Scalarama and the Dearth of Repertory Cinema

So I blinked and missed most of September. The acceleration of time alarms me (because I have a PhD to finish), but it also saddens me because I miss so many wonderful things happening on my doorstep. Things like the Scalarama month of cult cinema screenings.

See! I even had the full newsprint programme!

See! I even had the full newsprint programme!

Scalarama is a UK-wide event, though it has a few hubs in the usual places: London, Bristol, Manchester and – well, what d’ya know? – Nottingham! In collaboration with Cinema Diabolique, a community cinema collective who specialise in cult, Scalarama has had no fewer than 35 events in Notts. Some of Scalarama’s ‘core programme’ has been screened in the Broadway Cinema, but most events have been in the small community cinema space Screen 22.

(There are some events left thus coming weekend, click here for a pdf of the complete nationwide programme.)

Now, truth be told, Cinema Diabolique’s preference for ‘cinema’s varied and fascinating wasteland’ of B-movies and the like isn’t really my bag. I enjoy that kind of thing when I see it, but only see it from time to time and that suits me just fine. Equally, I am ambivalent about the current trend for ‘immersive’ cinema events such as the kind that Scalarama and others promote – for me, the film is always The Thing, but I must admit I do enjoy theatrics and gimmicks (and I have managed my fair share of film events), so I will happily singalong and sniff-along as suits the screening. Moreover, I am very supportive of the efforts of indie community cinema groups keeping the spirit of repertory cinema alive.

thevisitor

It is increasingly rare to find a cinema in the UK with a truly repertory programme, like that of the old Scala in Kings Cross that inspired Scalarama (the venue survives but the cinema does not). In fact, the programming of cinema nowadays, including art house and independent cinemas, is usually done by one a handful of centralised companies operating under contract. The Broadway is one of the few art house cinemas left with its own team of in-house programmers. The realities of cinema economics also means that even if a cinema is fully in charge of its own programme, it can’t afford too many repertory screenings. One-off or limited screenings of older or more obscure films usually entail more expenditure (screening rights, overheads) and less revenue (ticket sales, merchandise). So now the job of publicly screening films curated from the wealth of cinema history has been left to the devotees and cinephiles who run community screenings. These groups are assisted by organisations like Cinema For All, but really they need audiences to thrive.

Therefore, I apologise for not taking advantage of the Scalarama/Cinema Diabolique month of film screenings in Nottingham. As recompense, I have now booked two tickets to see The Visitor tomorrow. I’m told that I am in for a treat.

Why I’ll Miss ‘Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide’

Recently, the longstanding film critic Leonard Maltin announced that this year’s edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide will be the last. Maltin himself is not retiring from film guidance and criticism altogether; he’s very much an active and valued historian and critic. The startlingly similar compendium, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, will still be available for the film guide faithful.

leonardmaltin

I will miss Maltin’s coffee table filmopaedia – though I, personally, have never bought it. I have never purchased Halliwell’s Film Guide, either, or subscribed to the Sight & Sound archive (though, as luck would have it, I am in receipt of a physical collection of old editions of the Monthly Film Bulletin). Like most modern cinephiles, when looking for production credits, technical specifications or other filmographic information, I refer to the IMDb. If I want to know the critical consensus of a particular film, I refer to online aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic. I fully acknowledge my hypocriticticism.

However, there are several reasons to mourn the passing of yet another printed filmographic resource. I say mourn because the loss of Maltin’s guide is one in a sequence of losses. For example, last year Sight & Sound announced that it would no longer be committing itself to publishing the full credits for every film on release in Britain, a task it had inherited when it merged with the Monthly Film Bulletin in the early 1990s, because in the age of IMDb, recording filmographic information isn’t really a viable use of resources.

There have been a lot of changes in film criticism in the past ten to fifteen years. New media has usurped print and broadcast media as the go-to place to read or hear film reviews. Blogs, podcasts, vlogcasts and aggregators have diversified the field of criticism, which used to be the province of professional staff critics working for newspapers, journals, television and radio. Even the few staff critics who remain now use the internet to stay relevant: Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review is more often consumed as a podcast than as a radio broadcast;  Roger Ebert’s online presence keeps him posthumously relevant;  even Leonard Maltin himself has achieved cult status through the ‘Leonard Maltin Game’, created by critic Doug Benson for his Doug Loves Movies podcast. There is also now a new generation of critics, who have built on their indie blogs or youtube channels and their direct rapport with their audience, and are often funded through subscriptions, donations, sponsorship and advertising revenue, rather than contracted.

I don’t intend to suggest a hierarchy by pointing out the two spheres of criticism, suffice to say that Leonard Maltin and his contemporaries performed a service that the newer online-born resources don’t. They produced historical records of moving images, entrenched in print, preserved in their own socio-cultural historical contexts.

Like the newspapers of record, film journals and guides that list comprehensive information and opinions about many films function as references for film scholars, journalists and fans. Such publications are accurate, authoritative and reliable. When something is incorrect, an amendment can be published in the next edition. If an opinion is revised, you can cross reference the revised edition with the original and gain an insight into the shifting values of film appreciation.

Of course, online resources are authoritative too, in their own way. Crowdsourcing or mining large repositories of information (or ‘interoperable metadata’) are both methods to quickly populate a film resource with useful info. That information can be browsed and searched quickly, in contrast to the slow process of sifting through indexes to multi-volumed publications. Moreover, that information has the capacity to grow and change at a rate faster than can be achieved by small, discrete numbers of individuals.

However, these resources are not permanent and are thus less reliable. They are also only retroactively verified and thus less accurate. For all the thousands of cinephiles volunteering information, there are often startling gaps in knowledge, particularly when it comes to foreign language, independent and older/forgotten/lost moving images. Also, when these resources are revised or amended, it can be hard to access earlier editions. If you can get to an earlier version of a record or a review it is often stripped of its original formatting and/or utterly incomprehensible – I mean, have you tried reading the ‘revision history’ tab on a Wikipedia entry?

Maltin’s guide was originally intended for local television viewers as a guide to the films on their TVs. Over time it became more than that: it became one critic’s curated canon of cinema. And I don’t mean ‘curated’ in the received, online-jargon, urban dictionary sense of the word; I mean that Leonard Maltin has spent his adult life exhaustively watching, researching and evaluating cinema. Thanks to his Guide, that work has been preserved – a testament to his life’s occupation.

 

Television History: Reconstruction as Research Method

Methodologically, I fancy myself a historian (actually, I fancy myself an archivist in extended training, but that’s by the by). By aligning myself with history, and particularly archival history, I suggest that I look at evidence contemporary to the topic at hand in order to learn more about that topic. Of course, like most doctoral candidates, I employ a compound methodology as befits the questions I’m asking. But still, when explaining to people what I do with my time, the answer is ‘considering television artefacts’. If I wanted to incorporate my professional archivist training, I might also add ‘considering how to organise these television artefacts so that others can consider them, too.’

toothandclaw

The artefacts I’m looking at are mostly in the form of documents. It is a recurring gripe of mine that, even among historians, any artefact that isn’t a television programme is seen as secondary evidence. As most moving image historians know, for varying reasons historical moving images are often lost, destroyed, decayed or – in the case of early broadcasting – never recorded in the first place. So, a historian, upon finding that the television programme they want to study is not available, might either turn to other sources (such as documentation) or give up. The television programme is the gold-standard artefact of television history. Without it, they can use other resources, but the resultant research might be seen as supplementary or secondary – i.e. less good.

Recently, though, I have noticed a seemingly more radical approach to television history, one that recalls episodes of 999 rather than any Media Studies lecture I’ve ever attended. More and more researchers are seeking to reconstruct aspects of television history, as best they can, using the most appropriate tools at their disposal.

For instance, one of the highlights of last year’s Spaces of Television conference was a presentation by Dr Andrew Ireland about the experiment at the heart of his PhD thesis. In this experiment, Ireland used the script from Tooth and Claw, a 2006 story of Doctor Who. He then found actors who resembled David Tennant and Billie Piper and a crew at his university, and set about re-enacting the episode. However, instead of remaking it shot for shot, he instead kitted out a television studio so that it mimicked the constraints of shooting Doctor Who in the 1960s. He then proceeded to re-enact the beginning ofTooth and Claw as a 20 minute instalment of an as-live, multi-camera studio drama. From Ireland’s perspective, the aim was not to reconstruct an old studio drama (he doesn’t use the word ‘reconstruct’ precisely because he has created a new thing), but to reconstruct the process of making one.

blogtweet

Another example: in my ‘Kine Weekly’ blog a couple of weeks back, I linked to a tweet by Dave Jeffrey. He has evidently been making a 3d computer model of the old Westward Television studio building. By his own admission, it seems that this was merely a handy vessel for him to practice using Blender – an open-source computer graphics software doodah. These visualisations are obviously only digital facsimiles of the original layout of the building, but they also have the potential to be extremely helpful to anyone wanting to gain a greater understanding of how Westward was physically laid out.

Speaking of studios, there is also the Facebook group Pebble Mill, that crowdsources the history of the Pebble Mill Studios by inviting interactions from those who used to work there. The project has been running for a while now, overseen by Vanessa Jackson. Now, interviews are a known source of historical evidence, but I think this is different. Rather than creating oral histories, Vanessa posts pictures and other artefacts she finds from the studio, and asks for help contextualising the artefacts. Responders will comment, confirming who that person is or what that machine was for. They will often – unprompted, yet certainly welcome – offer their reminiscences and anecdotes from their time at Pebble Mill. It is not a reconstruction, strictly speaking, but it certainly goes some way toward reconstructing the everyday life and operations of Pebble Mill, in a manner that is organic and true to the nature of working life, where no one person knows everything.

I’m glad to have come across such a wide range of innovative historical research methods that use archival evidence as I try to unpick exactly how to describe my own. Despite the fact that the methodology is a tiny proportion of my PhD thesis, it is probably the part I have redrafted the most. I am certainly inspired to be bolder in my presentation of documents as a source of primary research, and I have already skewed my topic toward mapping out the policies, infrastructures and operations that underpinned Southern Television – i.e. things that can be in some way reconstructed from documentation – more than their programmes. My methodology is far from unique, too, and it is nowhere near as inventive as the examples listed here. Nevertheless, I think researchers are still too willing to give up on certain areas of television history, because the programmes haven’t survived or the creatives involved are not available. So much of television has been created through systems, processes, structures and infrastructures that evolved over time. Reconstructing these peculiar contexts and visualising them are just as important as watching the programmes.

Lastly, I should say that my ponderings on this matter were inspired by a little exchange I had with my dad on Twitter.

blogtweet2

A few fuzzy, grainy thoughts on why Stories We Tell is my film of 2013

End of year lists are problematic because they are out of step with the cinema calendar; I usually hold off until Oscar time to make my final list. Normally such a task would be outside the purview of this blog, which is focused on archival histories of film and TV rather than reviews of current releases. Nevertheless, on reviewing the films I have seen in 2013 I decided that, overall, the one that touched me the most was Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. I figured that the themes of this film (history, narrative, ‘old’ moving images) tallied nicely with my interests as a moving image historian and archivist, so here are a few jumbled thoughts on that.

Stories We Tell is a documentary film about Polley’s own family drama that seems small in scope but is in fact saying an awful lot of things. Polley is a director who began as a child actor, and comes from acting stock, so it is perhaps not surprising that she finds herself concerned with the wider question of narratives and histories, even in the face of a deeply emotional and personal story. It is a documentary, but one that really interrogates what documentation can do (Polley says herself that it is an interrogation). The documentary is a vessel for Polley to explore a history that had only recently become apparent to her. In the process, whether she intended to or not, I think she offers a subtle criticism of film as an objective, truthful document.

The film begins with a quote from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, read by Polley’s father.

When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion […] It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or to somebody else.

The stories that Polley is citing, the Stories of the title of the film, are our own histories that we tell ourselves and our loved ones until they begin to resemble the truth. Polley has her father Michael Polley tell the story of how he met her mother (in third person, into a microphone), and his retelling of when ‘Michael met Diane’ and when ‘Michael decided to purchase a movie camera’ is used to narrate film footage of the two lovers on honeymoon. The documentary then plays out in a series of talking head interviews and home film footage as Polley attempts to understand the story of her parentage.

**SPOILERS – The rest of these thoughts assume that the reader has seen the film. **

storieswetell1

 

Continue reading

Authors and Archives

OK, I have a fluffy, not at all researched, theory/hunch about the nature of archiving. Primarily this is a theory regarding media in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, but it could also be applied to most archival objects. I’m also sure that someone somewhere has made this argument – or probably a better, more nuanced argument on these lines – but nevertheless, here goes:

Generally speaking, the fewer authors a thing has, the easier it is to archive. The more authors a thing has, the more complicated it is to archive.

By ‘authors’ I don’t necessarily mean auteurs in the Truffaut sense. I generally mean creators with knobs on – people who produce objects that are deemed to have an authority over those objects. So, in the world of film I would probably cite the creators who have copyright over their film: the director(s), producer(s), music director(s) and, in some cases, the top-billed actor(s). However, the word author doesn’t necessarily mean just the person(s) who own the copyright or the intellectual property rights to a media object, but I’ll get on to that in a bit.

I came to this conclusion after reading a work in progress by a cohort of mine who is currently penning a thesis on authorship as it relates to branding using case studies from film, television and video games. The piece I read was an extract on the video games section, in which the argument was made that it was difficult to apply authorship to video game branding because the branding of video games often rejects the idea of an omniscient auteur or even showrunner/key creator in favour of pushing the idea of teamwork and collaboration. Branding, of course, is a separate issue to archiving, but it is also true that video game production is such a complicated thing involving many companies and many individuals that it is difficult to know what bit of a game to archive and how.

authormedia

Now, as some media archivists will know, the archiving of video games is not in the healthiest shape. There has always been a lag when it comes to archiving media: films began circulating in the 1890s, but there wasn’t any concerted international effort to archive them until the mid-1930s; television began in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the National Film Archive expanded its remit to include television; websites are updated frequently without any thought of preserving their earlier incarnations. Now, the need to archive games – because video/digital gaming is a hugely popular pastime that has had a massive impact on popular culture since its introduction in the 1970s – is recognised by many, but the archive community is still working out the best way to do so. If you’re interested in the archiving of games, you should familiarise yourself with Jason Scott, who’s probably the most prominent pioneer of archiving games and other new technologies.

Why do authors count? Well, primarily because of copyright, though that is a boring excuse, I know. The fewer people you need permission from the sooner you can archive. But this is not the only reason. Authors are not necessarily the same people as owners. For instance, video games will be owned by their developers – i.e. the companies, not the individual creators. Also, copyright is not the same as intellectual property. You can own a reel of film, a DVD or CD-ROM and it is yours, but that does not give you the right to copy, share or otherwise distribute that thing. So, items with single authors are easy, because the answer to the question ‘hey, can I do [X] with that thing you made’ is yes or no. More than one author and the answer could be ‘I dunno, see what that other guy says.’

Media created collaboratively can get very complicated because individuals may not know whether they have any authority over the media they helped create. When the authority is dispersed over entire companies of employees and contractors, it can be hard to know who has executive authority over the destiny of the thing. Of course, this is where ideas like fair use and due diligence come into play: if one has done their due diligence and found no authority over the thing they have found, then they can proceed with using that thing because that’s only fair. However, in practice declaring something as an orphan and thus free to archive is a scary prospect. Who knows, perhaps someone’s great aunt has inherited the estate of the person who created just one part of the thing you want to acquire, preserve, copy and maybe even share because you are an archivist and that’s what you do? Perhaps that great aunt has no idea if that person waived his right to that part of the thing. And THEN you have a whole heap of works-in-progress, personal ideas and sketches, documentation, correspondence… Who authored that? Does it matter? If the works were created by many people but owned by only a few people, how do you account for that?

So, it is (relatively) easy to archive books (though, naturally, it is not easy to archive anything for many reasons beside intellectual property, copyright and general ownership). In fact, it is so easy that in the UK any author of a published book is obliged to deposit it in the British Library, whose job it is to store that book and make it accessible. But this does not happen with films, TV programmes, games… When you want to archive these pieces of media, you need to know who to ask.

Watch This: Friese-Greene’s London a minor viral internet hit

Watch This

I don’t know why Claude Friese-Greene’s footage of London has suddenly gone viral, but for those who don’t know that Vimeo bloke obviously ripped it off the BFI’s YouTube channel 3 years ago. He also misspelled the filmmaker’s name and got the year wrong and put a naff bit of modern music on it to boot. You can see tons more from the BFI’s ‘London on Film’ playlist or you can buy the DVD. It’s nice that early British film colour systems have gained some attention, but a lot of work went into restoring and digitising that colour system (including remastering it to not induce nausea) and all this internet karma should go to the original source.

For more info on the life and work of Friese-Greene click here.

Support your film archives, people!

Dilys, Disney and Dumbo

Dilys Powell was a stalwart and a powerhouse of film criticism, with a career spanning decades. She was one of the few journalists who took the job of being a film critic as seriously as any other title. More impressive is the professionalism she brought even though her tastes were originally far more literary than filmic; when given the task of writing weekly film reviews for The Sunday Times in the late 1930s, she realised that it was her duty to become an authority on cinema,  in order to be the consummate critic of it.

dilyspowell

And she did; she seriously considered questions of stardom, direction and artistry long before it was common to do so. However, she was also admirable for her pragmatism and efficiency with words (she relished the challenge of writing within strict limits), and never let any prevailing ideology cloud her immediate reactions to a film. She was unafraid to take down the epic scale and grand aesthetics of Gone With the Wind with dry wit, and was brutally honest when she felt hopelessly old fashioned (as was the case when confronted with many avant grade auteurs).

While I revere Powell’s work, I don’t always agree with her. She never cared for Brief Encounter, and was always a little too focused on script and realism for my liking. Yet she understood cinema and respected it when so few in the established arts and literature presses did.

And she loved Disney. Always one to recognise a show runner, Powell heaped praise on Walt Disney’s visionary work. Reading through her reviews from the 1930s and 40s is a reminder of just how groundbreaking Walt was. Although Dilys Powell rarely gave out unqualified or hyperbolic praise – and she generally disliked the bland cutesy-ness of Disney fare – she recognised the innovation present in the characterisation and the sheer ambition of Disney’s animation.

As I was lazily breezing through The Dilys Powell Film Reader, I stopped and read the section on Disney, and found an interesting array of opinions that demonstrate Powell’s critical eye:

Much of this is so superb in colour and rhythm that it makes me wish more than ever for one Disney cartoon conceived and executed in complete seriousness.

– On Pinocchio, 1940

Moussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ is treated to an exhibition of devilry at once grand and horrifying in conception and design; and with Mickey Mouse as the Sorceror’s Apprentice, Dukas’s piece becomes the source of a fine comic exuberance of design.

– On Fantasia, 1941

Bambi is to be the last long Disney until after the war; the producer has, apparently, resolved to make his farewell appearance in a blaze of inoffensiveness.

– On Bambi, 1942

…OK, I’ll admit to being a little biased because I agree entirely with the relatively scathing write-up of Bambi. However, I was a little saddened to see Powell’s 1942 review of Dumbo missing from the collection. I know collected editions have to be brutal in their curation. But Powell (like me) used Dumbo as the yardstick to judge other animated features, and during the 1940s most critics held up Snow White as the masterpiece because they did not give the time or effort to form their own opinions. Like Powell, though, I would urge cartoon connoisseurs to consider Dumbo.

dumbodrawing

What is cutesy in other Disney films is emotional and real in Dumbo, and the titular character is the epitome of adorable. Powell describes the elephant as ‘small, defenceless, absurdly sensitive and infinitely pathetic’, immediately recognising the genius in Bill Tytla’s characterisation (Tytla used his own infant son as the model for Dumbo’s wordless mannerisms):

I’ve bawled my kid out for pestering me when I’m reading or something, and he doesn’t know what to make of it. He’ll just stand there and maybe grab my hand and cry… I tried to put all those things in Dumbo.

– Bill Tytla

Of course, it is also visually as spectacular as any Disney film, though it is barely an hour long and was produced on a fraction of Bambi‘s budget. Everyone remembers the pink elephants, but there was also the travel sequences where the anthropomorphic steam engine makes his way across the map, and the rain-soaked silhouettes of labourers erecting the circus tent (I was too young to get the racist overtones of the song). And while music and mouse are present to cut through the silence, the most memorable sequence is entirely without dialogue (‘Baby Mine’, *sniff*).

Dumbo then, and Dumbo now, is defined and redefined by the collective worth of Disney. In the era before the theme-parks, before home video and with only one princess to its name, Disney was not considered the super-brand as discourse has it today. Rather, it is the figure of Walt Disney himself that loomed large over the barometers of quality, success, suitability and artistry. Sadly, Dumbo suffers because it was simpler, cheaper and shorter than it contemporaries. But Dilys Powell was smart enough to see that ingenuity went a long way in animation, and she was not too snobby to say that Dumbo was the most effective Disney of the pre-war era.

The Dilys Powell Film Reader, ed. by Christopher Cook (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981)

Original film reviews available from the BFI Library, BFI Southbank. Photo of Dilys Powell also from the BFI.