Of Ethics and Monsters: The Power and Resonance of Historical Footage

Beware: spoilers for Godzilla (2014) and Godjira (1954) lie within.

Earlier this month, I went to see Godzilla at my local IMAX screen (or lie-max, if you prefer). To be honest, I was not a fan, but I did enjoy elements of the film, not least the opening title sequence.

In it, the cast and crew credits mimic the text from classified documents (with parts being blacked/whited out), and are superimposed on pretend ‘historical’ stills and images, featuring Godzilla – or evidence of a large lizard, at least. It is a neat visual rhetorical trick that is often used in movies where fictional events are given resonance by a fictional history that pulls on recognisable signs of actual history. As the 20th Century saw the growth in recorded history, through the development of photography, film, recorded sound and radio and television broadcasting, those technologies are often used as visual cues to show how the fictional world in question fits into the timeframe of the real world.

Other versions of the Godzilla story feature similar imagery,

Other versions of the Godzilla story feature similar imagery.

The sequence ends with a mushroom cloud – apparently from the Castle Bravo bomb. It later becomes apparent that in the world of the film, the 1954 bomb was not detonated to test the nuclear weapon, but to get rid of a monster. Later, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) explains to Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that Godzilla is a creature who feeds off radiation, and therefore the development of nuclear weapons  in the 20th Century had woken the ancient lizard. Ford is shown more ‘archival’ footage of more mushroom clouds (I don’t know if the movie uses actual recordings or not).

Now, it is not surprising that in this film Godzilla is related to the development of nuclear weapons. The original Godzilla, famously, functioned as a way of talking about the effects and resonance of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.

I don’t have an opinion about whether the use of imagery of mushrooms clouds is appropriate or not. I don’t think its insignificant that Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is a Hollywood funded-and-produced reboot, and therefore the film does not have anywhere near the resonance of the original. On the whole, using nonfiction recordings (or allusions to nonfictional events) in fictional worlds is OK. In fact, the atomic bombings of World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and everything in between have given rise to some of the most powerful speculative, science-fiction and alternate history narratives. However, when fiction engages with these signs of historical events, they are engaging with real trauma, captured in the moment it happened.

Unethical use of disaster to make a joke? Or a benign, absurd play on words?

Unethical use of disaster to make a joke? Or a benign, absurd play on words?

In many ways film and audio recordings have made it easier for us to engage with the past. Yet, I think the fact that these are recordings – facsimiles of what happened – can serve to make them seem mere illustrations of the past. The images and sounds become distanced from their contexts, and their power diminishes. That is why many archivists are keen to preserve not just historical footage, but the context of that footage. There is a fine line between fiction that explores real events using factual recordings, and fiction that is appropriating the past and using it to up the dramatic (or even comedic) stakes, and context and intent are key to deciding if and when that line has been crossed.

Kine Bi-Weekly: Doctor Who, BFI Player, Too Much Johnson etc.

Well, I’ve just emerged from under the cloud of Fresher’s Flu (the kind that reminds one what it’s like to be well and truly ill, not the headcold+hangover kind). Luckily, a number of new discoveries, resources and other archive media-shtuff has been keeping me occupied as I surf the web from under a blanket.

Television International Enterprises Archives > ‘A brief statement from Philip Morris Executive Director of T.I.E.A’ >> Y’all know by now that 9 episodes of Doctor Who previously missing-believed-wiped have been uncovered in an archive in Nigeria. Sadly, the rumour that 90 episodes had been found put a slight dampener on the discovery. That said, the episodes are from two notable Patrick Troughton-era stories, and ‘The Web of Fear’ will attract fans of Nu Who interested in The Great Intelligence. Episodes will be downloadable via iTunes (yay).

The Telegraph > ‘Orson Welles lost film screened in Italy’ >> As I type, the 32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto is happening in Pordenone. Many of the tweets regarding Too Much Johnson have had me giggling. Longer reviews from Shadowplay and Silent London. Also see Silent London’s daily recaps of the aperol-fueled fest.

BFI > ‘New video-on-demand service BFI Player unveiled’ >> ‘Offering a mix of free (approx. 60%) and pay-per-view (approx. 40%) content that includes over 1,000 items of content, including hundreds of feature films in the launch period, the BFI Player will go further than current VOD platforms by offering deep exploration and understanding of film content, chosen and contextualised by the experts at the BFI, all in HD quality.’

Viewfinder Online > ‘Channel 4 Press Packs 1982-2002‘ >> The BUFVC has announced a new online repository of scans of Channel 4’s press packs. Those with access to BUFVC materials can search the archive here. Also see Rachel Keene’s helpful ‘Structure of a Pack’ guide.

Sound and Vision Blog > ‘World Newsreels Online’ >> The British Library also has a new resource of newsreels from France, Japan, the Netherlands and USA, dating from 1929 to 1966. The collection (complete with transcriptions) can be accessed in the Reading Rooms in St Pancras.

Luke McKernan > ‘Leaving Colindale’ >> Another piece by the British Library’s Luke McKernan, about the moving of the British Newspaper Library from its historical home in Colindale, Barnet to Boston Spa, Yorkshire. As an ex-Barnet resident, I also lament the loss of the wonderful newspaper reading room.

To wander up and down the shelves to is witness the nations and regions of the United Kingdom talking earnestly, passionately and insistently to one another, witness to democracy, debate, conviction and modernity.

– Luke McKernan on the British Newspaper Library

Moving Image Archive News >’Archive in a Wall Cavity’ >> Peter Monaghan presents a 3-part meditation on cinemagoing in the 1960s, prompted by the listings he found while renovating his house.

CSTonline > ‘Spaces of Television Conference Report’ >> The lovely and hard-working Victoria Byard and Ben Lamb have recapped the Spaces of TV conference I presented at last month, which is nice considering my own report was utterly derailed by the flu.

I Don’t Own a Television

This post was prompted by an article by Kim Akass for the CST blog. Critical Studies in Television is a great source of musings on television, pitched between academic research and cultural commentary.

Last year marked a personal milestone as I moved out of my shared student digs and moved into a disarmingly grown-up flat with my disarmingly grown-up partner. However, I realised that I myself was not yet a grown-up: grown-ups pay Council Tax, grown-ups take bank holidays, grown-ups know where the meter is, and grown-ups have TV licences. When TV Licensing started bombarding us with the standard reminders to pay up, my partner and I discussed the matter (like grown-ups) and discovered that we were not legally required to obtain a TV licence because we don’t have a television set.

There is no broadcast television in our house.

This is ironic for a number of blatantly obvious reasons:

A) I study broadcast television.

B) When not studying broadcast television, I advocate for the retention and preservation of outmoded formats, because I am a film and TV archive nerd.

C) At any given moment the BBC will be playing in our flat, via iPlayer or the DAB radio. On the bus, I’m most likely to be listening to podcasts of Thinking Allowed, Test Match Special, Words and Music or Mayo and Kermode. I would not be enjoying any of these services were it not for the good licence fee payers, many of whom also pay taxes (thank you, all).

There is an episode of Friends where Joey tries to impress a woman by mentioning his role in the soap opera Days of Our Lives.* The woman apologises, replying that she doesn’t own a TV. Joey is blindsided: ‘You don’t own a TV? What’s all your furniture pointed at?’

Last week, Kim Akass ruminated on everyday life without the crucial flow provided by television. I wonder if Raymond Williams ever considered everyday life without the TV schedule, with all its interstitials and advertisements, never mind life without the television set. It’s a weird and brave new world, and one I’m not yet ready to face. So,  in Blue Peter style I crafted my own makeshift television set out of an old 22inch monitor, speakers, amplifier and a slew of wires connecting to various media players. The Xbox provides access to games, DVDs and our shared server for downloads of our music and movies. There’s also the PS3, which can play Blu-Rays. There’s the laptop, which gives us access to all free online media players such BBC iPlayer and 4OD, and the services we subscribe to like Netflix and Mubi. Lastly, there’s the DAB radio that doubles as an iPod dock, and we play the Today programme over breakfast in yet another bid to be grown-up. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like a TV set. And yes, our furniture is pointed towards it.

fauxtv

I grew up in the era where digital and analogue media existed side by side, and I’m constantly reminded of it. There is no reason for us to watch TV (whether DVD, streamed or downloaded) on our faux TV set, for our computer is bigger and boasts better resolution. But when you grow up with the flow of television, it becomes a complex and comforting act to settle down in front of the set. If I close the curtains, I can pretend I’m watching Doctor Who on Saturday night and not midday on Sunday.

Strangely, it’s not just the experience of watching the television that we’ve recreated. Yes, we watch things out of sync with the broadcast schedules, but there are still distinct patterns to our viewing. Of course, part of this is simply practical: my partner has a ‘proper’ job and so isn’t free to watch the goggle box until after dinner. Nevertheless, we watch the bulk of our tv shows between 7pm and 11pm on weekdays, and most of the time we just shift the schedule a day forward: Sunday is Doctor Who day; Tuesdays is Only Connect; Wednesdays is The Apprentice, quickly followed by You’re Fired. We also tend to only binge on things that we’ve seen before, like The West Wing or Community, while lazily knitting or ironing.  If we miss something while it’s being broadcast, we often forget to catch up (most recent example of this is Broadchurch, because we forget that ITV player exists). We tried to frantically catch up with Arrested Development in time for the new season, but we could only handle four episodes at a time – not because it was bad, but because it was new to us, and we needed space to digest what we’d seen. Also, it was bedtime.

Not the same, is it? Via Ads of the World

Not the same, is it? Via Ads of the World

Then there are the occasions when our plans are foiled by a bad internet connection. Those moments also carry a weird nostalgia for when I lived with my parents in the shadow of Alexandra Palace. While it was thrilling to live where British television began, the reception was beyond crap (well, Ally Pally is really old, it’s not too surprising). I have – honestly! – never seen a single evening’s programmes broadcast on Channel 5 because we never received it before the digital switchover. In fact, my obsessive Neighbours habit was only broken when the soap was poached from the beeb in 2008. If I don’t know it’s there, I don’t miss it.

So, in many respects, our faux TV set is doing an OK job at imitating the real thing. I miss live broadcasts sometimes, particularly the Eurovision Song Contest and the cricket. We plan on switching out the monitor for a projector someday, and then we might revisit the question of whether to get a digital television box. The choice of what to watch on it will be daunting.

*As an aside, I cannot be the only British person who assumed Days of Our Lives was a fictional soap opera, right?

Kine Artefacts on Holiday!

Holy blog break, Batman!

OK, so the unexpected hiatus was caused by an internet connection holiday in my apartment, followed by a fun but exhausting intern project.

So, I’ve decided to just call August a blog holiday. But please, do return in September, when I’ll be back in London and looking forward to reporting on…

…vintage film fun from Toronto and Capitolfest.

…more microscopic images of icky film decay.

…the return of the PhD research (duh, duh, duh!).

…presenting at the FIAT/IFTA Film Studies Seminar at the BFI Southbank.

…and finally unveiling a new blog design.

I will be catching up and replying to comments, tweets, etc. when I return. Til then, stay classy everyone.

Ellie X

New acquisition: Monthly Film Bulletin

The many routes to accessing historical artefacts make research easier, it’s true.

As film journals and magazines come into the public domain, some folks have digitised them into searchable PDFs, like the superlative Media History Digital Library (*BEWARE* procrastination pit). Most historians of the media industries have spent days consulting unwieldy bound editions and scrawling through endless microfilms of trade journals at the BFI Library or the British Newspaper Library.

However, most will willingly admit that there are drawbacks to these access formats. Microfilm is a sturdy, resilient medium that is an utter pain to search and copy from (and most libraries charge for inky printouts). While online access is fun, free and (sometimes!) more efficient, large downloads can be a strain on smaller hard drives. Of course, sod’s law also dictates that your internet will disconnect as soon as you decide to do some concerted online research.

Which is why, sometimes, having your own personal library of original publications rules! :)

Through my eminent contacts (i.e. my boyfriend’s dad), I’ve managed to acquire several decades worth of the Monthly Film Bulletin, the BFI’s publication that reviewed every film on release before Sight and Sound took on the job in the early 1990s.

OK, it’s hard to illustrate just how exciting this is, as the MFB didn’t publish glossy portraits of stars and suchlike, just many pages of unbroken text. Nevertheless, I cannot wait to get stuck into reading and discovering the gems of British film criticism, printed on beautiful, tangible, smellable paper.

My new treasures could not have arrived at a better time. In making the transition from a student film archivist mostly interested in preserving, y’know, film formats to a TV-archive-historian type working in paper archives, I’ve found myself itching for the days when I had regular access to a winding bench and a Steenbeck. Paper collections like this remind me that film archiving means more than preserving the moving image, it’s about preserving its surrounding culture too.

I don’t intend on keeping this collection indefinitely; heck, I don’t have room in my Nottingham digs for it (it’s at my parents’ house in London at the moment). In a couple of years I’ll donate it to a university library that could use it. In the meantime, I promise to keep it in good knick!

Christmas Wishlist

A few vintage film and television related gifts I hope to see under my tree…

Books

The Bioscope has a good list of books about the silent era. I’ve had my eye on Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films for a while, but I hadn’t come across Reading the Cinematograph and it sounds right up my street: ‘It pairs eight intriguing short stories on cinema with eight new essays unveiling the rich documentary value of the original fiction and using the stories as touchstones for a discussion of the popular culture of the period during which cinema first developed.’

Since the Hugo hype, I figured that now is the time to read the original. For an entertaining and provocative addition to the current film projection debate, I wouldn’t mind curling up with Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex. On a more techy note, while it’s been out for a few years there can be no better time to finally get hold of Giovanna Fossati’s From Grain to Pixel and teach myself some more.

DVDs

From ATVLand in Colour has been getting a lot of buzz within my local heritage scene in the Midlands, and I’m determined to become more familiar with all the ITV franchises as I work on my Southern Television project. Speaking of local heritage, being a Londoner I look forward to discovering the work of John Krish.

I haven’t got a Blu-Ray player, but I expect to upgrade soonish so I’m beginning to collect a few dual-format discs, beginning with Park Circus’s Charlie Chaplin series (I received Modern Times for my last birthday). Apparently, for whatever reason, only the 1940s version of The Gold Rush is included in Blu-Ray form, whereas the 1925 original is confined to DVD. Luckily, no such controversies dog City Lights or Limelight.

Silly Things

Make-your-own Morph, anyone…?

When I was little I used to collect paper dolls, and this collection of iconic 50s starlets would have been the perfect gift for my 8 year old self.

I would also like a Kindle-sized version of this felt iPhone cover, made up to look like a vaguely vintage television, as well as this cutesy faux-vintage camera case (though I’d rather have a genuine Trip 35, thanks!).

If I were rich…

Alack, I can’t really afford to get into the collecting game, though I would LOVE to own a range of small gauge projectors and prints one day. A good place to start would be Umit and Son. (Thanks to James F for alerting me to that particular gem).

And finally, I would be ever so grateful to anyone willing to bid on this 16mm print of the previously lost Disney film Hungry Hobos for me – the estimate is only $30,000…

Why Méliès was so cool #8734

The problem with archives is that A. they are cold and B. they often don’t have internet access. I’ve been between Berkhamsted and London this week, and I didn’t have any internet access whatsoever.

I’ve got a post lined up on best practice when handling and surveying document collections, but I’m waiting until I get some nice photos to share alongside it.

In the meantime – huzzah! – for Hugo finally hits the cinema this week! There has been a lot of talk on the interwebs about Martin Scorsese’s film, and it currently has a 96% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It doesn’t take much to get me to watch kids movies (I used to do it for a living, which was awesome), but kids movies featuring the magic of Georges Méliès? I’m so there.

I only have this to add: you can keep your Jim Morrisons, your Molieres and your Oscar Wildes… Georges Méliès has the best gravestone in Père Lachaise!

On cinephilia, archiving and the need to collect…

As part of the Pordenone Collegium, I’ve been tasked with writing a paper on the experience. The abstract for the paper is now overdue by a week. I’ve had my topic sorted for ages, and I kept scrupulous notes along with my festival catalogue. But now the time has come to get it down on paper… well, I just can’t seem to get it out.

Everyone at the Giornate del Cinema Muto was a cinephile of some description. Some were scholars, others professional archivists, and many regular festival attendees. Moreover, we were all there as collectors. Archivists displayed their lovingly preserved collections of films or related paraphernalia. Historians gathered the knowledge necessary to further their research. The rest of us were anoraks, dutifully ticking off screenings in our daily schedules. I don’t why we cinephiles do it, but we constantly quantify our hobby, through DVD collections, pub quiz accolades or (admittedly) blog posts, as evidence of our dedication to the cause.

Take, for instance, the Davide Turconi Project: a digitised library of 23,000 silent film fragments. The collection is incredible, and I’m sure to discuss it in more detail one day. Paolo Cherchi-Usai and Joshua Yomibe introduced the project to the Collegium in Pordenone, and my paper is in part inspired by Yomibe’s referring to film fans as (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘hoarders of cinephilic relics.’

Well, I am unashamedly a hoarder, and I doubt I would be a film archivist if I didn’t collect the relics of my cinephilia. I hoard the memories of my cinematic experiences more than physical artefacts. Someday, when this recession is over, I will amass great sums of small gauge prints and Photoplay annuals. For now, though, I present a small but deeply personal collection of Brief Encounter themed tourist attractions!

(Brief Encounter is my all-time favourite film, and I can quote it pretty much verbatim.)

The collection began in York, where I worked part-time at the National Railway Museum and its Brief Encounter restaurant. Then, while living in Norwich, I visited the Brief Encounter cafe in Wymondham’s train station (the cafe closed down the week after). Best of all, my grandmother moved to Carnforth in Lancashire, whose train station provided the location for the film’s most iconic scenes.

Which is a really long, roundabout way of saying that I’m going to be spending Christmas in Milford Junction!

Railway Museum photo credit

A nitrate fire (or, rather, a non-nitrate fire) from 1897

I’ve had nitrate on the brain since booking my ticket to Cobra Woman!

Last year, when delving into microfilm copies of the Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger (the precursor to the trade journal Kine Weekly), I came across this report from a projection fire, just a few years after the fatal fire at a Lumiere brothers screening in 1897. Note the way that the journal tries to alleviate any fears of further disasters by blaming careless projectionists…

I don’t intend to alarm anyone; I’ve been inside a modern projection booth equipped for nitrate, and it is as safe as can be! Besides, it was the equipment and not the film itself that caught fire in 1897.