is instead about networking, collaborative projects, and a difference of interpretations.
  • “Cinema history has less to do with the plenitude of the historic narrative, but instead the networks that provide the framing discourses that create the points of debate that keep scholarship moving.

I found Dr. Caughie’s explanation of “What is Cinema History?” a fitting climax to my two-week journey across the U.K. in search of the meaning of my place within my selected field of study. As I departed Glasgow, I felt invigorated and excited to delve even further into a subject that seemingly has endless depth. After the witnessing the array of topics and conversations (which even after 7500 words is still not entirely touched upon), I left feeling that HoMER 2015 could in years to come be remembered in a capacity similar to the legendary 1978 FIAF Conference in Brighton.

The following morning I embarked on wonderful winding drive into the Scottish Highlands. It was unseasonably cold (even for Scotland), overcast, gray, and misty. I arrived in Drumnadrochit in the early evening. The town had a peculiar atmosphere to it, the shades of shadows, smoke, and fog, left me feeling as if I were living a scene from a Tarkovsky film. I cannot think of a better setting to process the profundity of my experiences. I can truly appreciate the interconnected nature between career and craft and how my own professional crossroad has converged with an equally decisive moment in the field of cinema history. During a tour of Loch Ness the next day I learned that geologists have recently discovered the existence of a dormant supervolcano beneath the Great Glen fault line. While some doomsayers have indicated that Loch Ness may in the near future be the site of a catastrophic earthquake or volcanic eruption, most scientists agree that the threat is limited. The visage of the volcano whether it is allegorical, metaphorical, or perhaps literal, has inspired in me an insightfully new perspective on what cinema history is, and more importantly, why it is studied. As I prepare to start my second year as a college instructor and embark on new research projects, I am firmly reassured in my choice to study cinema history. This sense of confidence was only made possible through meeting a countless number of individuals who share an equal passion and fascination for the history of film, and who are like myself, driven by an inexplicable force to try to understand the true nature of cinema. In the words of historian Lawrence Levine, “The future is certain, it is only the past that is unpredictable.” Regardless of the upheavals that we as film historians will inevitably to face in the years to come, I for one am certain that the future of cinema’s past is in very good hands.

8712327052_d2ed16bc00_b

Drumnadrochit at sunset.

Advertisements

One thought on “The Volcanic Future of Cinema History

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience of the two Conferences. This was the first HoMER-conference that I passed over, and having read your blog I feel a sting of regret having done so! I’m especially interested in knowing more about your paper presentation. What kind of sources have you studied? How is the resistance of cultural assimilation of Brooklyn film audiences that you mention, expressed? Would you be willing to share your paper, and or abstract?

    I work as sr lecturer in Film Studies at Orebro Uni, Sweden, and have a mapping Project going (in collaboration with cultural geographer Mats Lundmark) that explores urban versus rural Cinemas over time. One of the questions we ask is if, where and under what geographic, economic, social conditions pockets of resistance existed in maintaining local Cinemas, at different Points of time.

    My email adress is asa.jernudd@oru.se
    Looking forward to hearing from you,
    Åsa Jernudd

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s