Introducing MIMEHIST: Annotating EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection

After successfully defending my dissertation in May, I have been busy working on and preparing a few new projects which I will be involved in, in the next couple of years and which are all very exciting. Now that a new academic year is beginning I thought it was about time I began telling a bit about them. The first project I will discuss here is the MIMEHIST project, which aims at developing a scholarly annotation environment for EYE Filmmuseum’s Jean Desmet Collection.

There is a very brief presentation of MIMEHIST on the website of CLARIAH (Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities). However, the description is very general and not very detailed which was also a reason for me to write a blog post. In this post I will describe how our project builds on earlier multimedia annotation projects in media studies, discuss some of its theoretical underpinnings and how these may nurture new ways of using annotation in film historical research. The focus in this post is mostly on theory, methodology and functionalities. The historical case studies of the project will be described in greater detail in another post.

CLARIAH and MIMEHIST: Annotating EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection

Towards the end of February I received a grant for a video annotation project which will last a bit more than a year – from April 2017 to June 2018. The project is called MIMEHIST: Annotating EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection and is a pilot project within the larger research program CLARIAH (Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) which aims at developing a national research infrastructure for  humanistic disciplines and the arts in the Netherlands. Within this research program there was a call for pilot projects last year, which invited applications focusing on digitized collections and different historical research questions and case studies. The cases and collections will be embedded in the Media Suite developed by CLARIAH in order to advance digital research methods in media studies. It will be available for scholars in the Netherlands with a Dutch university login.

With help from Liliana Melgar, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, I wrote an application in the fall of 2016 focusing on developing an annotation environment for the Jean Desmet Collection of EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The project officially started in April and I am working on it together with Liliana Melgar who is in charge of defining the user requirements with me, as well as Willem Melder from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision who works on data interoperability and Roeland Ordelman and Jaap Blom who are taking care of the software development and engineering within the project. After the project’s beginning we also had the great luck of being joined by Ivan Kisjes, who works as an archaeologist and programmer at the University of Amsterdam’s CREATE project, and who will be doing OCR work and text mining in our project.

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Jean Conrad Ferdinand Theódore Desmet (1875-1956)

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The Jean Desmet Collection, preserved at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, contains the archives of film distributor and cinema owner Jean Desmet (1875-1956) who was active mostly in the early period of silent cinema and its transitional years. The collection consists of approximately 950 films produced between 1907 and 1916, a business archive containing more than 120.000 documents (these will be OCR’ed in our project), some 1050 posters and around 1500 photos. Parts of the collection were acquired by the Filmmuseum shortly after Desmet’s death in 1957 and then gradually expanded throughout the years with additional acquisitions. The Desmet Collection is unique because of its large amount of rare films from the transitional years of silent cinema, and because of the richness of its business archive holds extensive documentation of early film exhibition and distribution practices in the 1910s. These features contribute to its immense historical value which was one of the main reasons why it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2011.

Most of the material in the Collection has been digitized in different projects throughout the years. In the past few months I have worked on a report to outline exactly how the digitization work for each of the Collection’s subcollections was carried out which will provide a fundament for embedding it in the CLARIAH Media Suite. For more information on the Desmet Collection, EYE Filmmuseum has made a dossier on its website. And, for a more elaborate history of the Collection, film historian Ivo Blom has written a beautiful monograph on Desmet’s business activities and life which is available as an open access book from the Amsterdam University Press in the OAPEN Library.

Scholarly background: Audiovisualcy, multimedia editions and film segmentation as interpretation

Where do the methods and assumptions of MIMEHIST come from and why are they important for media historians? This is what I will try to answer in this section.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a great deal of enthusiasm for multimedia editions of archival film which facilitate analytical interaction with film – or video versions of films. These formats work with audiovisual media in media res by insist on a certain kind of audiovisualcy – as film scholar Catherine Grant has aptly called it – as a basis for scholarly interpretative processes – be they critical or historiographical. A fundamental key tenet in this kind of scholarship is that scholars, instead of only writing about film, cite, segment and re-edit films in different ways and to different ends as a foundation for their reflection and interpretation. There are several projects and theoretical writings which MIMEHIST finds inspiration in, in this regard. I would like to highlight some of them here.

In particular, I have been inspired by the Digital Formalism research project carried out in Vienna. This was a research project on Dziga Vertov’s work and theory which ran from 2007-2010 involving media scholars at the University of Vienna, archivists from the Austrian Filmmuseum and computer scientists from the Vienna University of Technology. Through extensive manual segmentation and data visualization the project explored Vertov’s montage style in relation to his theories on film montage and rhythm. Moreover, I have previously written enthusiastically about the Hyperkino DVD series which aimed at developing a historical-critical presentation format for annotated versions of Soviet classics or rarities.

Before these more recent projects, there have been several advanced efforts to conceive scholarly multimedia projects for film historiography in the past decades. In the 1990s, for instance, there was a rich experimentation with what was then referred to as hypermedia in CD-Rom formats in film studies, in the US in particular. Several groundbreaking projects were developed such as Lauren Rabinovitz’ The Rebecca Project (1995), the multimedia textbook The Virtual Screening Room developed at MIT by Henry Jenkins, Ben Singer, Ellen Draper and Janet Murray between 1992-1999, as well as Yuri Tsivian’s CD-Rom on pre-Soviet silent cinema Immaterial Bodies: Cultural Anatomy of Early Russian Cinema (2000). The latter was released by the University of Southern California’s Labyrinth project in its groundbreaking series of Cine-Discs edited by Marsha Kinder.

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immaterial bodies

An original order form for Yuri Tsivian’s Cine-Disc Immaterial Bodies: A Cultural Anatomy of Early Russian Film (2000) which Marsha Kinder has uploaded to her great website.

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Conceptually however, one may trace the urge to work directly on films as a historicizing working method even further back, for instance to the 1920s when Parisian cinephiles would be making compilation films of moments of particular cinematic beauty – or photogénie – to mark the end of a year spent at the cinema with a critical hit list. Or for instance – as film scholar Michael Witt has discussed with great insight – to Jean Mitry’s Film sur le montage (France, 1965), as well as to a great deal of compilation and found footage films.

There are also several interesting texts written in the 1970s, which tend to be considered hermeneutical antecedents in today’s digital humanities and discussions on audiovisualcy. In particular, Raymond Bellour’s classic article Le texte introuvable (1975) – in English The Unattainable Text – is often cited as almost prophetic in its heartfelt plea for a format or situation which allows film scholars to cite audiovisual fragments and to manipulate playback speed and direction as a way to interpret films through segmentation and scrutiny. Elsewhere in his writings on film analysis – to be precise in the article “To Segment/To Analyze (on Gigi)” – Bellour has also beautifully highlighted film segmentation as a process of interpretation in which one constantly finds new meanings and layers:

…segmentation is a mise-en-abîme, a ‘plumbing of depths’, a process that has no end theoretically – which does not mean that it has no meaning, in fact, that is its whole meaning.

In recent years, Bellour’s ideas to a large extent provided the fundament for the brilliant scholarly video annotation software Lignes de Temps, developed by the Pompidou Centre’s Institut de recherche et d’innovation. Unfortunately, this software is no longer being updated.

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LignesdetempsYardbirds

Screen cap from Lignes de Temps (here I was busy analyzing the fantastic concert scene with the Yardbirds in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (UK/I/US, 1966))

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Another text which is less frequently cited today, but which I find immensely interesting, is an article written by film scholar and co-founder of the Harvard Film Archive Vlada Petric in 1974-1975, “From a Written Film History to a Visual Film History”, published in Cinema Journal in 1975. Different from Bellour’s hermeneutical approach to film analysis, Petric suggested a more scientistic, quantitative approach to especially the study of montage and style, as a way to create a more accurate empirical basis for film historiography. While the canon of films and historiographical assumptions underpinning Petric’s article may seem dated today, I think the article is hugely interesting in the way it articulates a special role for film archives and insists on an analytical situation in which scholars scrutinize film prints in archives to develop a “visual/analytical” approach to film analysis. As Petric wrote in his article:

…the appropriate methodology of film history cannot be attained in our time without the full cooperation of the film archives, which possess the prints and have access to technical facilities, without which it is impossible to grasp the cinematic structure of a film.

In many respects, these projects and theoretical texts underpin the MIMEHIST project’s development of annotation functionalities for media scholars, working with the example of EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection. It would undoubtedly sound a bit grand to claim that MIMEHIST will fulfill all the ambitions articulated by them. However, it is certainly a theoretical lineage which we feel indebted to and find inspiration in, in developing video annotation for historical analysis in new directions. Working from these theoretical coordinates we try to nurture a historical methodology relying on video annotation which we may qualify as more open-ended and dynamic, something we will also try to achieve by drawing on annotation practices in other disciplines.

Open-ended and dynamic historical representations in annotated film editions

How are we planning to achieve this and how will this differ from previous multimedia editions of (archival) films or annotation software/projects?

There are several aspects in which we could say that our project wishes to create a research situation which allows for doing audiovisual analysis reminiscent of the projects discussed above but which also builds on them by drawing on annotation software and practices in other disciplines.

First of all, we will facilitate and encourage segmentation and labelling of films as a basis for interpretation of, in particular, stylistic and formal aspects of films. The annotation environment resulting from MIMEHIST should ideally allow scholars to analyze digitized films from the Jean Desmet Collection – and audiovisual material more broadly – through a process of segmentation and labelling. It will allow scholars to engage in a process of coding through labelling, in a manner which we consider congruent with the “plumbing of depths” of film segmentation as suggested by Raymond Bellour; a subjective interpretation process which is not finite, but which may have different end points for different scholars because they observe and annotate different aspects of a film. By creating different layers and timelines in the CLARIAH Media Suite’s Segmenting Player scholars may categorize shot types, scenes and sequences following a personal coding scheme. Furthermore, scholars may also use such a coding procedure to get a better grasp on the structure of films, as suggested by Petric, in order to establish firm empirical evidence for their interpretation. MIMEHIST will not facilitate statistical functionalities however – for instance shot boundary detection – but may allow scholars to annotate and count film features as they like.

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CLARIAHSegmentingPlayer

A first glimpse of the CLARIAH Media Suite Segmenting Player in its early development phase.

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In order to develop this, MIMEHIST also looks beyond film theory, and finds inspiration in qualitative methodology and Grounded Theory approaches used for coding video or audio interviews in the social sciences, anthropology and ethnography. What scholars in these fields often do is to use video/audio editing software to tag and label interview bits and organize them into different categories and color-coded layers on a time-line, while linking them to related materials. This work lasts until the researcher feels the material is exhausted in a subjective – or collaborative – coding process. The coding procedures of qualitative methodology may be considered somewhat similar to the mise-en-abîme-feeling of film segmentation as described by Bellour because it is an analytical process without a logical end point. For MIMEHIST this is interesting because it allows us to draw productively on a lot of expertise and practical experiences on interpretation of audiovisual material from qualitative methodology in order to develop film and media annotation further.

Beyond labelling and tagging, it is also the idea that scholars should be able to present an annotated version of a film with MIMEHIST and synthesize the main findings of their work in an edited and staged version for peers as a last step in their historiographical operation. This may be reminiscent of the kind of presentation format which Hyperkino developed. In particular, it will rely on links made between films and related material in the Desmet Collection which researchers can organize in a personal user space. Furthermore, the presentation format of MIMEHIST should ideally offer a kind of video playback mode in which annotations – or footnotes as they were called in Hyperkino – may be accessed by clicking on an icon. It will also differ in several fundamental aspects from a project such as Hyperkino. First of all, MIMEHIST will allow scholars to make different versions of the same film. Scholars may thus produce different – perhaps competing – interpretations of the same title. This should allow for a greater multiplicity of viewpoints to be expressed about the films in the Desmet Collection from various theoretical angles and will also, hopefully, nurture a more open-ended and dynamic historical interpretation of the films as well as representations of them. Whereas Hyperkino relied on the closed DVD-format to present one interpretation, MIMEHIST will not have the limitation of such a format. Furthermore, we also aim to make the scholarly annotation work more transparent. For instance, in addition to making an edited, annotated version available to other scholars, a researcher may also offer access to the work folder and coding underlying a version so as to allow other scholars to critically scrutinize exactly what they did or to engage in collaborative annotation.

Hopefully this will all work out. These functionalities are now in the development phase and what I have discussed above is the goal we are working towards. I will write more about the case studies which the project will focus on later. But as it looks now, I have lined up two types of cases: one case, which will focus on non-fiction films in the Desmet Collection, with particular attention to the representation of war during WWI and the films’ distribution in the Netherlands in this period. A second case study will focus on an incomplete film, to analyse how its form and distribution life may possibly be better understood by linking it to film-related material in the Desmet Collection. More about that later.

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References

Bellour, Raymond, ed. Constance Penley. The analysis of film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Gauthier, Christophe. La passion du Cinéma. Cinéphiles, ciné-clubs et salles spécialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929. Paris: AFRHC and École des Chartes, 1999.

Grant, Catherine, ”Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-Born Digital? Some Participant Observations”, in Frames Cinema Journal, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012)

Olesen, Christian Gosvig, Eef Masson, Jasmijn van Gorp, Giovanna Fossati & Julia Noordegraaf “Data-Driven Research for Film History: Exploring The Jean Desmet Collection” in The Moving Image, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2016)

Petric, Vladimir, ”From a Written Film History to a Visual Film History”, in Cinema Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, Symposium on the Methodology of Film History (Winter, 1974-1975) 21.

Singer, Ben, “Hypermedia as a Scholarly Tool”, in Cinema Journal, vol. 34, no. 3 (1995)

Witt, Michael. Jean-Luc Godard. Cinema Historian. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

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PhD Defense 10 May, 2pm

I am very happy to be able to announce the upcoming defense of my PhD dissertation. March 15, the PhD Committee approved my dissertation and with that also the defense date. In the Netherlands, the defense usually takes place approximately two months after the approval of the dissertation and is held as a public ceremony.

The defense will take place on Wednesday 10 May, 2pm at the University of Amsterdam’s Agnietenkapel. On the committee will be  – apart from my supervisor and promotor Professor Julia Noordegraaf (UvA) – the following distinguished members:

Prof. dr. Vinzenz Hediger, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Prof. dr. Frank Kessler, Universiteit Utrecht

Prof. dr. Barbara Flückiger, Universität Zurich

Dr. Eef Masson, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Prof. dr. Patricia Pisters, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Prof. dr. Charles Jeurgens, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Prof. dr. Giovanna Fossati, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Below is a glimpse of the cover of the printed version prepared for the defense. The cover image is a so-called summary visualisation of the film L’obsession du souvenir – a Gaumont production from 1913 starring Suzanne Grandais – which I created with the scientific visual analytics software ImageJ. There is more info about how and why this visualisation was created here.

More info on the event can be found at the University of Amsterdam’s and the Research School for Media Studies’ websites here and here.

Cover_Film_History_in_the_Making

Update: Digital Film Historiography – A Bibliography

Since 2014 I have been putting together a bibliography of scholarly literature which in one way or another addresses aspects of using and analyzing digitised archival film or film-related sources in research. In particular I have been interested in how scholars currently recast old traditions of film historical research or imagine new ones with digital techniques and tools of analysis. As the bibliography kept growing bigger I began to feel it was necessary to turn it into a thematic bibliography which in a clearer way shows which publications belong to different research traditions. To achieve this, I have recently grouped the publications into a few categories – eight in total. The categories are:

  1. Audiovisal Essays, Found Footage and Remix Culture
  2. CD-Roms, Historical-Critical DVD Editions and Annotation
  3. Stylometry and Cinemetrics
  4. New Cinema History, Databases and GIS
  5. Online Collections, Presentation and Curation
  6. Digital Film Restoration and Historiography
  7. Scientific Visualization, Visual Studies and Epistemology
  8. Digital Exhibition Design and Museology

While I find these categories fairly accurate and productive they are of course debatable, but this is how I felt the publications should be grouped together at this point. I think most of them speak for themselves but my choices of which publications to include in which sections do perhaps require some explanation. On the most basic level, it is a condition for me that a publication offers – in some way – a reflection on film historiography by discussing either a theory, model, method or representational practice which is computer-based or which uses digitised sources or digital means of analytical intervention. As a consequence many publications which discuss these categories/themes but which do not address digitisation or computerised methods have been left out. For instance for section one on “Audiovisual Essays, Found Footage and Remix Culture” there are many essays and monographs which in the past decades have dealt with the interrelation between filmic appropriation practices and film historiography but which fall out of my bibliography’s scope because they do not discuss for instance digital video editing techniques or the use of digitised film collections. The same goes for a section such as “Stylometry and Cinemetrics” which does leave out some of the fundamental reference literature for statistical style analysis from BC (Before Computers) in favour of more recent publications. Of course, it goes without saying that the bibliography is not comprehensive (suggestions and comments are more than welcome on c.g.olesen_at_uva.nl !).

When reorganising the bibliography I also updated all the links associated with the publications, when applicable, so they should – at least for the moment – be working fine and forward you to additional, useful information. In addition, this update provided an opportunity for me to add more publications which have recently come to my attention. One title which I am particularly excited about is the recent monograph by film scholar and archivist Adelheid Heftberger (Austrian Filmmuseum), Kollision der Kader – Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities, on the computer-based visualization of structures within Dziga Vertov’s films. This is the outcome of Heftberger’s fascinating doctoral research and the Digital Formalism project in which she meticulously annotated the shots in a group of Vertov films using the open source software Anvil. By doing this it became possible to visualize structures in Vertov’s work using different kinds of scientific, visual analytics (such as MatLab and ImageJ). In her book she discusses the broader implications of these methods both for Vertov research and for the digital humanities. The book is published in a new series on Film Heritage (Filmerbe) directed by Professor in Audiovisual Heritage Chris Wahl at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in Potsdam. Somewhat related – but fundamentally different in its approach and scope – I have also added and recently acquired film scholar André Habib’s book La Main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud (Les Éditions du Boréal, 2015). Habib’s book aspires to combine a more anarchic, cinephile tradition of film appreciation with contemporary, representational practices opening with a reflection on the evocative potential of the beautiful visualizations of among other films Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA, 1960) created by San Francisco-based artist Jim Campbell. Made with ImageJ techniques (or, at least entirely reminiscent of scientific visualizations created with ImageJ techniques) Habib, I think, may with his book possibly be opening a path for film scholars who draw on cinephile theory to historicize films and who wish to define and appropriate such visualizations to their own ends within this tradition. It undoubtedly promises an exciting read in the near future!

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Data-Driven Film History at the FIAT World Conference 2014, Amsterdam

I am currently busy working on the project ‘Data-Driven Film History: a Demonstrator of EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection’ which is a small pilot project funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) running from September 2014 till May next year. The aim of the project is to develop a demonstrator tool which proposes new ways for scholars to research and visualize the Jean Desmet Collection held at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, a collection which has been almost completely digitized.

The Jean Desmet collection is an immensely important collection, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage in 2011, which contains approximately 950 films from cinema’s early years from between 1907-1916, 2000 posters, 700 posters as well as some 120.000 business documents. It is a collection which especially in the 1980s and 1990s through screenings at the silent film festival Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone in  Italy made film scholars aware of the great variety and richness of for example film colours in the silent era, and has been crucial in understanding the cinema distribution networks in the Netherlands as well as in Northern Europe. The Dutch film historian Ivo Blom who is one of the most knowledgeable scholars on the collection has written in more detail on this in blog posts and in book form (which can be downloaded for free!) here and here.

It is exactly the aspects of film distribution and colour that we wish our tool to address and which we are currently figuring out how could be done best. I will write about this later in more depth, when we have gone beyond the phase of deciding on the research design and determining exactly how the programming will be done. Yet, for those who cannot wait and are eager to know more about our project, I will be co-presenting a paper on the research questions and methods we have lined up so far, tomorrow at the world conference of the International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT) at the Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam with my colleague Jasmijn van Gorp from Utrecht University. The paper is co-written with Eef Masson (University of Amsterdam), Giovanna Fossati (EYE Film Institute Netherlands/University of Amsterdam) and Julia Noordegraaf (University of Amsterdam) and a livestream can be followed here, so there is no excuse for not tuning in at 3.30 pm CET!

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Travelogue June and July: Zürich, Luxembourg, Bologna, Lausanne

It has been quiet on my research blog since April. In May I was busy wrapping up the spring semester’s teaching, supervision and research activities and in June and July I went to conferences and workshops in Switzerland and Luxembourg that each related to my research in different ways. Finally I also returned to the archival film festival Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. To mark the start of the new academic year, I provide a little travelogue containing some impressions from those events below.

Zürich, Filmpodium, June 5: Tagung Film im Digitalen Zeitalter

June 5, I attended the conference of the Diastor research team in Zürich – Tagung Film in Digitalen Zeitalter – which took place at the Filmpodium cinema centrally located in the beautiful Nüschelerstrasse. The conference had been organized to mark the mid-point of the Diastor research project of the University of Zürich – a project also mentioned in my previous post – on the restauration and presentation of historical film colours led by Professor Barbara Flückiger. Of a short one-day conference it provided an exceptionally rich and strong program consisting of a wide array of both international and national speakers, combining the kind of state-of-the-art research film preservation talks which one is most likely to see at the annual conferences for the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) in the US, with highly interesting contributions from Swiss film and media archivists.

While there were many fascinating talks I was particularly struck by two. Deputy Director at the Finnish Film Archive Mikko Kuutti’s presentation Scanning and Preserving Film Heritage – From Ideas to Daily Routine was a thorough technical and scientific reflection on the scanning work which is being done on a daily basis at the Finnish film archive, as well as the possible perception of this work in a cinema setting. First, Kuutti gave a walkthrough of the advantages and shortcomings of the scanning work done at the Finnish Film Archive, focusing – as presentations of archival digitization work mostly – on issues of resolution or contrast as parameters for assessing digitization work. Yet, what was particularly interesting in Kuutti’s presentation – I found – was that the question was also flipped around from focusing uniquely on how much we should be able to see to how much we actually can see when we are sitting in the cinema, watching the cinema screen from different angles and viewing positions. Guiding the attendants through mathematical layouts of possible audience experiences and perceptions of resolution in a cinema, Kuutti explained how we might reconsider and reframe the discussion of resolution standards in digital projection from this different perspective.

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Diagram from Mikko Kuutti’s presentation explaining his calculations of visions of the cinema screen from different distances in a cinema.

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From the Swiss archival world it was also an eye-opener to see the talk given by David Landoff, Director of the small predominantly volunteer-driven cinémathèque Lichtspiel Kino in Bern, which was founded in 2000 on the basis of the extensive collection of Bernese film technician Walther A. Ritschard. Lichtspiel Kino is a small film heritage institution with a broad scope of preservation of films, technology and film-related material, which stresses the importance of letting visitors interact with objects held in the institution’s collections, with – it appears – an almost invisible line between exhibition space and collection vault. To demonstrate how this interaction takes place on a daily basis, Landoff’s presentation was mostly made up of photos from screenings – with only very few comments, a feature of Landoff’s presentation which I think worked very effectively – and behind-the-scenes preservation work to display remarkable depictions of objects, workshops and screenings at the institution. The photo below which was a part of the presentation depicts the cinema of the Lichtspiel Kino which shows how closely these two spheres of the institution are connected.

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Lichtspiel Kino

A screening at the Lichtspiel kino in Bern. More photos from David Landoff’s presentation can be found here.

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To explain the advantages of this setting, Landoff played a pun on filmmaker and co-founder of the Austrian Filmmmuseum Peter Kubelka’s idea of an Unsichtbare Kino – also more widely known in English as ‘Invisible Cinema’ – the cinema design which Kubelka made for the Anthology Film Archives in New York and the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna where one is completely immersed in a black box cinema and where the cinema seat is an actual booth which separates the spectator from the person sitting in the adjoining chair to create a complete immersion. What the Lichtspiel Kino instead proposes to an educational end is a Sichtbare Kino, a ‘Visible Cinema’, where he cinema apparatus and collection is visible to the audience simultaneously with the screening.

Altogether it was a great day in Zürich which the Diastor team – including Claudy op den Kamp, David Pfluger and Franciska Heller under the direction of Barbara Flückiger – had put together. The program and presentations can be found here.

Luxembourg Ville, Université du Luxembourg, June 20-21: Dispositif workshop

Two weeks later on June 20 in the early morning I took a train from Amsterdam down to Luxembourg to discuss different variations of dispositif theory in philosophy and film theory at the Université de Luxembourg with a small group of dedicated researchers in architecture, philosophy and media studies coming from the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. The workshop was hosted by newly appointed Professor of Digital History Andreas Fickers at the Université du Luxembourg and was partly organized by the team of the collaborative research project of the Universities of Groningen and Maastricht on amateur film titled Changing platforms of ritualized memory practices: The cultural dynamics of home movies. The workshop provided a welcome forum for me to discuss many of the overlaps which the dispositif concept shares with related theoretical approaches such as Actor-Network Theory, Media Archaeology or just plain media theory for understanding techno-cultural networks and the agency of the elements which constitute them, which for me was one of the deeper concerns in the first year of my PhD-trajectory where I had to articulate a theoretical framework for my research. While it would go too far to depict the discussions in great detail here, my contribution discussed how the theory of history of French historian and anthropologist Michel de Certeau, which I find particularly interesting because of its emphasis on the agency of the tools and technologies with which sholars produce historical knowledge, could be combined with more recent rethinkings of the dispositif concept by film theorists and historians such as François Albera and Maria Tortajada as a way of understanding how digital formats such as DVDs, geomapping or videoessays in different ways sustain different discourses on film history.

A short report on the workshop written by one of the organizers, PhD Candidate at Maastricht University Tim van der Heijden, can be read here.

Bologna, La Cineteca di Bologna, 28 June-5 July: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014

I also attended this year’s edition of the film history festival Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the twentyeighth of its kind. It was my fifth time at Il Cinema Ritrovato since 2006 when I first attended and it was perhaps the edition I enjoyed the most. Things had changed – it appeared to me – since I last attended in 2012. First of all the evening programming had been expanded. Where the evening programs used to only offer one screening at around 22.00 in Bologna’s main square Piazza Maggiore one can now choose between several programs, for example in the little court yard in front of the Cineteca di Bologna – the Piazetta Pasolini – as well as in the Cineteca Lumère’s two cinemas: Mastroianni and Scorsese. As if it was not hard enough to choose between the different screenings throughout the daytime already this expansion of the program made it even more difficult, while also encouraging one to follow a small number of series consistently instead of trying to get a sense of everything.

This year I mainly followed the series Polish New Wave and Cinemascope in the Arlecchino Cinemascope theatre which was an opportunity to see a string of masterpieces by directors such as Andrzej Wajda or Andrzej Munk for the first time. I also followed the series Germaine Dulac, a Cinema of Sensations curated by American film scholar Tami Williams which aimed at revealing a largely unknown side of the vast production of French director Germaine Dulac beyond her widely lauded abstract and experimental films from the 1920s: her documentary production and her now lesser known mainstream dramas which were quite successful in the time in which they were released. I also attended especially the second half of the series dedicated to American director William Wellman – William Wellman, Between Silent and Sound.

In these programs Wajda’s Popioly (Ashes, 1965) was certainly a personal highlight at this year’s edition; a four hour visually spellbinding war epic showing the havoc of the Napoleon wars in Poland which constantly takes narrative twists and turns to follow different characters and slowly build them up. A truly stunning film. While more playful and absurd in its storyline Wojchiech Has’ The Zaragoza Manuscript (Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965) provided a similar experience with its gothic style and constant narrative twists which in a  mise-en-abyme fashion jumps from anecdote to anecdote to add a new layer to the story over three and a half hours to a point where one almost looses track of the narrative thread while remaining curious throughout. The programme was also an opportunity for me to Andrzej Munk’s classic The Passenger (Pasazerka, 1963) and Wajda’s Samson (1961) which both deal with the Holocaust in striking ways.

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Germaine Dulac’s La cigarette (1919)

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The Germaine Dulac programme was perhaps the one I had been looking forward to the most. Curated by film scholar Tami Williams as a follow-up to the Dulac programme she had put together for Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2006, it aimed at screening the many films – dramas, documentaries and newsreels – in Dulac’s production which are virtually unknown today. I remember following the Dulac programme in 2006 where I saw La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) in the version restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum for the first time – a film and version which has since ranked among my absolute favourite films – so my expectations were very high. Perhaps too high, for apart from a few exceptions I generally found the part of Dulac’s production which was screened in this series somewhat a deception. At several times I just did not connect to the dramas on many levels, with storylines and cinematography which appeared surprisingly conservative, tedious and stylistically unimaginative to me, having only seen her more canonized abstract films. The gypsy drama La folie des vaillants (1925) was perhaps the only of the fiction films in the program which I found truly gripping with its high-strung story of impossible love between a beautiful young woman and a violin virtuoso ending in an unexpected act of revenge. Among the newsreels which Dulac produced it was very interesting to get a sense of her synchronous sound experiments around 1930 in films such as Celles qui s’en font and Ceux qui s’en font (both 1930) which tried to connect contemporary tunes to gramophone records being played on-screen.

Yet, while I was generally not blown away by what I saw and heard at the Dulac screenings it also left me with a wish to explore her films in greater depth. The last film in the program – Dulac’s earliest surviving drama La cigarette (1919) – was unpacked so well by Tami Williams after the screening, that I felt I should have invested even more effort in preparing for this program as the films appeared much richer than what I had experienced during the screenings after hearing Williams explain the films’ symbolism, references and political implications. Williams has very recently published a monograph on Dulac Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (University of Illinois Press, 2014) which promises to be a true page-turner, and presents itself as an ideal opportunity to familiarize myself more with this side of Dulac’s production.

Outside of the programs which I followed consistently some single films and events stood out as particularly great experiences. One was the Italian diva film Fior di male (Carmine Gallone, Cines, 1915) starring Lyda Borelli. A film from EYE Film Institute Netherland’s Jean Desmet collection which is closely associated with a rediscovery of colour in early cinema, following its screening in Pordenone in 1987 (something which film historian Ivo Blom writes about in his excellent monograph Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade (Amsterdam University Press, 2002)). Being a great fan of Italian horror cinema it was also a great event for me to finally get to see Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1958) which has been on my list of films to watch for several years. A film which has currently not been restored due to a copyright issue it was screened in a magnificently scratched 35mm print from a private collection at Il Cinema Ritrovato. A choice which only contributed to the sense of a truly special event. I Vampiri was even better than I had expected it to be as a piece of gothic ‘mad-scientist-hiding-in-a-cave-and-needy-of-young-beautiful-women-for-experiments’ horror film. Set in Paris and outskirts, it inscribes itself perfectly in the fantastic strand of filmmaking of Louis Feuillade or the contemporary films of Georges Franju and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Perhaps the absolute highlight of this year’s festival for me, was the screening of Austrian filmmaker and preservationist Peter Kubelka’s swan song Monument Film (2012), which I had not yet had the chance to see but which I had been following somewhat closely until now. In 2012, during the Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam, I participated in a master class with Peter Kubelka which comprised a screening of his entire oeuvre, except from Dichtung und Warheit (1996/2003), where Kubelka among other things explained his ideas for Monument Film and the effect that he wished to obtain with it. Monument Film is a project which departs from Kubelka’s metric film Arnulf Rainer (1960) which is a serialist film composition of a duration of approximately six minutes made up of the most elementary cinematic building blocks: light, darkness, silence and noise. Monument Film is in the following order a subsequent, simultaneous and combined projection of Arnulf Rainer and the exact counterpart its serial composition Antiphon, which Kubelka created in 2012. First one sees Arnulf Rainer which alternates between silence and white noise and black and white images. Then one sees Antiphon which does the same but being the exact opposite of Arnulf Rainer has sound in the places where Arnulf Rainer has not and vice versa, which is also the case for the images. After the subsequent screening, the films are screened next to each other in a double screen projection.

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Peter Kubelka in front of the screen while the double projection of Arnulf Rainer (1960) and Antiphon (2012) is being prepared.

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Then finally the films are rewound and the two prints are placed on top of each other and screened as such on a single screen. Contrary to what one may first assume this creates a film which consists only of white light and which has white noise on all of the soundtrack throughout. A truly stunning effect which creates a bombardment of the senses and serves as Kubelka’s passionate and ingenious manifesto against digital cinema suggesting that the light of analogue cinema may be eternal if we know how to appreciate and work with its most basic elements. In this manner Monument Film is something truly remarkable and conceptually extremely strong as a modernist piece of film art, and one could not wish for a more appropriate setting for the screening. The execution was flawless; the prints were perfect as was the projection and I am certain that this is the closest I will ever get to see Kubelka’s vision in its purest form. It is easy to get carried away by bombastic descriptors in trying to convey what it feels like to watch Monument Film, but sitting amidst the two projectors’ outpouring of white light and noise at the end of Monument Film having gone through the formal build-up, felt like being transported back to the future of an age where the potentiality of analogue film seemed endless and cinema a means for inducing trance and ecstasy. Today, Kubelka’s vision incites us to take this potential further and reminds us why the preservation of analogue film is crucial.

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Two projectors, a screen, and one of the world’s best cinémathèques, such is the appareil de base of Peter Kubelka’s Monument Film (2012).

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An equally monumental recent release is the three volume book set which the Austrian Filmmmuseum published this year on the occasion of their 50-year anniversary Fünfzig Jahre Österreichisches Filmmmuseum. 1964-2014. and which I managed to get hold of at Il Cinema Ritrovato’s book fair. A feast of articles and photo documentation from the institution’s history it should keep me busy on those long winter nights which are waiting around the corner.

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 My purchases this year at Il Cinema Ritrovato’s book fair.

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Lausanne, Université de Lausanne/École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, July 8-10: DH2014

July 8-10, I participated in the annual conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations in Lausanne, Switzerland. Here, I presented a paper together with Jasmijn van Gorp, Assistant Professor of media studies at the University of Utrecht, which was co-written with my supervisor Professor Julia Noordegraaf and Giovanna Fossati, Professor of Film Heritage and Digital Film Culture at the University of Amsterdam and Chief Curator at EYE Film Institute Netherlands. Our paper was part of a pre-conference workshop called Sound and (moving) images in focus, which hosted a discussion on the use of digitised audiovisual collections in e-humanities research, departing from the observation that the current wave of digital scholarship mainly has affected disciplines such as history, archaeology and literature in a manner which neglects the large-scale digitisation of audiovisual collections and their potential for researchers.

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Bruno Latour giving the keynote opening lecture at DH2014 in Lausanne.

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In the framework of this workshop we presented the outline of an incipient research project on EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Jean Desmet collection; a collection which, inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register since 2011, has been vital internationally for scholars researching early silent cinema cultures and technologies. The project is titled ‘Data-Driven Film History: developing a demonstrator of EYE’s Jean Desmet collection’ and started this month – September 2014 – and I will be the Project Manager in it during the coming eight months. Hopefully it will produce a new way to look at EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Jean Desmet collection with digital tools of analysis, currently however it is too early to tell exactly how as it is still ‘in the making’, but we plan to focus among other things on chromatic experience in silent cinema, thinking of a way to visualize how programs varied in their colour compositions in early cinema programming.

The conference also offered a highly entertaining keynote opening lecture by French sociologist Bruno Latour who presented some reflections on his latest book project In Inquiry into Modes of Existence from 2013.

SCMS 2014

I am currently attending the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. The 55th of its kind which is taking place in Seattle this year. Yesterday I gave a talk to a small but dedicated crowd on video essays as a (possible) research practice in film historical scholarship and was overall quite happy with how it went. You can read the abstract for my presentation below.

So, now it is time to enjoy a wealth of great talks and projections until Sunday. I am especially looking forward to Saturday’s screening of Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1957/1962) together with a program of classic experimental films by among others Jud Yalkut. The remaining days will also be a time for meeting people with whom I share research interests and who I do not get a chance to see often, and of course to drink coffee; Seattle is full of great cafés!

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From Film Historiography to Videography: Film Historical Video Essays as Scolarly Research Practice 

Recently established online academic journals and video communities such as Frames Cinema Journal and Audiovisualcy testify to an increased tendency to research film history in the form of video essays. While films on film history have existed in the forms of compilation films since the 1920s as a means of discerning aesthetically significant films, and in filmic appropriation art and documentaries since the late 1960s at a nexus with academic film history, the proliferation of scholarly video essays indicates that audiovisual film history is gaining momentum as a conventional scholarly practice. With attention to this development, this paper adresses the need for developing standards for assessing scholarly video essays and critically evaluate the perspectives they establish on film history. The aim of raising such a discussion the paper stresses, is to facilitate the further integration of the scholarly video essay into academia as a research practice. To answer how this could be done, the paper proposes a conceptual avenue which combines meta-historical perspectives from scholarship on filmic appropration art and current debates in digital humanities on the evaluation of digital scholarship.

To bridge these two perspectives the paper takes its cue from the recent introduction to digital scholarship, Digital_Humanities (MIT Press, 2012), co-authored by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp which invokes the subjective filmmaking of Chris Marker and Errol Morris as a conceptual model for evaluating time-based digital scholarship1. Departing from their proposition, the paper reflects upon the intersection between scholarly film historiography and independent filmmaking, thinking along the lines of film scholar Bart Testa’s conception of filmic appropriations as ”pedagogical interventions” applicable for teaching in film studies curricula (Testa, 1992) and the meta-historical perspective developed by film scholar Christa Blümlinger on the appropration works of Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Jacobs and Alexander Kluge (Blümlinger, 2009). Mobilizing key concepts from these scholars’ works such as moment, materiality and re-enactment in relation to examples of video essays from Frames and Audiovisualcy, the paper expounds on these concepts’ applicability as scholarly standards for evaluating film historical video essays, to conclusively propose a new direction for their further integration into scholarly practice.

Perforated by accident – When a digital film transfer accidentally becomes structural filmmaking

Back in 2012 I bought a handful of Soviet silent classics by Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet, Yakov Protazanov and Aleksandr Dovzhenko from the French DVD publisher Bach films. Overall, the digital transfers of the films which can be found on these DVDs are of a very varying quality: sometimes they are pretty decent, while other times the image is fuzzy leaving no doubt that the transfer has been made from a VHS source of very dubious quality.

In spite of this, the DVDs are quite interesting and come highly recommended. They always contain interesting extras; rare shorts of the mentioned directors, television documentaries on the directors and actors (especially the release of Protazanov’s Father Sergius (1917) which contains the excellent documentary on actor Ivan Mozzhukhin’s life and career in Paris, Ivan Mosjoukine ou l’enfant du carnaval (Galina Domatovskaia, 1999)). In addition, the DVDs – at least when found in shops and not online – are usually in the price range of three euros which makes the personal economic casualty of buying a DVD with a bad transfer of a hard-to-find film quite bearable.

But there are also more unforeseeable effects to be experienced when looking at these films in these particular editions – looking is meant here in the sense intended by many film preservationists who tend to ignore content or story, while paying attention to a film’s material properties. Poor digital transfers is of course the result of carelessly supervised transferring and this leaves room for some artifacts within the image of several of these films which the most neatly restored versions of film classics from other DVD companies such as for example the Criterion Collection and Masters of CInema would probably never leave in there. Often I have witnessed artifacts which were printed- in, in the film copy to then remain in the digital transfer of a film: of course cue dots from 35mm prints which is quite common to encounter but also more interestingly, on the Bach films editions, sprocket holes appearing in the midst of the frame running over the screen.

The effect created by the latter type of artifacts was particularly striking and peculiar when I watched the edition of The New Babylon (Grigori Kosintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1929), an effect which I cannot recall ever experiencing in my career as a DVD aficionado. It could be said to add a material reflexive dimension to this classic silent film, which depicts the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871, centering on a troubled love story between two individuals on each their side of the conflict between the commune and republican France; a doubting soldier and a militant woman. The transfer had quite evidently been made from a VHS, but nonetheless it was clear that these printed-in artifacts had remained in the frame, very far from where they should be in this type of film. Curiously, I registered that the presence of these artifacts reached its highest intensity in the film’s climactic scenes when the Paris Commune falls. All of a sudden, sprocket holes appear in the midst of battle scenes, while the troubled lovers stare at them running over the screen. This made the film appear as anything but a silent classic, but rather a materialist film in the vein of 1960s and 1970s structural filmmaking such as George Landow’s classic Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966), or more recent found footage works such as Peter Tscherkassky’s Cinemascope Trilogy (1997-2001), especially actress Barbara Hershey’s heroic fight with sprocket holes and optical soundtracks in Outer Space‘s (Peter Tscherkassky, 2000) flickering climax.

This accidental analogy made me think that, while slickness and clean images usually are the first things many would associate with digital imagery – and especially digital transfers – the reality of digitisation is much more complex, and sometimes as in the case of Bach films transfers can induce involuntary reflection on the materialities of film in the digital domain. While one could ponder at length about the deontology and ethics involved – or rather lacking – in such transferring practices, I prefer to think of them in this case – and with a touch of irony – of an accidental material reflexivity which can invite further interrogation and reflection on what the transition from analog to digital implies for our experience of film classics and archival films.

I have made a couple of screen captures – a feature of the digital viewing experience which enables me to indulge in this phenomenon – which I include here below. The characters in these shots are thoughtfully looking toward the perforations, to the right in the first example, almost in an angelic manner in the second, slightly confused in the third and (perhaps) perplexed in the fourth.

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