EYE Residency 1 – Research and encounters with Vedrès’ and Crama’s visual film histories

This academic year I have been invited by the EYE Filmmuseum to be the institution’s first scholar in its new Artist and Scholar-in-Residence program. A press release was send out to announce this end November last year. The programme has been launched to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Collection. It gives one scholar and an artist the opportunity to work on and with material from the collection with access to its facilities and the great expertise of the Filmmuseum’s staff. Besides me, the artist Alexandra Navratil – whose work you can read more about here – has also been invited.

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A picture of me at EYE Filmmuseum’s Collection Center in Amsterdam Noord.

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It is a great honor for me to accept this invitation and also a unique opportunity for me to do research on parts of the collection which I have wanted to look into for a long time. The research I do in this context – while it is a small independent project on its own – nicely ties in with research I am currently doing within a few other projects which also involve EYE Filmmuseum. These projects are the video annotation project MIMEHIST which I have previously written about here – as well as the project The Sensory Moving Image Archive (SEMIA) – which I am yet to write about (blog posts about that will follow and are in the making). SEMIA is a project which aims to enable artistic and creative reuse of parts of the collections of EYE Filmmuseum and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. In SEMIA media historians and heritage professionals collaborate with computer scientists to extract data on different image features such as colour, movement, shape and texture to enable artists and creative users to make data visualisations of patterns and similarities in the collections in a non-evidentiary manner. Roughly this means that they can create video works and visualizations based on the collection which, rather than visualizing data for the purpose of supporting stylistic or aesthetic analyses – what scholars refer to as stylometry – seeks to visualize patterns in more intuitive and exploratory ways so as to potentially challenge the patterns which scholars observe. Yet, the project will also benefit media historical research in that it seeks to produce a search interface which allows to browse films and videos in the two collections based on visual features extracted with visual analytics software rather than with descriptive metadata. The SEMIA project’s emphasis on appropriation and artistic research offers the point of departure for my current research as Scholar-in-Residence at EYE Filmmuseum.

In this post I will offer context on my research, discuss some preliminary findings and comment on a few works by filmmakers Nicole Vedrès and Nico Crama which I have been looking into.

Research during my residency at the EYE Filmmuseum

My project as a Scholar-in-Residence takes the cue from the SEMIA project and builds on my longstanding interest in experimental found footage filmmaking, recycled cinema practices and current videographic film studies. After encountering filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky‘s work sometime in 2006 I became interested in the Austrian avant-garde and the ways in which found footage filmmaking keeps mutating and productively yields new insights into film historiography and archival collections and challenge traditional written scholarship and its assumptions. Reading Nicole Brenez’ succinct Cartographie du Found Footage (2000) around that time – one of the most formative film studies essays I have ever read – I have since sought to understand how film history and its development may be depicted and analyzed with various audiovisual means. This is something I have previously written about here.

Such filmmaking practices are particularly topical today as it becomes increasingly accepted for scholars to make audiovisual essays as actual publications and research output as a consequence of the emergence of videographic film studies in recent years. While scholars may not be as artistically acute as the pioneering found footage experimentalists it is certainly refreshing to see how practices developed in an artistic realm inform contemporary scholarly audiovisual essays, videography and audiovisualcy and have paved the ways for new types of scholarship.

In a way, I feel the emergence of videographic film studies allows scholars today to explore a kind of audiovisualcy – to use the term advocated by the Vimeo group created by film scholar Catherine Grant – which cinephiles and film scholars have made the case for since the very early days. There are many examples which one may cite to illustrate how scholars have wanted to understand film with its proper means throughout the history of film scholarship. Personally, I find the following quote from G.-Michel Coissac’s 1925-monograph Histoire du cinématographe. De ses origines jusqu’à nos jours (Éditions du “Cinéopse”, 1925) fascinating in the way in which it highlights the instructive nature of Julien Duvivier and Henri Lepage’s film on film history La machine à refaire la vie (1924) (which I translate to the best of my ability here):

In the beginning of the year 1924, two young directors, Misters Julien Duvivier and Henri Lepage, made La machine à refaire la vie, a film approximately 3000 metres long, which, better than any text, allows to follow the accomplished progress and to observe them, by letting the different productions obtained from each period follow each other in succession on the screen. Nothing is more eloquent and instructive than this view of scenes from the same films made at years of distance and which are the best demonstration of cinema’s technical evolution.

Since that point in time, multifarious ways of exploring film history through filmmaking and videography have emerged and I feel it is pertinent to say this is a particularly crucial moment for film scholarship because we can finally rework (digitized) films quite easily to present arguments about them, instead of only writing texts.

Working on the SEMIA project – which will enable new data-driven artistic and historiographic practices of reuse – raises the question on how the outcome will complement current videographic practices and the appropriation works associated with the EYE Filmmuseum. Historically the Filmmuseum has been at the forefront of inviting artists to work with their collections to various ends – among them historiographic. It holds a special place in the history of found footage filmmaking, in particular because of its Bits & Pieces collection and the appropriations of its archival material in the works of artists such as Fiona Tan and Gustav Deutsch. Thus, taking the SEMIA project and my interest in found footage and videographic film studies as departure points, my research during my residency aims to critically understand the project in relation to earlier filmic appropriation works associated with the Filmmuseum. The goal is to offer historical context to the project so as to elucidate its historiographic potential and indicate productive future research avenues. In this regard, my research does not only look back at the found footage practices which emerged in the 1980s in a new light – which numerous scholars have already studied in great depth – but also considers the Filmmuseum’s earlier compilation films and documentaries which made use of its collection or which it programmed, so as to hopefully yield a more encompassing cartography of the reuse practices which the institution has engendered as a basis for comparative analysis of past and present practices. When the research is over this summer I aim to have produced a concise article which discusses three different practices and periods: first, compilation films and documentary works from (or acquired in) the 1930s to the 1960s; second, the 1980s and 1990s found footage practices mentioned above, which I will study in a new light by attending to parts of EYE’s business archive; and third more recent artistic data-driven projects such as Jan Bot and the outcomes of SEMIA.

In the remaining parts of this post I offer a few preliminary observations on the first focus of my research, compilation films and documentary works from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Compilations and compilation films at the Filmmuseum – Forgotten Histories?

The first part of my research looks at early compilation films on film history acquired or produced by EYE Filmmuseum between its earliest years and up until the end of the 1960s. In this period, the Filmmuseum made or acquired numerous films which reflected on film history to screen to audiences both to teach film history and emphasize the value of its preservation work. This could take the form of compilations of scenes or new works. Regarding the former, film scholar Bregt Lameris writes:

…the Filmmuseum deliberately chose to isolate specific fragments from the rest of the film because they considered them to hold specific importance for the discourse on the history of cinema. (Lameris, 2017, p. 50)

These works tend to receive little attention. They are seen as reflecting purely documentary and educational aspirations and as coming across as too overtly didactic, rather than exploring (film) history from subjective perspectives. Furthermore, they are often dismissed because of what scholars today  qualify – and in many cases for very good reasons – to be simplistic views on film history and unnecessarily teleological accounts of film history’s masterpieces.

Yet, as scholars increasingly embrace videographic film studies there seems to be a renewed appreciation of such films, in a pursuit to establish alternative origin points for contemporary practices in order to understand them in a broader spectrum of educational, scholarly initiatives. For instance, in a recent article film scholar Volker Pantenburg has made the case for going beyond the canonical essayistic works of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard as touchstones for videographic film studies to reconsider the educational television documentaries of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in relation to contemporary videographic film studies. Along these lines, Pantenburg makes the case for doing new archival research to dig out and critically reconsider works which we seldom consider important.

It is in a somewhat similar fashion that I have been digging into the Filmmuseum’s archive to see what what films on film history are in there and what views on film history they represent, looking both at analogue and digital copies. In my research so far I have created a (yet non-exhaustive) list of compilation films and documentaries from the Filmmuseum’s Collection, which consists of the following titles:

  • Veertig jaar cinematografie (B.D. Ochse, Willy Mullens, Cornelis Simon Roem, NL, Haghe Film, 1936)
  • The Beginnings of the Cinema (UK, British Film Institute, 1938)
  • Film and Reality (Alberto Cavalcanti & Ernest Lindgren, UK, British Film Institute, 1942)
  • La naissance du cinéma (Roger Leenhardt, France, Les films du compas, 1946)
  • Uit de oude Doos (NL, Nicolaas Körmendy, 1948, Haghe Film (Den Haag))
  • Paris 1900 (Nicole Vedrès, Frankrijk, 1948 – 1949, Panthéon)
  • Eerste stappen (NFM, NL, 1954)
  • De Geboorte van een nieuwe kunst (Nederland, Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1954)
  • Het gebeurde gisteren (Wim Povel, NL, Polygoon Profilti Producties, 1957)
  • Aan de wieg der jongste muze (NL, Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1961)
  • Images fantastiques (Nico Crama, NL, 1962)
  • Het witte doek (Nico Crama, Nederland, Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1964)

Several of these films have been easy to find because they are labelled as “Film historical reflections” in EYE’s catalogue (“filmhistorische reflectie”), while others that deal with film history as a subject are less obvious even though they could clearly fit within this category.

Yet, beyond their place within this category it is not always easy to determine for some of the Dutch titles whether a film has been produced by the Nederlands Filmmuseum or just acquired by it for screening and distribution purposes. For instance, the two films Eerste stappen and De Geboorte van een nieuwe kunst are archived as Filmmuseum productions and also cited elsewhere as such. However, the prints’ physical appearance suggests something else. As Mark-Paul Meyer, Senior Curator at EYE Filmmuseum, who assisted me in the viewing of these prints, pointed out to me, it is rather peculiar that these two films – both dated 1954 – have a variable density soundtrack. This indicates they could be made much earlier. We tried to determine this by going back to the old title cards of the films to see when they had been acquired. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that one. For this reason, some of the list’s Dutch titles cannot in a clear-cut way be considered as one corpus of films produced by the Filmmuseum, and I am currently still trying to establish the exact filmography details of them. Yet, their existence in the collection certainly reflect how films acquired and screened by the institution in a certain period also reflected specific views of film history.

Content-wise, several of these films do show a very traditional, teleological view of film history in the way they establish a birth-maturity pattern in their appropriation of the material they work with. One such instance is the film Aan de wieg der jongste muze, produced by the Filmmuseum in 1961 using materials from its collection, which states in its introductory title: “Film is only a lifetime old. At birth she was only futile and helpless as a baby”. This is not an isolated example and one can certainly see how this invites an understanding of them as quite old-school in their understanding of film history.

However there are also titles which do not fit into this picture at all. This concerns the works of Nicole Vedrès and Nico Crama which show more playful and essayistic approaches in their appropriations of archival sources. In the past few months I have been doing a bit of research on their work and am currently writing it up. In the concluding two parts  I share a few preliminary remarks.

Nicole Vedrès Visual Film Histories

During my research I came across a film which I have wanted to see for years since first reading about it but never got the chance to: Nicole Védrès’ Paris 1900 (France, 1947). This film has often been referred to as an early example of an archive-based production in a vein of essayistic and/or found footage filmmaking. For instance at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna where it had quite a revival in a recently restored version as part of a retrospective of Vedrès work curated by Emilie Cauquy and Bernard Eisenschitz  (a video recording of a round table discussion with Vedrès’ son Laurent Vedrès, Cauquy and Eisenschitz can be viewed here). Unfortunately I could not attend Il Cinema Ritrovato last year, but now I got the chance to make up for this by watching the Filmmuseum’s print which contains a Dutch introduction and titles.

Paris 1900 is a work consisting of archival footage which depicts Paris’ belle epoque and its intellectual and cultural life and habits, while tracing its decline and the emergence of conflict and war sentiments in the pre-WWI years. As such it interrogates a brief defining transitional moment in the twentieth century which invites us to think about the passage of time, our changing collective memory and power structures.

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Watching one of EYE Filmmuseum’s copies of Paris 1900 (Nicole Védrès, France, 1947) at the EYE Collection Centre in Amsterdam North.

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This title is particularly interesting for my research in several ways. First of all it intertwines in interesting ways with the Filmmuseum’s own history. As one can read in film historian and preservationist André Stufkens’ monograph Redder van de tiende muze. Jan de Vaal en het Nederlands Filmmuseum 1946 – 1987 (Uitgeverij IJzer, 2016) on Jan de Vaal – the Nederlands Filmmuseum’s director from 1946 to 1987 – the film was one of the first films bought by the Nederlands Filmmuseum – a very significant budget post at the time which necessitated loans – as a way to advocate the importance of film archiving. I would refrain from reading too much into this circumstance by aligning Jan de Vaal’s acquisition decision with Vedrès visionary appropriation of archival footage. Yet, I do find it exciting to think of this film’s early acquisition by the Filmmuseum as serendipitously establishing a beginning point for the institution’s strong commitment to lyrical and associative forms of filmmaking in the archive. The film’s simultaneously poignant historical portrayal and lyrical appropriation seems to nicely encapsulate the Filmmuseum’s origins in two very different collections which it merged with in 1952; the artistic and avant-garde repertoire films of the Uitkijk collections and the more overtly documentary collection of the Nederlandsch Historisch Film Archief. In any case, it is certainly a strong example of the richness of early filmic appropriation as a means to understand film history.

Going beyond the institutional frame of EYE Filmmuseum, Vedrès’ historiographical approach also, I feel, deserves much more recognition and attention for the visionary approach it articulated during WWII and in the immediate postwar years. In particular her monograph Images du cinéma français, which consists almost entirely of film images of French cinema’s history up to that point is a deeply fascinating work. Made as a dream-like exploration of film images in a surreal fashion – the book includes a foreword by surrealist poet Paul Éluard which stresses these qualities – the juxtapositions  of the images associate motifs of image features across periods, genres and styles. For instance, the volcanic eruption of Méliès’ 1902-film L’Éruption du Mont Pelée (if I am not mistaken also known as Éruption volcanique à la Martinique) is associated with images of the exploding Eiffel Tower in Luitz-Morat’s La Cité foudroyée (France, 1924).

As Eisenschitz has highlighted in an eminent background article on Images du cinéma français  in Trafic, the book suggests an a-hierarchical visual film history which may be considered as a counter-point to the more traditional masterpiece histories of the time which – in the way in which it used material from la Cinematheque française – also offered a blueprint for especially Henri Langlois’ exhibition practices. In brief, this is truly an astonishing and important work which Paris 1900 should be related to, in order to understand its visual analysis. I include a few scans from my own copy of the book below for an impression.

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Nico Crama’s Film History Films

Another filmmaker’s work I am looking into in my research is that of Nico Crama. In the Netherlands, and in Dutch film scholarship in particular, Nico Crama is a quite well known filmmaker because of his significant and pioneering contribution to animation and documentary film as well as his work as a producer, for instance of works by Frans Zwartjes and Paul Verhoeven. Crama made a few films – Images fantastiques 1962) and Het witte doek (1964) in collaboration with the Filmmuseum which highlighted different aspects of the institution’s activities while offering reflections on film history’s development. While the didactic aspirations of these films are clear they are far from being stale teleological tales of cinema’s birth but are rather playful in their approach showing clear affinities with the New Wave sensibilities of the time.

Het witte doek – which can roughly be translated into the white screen (or canvas to be exact) – is a four-part documentary which focuses first on early cinema, then on the relation between film and literature, la nouvelle vague and the human on film. The first part is particularly interesting as a film historical reflection in the way in which it takes the cue from the Lumière brothers first train films to dissect a contemporary documentary production taking place at the Gevers Deynoot square in Scheveningen, The Hague, where a tram is seen arriving and the activities on the square filmed. The film takes a reflexive approach almost reminiscent of contemporary cinéma verité filmmaking as a way to pedagogically show what film production entails and where it came from explaining it to contemporary audiences in a historical perspective.

Images fantastiques is, I think, a little gem. In its first part, Images fantastiques playfully incorporates archival material from the Filmmuseum’s collection – for instance poster material from the Jean Desmet Collection – into an animated sequence which shows differences in cinema-going at three points in time: first early cinema, then at around 1930 and finally at the point in time the film was made, when New Wave and modernist filmmaking were prominent in film programming. The film’s second part documents a screening of the Filmmuseum’s traveling cinema installed in The Hague, focusing on the encounter of a modern audience with a museal restaging of early cinema exhibition practices. In its depiction of the differences, the film is at the same time instructive and highly entertaining. In the animated sequence, the three different eras of cinema-going are depicted in three episodes where a spectator is seen leaving home, entering a cinema hall – richly illustrated with typical cinema posters of the time – to watch different films and responding to them in different ways. These episodes go backwards in time from the 1960s to early cinema. In the 1960s sequence, a glass-wearing deadpan intellectual is seen watching Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (France, 1959). In the early 1930s second sequence, a spectator is amused by Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (Germany, 1930). And finally, in the early cinema sequence, a spectator laughs out loud from watching the Pathé Frères comedy Rosalie et son phonographe (Roméo Bosetti, France, 1911). While clearly indebted to the time’s New Wave filmmaking, Crama’s Images fantastiques seems to suggest that film-going might have been more fun in the early days and may thus be taken to challenge the view that saw this period as merely a primitive forerunner. I include screen grabs from the three sequences below to give an illustration.

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While EYE Filmmuseum has a few titles by Crama and also holds his paper archive in its collection, Crama’s filmic work is preserved by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum. The institute has made several of his works freely available for viewing online here among which both Het witte doek and Images fantastiques.

These are just some of the films I have been looking into and which have surprised me in my research. By considering these titles within a broader reflection on moving image appropriation and artistic reuse I hope I will be able to yield a more fine-grained picture of the Filmmusuem’s commitment to videographic film studies in a past and present perspective, from its early days and leading up to the SEMIA project.

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Eisenschitz, Bernard, “Le film de papier (Images du cinéma français de Nicole Vedrès, 1945)”, in Trafic, no. 100 (2016)

Lameris, Bregt. Film Museum Practice and Film Historiography – The Case of the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Pantenburg, Volker, “Towards an alternative history of the video essay: Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne” in Necsus, Vol. 5, No. 12 (2017)

Seligardi, Beatrice. “Cinema Ritrovato 2017: “Paris 1900” e Nicole Vedrès, pioniera del found footage”, blog post on Cinefilia ritrovata, July 1, 2017.

Stufkens, André. Jan de Vaal en het Nederlands Filmmuseum 1946 – 1987. Utrecht: Uitgeverij IJzer, 2016.

Vedrès, Nicole. Images du cinéma français. Paris: Les Éditions du chêne, 1945.

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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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Ken Jacobs and Early Cinema Studies

Tuesday next week I have the great honor of presenting a film program titled ‘Ken Jacobs and Early Cinema Studies’ around Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (USA, 1969-71)in the EYE Filmmuseum’s E-Cinema Academy screening series. Apart from Jacobs’ film the program will feature works by Noël Burch and Peter Tscherkassky. Below you can read my description of the program and background essay which were posted on E-Cinema Academy’s blog.

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EYE on Art

Program Description

Tom, Tom

This evening presents a program dedicated to Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971). The films in the program highlights its contribution to the revision of early cinema’s history, which occurred throughout the 1970s, and its repercussions in contemporary experimental filmmaking.

Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son appropriates cameraman Billy Bitzer’s homonymous film from 1905. When Jacobs rented an archival print of it for teaching purposes in the late 1960s, he was astonished by its composition which, not containing the conventional analytical editing of later mainstream cinema, made it difficult to discern the central action and characters. To explore and understand its form and modes of address, Jacobs began performing with the film on an analytical projector with a variable-speed function in reverse and forward projection mode, and to focus on details in the image by filming it from behind a translucent screen. The…

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A note on 1920s film historiography in Paris and Marcel L’Herbier’s ‘L’Homme du large’ (1920)

Since last summer I have been increasingly interested in exploring the works of the French 1920s avant-garde directors – Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Abel Gance, Louis Delluc and Marcel L’Herbier – beyond the most well known films from this period, which were programmed in the first year of my film and media studies program in Copenhagen in 2005/2006: films such as Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928) or Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1926). While those films were absolutely eye-opening to me back then and left me with a completely different view on what film could be I never made the effort to dig as deep into that period as I would have liked. Film-viewing-wise, I remember I was mostly busy watching Italian classics and exploitation cinema back then.

However, all that changed when I began reading up on early film history writing and the recognition of film as an art form last year as a part of my research. In particular I became interested in the gradual discursive change toward film and the perception of film as an art form and its institutionalization in French film criticism, theory and ciné-club culture in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. In this respect, one of the critics and key figures of this moment whose early film histories have interested me in particular is Léon Moussinac. Moussinac belonged to the inner circle of film critics and theorists in Paris and was a militant supporter of film as an art form, playing a central role in recognizing for example Soviet cinema as such – in particular Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein – through his central engagement in the communist ciné-club Les amis de Spartacus, which was launched in the summer of 1927. Probably the best introduction to this period and its milieu has been written by the American film historian Richard Abel in his book French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929 (Princeton University Press, 1987), which in retrospect regards this particular period with its cinephile cinema-going habits and critic-filmmaker figures as a ‘first wave’ preceding the later French Nouvelle Vague and its mixture of popular cultural and neo-avantgardist attitudes. A little introduction to Moussinac written by Abel can be found here. In French, perhaps the sociological analysis proposed by film conservator and historian of the French National Library Christophe Gauthier in his La Passion du cinéma: ciné-clubs, cinéphiles et salles spécialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929 (AFRHC/EDC, 1999) remains one of the most engaging studies of the period which I have come across, partly because it investigates the links between collection building in the 1920s ciné-clubs and film preservation extensively.

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Léon Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma (J. Povolovzky & Cie, Éditeurs, 1925)

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Léon Moussinac wrote several film histories throughout the 1920s, both general ones and film histories focused on national cinemas, on for example Soviet cinema (Le Cinéma Soviétique, Librairie Gallimard, 1928). Arguably, his most influential film histories are the early Naissance du Cinéma (J. Povolovzky & Cie, Éditeurs, 1925) and Panoramique du Cinéma (Au sans pareil, 1929), because of their discernment of a set frame of reference for films which in the eyes of the 1920s cinephiles had contributed to the establishment of film as an art form (these books can still be found at quite reasonable prices online!). What I find particularly fascinating in reading these books today is the detailed insight they give into the canon formation and appreciation of silent films which are still with us and which continue to be taught as key films in the history of cinema, while at the same time, they may give an impression of some of the films which tend perhaps to be forgotten today and enjoyed only within specialized circles. Furthermore, it is intriguing to  go through them because they nourish an understanding of how contemporary film theory in its conceptualization of film as an art form laid the foundation for film history writing. The structure and content of Moussinac’s Naissance du cinéma is for example particularly interesting in this aspect, with an opening statement which serves to legitimize film as art, by proposing a list of films that are particularly artistic and a theoretical conception with which to discern then.

The book opens with the kind of statement which is for the most part abandoned in film history writing today (and for a good reason I would say, but arguably a quite necessary form of history at its time) because of its teleological conception of history. As Moussinac writes on page 7:

We are living in admirable and profoundly touching times. In the great turmoil of the modern an art is born, develops, discovering one after one its proper laws, marches slowly towards perfection, an art which will be the very expression, bold, powerful, original, the ideal of the new times. And it is a long hard stage, towards the beauty, in which too few yet believe because they have not fully understood its astounding truth. (Own translation).

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Nous vivons des heures admirables et profondément émouvantes. Dans le grand trouble moderne, un art naît, se développe, découvre une à une ses propres lois, marche lentement vers sa perfection, un art qui sera l’expression même, hardie, puissante, originale, de l’idéal des temps nouveaux. Et c’est une longue et dure étape, à la beauté de laquelle trop peu croient encore parce qu’ils n’en ont pas compris pleinement la formidable vérité. (Original quote).

This is followed by a little list which indicates the most important stages (étapes) in this development toward the birth of an art form consisting mostly of European (French, German, Swedish) and North American fiction films, with a strong emphasis on the French avant-garde represented by the films of Louis Delluc, Marcel L’Herbier, Abel Gance and Jean Epstein. That the films of the latter were recognized as particularly artistic pertained to a view which became increasingly common on French film criticism, theory and distribution at the time that conceptualized as of French films as particularly artistic. This is visible in Moussinac’s Naissance du Cinéma in its extensive use of the notion of photogénie as the foundation for its theoretical conception (‘conception théorique’). This term, while used with subtle and important differences in nuance in the writings of Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc and Moussinac, sought to capture or formulate the subjective experience of a particularly beautiful cinematic moment, usually of a very short duration: a gesture, an expression or for example a detail in cinematography and mise-en-scène which appears striking because of a particularly aesthetic quality. The identification of these moments of cinematic beauty what was led the French cinephiles to make their lists of the most artistic films, in contemporary film reviews which would then serve as support for a historicisation of film art’s development.

It may seem somewhat dubious that the French tended to acknowledge their own cinema as a particularly artistic one in this period (and it may very well be the case to some extent, given that this historical view excluded so many other films) but I think it is quite important to keep in mind that the dynamic of this conception of cinema which is visible in for example Moussinac’s writings cinema may be regarded – in line with the argument in Abel’s history of the period – as very much similar to that of the later “second wave” – the Nouvelle Vague. Here seemed quite simply to be a group of individuals – more or less like-minded – who missed something more daring from their own cinema production, being – in the case of some – fascinated by developments in American, Soviet and Scandinavian cinema, thus promoting at the same time film art through film criticism/theory and filmmaking. It is exactly because of these qualities that I have begun seeking out the 1920s French avant-garde films to a greater extent, to gain insight into how a common conception of film history as it continues to be taught today emerged. Of course, it is also to watch some truly remarkable films!

Thus, yesterday evening I had the immense pleasure of watching Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Homme du large for the first time (1920). This is in some respects a breakthrough film for L’Herbier being a great success with contemporary film critics and with a general audience. It is a powerful drama about a little family living by the seaside, in which the father – Nolff – badly wishes to get a son, in addition to his daughter, with whom he can share and teach his passion for the sea. However, when finally the son – Michel – is born, he is drawn instead to the city from which the family had moved to live itself by the sea. Developing a more and more intense antipathy towards his father who remains blindly faithful and loving of his son almost regardless of his conduct, Michel eventually ends being tangled up in the seedy city life and its violence, ignoring at the same time – to the agony of his sister – his mother’s increasingly grave illness. The film is told in a complex flash-back structure where the father is first seen living as an hermit, because of the break with his son, to then look back at the development of their relationship and their eventual break-up. It contains many emotionally strong scenes, and is visually stunning, with an incredible use of colors (according to L’Herbier’s notes) to depict the sea, complex editing between locations, inter-title design – sometimes in split-screen, super-impositions and framing, of which I have included some examples of screen caps below.

As Moussinac noted in Naissance du cinéma, what gave the film its great quality was its depiction of the sea and role in the story (p. 119):

Thus, what often gives L’Homme du large, its emotion, is this constant presence of the sea which shakes the drama, penetrates it, invades it, dominates it even, gives it its terrifying bursts, its endlessness. The sea’s voice is real, one is subjected to its grave tremendous tone, a sort of pedal (pédale) which upholds the chant of beginning at the end of the film. (Own translation).

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Ainsi ce qui procure à L’Homme du large, souvent, son émotion, c’est cette présence constante de la mer qui secoue le drame, le pénètre, l’envahit, le domine même, lui prête ses sursauts terribles, son infini. La voix de la mer est réelle, on subit sa note grave prodigieuse, sorte de pédale qui soutient le chant du commencement à la fin du film. (Original quote).

The film is released in a highly elegant double-DVD set from French Gaumont together with L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). Each film is accompanied by a detailed booklet, containing reproductions of the original poster art, elaborate notes on the restorations – particularly interesting with regard to L’Homme du large‘s colors – and historical articles, for example Henri Langlois’ praise of L’Homme… Highly recommended!

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L'homme du large 4

When Nolff learns that his wife has given birth to a boy, he proposes a clear division of their education between them: his wife can take care of their daughter, while Nolff himself will educate their son to become “- a free man, a sailor!”. Here, an inter-title appears simultaneously with the action in split-screen.

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L'homme du large 2

The terrified look of Michel’s sister Djenna set to the background of the sea, as she gathers courage to go into town and bring back her drunk brother to their mother’s sickbed.

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L'homme du large 1

One of the film’s stunning visual features is its use of masks in different shapes and super-impositions; in one of the most dramatic scenes for example, a cross suddenly appears super-imposed over the sea.

Petition Filmoteca de Navarra

Crisis times have become petition times for a range of moving image archives. Especially in Southern Europe it appears. In a period where subsidies to moving image archiving are considered increasingly easy to eliminate with the excuse of an austere economic climate this development has been particularly serious in the countries which have been affected most profoundly by the crisis and for a range of regional institutions which belong to the circuit outside of the mainstream film and audiovisual archives. Perhaps the most surprising case has been the looming closure of La Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon which as of September last year only expected to have funding to keep up its activities for the rest of the year (at least this is what Cahiers du cinéma could report in its October issue of 2013 based on an interview with head of programming Luis Miguel Oliveira).

In France, smaller institutions such as Marseille’s Cinémémoire – Cinémathèque de films amateur de Marseille was facing cuts in June last year: an institution which holds a unique and important collection of amateur films from the former French colonies. Equally, La Cinemathèque de Bourgogne was to be relocated May 2013, without an offer to be hosted elsewhere.

Latest addition to this list of unfortunate institutions is the Spanish Filmoteca de Navarra in Pamplona. Earlier today a plea was sent out via the list-serv of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) to sign a petition explaining and creating awareness of the institution’s situation, which faces closure. I strongly encourage to sign and support this petition to create awareness of this important cause and to make it clear that audiovisual archives are irreplaceable and that audiovisual heritage – both as an art form and as a source of history and collective memory – is something which must be recognized on a par with other types of collecting institutions. I have copy-pasted the e-mail which was sent by film the Filmoteca’s archivist Silvia Casagrande below to accompany the plea. The petition can be signed here.

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Filmoteca de Navarra

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“Dear AMIA Community,

I am Silvia Casagrande and I’ m working as archivist at the Filmoteca de Navarra, in Spain. It is the first time that I write to the AMIA Listserv, normally I prefer to read the important suggestions that the members give regarding film’s conservation and restoration. But today I decided to write to ask the help of the entire archivist’s community.

Since its creation in 2011, the Filmoteca worked with enthusiasm trying to conserve the cinematographic and audiovisual heritage of the navarrian community. Now, the Government of Navarra decided to close the Fundation INAAC (Navarra’s institution of audiovisual arts and cinematography) that created and owned the Filmoteca! This implies that any kind of conservation and protection of the films (for the majority Home Movies) stored in the archive will be abruptly stopped. Unfortunately they don’t want to invest on their own (audiovisual) memory of the last century.

In these 3 years, as Filmoteca, we collected more than 120.000 meters of films from 80 donations; we conserve home movies from the 30’s to the 80’s, images of the Spanish Civil War, all the traditions of the region (both public and private)… all these films are historical documents of the Navarrian community.

The directors of the majors Spanish Film Archives wrote a public note to the government, but to be more effective we need the support of everybody.

We still have the possibility to send a last message to the Government of Navarra, and this can be done by signing a petition. Please consider this possibility by clicking on this link. Also, we would be grateful if you can disseminate our situation with your colleagues in order to collect more signatures supporting our petition to survive.

Thank you for what you will do! If you want to have more information regarding this email please do not hesitate in contacting me directly (on or off list)

Best regards,

Silvia Casagrande”

NECSUS Interview on EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Bits & Pieces

The latest issue of NECSUS – European Journal of Media Studies, #4 with the theme ‘Waste’, has been published today. For this issue I interviewed silent film collection specialist Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi and senior curator Mark-Paul Meyer at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands on their work with the unique Bits & Pieces compilations of film fragments. I have included my introduction to the interview below, the entire interview can be read here.

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bp417-2

Frame grab from Bits & Pieces fragment no. 417.

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“Since the late 1980s, EYE Film Institute Netherlands (formerly the Nederlands Filmmuseum) has been collecting and preserving unidentified film fragments from its collection to create an ongoing series of compilations titled Bits & Pieces. The compilations consist of fragments which the majority of film archives would tend to disregard in favour of restoring complete films, but which EYE considers to contain a certain kind of cinematic beauty which deserves to be preserved and shown. Currently, the series counts 623 fragments, each of which has been assigned a number, and spread out on 56 reels of 300 meters.

The initiative to create Bits & Pieces was taken at a time when film archives increasingly developed different institutional deontologies of preservation and when film historians went into film archives in a revisionist spirit to rediscover neglected directors, actors, exhibition practices, and technologies. The Nederlands Filmmuseum – then headed by deputy director Eric de Kuyper and assisted by staff members Peter Delpeut and Mark-Paul Meyer – gained a significant reputation at this time by propagating the view that film historians continued to neglect the fact that film archives contained a substantial amount of film fragments which could not be attributed to an author or fit into an aesthetic school. Pointing to a discrepancy between the theory of film history and film archival practice, the Filmmuseum’s staff began to plea for new forms of presenting and valorising the fragments they found, which ultimately materialised in the Bits & Pieces project.[1]

Since then, Bits & Pieces compilations have been in high demand. They are continuously programmed in festivals and have provided source material in numerous filmic appropriation works – uses that have received widespread attention in literature on found footage and recycled cinema. However, it remains relatively unknown how the curators work with the collection on a daily basis and how their selection has developed since its launch. In this interview the current curators of Bits & Pieces – silent film collection specialist Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, involved in Bits & Pieces since 2000, and senior curator Mark-Paul Meyer – met for a conversation about the appraisal of fragments at EYE and the initiative’s imperative in a past and present perspective. The interview took place in the nitrate identification facilities of EYE located on the outskirts of Amsterdam.”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013

I am currently waiting at Schiphol airport before taking off to Pordenone for the 32nd edition of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is the second time I attend, the last time being 2010. I am not sure as to whether this year will be able to top the Soviet silents of especially Mikhail Kalatozov screened in 2010 which were incredible, but the program looks impressive nonetheless and there will be a lot of Soviet silent cinema to dive into. I am especially looking forward to Viktor Turin’s Turksib (1929) and to the programs of early Soviet animation films which I am sure will be incredibly entertaining. The full program can be found here.

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Poster for the 2013 edition of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto