Lastly, congratulations to all those involved in the City of Nottingham’s tribute to Torvill and Dean (see below for the film and the original). This video pretty much sums up why I’ve become so fond of this unassuming, often overlooked city these past few years. Also, a brilliant start for Notts TV.
‘Watch This’ is an occasional column showcasing clips and shorts accessible online, featuring both digitised archival moving images and movies that touch on issues to do with film archiving, history and heritage.
This is a cute film by the students of West Ridge Middle School, facilitated by Creative Action. I wonder if the script was student-led or not, but either way the young cast and crew are worth 16 minutes of your time.
The bit about two thirds of the way through, when the actress talks about trying out operating the camera and says that maybe she’d be good at it, definitely hit a nerve with me. Young people – even those who have the benefit of a privileged and cine-literate upbringing – tend to be left out of discussions of film beyond analysis of story and theme (maybe shot composition or script development, if they have a GCSE in Media Studies). It wasn’t until my last year as an undergraduate that I learned that film isn’t necessarily forever, that films are often lost, destroyed or forgotten. It was only then that I learned that there is an entire industry built around taking care of the films made by other people. If I’d been made aware at a younger age of the wider context of the moving image industries and their histories, I imagine my education and approach to the moving image would have been wildly different.
The young director’s defence of shooting on film, while encapsulating the draw of film-on film, parrots a few of the most pervasive myths about the in my opinion. Recording on film creates a reel of film with frames on which you can see the image. That reel of film can be stored, protected and accessed, and so long as you can still make out those frames it is, to a greater or lesser degree, preserved. It is videotape, digital video tape and digital files that are ephemeral, elusive and fragile, and require much more vigilance.
But that’s beside the point. Congratulations to these students on a job well done.
Fredrik on Film > ‘On wonderment and film’ >> The process of researching, analysing, evaluating and, yes, even exhibiting and archiving moving images can sometimes get in the way of sheer cinephillic wonderment.
When I found out about the rediscovery I was thrilled. I was aware of the film: it was on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of missing titles. Moreover, I used it and another (still missing) film, Reveille, as the subject of an essay and poster presentation during my MA. Both of these films were directed by George Pearson, produced by his company Welsh-Pearson, and both starred Betty Balfour.
My presentation and essay focused on the marketing and critical reception of the two films, with a focus on Betty’s star persona (see above). When a film is known to be missing, often it is the star that is the crux of the interest in finding that film. However, that star is not always an actor. Directors, producers, designers and cinematographers often have star personas that can be leveraged to generate interest in a missing title, which is why Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle probably wins the prize for the most-wanted missing film.
I re-read that essay I wrote three years ago, and I noticed that at the time I thought that the BFI’s plea for the significance of Love, Life and Laughter and Reveille was not based on the star persona of Betty Balfour, but in the possibility that the films ‘may have marked [the director’s] creative zenith.’* When the rediscovery was announced, however, George Pearson’s name was rarely mentioned, whereas Betty came to the fore once more.
Even fewer George Pearson films survive than Balfour works, but he was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, called a genius and even credited by some with inventing the moving camera shot.
It is interesting to note the difference between marketing a missing film and celebrating a found one. Appeals for missing films are written by archivists and aimed at other archivists, collectors, historians and cinephiles who are more likely to be attuned to auteurism, more willing to go after the more obscure or cult films, and more likely to engage in the fetishisation of technologies and format. Articles about rediscoveries are written by journalists and pitched at prospective audiences, which include the more casual film fans who are more likely to be interested in Britain’s biggest silent film starlet, rather than a film director who happened to have a well-received sequence of films in the 1920s.
I had fully intended to condense that essay into a blog post for you guys, but I’ve since decided to sit on it in case I decide to publish it elsewhere. You’ll just to believe that I made many incisive and nuanced points about star theory, silent cinema and critical reception. Of course, if you do fancy academic work about Betty (or just want to see her in some other films) then the British Silent Film Festival is just around the corner.
* ‘BFI Most Wanted’, the British Film Institute, accessed 1 May 2011 (NB. the link is now dead: http://www.bfi.org.uk/nationalarchive/news/mostwanted/75-list.html)
I asked my friend, the silent film blogger, editor and noted frock fan Pamela – to accompany me to the event Puttin’ on the Glitz: Fasion & Film in the Jazz Age at the British Library in St Pancras on Friday. I could pretend that this was a research trip, but really it was simply a cheap ticket (£5 for students!) to indulge my two favourite hobbies – watching old films and ogling pretty things.
That said, we (me) here at Kine Artefacts take an all-encompassing approach to moving image history, heritage and preservation. Therefore, we (I) declare that fashion and design – and its relation to the moving images that show it off – is a perfectly cromulent topic for scholarly consideration.
This is the extent of my photography skills after three cocktails.
Evidently, so too does the British Library. I found out about the event through the Library’s ‘Inspired by…’ blog. Sceptics could see events like these as a cynical way to cash in on the current love of vintage style, but I also think that such events do at least show that there is a breadth in the collections of the British Library, and that its remit covers a lot of material and formats other than published books and the Magna Carta. The event also coincided with the announcement of the new News and Media Room in the St Pancras site (after the closure of the historic Colindale facility), and given that at least one of the talks was based partly on analysis of 1930s film journals and magazines, it was a neat way for the library to demonstrate that it could be of use to film and fashion students looking for newspapers, magazines or journals from the period.
The event cannily presented both historical and critical methodologies for looking at fashion and film, in a way that was informative without being dry. Amber Jane Butchart began with a demonstration of the influence of Hollywood on British fashion through an analysis of reception and marketing materials in magazines and journals. Butchart touched upon the complexity of this relationship, describing how the judicious use of high fashion in Hollywood cinema, and its presentation in supplementary ephemera, worked together to promote that iconic Jazz Age look without diminishing the glamour and extravagance of the clothes on screen.
Butchart looked a sequence from the 1935 film Roberta as a case study. The film culminates in a fashion parade narrated by Fred Astaire, in which starlets such as the very young Lucille Ball model some of RKO designer Barnard Newman’s most ostentatious designs. Butchart then discussed the increasing importance of fashion in films, citing Adrian’s famous Letty Lynton dress, which spawned thousands of replicas for all the ‘little Joan Crawfords’ across the world, as a prime example. The dress is perhaps now better remembered than the film itself, which is mired in legal issues and thus very difficult to get hold of (though it does, thankfully, survive).
The second talk, from Chris Laverty, took a different tack in that it assessed the costume design of a contemporary TV show set in the Jazz Age: Boardwalk Empire. Laverty analysed the costumes of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Chalky White (Michael K Williams) in order, and made use of stills and John Dunn’s original costume designs (complete with fabric swatches!) to demonstrate just how true the costumes are to both the characters and the context of the show.
Generally speaking, the gangsters of the period are popularly thought of as wearing shiny, monochrome, pinstriped suits and white carnations, when in reality the heavy woollen fabrics and decorative flourishes where far more varied in colour, texture and fit. Everything from the fabrics, the patterns to the accessories serve to give context to these characters. Laverty likened Darmody’s wardrobe to that of a modern-day gangster, who goes from sportswear to bling depending on status. All the gangsters, though Chalky White in particular, embody the persona of the ‘dandy gangster’, wearing outlandish outfits as a way to establish power and prestige. I’ve never actually watched the show other than the pilot episode (for PhDs are long and time is short), but I know of Michael K Williams from The Wire, and I would suspect that Williams’ star persona had as much an influence on his costuming in Boardwalk Empire as Joan Crawford had on Adrian’s dress.
Butchart and Laverty both made impassioned pleas to bring back certain trends from the Jazz Age: flouted, ruched, puffed and generally awesome shoulders; and the Norfolk thick wool sporting jacket (respectively). I discussed these fashions with my own dandy fella, and we agreed that these would both be trends that we would welcome.
The talks were followed by a cocktail party, which was a bit less Jazz Age-specific and catered to a more general vintage-themed crowd. I drank a serviceable French 75 and an almost Mary Pickford cocktail that was tastier due to the omission of grenadine (on the theme of starlet-named cocktails, I prefer the Ginger Rogers). There was a vintage band, vintage hairstyling and hopefully-not-vintage pork pies on offer (?!). The atrium of the British Library, with its white, curved stairways and mezzanines, looked rather like an Art Deco dancehall and decidedly unlike a library.
Fredrik on Film > ‘Theory readings – An introduction’ >> ‘When theoretical texts are discussed or criticised it is usually through the use of another theory, on whether it contradicts or agrees with some other text. But that is not really critical thinking, that is compare and contrast. For me it is when a text is criticised on its own terms, from within, that it becomes interesting and meaningful’ <- My feelings exactly.
British Library > ‘The Newsroom’ >> While the British Lbrary’s Newspaper Archive in Colindale was/is an important archival heritage site that will never be replaced, the new Newsroom facility does look pretty spiffy, and it’s nice that so much of the microfilm will be open-access.
Dr Film > ‘The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome’ >> ‘The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable. It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable. Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.’
Scope > Issue 26 >> The University of Nottingham’s own open-access peer-reviewed journal of Film and Television Studies boasts a particularly interesting article by Max Sexton on the use of 16mm film in the television industry (PDF).
ATV Today > ‘Bangor “Local TV Station” Dropped >> My research into regional independent television has led me to a greater understanding of how commercial interests and broadcasting infrastructes have influenced exactly which ‘regions’ had a chance to be represented on television. This is a case in point.
It’s almost Oscar time! I will be watching with glasses of Mary Pickford and Ginger Rogers. Here are some links to keep you occupied in the meantime.
Moving Image Archive News > ‘China Girls, Leading Ladies, Actual Women’ >> An in-depth article detailing the history and meta-history of the ‘China Girls/ colour bar “timing control strips”’ that were part of the head leader of film reels and ‘provided certified, dependable guiders for the technicians as they printed film.’ The article covers the technical function of the frames as well as the problematic pictures of women that featured on them.
The BBC’s iPlayer currently features The Magic Box, the 1951 film about William Friese-Greene starring Robert Donat, and Of Time And the City, Terence Davies’s documentary of Liverpool made entirely of archival film extracts.
Lastly, watch this short documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by The Vinyl Factory.
Of course, everything is better as a silent movie. To prove it, I offer these 3 examples pulled from my Facebook feed in recent days:
Exhibit A. The Onion discusses the original RoboCop
Exhibit B. What if Star Trek was a silent movie?
Exhibit C. An unofficial video for The Divine Comedy’s ‘Napoleon Complex’, compiled from clips of Abel Gance’s Napoleon.
And lastly, like every researcher studying any facet of British media and culture, I owe a debt of gratitude to Stuart Hall, the seminal cultural theorist who sadly died this week. I like this obituary, and I also like this interview he gave to the Guardian a couple of years ago. There is also The Stuart Hall Project, the documentary about his life and work that is now available on DVD.